Take a virtual stroll in the Golden Gate National Parks through some of our favorite photos from 2011, and hear a special year-end message from our executive director, Greg Moore. Thank you for your support in the past year!



Through the Eyes of Urban Teens

On November 1–3, two interns from Crissy Field Center’s Inspiring Young Emerging Leaders (I-YEL) program attended the National Recreation and Parks Association’s (NRPA) Congress and Exposition. According to the organization’s website, this is the flagship event of NRPA and the premier annual event of the park and recreation community. The 2011 convening brought together more than 6,500 park and recreation professionals, citizen advocates, and industry suppliers for networking, educational sessions, and a trade show.

Jenna Fiorello and Ashley Tolliver, both juniors in high school, not only attended the event and experienced a variety of workshops and sessions, but they also presented their own workshop, “Through the Eyes of Urban Teens: Youth Leaders for Change.”

Here are their experiences, in their own words:

“Being able to fly to Atlanta, Georgia to participate in the NRPA Congress and Exposition was truly a great experience for me. It was really amazing to hear about how other organizations used their parks, and also how they all just started with one person seeing a problem and trying to solve it.

“One woman from Los Angeles and another from Jacksonville, Florida noticed the high level of youth crime between the hours of 7 pm and 12 am so they made a program where the students can come hang out at their park to stay out of trouble. There were so many other great workshops speaking about so many great ideas and organizations.

“The best part, I would have to say, would be executing our own workshop. With only a room of about 25 people, it was still super scary, but super fun to get up there and talk about the program that I love the most (I-YEL!). It was great because this was something I could speak about with confidence and know I’m not making a mistake because, after all, it is my program.

“I am so thankful to have been able to go on that trip and be a part of the Congress. It gave me a taste of what other people are doing in their communities and inspired me to be more observant and to try to make a change in mine.”
—Ashley Tolliver, 3rd year I-YEL intern

“The National Recreation and Park Association conference was exciting for Ashley and me because we were the younger speakers, if not the youngest members, there. We attended a few workshops, which helped us develop criticisms and pick up habits on teaching styles and public speaking skills. And, more importantly, we taught our own workshop.

“The night before, Ashley and I realized we wanted to re-create all of our speaking parts because we wanted to make every word meaningful and genuine. We were nervous before our presentation, of course, but soon found it easy enough to look away from our notecards and into the eyes of our audience members.

“I think we became more confident in our abilities as the presentation went on because we were speaking from the heart. We watched our audience (though much smaller than we expected) nod their heads in agreement and smile at us because they appreciated both our anecdotes and our opinion on I-YEL.

“I think our workshop was unique because Ashley and I were living, breathing examples of youth leadership. The purpose of our workshop was to explain how engaging youth in their parks and communities can create a new generation of leaders.

“Yes, I-YEL works, and yes, we wish there were more programs like it. But instead of sending Crissy Field Center advocates to set up a 100 youth leadership programs across the country, we hope that our workshop inspired other adults to find the courage to do it themselves. That, to me, is true leadership.”
—Jenna Fiorello, 3rd year I-YEL intern

Crissy Field Center is proud of these two young women and their accomplishments. We can’t wait to see what they do next!

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By Allen Fish
Director, Golden Gate Raptor Observatory

Rough-legged Hawk, photo by Eddie Bartley

One of the great joys of watching the five-month raptor migration unfold in the Golden Gate National Parks is the chance to anticipate and second-guess the first arrival dates of various long-distant migrants that don’t nest in the immediate area.

Prairie Falcons show up early in August when we first start counting. Osprey sightings start in August and peak in September. A trio of species—Merlin, Broad-winged, and Ferruginous Hawk—all tend to show up with the first big wave of accipiters, around September 9. By late October, we have seen most of the species we will ever see in a season, save one: the Rough-legged Hawk.

The Rough-legged Hawk, a cousin of the Red-tailed Hawk, is annually the late arrival at the Golden Gate. Why? Because the Rough-leg is a tundra-nester, a lover of the sun-drenched, arctic summer in the truest sense. The Rough-leg’s breeding range spans the farthest northern bit of landmass, the highest thousand or so miles of tundra, alpine, and permafrost on the planet.

But for what they lose by being remote, they make up for by being international. The species is “holarctic,” that is, rough-legs nest in a geographic range that encircles the arctic region on all sides. In Eurasia, they nest from Scandinavia across the northern continent to the Kamchatka peninsula.

The Rough-legged Hawk is known as Rough-legged Buzzard in English-speaking parts of Europe but is classed as the same species, Buteo lagopus. (That’s Latin for the “Rabbit-footed Soaring Hawk.”) And the Rough-leg is renowned for being a complete migrant, that is to say, they depart completely from their nesting grounds each September and October, and they book south to at least the Canada-USA border region.

The Canada-US border for winter, you ask? Yeah, well, Rough-legs aren’t exactly snowbirds in the Arizona sense. In fact some biologists would call them an irruptive species, since they migrate somewhat unpredictably, often depending upon the intensity of a harsh winter and food scarcity from which they may be escaping.

So in a prey-rich (think mice, lemmings, ptarmigan), southern Canada winter, Rough-legs may do well to stay far north of us and save themselves a long (energy-costly) flight. In a more harsh winter season, Rough-legs may push on into central and even southern California.

At the Golden Gate, this irruptive-style of migration translates to a great range of annual Rough-leg counts, from a low of zero sightings in some years (1998, 2004, 2010) to a high of 69 sightings in 1988. The average for 27 years is just above 10 sightings per autumn.  

In spite of these numerical swings, Rough-legs often winter in certain California hotspots—locally outer Point Reyes and the southern Solano Grasslands, and more broadly the grasslands of central and northern California. There are dozens of records of Rough-legged Hawks (and their close cousin, the Ferruginous Hawk) actually spending the winter in the same California location in subsequent years. This behavior is called winter philopatry (“love of place”), but the simplicity of the term belies this mysterious behavior by which birds become attracted to a specific place, and relocate there year after year.

Imagine a Rough-legged Hawk, nesting annually in a rocky outcropping in north-central Alaska, flying south some 3,500 miles one autumn to a rocky savannah near the Pinnacles National Monument. The Rough-leg stays fairly stationary all winter, scarfing mice and small birds, ranging within a 10-square mile region, then returns to its exact Alaska rockpile to commence nesting in April.

Another summer passes, during which our Rough-leg fledges two young. She fattens up on a local lemming explosion in the Alaskan September and late that month starts for California again, arriving at her 10-square mile winter home a few weeks later.

How do these long-distance birds manage to maintain such precision of place? Well, we don’t exactly know. And, even though these locales represent a critical need for the birds as spots to survive the winter, we don’t exactly take good care of these locations. California grasslands are a great example.

There are many raptor species that spend the winter in California—Rough-legs and Ferrugs, of course—but also Merlins, Prairie Falcons, Northern Harriers, White-tailed Kites, Red-tailed Hawks, and Golden Eagles. They don’t need trees, since they are not nesting; they need prey, wide-open spaces, and thousands of rodents.

Many of these birds of prey are muscling into California’s vast grasslands, our grazing lands, our rolling oak hills, but we actually know very little about their winter ecology. How much acreage does a Merlin need? How many meadowlarks? How many voles will keep a colony of kites alive for the winter? How critical are these specific winter habitats that at least some raptors are magnetically drawn to? And what happens when we remove that piece of wildland habitat from the table?

It is no great news that California’s urban areas are sprawling into what once were magnificent grasslands and extensive cattle country. The edges of the San Francisco Bay Area, of the Los Angeles Basin, and the Sacramento metropolitan areas have been pressing into once-rural or wild lands since the early 1900s.

But there’s a new game in town—green energy. And it’s not just for environmentalists anymore. California is mandated by law to be 33% renewable energy by 2020—just eight years away—and some very smart business people understand that there’s a lot of investment-return to be made on big renewable energy—big solar and big wind. Because of this massive and poorly-monitored build-up of big energy, California’s raptors have never been more at-risk than they are right now.

What do wind and solar farms have to do with winter raptors? Raptors are mobile creatures. A Rough-legged Hawk that migrates 3,000 miles can certainly avoid a 4,000-acre solar farm proposed for the biologically-rich Panoche Valley, close to Pinnacles National Monument. Certainly it can.

But I’m not talking about one hawk. I’m talking about hundreds and thousands of hawks, kites, eagles, falcons, and harriers that flow into California’s grasslands, shrublands, baylands, riparian areas, deserts, and foothills every October, and eke out a winter life until March. How do we ensure that their needs are met? These are not just California birds either; they come from Idaho and Alberta, from British Columbia and Washington. They come from Alaska. And they have been wintering in California for tens of thousands of years.

The wind farms and solar farms being rapidly developed in California present an immense problem for all forms of wildlife that require open space, not just raptors. They require lots of resources, lots of water, and thousands of miles of power-lines to hook them up to our cities.  

Green energy? I’m all for it, but this isn’t what it looks like. We need to keep solar and wind farms small, and as close to human centers as possible. Funny that our legislature got the green color right, but forgot to stipulate that there was a right way and a very, very wrong way to go about it.

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Institute Dishes New Food for the Parks Report

While many parks across the country have already moved toward offering healthy, local, and sustainable food to their visitors, many others are not sure where to begin. The Institute at the Golden Gate’s new publication, Food for the Parks: A Roadmap to Success, works as a toolkit on how to get started.

The launch of this publication is the next step in the Institute’s Food for the Parks initiative and is a companion to Food for the Parks: Case Studies of Sustainable Food in America’s Most Treasured Places, the Institute report released in March 2011.
Millions of meals are served each year in our national parks. National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis is working with many other park leaders to change what we eat in national parks, aspiring to “encourage park visitors to make healthy lifestyle choices and position parks to support local economies by ensuring that all current and future concession contracts require multiple healthy, sustainably produced, and reasonably priced food options at national park foods service concessions.”

If you are hoping to see healthy, fresh, local, and sustainable food in your parks and other places you visit—or if you work for an organization hoping to adopt these new practices—please share this report to help us keep the momentum going.

Download the report here and spread the word!

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Article by Micah Barth-Rogers
Education Intern, Presidio Nursery

Through the sounds of cranes, jackhammers, and grinders working on the roadway—and beyond the thousands of vehicles that pass through this section of Highway 1 each day—one might notice the soft gurgling of Dragonfly Creek in the Presidio.

Nestled below Fort Winfield Scott and just steps from the Presidio Nursery, this remnant creek and natural area went unnoticed and unmanaged for years…until former intern Ryan Jones (pictured below) rediscovered it, gave it a name, and added to the lore of the Presidio. The legacy of Jones—a Parks Conservancy staff member, educator, artist, and naturalist extraordinaire who died in the summer of 2008—lives on in places like Dragonfly Creek.

Michael Chassé, a stewardship ecologist with the National Park Service who was working with Jones at the time, said that during his internship one day in 1997 or 1998, Jones set about to explore this part of the park that wasn’t even zoned as a natural area at the time.

“He was an adventurous young man and was excited about nature, and so it makes sense that he would explore this area, look down, and say ‘I wonder what’s in there,’” Chassé recalls.

Jones noticed some willow trees among the overbearing eucalyptus and invasive cape ivy. Knowing that willows are an indicator species for water, Jones probed further into the thick brush and uncovered a bubbling stream. He quickly reported this find to his colleagues at the Natural Resources Field Office along Wherry Corridor, and named it Dragonfly Creek for the abundance of Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) he saw flying around the site.

Dragonfly Creek Spreads Its Wings

The name has stuck.

Since its rediscovery, this humble creek has undergone a long restoration process. It began with Jones, who not only named the creek but also sought to write the first management plan to restore it. Currently, this work is being undertaken by the Natural Resources Program, now headquartered near the creek at Fort Winfield Scott.

“Dragonfly Creek supports a remarkable diversity of native plants and animals,” says Mark Frey, a former supervisory ecologist with the Presidio Trust. “We have a unique opportunity in the Presidio to restore this creek to a more natural state.”

Most recently this restoration has been supported by mitigation funds coming from Caltrans as a result of their work on the Presidio Parkway project. “We are pleased to have this opportunity to restore Dragonfly Creek,” says Craig Middleton, executive director of the Presidio Trust. “We thank Caltrans for its commitment to restoring the scenic beauty and natural character of this area as part of the Presidio Parkway project.”

At the forefront of these restoration efforts are not only Caltrans employees, but dozens of dedicated volunteers and community members that put in their free time to help restore the creek. Ecologists such as Vanessa Stevens, a biological technician for the Presidio Trust, have been spearheading much of the restoration work for Dragonfly Creek.

Stevens stresses the importance of the volunteers, who have put in hundreds of hours of service, and also credits the cooperation of multiple programs within the natural resources department to make the project run smoothly.

“We really are a partnership,” says Stevens, referring to the tri-agency collaboration among the Presidio Trust, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and the National Park Service.

In that spirit of teamwork, Presidio staff will be hosting a commemorative stewardship event to honor the restoration of Dragonfly Creek on Saturday, December 3. Help pitch in on this important project by signing up for Presidio Stewardship and Sustainability Day here.

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By Elise Hinman
Park Stewardship Education and Outreach Intern

Majestic Mountain Lion Sighted at Milagra Ridge, photo by Don Getty

There have been three recent mountain lion sightings at Milagra Ridge, and it is quite exciting that such majestic animals are calling our national parklands in San Mateo home. By understanding the typical behavior of these big cats, we can stay safe while acknowledging the fact that their presence signifies a healthy, productive ecosystem.

Mountain lions (Puma concolor) exist all throughout California, from southern deserts to northern temperate forests. They tend to appear in areas containing their prey of choice: deer.  

Reaching up to 8 feet in length and weighing up to 150 pounds, mountain lions are large, powerful felines that stalk their prey between dusk and dawn. They prefer to lead a solitary existence, and spread themselves out by claiming home ranges. Adult male mountain lions can possess home ranges spanning over 100 square miles! This means that mountain lions inevitably come in contact with humans.

Mountain lions are shy animals that generally avoid humans, but it is important to know how to stay safe in mountain lion country. Do not hike, bike, or jog alone at dawn or dusk—if possible, always have company with you on the trail (it’s fun to share nature with someone else, anyway!). Keep a close eye on children and pets.

If you find yourself in close contact with a mountain lion, DO NOT run. Instead, stand your ground and make yourself appear larger. Make loud noises and throw stones and branches in the animal’s direction. In the unlikely event that the mountain lion attacks (this only happens an average of four times a year in the U.S. and Canada), fight back.

Lastly, if you see a mountain lion, report it to the National Park Service. Please contact wildlife ecologist Bill Merkle at (415) 289-1843 or and be sure to note the exact location and description of the lion (such as size, color, or shape) and behavior of the lion, especially if there was any interaction.


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By Allen Fish
Director, Golden Gate Raptor Observatory

A Bird Expert's View: The Trees on Hawk Hill

Recently I watched the first season of “Streets of San Francisco,” the 1970s Karl Malden detective show, and there in the opening credits—hovering over Michael Douglas’ shoulder—was Hawk Hill. Only this time it was different: no trees. In 1972, there were no trees visible on Hawk Hill. I was a little stunned, because in the present day the trees sweeping off of the west face have become an identifying fieldmark for Hawk Hill.

As many of you know, Hawk Hill is slated for a face change—a change of physiognomy. Physiognomy is a great word as it means both “face” as in human face, and also “botanical landscape.” And in this case, both apply. The Hawk Hill Restoration and Trail Improvement Project begins December 5, 2011 with the removal of invasive Monterey pine and cypress to help restore the site to its original physiognomy, a mix of wind-shorn grasses and shrubs known as “Coastal Prairie and Scrub.”

Why should this be done? Most simply, to conform to the requirements of the U.S. Endangered Species Act and to give the best shot at long-term survival to an endangered butterfly with a one-inch wingspan—the mission blue butterfly (MBB).

Mission Blue Butterfly by Will Elder

The MBB is found only in coastal prairies on 690-foot to 1,200-foot hilltops on the west side of San Francisco Bay and not too far from the Golden Gate. By restoring Hawk Hill’s western face to native coastal prairie, this diminutive butterfly gets six more acres of available habitat.

What does this added acreage mean for the MBB? I haven’t been able to obtain an acreage total for all of the other MBB sites, but they amount to five patches in the Marin Headlands (Hawk Hill, Slacker Hill, Fort Barry, Fort Baker, and Oakwood Valley) plus two sites in San Francisco (Twin Peaks and McLaren Park), plus four in San Mateo County (San Bruno Mountain, Laurelwood Park, Sugarloaf, and Skyline Ridge).

These MBB sites are stretched out along a 50-mile north-to-south line. One of the problems posed by this mosaic of habitat islands is that adult MBBs don’t fly very far in their one-week lifetime as a butterfly, so small distances—and even small forests—are formidable obstacles to vital genetic mixing.

Back to the Hawk Hill forest. If the Monterey cypresses and pines weren’t on Hawk Hill in 1972, when did they show up? And how did they get there?

Hawk Hill in 2007

Judging from aerial photos found by John Martini, a former park historian, there were conifers on Hawk Hill in 1972, just not as many and they were much, much shorter. In the 1972 photo, there seems to be a small patch in the north slope gully below Hawk Hill (trees about 40 feet tall), and then much smaller trees near the two west-facing bunker openings. Between the two bunker openings are perhaps 30 conifer saplings, mostly under four feet tall.

In Hawk Hill aerial photos from 1959 and 1962, there are no visible trees from the southern or western views, so most of this coniferous growth seems to have started in the mid 1960s. But how did these trees, not native to Marin or San Francisco, arrive on Hawk Hill?

Hawk Hill in 1956

Until recently, the standard response was that the trees were planted after the construction of the bunkers on Hawk Hill in 1942-1943 specifically to hide the bunkers. This is false. John Martini recently found a 1939 memo with explicit instructions from Major R.C. Hunter, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for concealing the Headlands bunkers: “Planting and transplanting of vegetation [should be] indigenous to the locality ...a coarse grass with patches of low scrub bushes.”

So, if the trees weren’t intentionally planted by the Army, where did the Army obtain the soil for re-contouring Hawk Hill, and how much seed came with it? It appears from photos that the upper stretch of Conzelman Road was carved out during this same period (early 1940s), so perhaps that project was one source of soil. Also, aerial photos from the ’40s show extensive conifer forests in Kirby Cove, barely a half-mile east of Hawk Hill, so maybe some soil was driven up from this canyon as well.

Why did it take 20 years for these seeds to start turning into the pine and cypress saplings seen in the late ’60s? One word: tree-pulling. At least one source, a soldier at Fort Cronkhite in the 1950s, recalled being assigned to tree-pulling duty to keep the bunkers’ view of the Pacific Ocean as wide as possible. Perhaps this practice diminished in the 1960s, as the gun batteries became less important, and as Hawk Hill became more important as a command center for the Nike Missile Base near Rodeo Lagoon.

Now, if we take away these coniferous trees, are we disrupting some kind of critical bird use? Is it a necessary migratory stopover for conifer-loving birds in the fall and spring migrations? During autumn hawk count days, GGRO volunteers have kept tabs on all birds flying by Hawk Hill, not just raptors, and many birders have contributed to a master list of birds seen in or on the Hawk Hill forest.

Several GGRO biologists compiled a 25-year bird list for the National Park Service, which totaled 112 species and included at least eight species with some kind of special Federal or State status: Peregrine Falcon, Northern Goshawk, Spotted Owl, Long-eared Owl, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Tricolored Blackbird, and Olive-sided Flycatcher. The raptors noted have only been seen in the forest once or twice per season at best, except for the Peregrine, which is now a year-round resident as well as a regular migrant through the Headlands. Most of the songbirds above were also once-a-year sightings at most, except for the Yellow Warbler, an annual fall migrant, and the Olive-sided, an occasional breeder and migrant in the Headlands.

According to surveys done in 2009 by Point Reyes Bird Observatory biologists, 11 bird species were found nesting or likely nesting in the grove: Anna’s and Allen’s Hummingbirds, Western Scrub-Jay, Common Raven, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Bushtit, Pygmy Nuthatch, Wilson’s Warbler, Spotted Towhee, Song Sparrow, and Purple Finch. Of these, the nuthatch, chickadee, and finch are primarily tree-nesters, and will be forced to shift their nesting sites to other local groves with the removal of the conifers. The other species will be able to nest in the coastal scrub, or in the case of the ravens, in the nearby trees and cliffs.

So, how will this loss of Hawk Hill trees affect the hawk flight? We’ve all seen a Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk rip past the North Platform and barnstorm the Hawk Hill conifers. It’s pretty exciting to watch, especially when it yields a few chickadees or crossbills, or hundreds of Band-tailed Pigeons that rise up like muffled thunder.

But consider this: when Dr. Laurence Binford first walked up to this migration site in September 1972, there were only a handful of trees on Hawk Hill, none taller than you or me. So, as bird habitat goes, the trees are a very new phenomenon; they’ve been here for 40 of the last 10,000 years. The hawk migration will be okay without this forest.

How about the hawk count? Will we see more hawks, as tree removal opens up the western sky viewshed? Will this compensate for the loss of the attractive force of the trees for some accipiters? No one can say.

As far as viewshed goes, the trees have grown through the 1980s and 1990s, through the entire life of the GGRO hawk count. At some point in the late 1980s we first lost our view of the Farallon Islands from Hawk Hill’s summit. Interestingly, in the last five years, the tree trend was toward thinning. Several winter wind-storms in the mid-2000s blew out large limbs and dramatically opened up sightlines of the Pacific horizon not seen in the previous decade.

When it comes to hawk counts, I suspect that they will be impacted by tree loss, but I am just not certain how. The counts could be sent in different directions. Perhaps the most obvious statement is that tree removal will affect Hawk Hill’s microclimate: we hawk counters will lose shade and protection from the west winds. As a place to watch birds and measure the migration, Hawk Hill may not be as comfortable.

I have been alone on Hawk Hill just after dawn when the sunrise on my back cast my shadow into the foggy mist of the pines and my shadow was edged in refracted rainbow light. I have seen an eastern Palm Warbler tail-wag its way up a cypress bough looking for bugs. I have seen a pair of Clark’s Nutcrackers fly out of a pine, and a flock of over 50 Red Crossbills alight on the tops of the tallest trees… these great Hawk Hill moments will always stay with me.

But should my comfort while watching hawks—or my love of cool birds and misty sunrises—be put ahead of an endangered butterfly’s chances of long-term survival?

Mission Blue Butterfly

Ecologist Rich Stallcup of PRBO once wrote that the U.S. Endangered Species Act may be the “greatest single law ever enacted in protection of life on Earth.” I would never want to weaken the ESA by acting as though it could be turned on or off at will. There are too many who would love to see it disappear entirely.

Although I personally am a little sad to lose this lichen-dripping fog forest that I’ve known for a quarter-century, I am happier to be living in a land where endangered insects are given the same regard as the most charismatic of furred predators.

Director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory since 1985, Fish has a particular interest in studying bird-population responses to urban development, climate change, and other human impacts.

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Park Pic of the Month

The fungus Trametes versicolor , also known as the “turkey tail,” is a common sight in our Golden Gate National Parks. Photo by Ashley Ross 

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