Walks, Talks and Classes

    • Taking a break

      June 23, 2017

      Dear Nature Lovers,

      I have been taking a break from my presentation schedule, but feel free to contact me if you would like me to speak to your organization or lead a walk beginning in fall of 2017. Below is a list of my presentations, which I can deliver either as illustrated lectures (powerpoints) or talks (without electronic images). Both have their points!

      Secrets of the Oak Woodlands In this illustrated lecture, I take my audience on an exuberant romp through California’s oak woodlands, our state’s most diverse and widespread ecosystem type. As I share my favorite stories and species , you will crawl with me through woodrat houses, undulate in erotic mating balls with newts, gaze at the sky through the third eye of a western fence lizard, and struggle for breeding vacancies with acorn woodpeckers. If time permits, we will help bumblebees pollinate manzanita in middle C and we’ll join bluebirds in their attempts to defend mistletoe clumps.

      Our Magnificent Valley Oaks: Hubs of Their Habitats In a talk spiced with humor and beautifully illustrated with images of wood ducks, woodrats, and woodpeckers, I discuss the survival strategies of our venerable valley oaks and the web of life in which they are entwined. I weave into this talk the astounding communalism of acorn woodpeckers, the ability of tiny wasps to manipulate enormous trees, and the twelve functions of the western gray squirrel’s tail. Valley oaks, which are endemic to California, once supported the most complex ecosystems ever to exist anywhere in the state. They are the longest-lived and most magnificent oaks in North America.”

      Extraordinary Ordinary Birds of California’s Oak Woodlands Instead of pursuing rare birds, I chase fascinating facts about our so-called ordinary birds. One well-known species engages in simulated sex rituals every evening before bed. In another species, the females and babies hiss like snakes to scare predators away from the nest. One species is totally dependent on mistletoe berries, another on poison oak berries. Some birds collect spider webs with their tails to build their nests. Some species have a level of intelligence that rivals or surpasses that of the great apes, and one of those species is responsible for planting most of California’s oaks. This talk will open your eyes to little known and marvelous survival strategies, behaviors, and social structures of the everyday birds of California’s oak woodlands and you will never again think of them as “ordinary.”

      Hitched to Everything: the Amazing Manzanita and all Her Relations Manzanita first appears in the fossil record 37 million years ago in central California. Thirty-five and a half million years later it began diversifying and dispersing to places as far away as Eurasia and Guatemala. California now hosts a whopping sixty-two Arctostaphylos species––a record for California. What makes this plant so special? In this talk, I discuss manzanita’s unique characteristics: its multiple adaptations to drought, the risks and benefits of its smooth, thin red skin, and the role Middle C plays in the pollination of its flowers. I will also describe its relationships with Anna’s hummingbirds, bushtits, and pileated woodpeckers and explain the vital role it plays in the lives of ants, aphids, bumblebees, and silk moths. If time permits I’ll discuss manzanita’s interactions with a variety of other organisms, including mycorrhizal fungi and woodrats and a couple of unsolved manzanita mysteries.

      Woodrats: Wonders of the Woodlands  Woodrats, also known as packrats and trade rats, are not actually rats––they are more like huge mice. Masters of architecture, they build more complex aboveground houses than any mammal in the world except humans. In this talk I will show examples of well-built woodrat houses––mansions that feature luxurious, waterproof sleeping nests, multiple pantries (each dedicated to a different kind of food), leaching rooms, corridors, and “windows” that admit light and air on every level.

      Audience members will learn about woodrat villages, relationships among villagers, and the ways woodrats use common houses and tree houses. I will discuss the arboreal nature of these interesting rodents, their all-vegetarian diets, and their skills as landscapers and chemists. And finally, I will explain the keystone role woodrats play in ecosystems thanks to the many uninvited guests who take shelter in woodrat houses.

      Acorn Woodpeckers: Fascinating Communards of California’s Oak Woodlands “Waka, waka, waka!” In this presentation I extol acorn woodpeckers, the most visible, eccentric, and vocal birds of California’s oak woodlands. These clan-dwelling animals have the most complex social structure of any vertebrate species in the world, including humans. I describe their clan structure and their many communal customs, which include permanent polyamorous “marriages;” communal nesting, roosting, and childcare practices; and communal simulated sex rituals. I will debunk a 120-year-old myth about what acorn woodpeckers really eat, and will talk about the tensions that seem to occur within acorn woodpecker clans (with bizarre results). If time allows, two sibling groups from different clans (volunteers from the audience) will engage in a raucous collective fight over a newly discovered breeding vacancy.

      Western Newts: The World’s Most Interesting Salamanders This illustrated lecture 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 figuring out how the hunters died, the young biologist went on to spend the next fifty-five years exploring the many mysteries surrounding California’s four newt species. How can newts get away with moving so slowly and conspicuously across open land? Who preys on them? How do they produce the tetrodotoxin that permeates their skin? How many co-evolutionary arms races are they involved in? I will bring the audience up to date on the current state of the research and will tell about other newtish matters, such as organ regeneration and long-distance navigation.

      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, describing the adaptations and behaviors California ground squirrels have evolved for surviving interactions with this ancient predator. We will also hear 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 (no longer “western 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 discuss more intimate details of scrub-jay life: lifetime monogamous relationships, marital equality, melodious love songs, and neighborhood crime patrols.