More Road Trip Snacks….

Welcome to yet another in what may be an infinite series of postings on the topic of Road Trip Snacks.

In Previous Episodes, I actually attempt to drink an Ensure (so you don’t have to), and then I introduce you to Clif Builders Bars as the best of a pretty inedible collection of “high protein” hunks of sawdust. Actually, the builder bars aren’t bad, just dry. Don’t try to eat one without a water bottle handy.

Here’s the challenge: I’m diabetic, so I’m trying to limit my carbs and sugars. I have allergies that prevent me from eating either tree nuts or peanuts, which nuke out a lot of the protein sources used in normal people’s snack foods. I’m not a big fan of indelicate digestive imbalances (ahem), so I don’t cheat on the allergies except by accident.

What I’m really looking for are edible (or drinkable) things that are low to moderate in carbohydrates, doesn’t require refrigeration and can be stuck in my car so it’s there when I need something out in the field when I really don’t want to head into civilization to grab food and can’t wait because my blood sugar is doing the lambada. Oh, and I’d like an ingredient list that looks like, well, food, and not like I’m chewing on a chemistry set.

This morning Laurie pointed me to an add for what seems to be a new entry into this growing class of products known as “breakfast shake”.

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Quaker Oats now has their own breakfast shake, with the special added super power of extra fiber. Because, you know, we all need to drink more fiber. Think about it and it makes sense: Quaker Oats does — oats. Oats deliver fiber, lots of it. So we’re going to liquefy oats and hide it in your breakfast shake. TADA: liquid oats.

But when I look at the ingredient list for this, I go “meh”. There’s nothing really wrong with it, but it looks just like the 20 other breakfast shakes I’ve looked at. It also has added sugar, a fair amount of it. at least it’s sugar and not high yield corn fructose.  I still believe all of the “strawberry” flavors across the product line were invented by some food scientist sadist, but typically, the chocolate is drinkable.

But still, meh. And so I said to Laurie “I don’t see anything in any of these products that should make me drink this instead of chocolate milk….”

And then I went “huh”.

Back when I was athletic and trained a lot on bikes and did the occasional road race, bike riders had this problem. It needed to go in the pocket of your jersey, it couldn’t require chilling, and it had to put up with some abuse along the way. Bananas were a given (and still are), as were Fig Newtons. When we got to the end of the ride, we’d hit up a store and grab a bottle of chocolate milk because it has that nice combination of sugars/carbs with a solid hunk of protein from the milk. And damn, after half a century it tasted wonderful.

Folks like Gatorade have spent a couple of generations trying to convince all of us that you need to eat or drink these specially formulated magic drinks if you want to be a serious athlete. Lots of people believe them — but if you look into modern training discussions, you’ll find a lot of people are figuring out that few of these drinks perform better for you than chocolate milk does, and many serious athletes have switched back. Ditto high-tech sawdust bars and things like, oh, Fig Newtons.

Sometimes the old ways are best. Although sometimes the old ways with a modern twist can make your day.

These days, you can get chocolate milk from a number of sources in no-chill aseptic containers. Some of them are organic. Most of them have that added sugar, of course, so that their nutrition label looks a lot like the breakfast shakes. Still, if you want something you can haul around without worrying about it going bad that tastes decent and has a rational nutritional basis, you can do a lot worse than these “kiddie” boxes and bottles of chocolate milk.

And you can even go one better. if you look, you can find this:

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Nestle, bless them, has a no-sugar-added version. it uses a bit of sucralose to sweeting, but the carb load drops significantly: the sweetened version of this is 150 calories with 25 grams of carb and 8 grams of protein. The no-sugar added version is 100 calories with that 8 grams of protein, but only 13 grams of carbs.

I now have a supply of this ordered, and when it gets in, I’ll do a taste test and report back. But this looks like a nice thing to have handy in the car, and it’s — chocolate milk. How bad can it taste? the ingredient list is surprisingly short of things that scare me, although it does have Cellulose Gel (good that gives it a good mouth feel), Potassium Citrate (manages PH and adds some tartness), Carrageenan (another goo that gives it a good mouth feel, made from kelp) and Cellulose Gum (it’s Cellulose Gel, but different). The sodium hit is a bit high but not terrible.

By the way, when I’m out on the road, one of the things I’ve started doing is hitting up a coffee shop for a mocha — hot or cold, depending on weather, think about what a mocha is: it’s effectively chocolate milk with a coffee chaser. And given how easy it is to find a Starbucks most places, it’s an easy way to get a drink with a balanced nutrional load (but hold the whipping cream; we can argue full-fat, low-fat or skim milk some other time. I’ve been moving away from skim milk to 2% personally because the fat slows how fast the carbs get digested, and I really don’t want a higher % of carbs in my diet — low fat is not a good thing for me. And perhaps most of us. But… later).

By the way, you might be amused at my Valentines Day gift from Laurie, a Coleman iceless cooler. So now I have a lot more flexibility to carry reasonable food with me, and less dependence on hotel refrigerators that actually work or can refreeze blue ice blocks. I am looking forward to trying it out on my next trip (Yellowstone, baby!) when I can set up my lunches and haul them with and be less dependent on trying to wade through fast food or poor deli counters… oh, and cold drinks that are really cold…

(as laurie notes, you have to be careful with these coolers; many only guaranteed 10-15 degrees below ambient, which can be a problem. This seems to be the best of the bunch in the consumer price ranges…)

And onward… There are options, it seems…  It can just be a challenge to figure them out…


Posted in Road Trips

Lessons Learned with ‘For Your Consideration’

For the last three months I’ve been running a site called For Your Consideration, which is an experiment in curation of content. That’s long enough to give me enough data to evaluate it and decide on future directions.

I had zero idea what to expect when I launched the site; the purpose of launching it was to see what happened. There were a lot of unknowns and the only way to get a handle on them was to actually try it out. Some of the questions I wanted to know included:

  • Was the publishing model sustainable? Was there enough content to fill the pipeline? Was the publishing process something that was manageable over time?
  • Did the site and distribution systems (twitter, email, et al) make the content accessible in a usable context for readers?
  • Was the content shared to other users? Where there trends in what was shared or discernible reasons for why not?
  • Did the site show subscriber growth?
  • Is the site a success? If not, what changes could improve the site?

Here’s what I’ve figured out:

I like the site. It does what I wanted it to do, meaning it meets the goals I set out when I decided to build it. I don’t see anything about what I built that prevents it from succeeding. There are aspects that I think could be improved now that I have some experience with it (improved sharing tools, for instance) but it’s a successful site based on what I wanted out of it.

The model was definitely sustainable; I had more than enough content to publish so I was able to make choices. I consciously tried to not push too much of any one topic area or too many similar items together, and I had no issues keeping that mix going. The time it took was quite manageable; 1-2 hours a week in publishing, and the content acquisition was done as part of  my overall web browsing. So the site and design pass with flying colors.

Did the site work? Were users able to use it and get content? Here’s where it gets less clear-cut. I’ve talked to about a dozen users over the last two months. There’s one very common criticism or question, which is why is the site in the distribution loops? The typical connection from reference to the referenced content started with rss, twitter or email, went to the site, which then bounced the user back out to the content itself. Nobody was quite sure why it was going through the site.

And they’re right. My original intent was to do context and commentary on the sites I was publishing, but in practice, it didn’t happen often and really didn’t need to. There was very little value being added by the site and by the extra hop, and when I stepped back and thought about it, most of the sites really didn’t need it. Even after realizing this and being aware of the limitation, my next round of publishing items didn’t change the commentary percentage. So one original thought I wanted to experiment with — context and commentary — proved itself to be of little real value. Without that, though, the site itself was more of a limitation than an advantage.

Was the content shared? Yes. Was the FYC site shared? Very rarely.

The analytics back this up. Average time on the site was between a minute and a minute and a half. Pages per visit was consistent at about 1.25. People pop in, read the synopsis and pop across to the content, or decide not to and drop. If they reshare, they’re going to reshare the content, not the FYC link to it.

From what I can tell, 98% of the action coming into the FYC site came from my personal twitter feed. The FYC-specific feed picked up some subscribers early, as did the mailing list I set up. If there was any subscriptions to the RSS feed, it’s not statistically significant (i.e. I can’t find it).

I did no promotion of the site in December; not only is that month death for promotion because of the holidays, I wanted a chance to see if there was any inherent interest in the site; whether the early users would pass it along, whether those they passed it along to would subscribe. Short answer: not really.

In early January I did follow-up postings on my blog and some low-level promotion on my site and feeds. it generated some interest but that interest didn’t sustain or draw any significant new subscribers. It most notably didn’t seem to generate any referral subscriptions. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve done a small simulation of an advertising campaign by inserting “ads” into some of the articles on my blog that are most popular at drawing readers out of the search engines — people who aren’t already signed up to read the site. That didn’t seem to move the needle at all.

What this all means

The site does what I intended when I designed and built it. Operating it taught me a few things; I thought I was going to do more commentary on sites than I did. The extra hop through the site is a lot more invasive to the user experience than I thought it would be.

If you follow the conversation on the internet one common theme is the problem of trying to manage the firehose of information and there are still huge struggles in how to curate the information stream that attacks our attention every day into something manageable. I felt that a curated feed of limited size would be one way to do that. I still do, but there’s no sign the “one link a day” has any significant attraction. It might be too limited. At this point, this seems to be a solution in search of a problem.

I think without realizing it I created a context where I made the sharing of a thing the most important aspect of the transaction with the reader, not the thing being shared. That’s ass-backwards, to be honest, and I think the typical user reaction reflects that. I was thinking in terms of how to help people get attached to the FYC site; most people simply moved through and reshared the content itself. I can’t decide if that’s an insight I should have figured out up front or not. Now that I see it, I realize it’s something lots of sites do, and really is the basis of so many of the low-value “paragraph and a link but first look at all our ads” sites we tend to loathe. I was hoping to pivot off that to something higher value and more interesting, but despite not loading up your eyeballs with ads and pimping for pageviews, I don’t think I did.

I’ll be pondering that one for a while, but I’m thinking it’s inherent to the model, and the model has no real value to me, or many of us. Oh well.

So… Next Steps

So, now what? Was FYC a success or a failure?

If you consider the site an experiment in evaluating a concept to see if it works and giving insight into things you aren’t sure about, it was a wonderful success. Beyond that, it was simply fun going elbow-deep into a few tools like WordPress and e-mail and coming up with a system that does something useful. It was, honestly, a fun hack.

But if you consider it as a site that ought to attract returning users and a membership growth to warrant iterating and enhancing it, then, well, no.

I view it as bit of both. I’m disappointed (but not surprised) that it didn’t seem to catch on. There are some aspects of the design that I’ve learned from and will consider differently if I do another experiment down this path I’ll do some things differently.

For now, though, the FYC setup doesn’t warrant more of an investment, so I’m going to roll up the sidewalks and put it into hibernation. The content that was being pushed into the FYC site will migrate back onto the @chuq twitter feed. That seems to be the consensus among the people I’ve talked to as to where it should be.

The email list was fun to experiment with, and I’ll be using it for some other things down the road. I’m still looking for ways to connect with readers of the blog since the death of Google Reader (my answer to the question: who won the fight to replace Google Reader is still ‘nobody’ — although I think the most correct answer is really “Twitter”) and you can expect I’ll be adding an email subscription to the blog to get blog posts soon. I’m considering doing some other things with email as well.

The existing setup — email, rss, twitter and the site itself — will disappear over the next couple of weeks.

Was it worth doing? Oh, hell yes. And I’m far from done with experimenting with curation. There’s a lot to be learned in this space still.

But in the short term, there’s other writing and my photography that needs my attention, so that’s what the focus is going to be on.

Experiment, evaluate, and the iterate and enhance or move on. For this round, the answer was move on.

And so we shall, with no regrets. Fun hack, learned some interesting stuff, and now it’s off to the next thing…

Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?


Posted in Working on Web Sites

Why backups matter — this is how it’s supposed to work




Here’s a hint: disk platters aren’t supposed to have visible scrape rings or gouges on them. That’s bad.


The good news is, this dead disk drive was only a slight annoyance.



I harp about backing up. I know too many computer users and photographers who’ve had that “oh, crap” moment when the disk fails and they’ve neglected their backups. It’s happened to me — I once lost a major design document with ten days of work on a project when a laptop disk crashed three days before deadline. I’d been backing up the project, of course, by copying it to the same disk. Yay me. (for the record, I rewrote the doc and was only two days late. and exhausted and stressed to hell, and convinced that would never happen again).

So, a week ago, Laurie came in to tell me her mini was hung and when it rebooted the external drive wouldn’t mount. We poked at it a bit, and when we power cycled the drive, it started clicking.

That’s never good.

The good news is that her backups were current and living on the NAS. The better news is that I’ve been converting all of our external data disks to mirrored RAID drives, where the data is copied to two identical drives in the housing. This crashed drive was mirrored, and the status lights on it showed one drive was green.

It took about 30 minutes to tear apart the drive, extract the drives and plug the good one into a disk dock and I had laurie up and running in less then an hour with no data issues. I verified the backups were up to date on the drive (now temporarily not redundant) and would pick up updates, then went off and ordered a pair of new drives.

A couple of days later the drives arrived, I stuck them into the raid housing and fired it up, formatted the drive, and then went and grabbed the drive and dock off laurie’s computer and attached it to mine. Using Superduper I cloned the old drive over to the new ones, plugged the mirrored raid into Laurie’s computer, and stuck the old, now retired drive into storage.

Because she’d used enough data (and isn’t yet fully committed to storing her files on the NAS….) this gave me a chance to upgrade her drive from 2TB to 3TB. The biggest hassle I had was convincing Time Machine to back up the new drive; even though it’s the same data and the drive is the same name, it sees the content as new because it’s all been rewritten at a low level, so it wants to back it up completely. I had to increase the quota for the backup acct on the NAS, and it’s now copying about 1.4Tb over the wireless to the NAS. Once that’s done, life will be easy again (I could speed it up by plugging laurie’s office into the gigabit, but since this is all background processing, ‘faster’ isn’t a big issue).

I have now ritually disassembled the old, dead drive, as you can see above. That both prevents someone (like me) from accidentally trying to use it again, and by the time I’m done with the platters, it’ll prevent snoopers from scoring any data off of them without a massive amount of work. (I never allow used drives out of my possession. dead ones get torn apart, retired ones get stored, and eventually torn apart after a few years; drives are a cheap investment so keeping control of my data is more important than a few bucks)

Data lost: none. Time lost to laurie: about 9 hours, most of that to cloning to the new drive. Time I spent on this? maybe 4 hours, since most of the work was done by the computers, not me.

Hard drives crash. That’s why you need backups. To me, one of the best backups is one you never need, and that’s why I do things like use mirrored RAID on drives, since if a drive crashes, the data’s still there ready to use without even losing time to a restore. That said, mirrored RAID is NOT a backup, because if the housing fails, it can destroy the data on both drives just as easily as it can write your info to both drives — so it’s more suspenders to backup’s belt.

Same with the NAS: it has redundancy in the drive array, but a failure within the NAS could scribble the drives, which is why I back up to the NAS, and then back up the NAS itself (and keep a copy of those backups offsite).

So consider this my latest lecture on why you need to back up your data, and do it well, and with a plan. Because as you can see above, disk crashes happen. But they don’t need to be painful. this wasn’t…

How are your backups doing?

(for the record, the drive above was a 2TB seagate green, in service just over two years. And replaced with Seagate 3TB green drives, because I’ve found them reliable and easily available at a good price).



Posted in Computers and Technology

Diving into the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (warning, water politics neepery)

One of the things I’ve been doing the last few weeks instead of important things like posting selfies or writing for this blog is trying to understand the implications of the drought on California. Researching the wildlife refuges for my refuge project just as the drought was really hitting its stride this winter brought the water issue to the center of my attention, and I’ve been trying to get a handle on how the drought is going to affect us (as residents of Silicon Valley and California), and about the birds I’m studying and photographing.

That has dropped me knee deep into California water politics without a pair of hip waders. At the center of these politics is the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which is politics-speak for a pair of tunnels to be dug under the delta to transfer water from north of the delta (where it is) to south of the delta (where it’s needed). Back in the 1980’s there was a plan called the Peripheral Canal to do something similar at ground level that was quite controversial and eventually rejected.

Water is a major issue in the state. Want to start a fight between northern and southern california? mention water. The northern half of the state looks at what southern california did to the Owens Valley and says “over my dead body”. The southern half of the state looks at the water and mutters “damn hippies….”. The farmers don’t care what happens to anything else as long as they get their water. The people who depend on the fishing industries that depend on the delta fish populations look at the farmers and think “chum….”.

It’s an incredibly complicated problem. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been digging into it, especially with the tunnel plan. I wanted to get a sense of how all of this was going to affect the birds and refuges, and whether the tunnel project was necessary, and if it was possible, and if it was a good idea.

I’m still not entirely sure. My sense of things right now are that (a) we’re screwed no matter what, (b) the tunnel project is incredibly complex and I’m unconvinced the state can build it successfully, and (c) if they can build it, it might well be a good thing — but I have caveats to that.

Want to dive in?

If you want to start dive into this yourself, you can start at the Bay Delta Conservation Plan project web site. The current draft plan and environmental impact reports tally well over 300 pages. 300 dense, geeky, stultifying pages.

Fortunately, there are others who are digging into this as well and sharing their info. The best source I’ve found to find out about all of this is Maven’s Notebook, so if you want a starting point for investigating this, here’s where to start.

Also, realize that the delta area isn’t the only place with water politics; the colorado river is another hotbed of distribution woes and challenges, and the problems there are a big issue with the ongoing problems of the Salton Sea. A good overview of this region and its water challenges was written up by National Geographic. A third location where there are issues is Lake Tahoe, and this week we heard our first politician publicly suggest that we should just pump water from the lake to cover the drought for the farmers. Expect that fight to continue in the future.

If the idea of reading 300+ pages of plan docs and EIR notes makes you want to poke your eyes out with an icepick, I don’t blame you. Fortunately, there are others doing that for us and publishing their results. The best one I’ve found so far is a formal review by the San Diego County Water Authority. As one of the customers for state water (and at the far/wrong end of all of the supply chains for water in the state they have a big stake in this and making sure it all works successfully. They also are one of the few actively building desalination capacity and are actively working on conservation and re-use projects, so they seem to be the group of experts who have their act together the best. They seem to be a good team to listen to about the problems and opportunities.

 My take on all of this

Enough deep background. That there’s that much will give you a sense just how big and complicated this issue is. I am not a water technology geek, nor will I play one on TV. Having said that, I’ve come out of the last couple of weeks of digging with some observations and talking points that I hope will help you at least start to understand some of the issues we and the state need to grapple with here. My opinions are subject to change — and likely to — as I continue to dig into this. Which I will, because, god help me, I’m finding this all quite fascinating.

There are some details and issues that I’ve found that I think aren’t getting much play in the rather superficial discussions being done on this project by the media. I’m shocked that the media isn’t covering this well. Shocked, I tell you.

  • The biggest thing being lost in most discussions is the timing of this project. The plan for the tunnel project is that it will take 15 years to plan and build it before the tunnels go online. 15 years, not from today, but from the day the plan is approved and funded.
  • That 15 year timeframe does not take into consideration legal challenges. There are going to be many lawsuits over this project that will slow down the approval process and delay the start of the project.
  • Assuming we get the normal delays in funding (it needs to be voted on, which implies 2016 at the earliest) and the usual rounds of legal delays and court challenges, if this thing breaks ground by 2020 I’ll be amazed. If it ever breaks ground. And there’s still 15 years from that date before water will flow.

This means, bluntly, that not only can the tunnel project not solve the drought we’re in, it’s unlikely to solve the next one either. Any attempt to tie the project to the current drought to get you to approve it is a lie. The tunnel project has to be considered as a project to solve problems for our children, or maybe their children.

Which raises the question: shouldn’t we be putting this time and energy and funding into shorter term projects that would have results sooner, even if they are smaller in scale? Should we be pushing harder into solar-powered desalinisation? More recycle/reuse? Funding better and more efficient irrigation techniques? (read the Salton Sea piece for some background on that).

A couple of weeks ago I was able to sit down with some people from various organizations including Audubon and the Nature Conservancy and one of the topics was water use in central coast california. A lot of new acreage has been put into wine grapes down there. It’s a major cash crop in the state. Many of the newer vineyards, though, have come online by drilling a deep well and using very inefficient irrigation techniques for the vines. As a result, water pulls out of the aquifer have grown massively, and the water table has dropped enough that shallow wells are now going dry. The area has put a moratorium on new wells while they figure this all out, but many homesteads with older shallow wells are screwed. It looks pretty clear that they didn’t try to get a handle on the problem until well after the amount of water being drawn from the aquifer is beyond the recharge capacity — so doing nothing continues the growing disaster.

Do we build the tunnel? Or do we fund things like helping these regional water authorities create standards for irrigation efficiency, and even subsidize farmers costs for installing these improved technologies?

To me, the tunnel project seems more and more a boondoggle. We’re looking at the state that gave us the new Bay Bridge (with broken bolts and leaks) and the Bullet Train project (which simple looks like a planning disaster waiting to be taken out behind the barn) now asking us to trust them to build an even more complicated and difficult project and assume they can. It’s hard for me to accept that.

Other notes from the San Diego evaluation

The San Diego water authority made some really interesting observations in their review:

  • They made it very clear the plan as it’s currently laid out has a lot of unknowns and assumptions and they don’t believe the current budget takes that into consideration. What this means: the cost is going to go up, probably by a lot.
  • They note that the plan assumes there may be as many as ten or 11 boring machines digging simultaneously, and it’s unclear if there are that many machines and dig teams available globally. This puts into question the timeframe planning, because if they have to stage some of the digs due to lack of available crews, that’ll lengthen the project time (and raise costs).
  • Nobody’s figured out how to manage the tailings from the dig, where to place them and how to transport them. There’s a massive amount of muck that’s going to be taken out of the ground that has to go somewhere. Some of it may well be contaminated.
  • Many engineering studies haven’t been done on the dig locations: they don’t know what’s down there that they’re going to dig through. A number of property owners have refused to cooperate on test bores and they’re relying on bores taken “close to” the tunnel locations, not the actual location. We only need to see some of the fun going on in Seattle right now to guess how this will go.
  • The plan on how to build intakes on the Sacramento River that won’t impact the protected fish species are still conceptual — in other words, the details of how to make them work are still being designed.

Impact on Nature

This tunnel project is really two tunnels side by side, each 44 feet in circumference. In reality, it’s five sets of tunnels, and where they meet will be a maintenance shaft and facility. One of those points is planned for Staten Island, which if you read this blog regularly you might know as a bird refuge area. it’s owned by Nature Conservancy and is used for farming in a way compatible with it’s primary purpose as winter habitat for geese and sandhill cranes. It’s a primary wintering spot for some specific populations of Aleutian Cackling Geese.

Needless to say, Nature Conservancy hasn’t approved this plan to turn a significant chunk of the island into a tunnel access point. That implies to me an impending fight over eminent domain acquisitions and lots of court squabbling, which means lawyers get rich and the project gets delayed. But assuming the project wins and does win access to the area, building this project implies digging end point pits for the digging machines, plus there need to be access roads and other infrastructure like water and electricity. The project area needs to be “de-watered” for the duration of the project, meaning it’ll get pumped dry. My estimate is at least half of the island would be turned into project space for the duration — 5-10 years? Afterward, the area is supposed to be mitigated back to preserve status, except for the permanent shaft access area, the access roads to the shaft, the electrical and other infrastructure needed to support the shaft… you get the idea.

In the meantime, the birds are supposed to go, where?


The bottom line

So, yeah. my bottom line on all of this.

The tunnel project looks like a mega project that has taken on a life of its own. It’s scope is so big that once started it’s hard to stop. After all, we’ve invested so much in it already, it gets hard to decide not to push forward. That said, the scope of the project is immense, and the State of California hasn’t shown it can successfully build mega projects recently — look at the problems with the Bay Bridge and the Bullet Train. This project looks like the Bullet Train all over again: a good idea conceptually that in reality is expensive, high risk, low reward and probably unnecessary, and by the time we actually build it, the problem it’s due to solve is probably going to be solved (by necessity) in other ways, because if we wait for the tunnels to come online, the state is screwed big time.

The problem the tunnel is supposed to solve needs to be solved sooner than the tunnel is capable of. It’s better solved by putting funding and expertise into regionalized solutions, especially increased investment in desalinisation and recycling/reuse capabilities. We need to get more efficient at storing and transport. We probably need to increase our storage capacity with new and upgraded reservoirs. More important than all of that, though, is that there is a lot of possibility for reducing water usage in many regions, especially if we get serious about helping agriculture improve water usage efficiency in irrigation and perhaps in shifting to less water intense crops. Subsidizing agriculture’s adoption of better irrigation techniques seems to have a lot of potential.

The more I look at the tunnels, the less I like it. The basic concept is good, actually. The implementation scares the crap out of me. The opportunities for this project to scale in cost and time are massive. The risks are high, and there are way too many engineering unknowns at this point. And all to solve a problem that needs to be grappled today, when in fact, the tunnel project is a solution that won’t come online until kids being born now are in college. That, alone, should be enough to make us realize this is a boondoggle and we need to invest in other projects and solutions that may be smaller in scale, but have shorter-term returns on the investment.

To me, the tunnel project is a solution that’s lost track of the problem it was intended to solve.

Posted in Birdwatching, Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area

The Long Day

A common activity among serious birders is the Big Day when a birder goes out and tries to see as many species as possible in one day.

Yesterday I went out on what I call one of my “long days” — which isn’t exactly a big day, because my focus isn’t on maximum species but on covering a lot of territory and seeing what happens. I do this once or twice a year as a way to get out to the central valley refuges for some intense photography and exploration.

Yesterday’s trip took me north and I started the day at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge near Willows. This is one of the larger refuges in the central valley. It’s also 150 miles from the house, which is why this is the first time I’ve made it to that refuge, and it’s as far north as I’m willing to travel on a day trip instead of scheduling an overnight visit.

I wanted to get up to that refuge to see it (duh!), but also to do some preliminary research on this refuge project I’ve started, and to scope out how much time to plan for the refuges of that complex when I start writing about them. The plan (such as it was) was to start at Sacramento, visit Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, and then if there was time, visit some of the other birding areas in the Sacramento area.

The alarm went off at 5:30, reminding me that I am not a morning person. I minimized how much I annoyed Laurie’s attempt to sleep and got out the door right at 6AM and hit the road. Traffic cooperated, and that got me to the refuge a bit before 9AM. Not a bad start.

I ended up spending 2 hours at the refuge; I could have put in the entire day, but I found it was more interesting from a birding mindset than a bird photography one, so I decided to head south and explore (okay, to be honest. it was a decision of spending the time at Sacto/Delevan/Colusa, or timing things to make sunset at Isenberg. Isenberg won).

The visit was not wasted. There was a large and nervous flock of white geese (primarily snow, I think), 20-30,000 birds that was nervous and flew multiple times in the distance. Being new the the refuge I had no idea how to get in position for decent shots (but having run the course once, now I have a better idea), but it looked a lot like this:

Snow Geese and shorebirds flushed by Peregrine Falcon

A couple of highlights, either of which would have made the trip worth it:

A beautiful peregrine that sat for a portrait session, which you’ll see once I have time to process the images.

As I was nearing the end of the auto tour, I heard a raptor call, and I was in the middle of thinking to myself ‘That’s not a red-tail, that sounds like a….’ when a full-adult bald eagle sprang from a branch literally 25 feet in front of the car and flew off to go harrass a flock of greater white-fronted geese. Much hilarity ensued, unless you were a goose. The eagle didn’t catch anyone, though, and it flew off to a stand of trees on the far side of the flock and I heard it complaining mightily for a while.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to watch an eagle fly at close range, it’s a stunning sight. I know how big those birds are (seven feet wingspans, 10-15 pounds of bird for the females) but size is one of those things that gets lost when viewing birds at a distance, unless there’s something to compare them to. Seeing one close up like that is just amazing.

A reality of trips like these for me is that they can have many birds, but few photography opportunities, and this trip was about photography. I decided to check out Colusa, which has also had reports of bald eagles. And as it turns out, I had an immature bald eagle flying in a field about two miles west of the refuge as I was heading in, but not in the refuge itself. I think I made the right choice skipping Delevan, as someone I talked to said there were lots of birds and some good activity, but it seemed to be fairly distant. I really do need to get back up here for a weekend so I can schedule in fly-in and fly-out times and some extended exploring, as well as add a visit to Grey Lodge, but not going to happen this year. Next year I want to plan a trip up into Tule Lake and  Klamath, so maybe I’ll do this area as part of the trip home by adding a day or two to the trip.

Colusa has both a big pond with an observation platform and an auto route. The platform can be awesome for flight shots, especially of Greater White-Fronted Geese:

Greater White-fronted Goose

and the same was true of this visit, but I found I wasn’t really getting images I didn’t already have, so I hit the auto tour — the problem wasn’t the birds, but the wind, which was blowing into our faces, which meant the birds were landing and taking off with butts facing the platform. I’m just not a big fan of photos of bird butts for some reason…

The auto tour was a lot like Sacramento — lots of birds, interesting action, but little real photographic opportunity. I finally realized I needed food, so I headed out, refilled the car with gas, refilled myself with munchies, and drove south to Cosumnes and Staten Island. Cosumnes River Preserve is an open space area patched together with land owned by seven different organizations (including the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and various governmental departments) and under joint management for various purposes including acting as a winter refuge for various bird species including geese, sandhill cranes and ducks. Staten Island is one of the delta islands now owned by the Nature Conservancy and leased out for farming and managed to act as wintering acreage for sandhill cranes and other species; one of its more notable residents are large flocks of cackling geese.  Both are notable birding areas near Lodi and well-known to birders and one of the reasons why Nature Conservancy is one of the organizations I donate to every year.

Staten Island is also a location that’s been targeted as a drilling point and construction staging area as part of the currently-being-argued-over California water tunnel plan. This is despite the Nature Conservancy’s objections. Allow me to defer discussion of that particular issue for today, but trust me that it’ll be back soon.

Staten Island is a working farm which birders have access to. There’s about a five mile road down the middle with fields on both sides; half of that road is gravel. In the winter, the fields are set up to be used as feeding areas for the sandhill cranes and there are pastures that are popular with the cackling geese. there are also areas set up to be usable by shorebirds and some duck habitat. It is for me one of the more reliable places to find Tundra Swans as well down in the parts of the central valley I haunt.

It did not disappoint, a couple of thousand cacklers and about a thousand cranes were hanging out.


(you can title that image “hey, we just thought we’d stop by and help fertilize your pasture. you mind?”)

I wandered Staten Island, took some shots, but nothing better than what’s already in my collection. For some reason there were zero shorebirds (not even a killdeer) and few ducks. I did have a nice opportunity with a small mixed flock of cacklers and greater white-fronted feeding at the end of the road, and even got the car in place for some shots, but for reasons only geese can explain, driving a car up near the flock was okay, but turning off the engine spooked the entire group and they all took off and headed elsewhere. Kind of summed up my day.

So I wandered off to Consumnes. When I got to Cosumnes I realized I was going to start losing my light, so I cut my stop there short and merely ticked off a couple of teal species I’d missed further north, then headed out to Isenberg instead. Isenberg Crane Refuge is another area near Lodi, located on Woodbridge road. Isenberg is a converted gun club acreage, and the entire road is working agriculture which in winter helps support the cranes and geese, but be aware that if the farmers are working to stay out of their way.

Isenberg is most famous for the evening fly-in. The sandhill cranes spend their day in the fields around the region, but this reserve is set up to act as a night roost. Cranes sleep in shallow water as a predator protection, since any predator trying to reach them has to walk through the water and will make noise. This means the birds fly out at dawn to forage and fly back in the late afternoon and evening to roost together and sleep.

It’s also a place that can show off one heck of a sunset.

So I put away the camera, hauled out the camp chair, sat down and decided to just watch the show. I wasn’t disappointed. The fly-in started somewhat slowly, but we ended up having about a thousand cranes fly in, plus large flocks of snow/ross’s geese, a couple of thousand cacklers, greater-white fronted and even seven tundra swans came in, long after the light dimmed beyond decent photography, so my hope for flight shots of tundra swans will continue to a future visit…

stats for the day: 450 miles driven, 14 hours out on the road, half of that driving, half on the refuges. 300 shots taken (a low number for a day like this). Keepers? too early to tell, but some that make the trip worth it. 62 species, 14 year birds, and a nice (if long) day out away from email, work, and all that other stuff… But having said that, doing the Sacto/Colusa area as a day trip from silicon valley is not one I expect to do too often. That’s right on the edge of my range of “too much fun” for one day…


Posted in Birdwatching