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:

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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     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?”  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

[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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water in golden gate park: name that pond

A pond in the botanical garden (sketch by Heath Massey)

A pond in the botanical garden (sketch by Heath Massey)

A lovely pond just inside the Friend Gate in the Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park is frequented by ducks and seagulls, stocked with large carp and home to turtles that particularly delight small children who were running around the verges and keeping their parents in a state of high alert there last weekend.  This water body anchors a large, shallow earthen bowl and is edged by lush planting, sweeps of lawn and picturesquely scattered rocks.  The backdrop of sculptural cypresses and pines silhouetted against the sky makes this spot, for me, one of the most iconic places in the park.

On a map of the botanical garden, I find that it’s called Waterfowl Pond.  Somehow that name, although arguably descriptive, disappoints me.  It seems inadequate to evoke the romantic charm of the place.  And maybe also because “fowl” is too close to “foul?”  It’s true,  the water is murky (the fish loom from shadowy depths when they briefly surface), but in such a rich, earthy, musty way.

Actually, come to think of it, romance doesn’t seem to have been much considered in the naming of water bodies in Golden Gate Park.  Many are named after benefactors (Stow, Alvord, Lloyd, Metson, Spreckels?).  The Lily Pond has an appealing name, although currently misleading (that may be remedied when it reopens after extensive renovation).   Mallard Lake beats out the more generic Waterfowl, I think.   North Lake, Middle Lake and South Lake occupy links in the Chain of Lakes,  suggesting an excursion that includes all three, like a hike in the wilderness.  Elk Glen Lake is my favorite;  the glen remains, if not the elk.

But, “what’s in a name,” as Juliette asks in Shakespeare’s classic romance?  The charm of water is magnetic regardless and every one of  these lakes is singularly romantic in reality.

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Australian tree like a benign serpent in the grass of golden gate park

Melaleuca in Golden Gate Park (sketch by Heath Massey)

Melaleuca in Golden Gate Park (sketch by Heath Massey)

Next to the Ghiradelli Rustic Shelter, a hang-out for chess and checker players just north-west of the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, the serpentine trunks of an old (possibly dying?) Melaleuca tree must be an irresistible jungle gym for children.   Going by the needle-like leaves and the bottle-brush-like, white flowers, I tentatively identify it as Melaleuca armillaris (Drooping or Bracelet Melaleuca), although I could be wrong.  This species is discussed in Elizabeth McClintock’s Trees of Golden Gate Park,  and she pinpoints one in the Botanical Garden that is still there and looks similar.   But, as McClintock points out, there are more than 100 species of Melaleuca, most native to Australia and quite a few of them have been introduced in California. The interesting bark of this tree is not as shaggy as is typical; in fact  the undulating coils are worn shiny in some places, like the wooden bannisters in old houses after years of hand polishing.

It’s hard to know how old this particular tree is, but according to McClintock this species of Melaleuca was stocked by at least one California nursery as early as 1854 and many were available in California by 1871.  So this could be one of the older park trees.  The one in the Botanical Garden likely dates to the 1940s, when the earliest Australian plants were introduced there.  But by my distinctly unscientific estimate, this one seems more wizened and time-worn;  such depth of character takes a long time to develop.  Think of all the chess games it must have silently witnessed.

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Local Bird Catches Gold Fish Cracker in Golden Gate Park | SF Weekly


Thank you Jim Herd (and SF Weekly)  for this wonderful photo!

“Oh, the unexpected things you will witness during a stroll in Golden Gate Park: teeny tiny tree houses, daytime robberies, and of course, urban birds living like a bunch of junk food-loving bachelors.Local photog Jim Herd captured this poignant image [of a Brewer's Blackbird] illustrating exactly what it looks like when a San Francisco bird “catches a fish.”Given that Goldfish crackers have remained our guilty pleasure since age 6, we cant really blame the little guy.”

via Local Bird Catches Gold Fish Cracker in Golden Gate Park | SF Weekly.

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