Walks, Talks and Classes

      • WALKING IN WONDER series, Tuesdays, April 17 – May 8, 2018:




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      • A Summary of My Presentations

        Below is a list of my presentations, which I can deliver either as illustrated lectures (powerpoints) or talks (without electronic images). Both have their advantages!

        “Secrets of the Oak Woodlands” ––California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, towering redwoods, and rocky shorelines have historically attracted far more attention than its oak woodlands. But a close look at our state’s most widespread and wildlife-rich forests reveals an astonishing array of fascinating organisms and co-evolutionary relationships. As I share stories about some of my favorite species, we will crawl through woodrat houses, undulate in mating balls with newts, gaze at the sky through the third eye of a western fence lizard, and pollinate manzanita in middle C. We might also fight with acorn woodpeckers for breeding vacancies and join bluebirds in their attempts to defend their familial estates.

        “Extraordinary Ordinary Birds of California’s Oak Woodlands” –– California’s oak woodlands host at least 147 bird species, many of which are so common they are often dismissed as ordinary. But can we use the word “ordinary” for a species whose members engage in simulated sex rituals every evening before bedtime? What about the birds who build one of the most intricate nests in the world? Or the species whose intelligence rivals or surpasses that of the great apes? And then there are the acorn-eating ducks and the birds that never move more than 1300 feet from the nests where they were born. This talk will open your eyes to the marvelous survival strategies, behaviors, and social structures of the birds we see everyday California’s oak woodlands, and these birds will never again seem ordinary.

        “Our Magnificent Valley Oaks: Hubs of Their Habitats” –– Valley oaks, the longest-lived and perhaps most magnificent oaks in North America, are endemic to California. Their versatile growth habits enable them to thrive on flood plains as well as on hilltops. In the Central Valley, valley oaks once supported the most complex ecosystems ever to exist in the state. In a talk spiced with humor and illustrated with images of wood ducks, woodrats, and woodpeckers (to name a few), I will discuss the survival strategies of our venerable valley oaks and paint a picture of the web of life in which they are entwined. We will explore the life cycles of the tiny wasps who persuade enormous trees to build daycare centers for them, as well as the lives of California sister butterflies, who depend on oaks, and the co-evolutionary relationship between California scrub-jays and the oaks of California.

        “Hitched to Everything: the Amazing Manzanita and all Her Relations” ––Manzanita first appears in the fossil record 37 million years ago in central California. One and a half million years ago it began diversifying so prolifically that California now hosts a whopping sixty-two species––a record among California native plants.In this presentation, I will discuss the evolutionary significance of manzanita’s unique characteristics: its smooth, thin red skin that peels around summer solstice, its thick waxy leaves that move with the sun, and its heavy reliance on mycorrhizal fungi. I will also describe manzanita’s relationships with birds­, such as Anna’s hummingbirds, bushtits, and pileated woodpeckers, as well as insects: bumblebees, who pollinate manzanita in Middle C, silk moths, ants, and aphids.

        “Woodrats: Wonders of the Woodlands” –– Woodrats, also known as packrats or trade rats, have big eyes, big ears, and furred tails. They are actually more like huge mice than rats. Masters of architecture, they build the most complex aboveground houses of any mammal in the world except humans. During this presentation we will explore woodrat mansions lavishly appointed with corridors, terraces, waterproof sleeping chambers, multiple pantries (each containing its own kind of food), leaching rooms, dedicated latrine areas, and “windows” that admit light and air on every level.

        I will also discuss the use of “common houses” in woodrat villages; the landscaping and pharmaceutical talents of woodrats; and the keystone role these endearing rodents play in the ecosystems they inhabit. The presentation will end with stories of a famous woodrat house found in the 1800’s, and mind-boggling facts about the longevity and paleontological importance of certain desert houses.

        “Acorn Woodpeckers: Fascinating Communards of California’s Oak Woodlands” –– “Waka, waka, waka!” In this presentation I sing the praises of acorn woodpeckers, the most visible, eccentric, and vocal birds of California’s oak woodlands. In addition to being beautiful and clever, these clan-dwelling animals have the most complex social structure of any vertebrate species in the world, including humans. I will discuss their clan structure and their many cooperative customs, including communal “marriages,” communal nests, communal childcare, and communal simulated sex rituals. To top off the presentation, sibling groups from different clans will engage in a raucous collective competition for a newly discovered breeding vacancy (no acting experience necessary).

        “Pacific Newts: The World’s Most Interesting Salamanders” –– Have you ever wondered how newts, with their brightly colored undersides, can get away with plodding so slowly and conspicuously across open land? This rivetting presentation opens with a murder mystery. The characters: three dead hunters and a young biologist. The clues: a stream, a coffeepot, and a dead rough-skinned newt. After solving the mystery, the young biologist goes on to spend the next fifty-five years exploring the many other mysteries surrounding California’s four newt species. I will discuss all Pacific newt: their life cycles; the fascinating co-evolutionary arms races in which are involved; the astonishing powers of regeneration these little salamanders possess; and their epic migrations.

        “California Ground Squirrels and All Their Relations” –– In this illustrated lecture, I discuss the lives of our world-class California ground squirrels—their burrow systems, behavior, anatomy, diet, and relations with other species, both adversarial and mutually beneficial. I will explain the fascinating “co-evolutionary arms race” that exists between California ground squirrels and northern Pacific rattlesnakes, including the adaptations and behaviors these squirrels have evolved for surviving interactions with this ancient predator. I will talk about the hunting partnership between coyotes and badgers; the unique relationship ground squirrels have with burrowing owls; and the role these much maligned animals play as engineers of our all-important grasslands.

        “California Scrub-Jays: A Story of Genius and Co-evolution” –– The California scrub-jay is a brainy, beautiful, and sadly under-appreciated member of California’s oak woodlands. In this illustrated lecture, I describe this species’ capacity for mental feats formerly thought to be the exclusive province of humans, including “mental time travel,” “theory of mind,” “episodic-like memory,” and ability to track time. I will describe the co-evolutionary relationship between California scrub-jays and oak trees, including the birds’ physical adaptations for plucking and consuming acorns, and the critical role they play as the primary planters of California’s oaks. I also talk about more intimate details of scrub-jay life: lifetime monogamous relationships, marital equality, melodious love songs, and neighborhood crime patrols.