butterflies in golden gate park: anise swallowtail


Anise swallowtail butterfly at Strawberry Hill, Golden Gate Park (sketch by Heath Massey)

Anise swallowtail butterfly at Strawberry Hill, Golden Gate Park (sketch by Heath Massey)

I have been noticing butterflies in the park lately.  This Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon) was flitting around a patch of yarrow and sticky monkey flower near the reservoir above the falls on Strawberry Hill this past week, while I was busy sketching a Red-tailed Hawk.  Then it perched for a long time, so I snapped a picture and drew this from the photo later.  I find that drawing fixes the markings in my memory much more permanently than taking a photograph;  now I will definitely recognize an Anise Swallowtail next time I see one.  There are about 35 species of butterflies in San Francisco, listed by local lepidopterist Liam O’Brien on his website:  http://sfbutterfly.com/www.sfbutterfly.com/SF_Index.html

I also own the wonderful Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions,  by Art Shapiro, illustrated by Timothy Manolis, which has a long and informative introduction explaining butterfly life cycles, behavior, population dynamics, effects of climate change, plant associations and much more.   From this book I learned that the Anise Swallowtail is a fascinating and adaptable butterfly!

The species Papilio zelicaon has been remarkably flexible in response to dwindling numbers of native plant hosts that once sustained it.  It is found throughout the temperate Northern Hemisphere, but there are many “ecological races,” meaning localized populations that have adapted to different ecotypes.  Its common name reflects the fact that it long ago adapted to breed on naturalized non-native species of the carrot family (i.e. “weeds”), particularly sweet fennel (anise).  Fennel was already in California by the Gold Rush and  Anise Swallowtails were observed feeding on fennel here in 1850 by the French forty-niner Pierre Joseph Michel Lorquin (California’s first recorded lepidopterist).  Fennel grows abundantly along roadsides and in vacant lots,  sustained by runoff from urban roads and back yards, and it affords edible material year round.  Anise Swallowtails that rely on fennel are multivoltine, meaning they go through the lifecycle multiple times during the year.  But in areas where there is little or no fennel and they breed on other plants, they may have only two life cycles per ear (bivoltine) and even just one life cycle per year (univoltine) in serpentine areas in the Coast Ranges (e.g.  Napa County).  This is a surviver species!

I think the butterfly I saw was probably a male, “hill-topping.”  Just hanging out there in a sunny, late afternoon, exposed spot, looking beautiful and sexy, hoping to attract a female.  I didn’t detect the scent of pheromones, but then I’m not a butterfly.

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zen in golden gate park: the art of nature journaling

Nature journal, oak woodlands, Golden Gate Park (Heath Massey)

Nature journal, oak woodlands, Golden Gate Park (Heath Massey)

Recently I spent a week in the Sierras “nature-journaling” with John Muir Laws:  http://www.johnmuirlaws.com  If you aren’t familiar with Jack Laws, I highly recommend getting to know him.  Whenever I’m in the Sierras I depend on The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada and The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds (2012) has become a staple in my art library.  But nature-journaling with Jack in the Sierras was truly a transformative experience.  His approach to sketching in the wild combines the focused observation of the naturalist, the spiritual sensibility of the zen maser and the acute visual sensibility of the artist.  In the two weeks since that workshop in the Sierras, I have been seeing Golden Gate Park quite differently.

The main difference is that birds, insects, plants and all the other living pieces of the park’s ecosystem have come sharply into focus for me.  In the oak woodlands, for example, I no longer see primarily a landscape painting, although that frame is always with me too.  I also notice the gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis?) scampering along the branches, the dark eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) feeding on the ground and the hummingbirds (Calypte anna?) chasing each other in the air like kamikaze planes.  I wonder if those hummingbirds feed on the alluring orange, trumpet-shaped flowers in that enormous patch of South African bush lilies (Clivia miniata).   Where do the squirrels and juncos nest?  Are there beetles in that pile of thorny blackberry canes?

With this new sensibility I sit still in one place longer, soaking everything up, watching and wondering,  trying to figure out what’s happening here, following the narrative of the place.  I go home and look up everything I’ve seen.  The park seems so much more alive.  I’m falling in love with it all over again.  Thank you Jack Laws!


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the oldest trees in golden gate park: coastal oak woodlands predate the park

Coast live oaks in Golden Gate Park. (sketch by Heath Massey)

Oaks in Golden Gate Park. (sketch by Heath Massey)

In the north east corner of Golden Gate Park, along Fulton Ave. behind McLaren Lodge and the Conservatory of Flowers, a grove of native coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) offers a glimpse of what the San Francisco peninsula was like before the Presidio, before the Gold Rush, before the exotic landscape of the park was rolled out like a magic carpet.  These gnarly old trees maintain a low profile, hunkered down out of the wind and dwarfed by the towering Monterey Cypresses, Monterey Pine and Blue Gum Eucalyptus that dominate the park’s forest.

These trees aren’t showy or colorful.  Their small, dark green, prickly-toothed leaves stay on all year, collecting dust until they curl up at the edges, turn brown and fall off.  Their flowers are inconspicuous, yellowish-green tassels that produce small, bullet-shaped acorns, also inconspicuous.  They don’t put on a show of autumn color.  But with age they become like shadow dancers, their trunks lithe and sinewy, the gray-brown bark thickening with furrows and ridged like elephants’ trunks.

According to Elizabeth McClintock, these oaks are the only truly native trees in the park;  some of them predate the park.  She noted that the British surgeon-naturalist, Archibald Menzies, who visited the area of what is now San Francisco in 1792, described them as “scrubby oaks.”  They grew sparsely even then, in sheltered depressions, along with native horse chestnuts (Aesculus californica) and toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia).

This corner of the park is one of the designated SF Natural Areas and benefits from having a “friends” group that has been instrumental in organizing volunteers for habitat restoration and working with the Parks and Recreation Department to install a new trail through the area, starting behind McLaren Lodge and heading towards the entrance at Fulton and Sixth Ave.  There’s a work party here on the second Saturday of each month.  Like other “restoration” efforts, this one is a herculean task and will require ongoing effort.  The invasive plants are relentless, especially the ivy and blackberry.  I wondered about the pile of blackberry cuttings under these oaks as I was drawing.  Was that left intentionally as a haven for birds and bugs, or just a temporary dump until picked up by maintenance?    I hope the former.  For more information on the restoration effort, go to:  http://sfnaturalareas.org/sites/4 


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red tailed hawk on strawberry hill in golden gate park

Sketches of red tail hawk on Strawberry Hill (Heath Massey)

Sketches of red tail hawk on Strawberry Hill (Heath Massey)

This weekend, on another sketching expedition in Golden Gate Park, I spotted a young red tailed hawk in a tree just at eye level on Strawberry Hill.  It paid no attention to me.  Barrel-chested and looking mighty puffed-up, with a haughty affect like a brigadier general, it sternly surveyed the scene below, in between bouts of determined grooming, working particularly hard on a downy feather that was out of line under one wing.  Gratefully, I made a series of leisurely sketches, trying to capture its proportions, posture and coloring.   Small head in relation to large body, squared shoulders, ungainly large feet.  Light yellowish breast with spotted waistcoat (much lighter, subtler yellow than in this drawing).  Dark chestnut-colored back and head.  Slightly hooked beak with a dark tip.  Striped underside of the tail.  The big personality of this bird was mesmerizing;  I left reluctantly.

As I was heading down the hill a jogger stopped me and asked, “Did you see the hawk?”  I said yes and he said two of them are often seen there lately, one juvenile and one adult.  At home, I googled “red tailed hawks Golden Gate Park,” and found this video on u-tube, posted by  Mila Zinkova a couple of weeks ago.   Looks like good hunting in the park for this pair:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14pXgUZxWpg

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four ravens in the fog

Four ravens in Golden Gate Park (sketch by Heath Massey)

Four ravens in Golden Gate Park (sketch by Heath Massey)

Last weekend, on the monthly bird walk in Golden Gate Park (meets at the main gate of the Botanical Garden at 8 a.m. on the first Sunday of every month), my favorite sighting was four ravens lined up sociably on a branch high up in a Monterey cypress.  It was a foggy morning, so all we could really see of them were ghostly silhouettes.  I couldn’t tell whether their tails were v-shaped (ravens) or straight (crows), but our knowledgeable leader said they were ravens and I trust her completely.

Later, at home, I got out my copy of Birds of Golden Gate Park (1930), by Joseph Maillard, and found that only crows were listed.  In fact, Maillard noted that “only one large black bird can be mistaken for the crow, and that is the raven, of which none has been recorded from the Park.”  Hmmmm.   Times have changed!

Check out an interesting post on the return of ravens to San Francisco, by Harry Fuller, who maintains the website TOWHEE.NET http://www.towhee.net/birdsf/ravens.html     By the time that post was written (?), ravens were definitely back in residence;  the count in the city had surpassed 200.  It seems likely that both crows and ravens were hunted out of the city in the nineteenth century (remember that Golden Gate Park had its very own hunter on staff, whose job was to rid the park of “pests?”  http://fromthethicket.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/hunting-wild-animals-in-golden-gate-park-in-1905/).  But by 1975, when Phil Frank began drawing his comic strip, “Farley,” ravens were again a fixture in the city.  The strip, satirizing Bay Area culture and politics,  featured Farley, a reporter for the local newspaper and his main sidekick was Bruce, a right-wing raven.

Drawing of Bruce, the right-wing raven, by Frank Rich.

Drawing of Bruce, the right-wing raven, by Phil Frank.

In fact both crows and ravens are thriving in Bay Area cities these days, perhaps because they don’t get shot at so much in cities, it’s nice and warm in urban heat islands and there are so many discarded pizza boxes to feast on.

Crows and ravens are notorious nest predators, stealing the eggs of other birds, although pizza is no doubt easier prey.  Apparently there aren’t very many good scientific studies of their impact on other bird species, but anecdotal reports of egg-snatching abound.  Besides stealing eggs, crows may be having an impact on birds of prey, as I found out from a recent article in SFGate http://www.sfgate.com/homeandgarden/thedirt/article/Why-ravens-crows-are-more-common-now-in-Bay-Area-2997523.php

[Crows] “harass the heck out of ravens and raptors,” said Dan Murphy, compiler of the San Francisco Christmas count. He describes an apparently fatal crow-fu attack on a Cooper’s or sharp-shinned hawk: “My wife and I were watching a hawk fly down the hill toward Pine Lake Park when a flock of crows came after it. They swooped on it in dives like you’d see in a World War I movie. Eventually one crow got up behind it and dived down. It passed just behind the hawk and slapped it at the base of the skull. The hawk turned once in the air and took a straight dive into the trees down by the park. No way it pulled up. That bird was unconscious or dead in the air.”

Now I’m wondering what diabolical scheme those four ravens were hatching on that branch in the Botanical Garden last Sunday?!

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a timeless grove in golden gate park

AIDS Memorial Grove (sketch by Heath Massey)

AIDS Memorial Grove (sketch by Heath Massey)

How fitting that a grove of redwoods in Golden Gate Park commemorates those who have lost their lives to AIDS.  For me, a stroll through these magnificent giants is a spiritual experience whenever I encounter them.  Even more than stone circles and inscribed boulders of remembrance, these trees seem to bear silent, wise witness to life and death, eternity and evolution.  I also love the dry, stone creek that flows through this grove from the bright green clearing at the heart of the valley that was once called Laveaga Dell.  Entering the dappled shadows under the tall trees, the rounded stones seem to roll and sparkle just a tiny bit,  their worn smooth shapes alluding to the water in the small, serene waterfall recently restored deep in the woods on the other side of the clearing.

Searching for poetry that might express how I feel in this grove, I come across Walt Whitman’s Song of the Redwood-Tree.  I’m hopeful because this poem was written in the same era of American history that produced Golden Gate Park.  But it’s too stuck in the nineteenth century, too grandiose and flowery and full of esoteric references.

Then I find a poem called, Not Dead, by Robert Graves (1895-1985) that beautifully articulates my sense of this place.  See what you think:

Walking through trees to cool my heat and pain,  
I know that David’s with me here again.  
All that is simple, happy, strong, he is.  
Caressingly I stroke  
Rough bark of the friendly oak. 
A brook goes bubbling by: the voice is his.  
Turf burns with pleasant smoke;  
I laugh at chaffinch and at primroses.  
All that is simple, happy, strong, he is.  
Over the whole wood in a little while  
Breaks his slow smile.

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weeds of golden gate park: nasturtium

nasturtium in golden gate park (sketch by Heath Massey)

Nasturtium growing in Golden Gate Park (sketch by Heath Massey)

A weed is “a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.”  Nasturtium is my favorite weed, of the many growing in golden gate park.   Its gray-green, disk-shaped leaves and bright orange-red-yellow flowers are undeniably beautiful, and I love how it brightens the ground under the trees in many places in the park.  But it grows so rampantly that you can practically watch it smothering everything in its path.  I’m reminded of this George Price cartoon that I cut out of the New Yorker many years ago:



Originally from South America, the plants that we commonly refer to as nasturtium actually belong to the genus Trapaeolum (confusingly, the genus Nasturtium is claimed by watercress).   There are about 80 species of Trapaeolum and they have the family Trapaeolaceae all to themselves.  The species we know so well, the one that has happily naturalized in the U.S., is Trapaeolum magus (Garden nasturtium).  It’s originally from the Andes, ranging from Bolivia to Columbia.  Carl Linnaeus named this genus Tropaeolum reportedly because the plants reminded him of an ancient Roman custom.  After winning a battle, victorious Romans used to set up a trophy pole called a tropaeum and the armour and weapons of the vanquished foe were hung on this pole. Linneaus thought the round nasturtium leaves resembled shields and the flowers, blood-stained helmets.  Not a pretty story to attach to such a lovely plant!

A prettier story has to do with the phenomenon of “flashing flowers” associated with nasturtium and discovered by Linnaeus’ daughter Elizabeth.  At dusk the small orange flowers sometimes appear to “flash” like tiny lights.  It’s not an electrical phenomenon, but an optical illusion in the eye caused by the contrast between the brilliant orange flowers and the deep green of the surrounding foliage.  Perhaps related to the green flash that we sometimes see when a bright, orange sun sinks into the sea at sunset?

You have to wonder if someone planted the first nasturtium in Golden Gate Park (could it have been introduced by John McLaren)?  Or maybe it just crept in from the Richmond or the Sunset all by itself?

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