I am determined to learn how to identify trees! With two tree guides in hand (and no binoculars), I set out along the creek in search of my first victims. I've decided to document my thoughts about tree identification on my bird-centric website in an effort to retain what I learn. With any luck, I will be able to improve my recognition of plant communities and become a better birder. And so it begins, a whole new discipline... If you are reading this now, perhaps you will check back and watch my meager progress.

Anyway, as I approached my first subject I assessed its overall character. It was a drooping conifer with branches low enough to inspect. I noticed next were the large cones that were standing upright on the branches, kind of like elongated eggs or 5” footballs. The individual layers of each cone were pressed close together and though out of reach, I suspected they were very firm and heavy. They ranged from a pale green to a light brown. The dark green needles were arranged in small clumps along the entire length of each branch with some bar areas in between the clumps. The tree was beautiful and sheltered me from the drizzle that began to fall. I felt safe enough to begin...

I opened one of my books and suddenly the good feeling was gone. I though I was ready for my first challenge, but I quickly learned an adequate knowledge of birds does not a skilled botanist make. Not knowing exactly where to turn I looked at the first few pages which also happened to be the conifer section. I can only assume the book is arranged in taxanomic order, much like a bird field guide, with the most ancient families first. But that is only an uneducated assumption.

The shape of the cones seemed like a good way to narrow down the possibilities. They were so compact and tight looking, as if the seeds had all been pressed together with a vice. Two groups of conifers appeared to have similar cones, Firs and "True" Cedars. After examining the needle arrangement again, it became clear this tree could not be a native Fir because of the bare areas between the clumps of needles. So I read the paragraph beside the diagram toward the bottom of the page, and sure enough, the branches of the Deodar Cedar droop, the tightly compressed cones range from pale green to light brown and it is a common ornamental tree in residential area. Damn! The first tree I identified was not a native, but a transplant, like a House Sparrow or a European Starling, in this case however, it was an import from the Himalayas. Kind of cool, I guess.

I continued my walk and came across another conifer. I think that conifers must be something like the Waterfowl of the botanical world. They are bold looking and display their fieldmarks quite clearly, namely needles and cones, year round. They don't shed their leaves like deciduous trees which, as far as I am concerned are unidentifiable for a full half of the year. They make things comparatively easy on the wannabe tree expert.

My next subject was a much larger tree. Grand, in fact. I noticed the very erect posture right away. I felt a towering presence above me, but still I felt as if it was inviting me to approach and inquire. The tree displayed a very different arrangement of needles. They surrounded the entire branch, on all sides in a familiar way. I felt I had seen this tree somewhere before. The cones were smaller and looser than the Deodar Cedar's. They were dry and woody, light in the hand, in fact. There were strange pointed extensions between the layers of each scale. I opened my book.

I felt again that I had seen this tree before. Sure enough, it soon became clear I was looking at a Douglas Fir, last year's Christmas center piece! This tree quickly captured my affections. It was native, and so beautiful. I began to wonder why anyone would choose to plant a Deodar Cedar in its place. I also wondered if I would be able to cut one down next year as I have done before. I had made a kind of personal connection to it...

My walk continued, and my conifer fixation with it. The next dark green evergreen tree had very different character. It was worn and ancient. It appeared weathered and almost cynical. I noticed the crooked cones which were dark, wooden and rather haphazardly attached anywhere along the length of each branch. My book seemed to open itself as I continued to evaluate my subject. The needles were 5" each, longer than the Fir's and gathered in threes, connected by some kind of tiny cuff that jutted out of each branch. From what I had gleamed earlier, these long needles in little groups suggested a pine. I looked down and I had somehow already opened the book to the proper section. There in front of me were several images, one in particular attracted my attention. A crooked, gnarled tree of obvious wisdom. The Monterey Pine showed all the features I had noticed: the off center cone, the needles gathered in small bunches of three and the unique weathered appearance. I was beginning to feel like I could identify any tree, as long as it was one of these three...

I will continue this journey, as long as it inspires me. From what I saw today, this should be quite a long walk...


I was researching the concepts of species and subspecies in an effort to explain them to the class. As I read the entries in the Bird Watchers Companion, a gift from Cricket's cousin Bruce, I came across an interesting note. The fifth edition of the American Ornithological Union's A.O.U. Checklist of North American Birds (1957) was the last edition to include listings of, and geographic ranges for, North American bird subspecies. I thought for a moment how great it would be if I could find a copy of that old book... Then I remembered that my friend Brian had given me an out of print A.O.U. checklist from his dad's collection. Struggling to remember exactly which edition it was, I located it on my bookshelf and read the spine. It was in fact the fifth edition! Despite the fact that classification is continually being refined, and much has changed since the publication, the book has quite a bit to offer for those wanting to grasp the complex subject. Since I have been making an effort to discuss the more granular issues of identification and classification, the reappearance of this collector's item could not have come at a better time. It has been lifted from the lower shelf to one at eye level right next to my copy of Grinnell and Miller... Thank you Gene and Brian for this rediscovered treasure!


I just thought I'd pass along this information in case anyone had not yet heard. The Bush administration has dealt another blow to the environment by repealling the "roadless rule" that Bill Clinton signed into law before leaving office. The roadless rule prevented huge tracts of National Forest from paved roads in an effort to protect these prescious areas from logging interst. It seems Mr. Bush is hell bent on becoming the most environmentally UN-friendly president in history. I challenge anyone to defend his actions as anything but pure hatred for the natural world. Can anyone suggest a compelling reason why the opening of National Forests to paved roads and subsequent logging would be a good idea for the environment? These areas are the pristine remnants of a once great forest community. Paved roads, "scheduled logging", commerce? Is he insane? That is a not just a rhetorical question... It should be added that every major environmental group stands firmly against this man and his policies. The list of his environmental opponents is great and includes of course the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, The Audubon Society, and Greenpeace. How much longer must we endure his attacks against the earth in the interst of big business? Let's all hope that when his term is done, we will not have to endure another four years of destructive republican policies or our environment may not survive for the next generation. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/news/archive/2005/05/05/national/w100120D84.DTL


I scouted out Mitchell Canyon today. This beautiful riparian woodland is nestled in the north section of Mount Diablo State Park. The walk was about two miles of easy level habitat. Although I arrived around 10:00 the bird activity was high for the two hour tour, with many species singing and feeding actively. Highlights included the singing Lazuli Buntings, with no fewer than 8 separate males, perhaps more, and a male Hermit Warbler. The list of species seen on the short visit is below.

Turkey Vulture
White-tailed Kite
Red-tailed Hawk
Golden Eagle
California Quail
Band-tailed Pigeon
Mourning Dove
White-throated Swift
Anna's Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird
Acorn Woodpecker
Nuttall's Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Western Wood Pewee
Pacific-slope Flycatcher
Black Phoebe
Ash-throated Flycatcher
Western Kingbird (outside park)
Cliff Swallow
Steller's Jay
Western Scrub Jay
American Crow
Oak Titmouse
Bewick's Wren
House Wren
Western Bluebird
American Robin
California Thrasher
European Starling
Cassin's Vireo
Hutton's Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Orange-crowned Warbler
Townsend's Warbler
Hermit Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
Western Tanager
Black-headed Grosbeak
Lazuli Bunting
Spotted Towhee
California Towhee
Dark-eyed Junco
Red-winged Blackbird
Purple Finch
House Finch
Lesser Goldfinch