Bald Hill Saved from Development

by Ann Thomas

Contrary to what many people believed, the summit and eastern face of Bald Hill have, until this past February, been in private hands and susceptible to development. The purchase by Marin Open Space Trust (MOST) capped more than four decades of efforts by many individuals and agencies to secure the 60acre Ross Valley hilltop for permanent public protection.

Bald Hill, center, and Mount Tamalpais, to the left, rise above the Ross Valley, as seen from a public path climbing Red Hill. Photo by Gary Leo

The iconic 1,132foothigh summit forms a backdrop to neighborhoods throughout the Corte Madera Creek watershed, being visible from the Corte Madera marshes to shop

ping malls in San Anselmo. It is located at the top of Upper Road West in Ross and includes two parcels that share a boundary with the Marin Municipal Water District watershed to the west and south. A popular hiking and recreational area, it is contiguous to more than 100,000 acres of other protected lands.

The mountain’s lower slopes are heavily wooded, with variable topography; upper sections have chaparral and grasslands, and the summit affords panoramic views of the Bay and its cities. The steep slopes and creek drainages are vegetated with native redwood, oak, bay, buckeye, and madrone, and although there are no major waterways on site, seasonal and ephemeral streams on the slopes drain down to the valley’s network of creeks.

The summit, which is now public land, has been in the ownership of an Asian investment firm since 1978, and during this time it has been zoned to permit construction of up to five estate homes, so development has been a constant possibility.

The property has been a high priority for acquisition as open space by Marin County and the Ross Valley community since 1976, when the San Anselmo General Plan contained the statement that “Bald Hill is so important to San Anselmo that the Town should attempt to enlist the support of the other cities of the County, the Water District and the County Open Space District so as to preserve this invaluable open space as a Ross Valley scenic resource.” The hill was also identified in 1987 by the Town of Ross as a priority for acquisition, and in 1989 Ross and San Anselmo approved a joint powers agreement to raise funds to buy the site.

Purchase attempts stumbled for several decades. In 1990, San Anselmo and Ross placed a bond measure on the ballot to buy the summit parcel, but voter support fell 180 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage. In 1993, Marin County offered $1.4 million to purchase the property but the offer was declined. From 1993 to 2004 the late Ross Valley County Supervisor Hal Brown tried three times to open negotiations for purchase, and in 2008 MOST made its first offer to purchase the site. All the offers were rebuffed.

Then in 2020 the property was listed for sale and MOST quickly contacted the investment firm broker to try to hammer out an acquisition plan. Two years of multiple property appraisals, geotechnical surveys, price negotiations, title reports, and fundraising followed. In October 2022 the Marin County Supervisors agreed that the County would be the final owner if MOST could navigate the purchase. In November 2022 the Town of Ross authorized a financial contribution of $200,000 toward the purchase, and San Anselmo supported a similar contribution. The final purchase and sale agreement was concluded in February, with simultaneous transfer of the land from MOST to the Marin County Open Space District.

MOST purchased the property in partnership with the towns of San Anselmo and Ross, San Anselmo Open Space Committee, the Tamalpais Conservation Club, and Marin County. The County’s Parks and Open Space District has incorporated the property into the adjacent Marin County Bald Hill Open Space Preserve on the north side of Bald Hill, looking out over Fairfax and San Anselmo; the 46acre preserve also includes the Sky Ranch property which was purchased by MOST and added to the county preserve eight years ago. A celebration was held on June 10 at Natalie Coffin Greene Park to mark the successful conclusion of the long campaign to get the Bald Hill summit into public hands.

The Joys of Observing the Natural World

by Alycia Matz

One of the greatest delights is reveling in the beauty of nature with others who are just as curious to know more about the wondrous plants and wildlife that also happen to call our planet “home.” In early June, Friends of Corte Madera Creek Watershed hosted a bioblitz at Deer Park in Fairfax, where 25 attendees set out on the trails, guide-books and cameras in hand, eager to explore.

Budding naturalist Cameron Sage examines a baldhip rose. Photo by Morgan Cantrell

So, what exactly is a bioblitz? A bioblitz is an event where participants document as many species as possible in a given location and within an established time period. Bioblitzes have exploded in popularity in recent years, not only because they are an opportunity for the community to engage outdoors, but because they provide massive amounts of observational data to scientists. Bioblitzes are used to inform researchers on everything from the extent of sudden oak death throughout California to what plant species are first to emerge postfire. The free app iNaturalist is often the tool of choice. Users can simply snap a photo, upload it, and receive AI-generated species identification suggestions. A diverse community of hobby naturalists and professional scientists can verify if that species ID is correct.

Our bioblitz did not have any particular scientific aim. Rather, the main goal was to have fun getting to know the world around us. We had attendees of all ages and experience levels, from pre-K to college students, to retired professionals who have spent decades working in the environmental field. Especially for our young scientists, we wanted to show that there are many ways of knowing that go beyond learning a species name.

Some magnificent valley oaks arch over Deer Park’s trails. Photo by Morgan Cantrell

The key is using all the senses. We delighted in the flickering of delicate butterfly wings, as multiple pipevine swallowtails mingled in the dappled sunlight. We crunched up California bay leaves, bringing them up to our noses and inhaling their peppery scent. We touched plants’ leaves (excluding poison oak, of course!), wondering why woodland madia leaves are sticky while beaked hazelnut leaves are soft. We tasted lemony, freshly-emerged Douglas-fir tips, with the calls of chestnut-backed chickadees and spotted towhees as our soundtrack. We made connections between the world we know and the world we were discovering, as one young learner observed that baldhip rose reminded her of blackberries (indeed, they’re in the same plant family, Rosaceae!)

It was a fulfilling day, with well over 100 observations, and new friendships made. Of course, you don’t have to be part of an organized bioblitz to get out there and start making observations yourself! Especially in today’s fast-paced world, the more you slow down to really look—and I mean really look—the more you start to notice, the more your curiosity is spurred, and the more deeply you’ll feel connected with all of nature’s wonders.

A soldier beetle enjoys the nectar of a western columbine. Photo by Morgan Cantrell

What’s the Buzz?

by Charles Kennard

Singing and buzzing insects create the moods of summer days and nights in gardens and meadows, but often the generators of the sounds are elusive to the eye. When the sounds of nectar-gathering honeybees, or of crickets calling are all-enveloping, one doesn’t know where to look. Or, when zeroing in on a chirp, the well-disguised insect goes quiet to avoid detection.

The main noisy-by-intent insects of Marin fall into four groups: grasshoppers, katydids, crickets, and cicadas, and there are so many genera and species of these that it takes an entomologist to pin them down—both metaphorically and literally speaking.

Among our grasshoppers, the marsh meadow grasshopper makes a brief buzzing sound of increasing volume by rubbing its hind leg against a wing, or stridulating, for short. In open grassland, a burst of sound like a fan opening and closing rapidly, combined with a flash of pink, indicates a rose-winged grasshopper crepitating, as it flies a few yards to a new spot, where it quickly folds its wings and blends in again.

Turning up the volume, the bright green, grasshopper-like male katydids sing at night in a pulsating chorus that some people associate with a good night’s sleep. To this end, hours-long recordings of katydids stridulating can be found on Youtube, providing a lullaby of “Katy did, Katy didn’t, Katy did,

A wingless katydid nymph rests in a bed of roses. Photo by Gary Leo

Katy didn’t,” all night long—just the sound that owners of caged katydids and crickets traditionally enjoyed in China and Japan.

Among Marin’s katydids are the fork-tailed bush katydid, the greater anglewing, and the invasive Mediterranean katydid. Katydids have long antennae, distinguishing them from grasshoppers. I caught a katydid eating my precious redbud seedlings, and as it seemed fair game I, in turn, ate the insect (dry roasted). In Oaxaca, roasted grasshoppers or saltamontes (mountain-leapers), flavored with lemon and spice, are a delicacy.

The chirping of crickets was my first experience of nature in Marin. Living in San Francisco, I was on the phone with my girlfriend (now wife), who had taken the phone on its long, stretchy cord to her back porch in Fairfax, where the shrill sound of snowy tree crickets filled the summer night, and was the background to our conversations.

These little insects are slender and pale green, with long bent hind legs and delicate transparent wings that the male rubs together to attract a mate. In my San Anselmo back yard, it seems as though they sing “Verdi, Verdi, Verdi, Verdi,” but on tracking down individuals in the darkness, I have discovered that in a synchronized duet, one sings “Ver, Ver, Ver, Ver,” and another fills in with “di, di, di, di.” There are at least three species of tree cricket in Marin, and they can be distinguished by the frequency of their chirps alone. When not in singing mood, crickets search for aphids and ants, as well as tender plants to eat.

Snowy tree crickets’ shrill sound fills summer nights. Photo ©

The frequency of the snowy tree cricket’s song increases with nighttime air temperature in a fairly regular way, so an estimate of the temperature, in Fahrenheit, can be arrived at by counting the chirps in 13 seconds and adding 40. However, on a hot evening, and especially near paving that has retained the heat of the day, it is no easy task to count the chirps. Perhaps someone adept with a smartphone could record them for 13 seconds, and then play back the sound slowly, while counting. The other tree crickets, meanwhile, are registering the chirping with aural organs on their forelegs.

Scientists working in the field note that crickets west of the Great Plains chirp at a slightly slower pace than their eastern relatives, perhaps an evolutionary reaction to other species’ songs. More romantically, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the nineteenth-century author, opined that, “If moonlight could be heard, it would sound just like that”—the trilling of crickets.

As the weather warms in May, newly-hatched spring cicadas begin the daytime cicada repertoire with slow clicking sounds, produced by crepitation, as if someone were drawing a fingernail lazily across a stiff comb. Cicadas have the appearance of bulked-up horse flies, but with two pairs of transparent wings held neatly, covering the body. Both the nymph and the adult feed on the watery sap of trees, respectively underground and above ground. Their empty nymphal cases can often be seen attached to a twig or tree’s bark.

The spring cicada’s song announces the arrival of warm summer weather. Photo by Ayesha Ercelawn

Beginning in August, the incessant, hard buzz of male cicadas is heard, made by organs called tymbals on the side of the abdomen, where ribs bend and click at about 6000 times a second, the sound being amplified by an air sac. To avoid deafening himself, the insect closes his own ears before starting the din. Humans spending an extended time near a large chorus of cicadas should take precautions too, as the sound of nearly 100dBA exceeds the maximum recommended level of 85dBA.

Our cicadas have lifecycles of 1–3 years, but in the eastern U.S., some species have synchronized lifecycles of 13 or 15 years, at the end of which time billions hatch in the early summer season. Get ready for Brood XIII in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, and Brood XIX, concentrated in Missouri, both due to hatch in 2024!

A much quieter species is the San Francisco lacewing, resembling a snowy tree cricket, but with short legs. Both have two pairs of wings, both sing at night, but both sexes of the lacewing sing, and make a softer sound, produced by vibrating the abdomen. When a male and female find themselves singing a harmonious duet, they get together to start a new generation. They are welcome residents in our gardens, as the larvae eat aphids and caterpillars in addition to nectar and pollen—and in the springtime the jays, in turn, enjoy the lacewing adults as they collect food for their young.

Biodiversity Needs You

by Laura Lovett and Rachael L. OlliffYang

The term “biodiversity” (or biological diversity) comes up frequently in discussions about the natural environment, but what exactly does it mean and why should it concern us? Biodiversity refers to the variety of living species on Earth, including plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi, as well as the communities and networks they form. Think of it as the layer of living organisms that occupy Earth’s lands and oceans. To define the level of biodiversity in a specific habitat, scientists consider how many different species are present as well as the quantity of each species, the physical distribution of those species over land or sea, and the level of complexity in the interconnected communities they form, which are known as biomes or ecosystems.

This biodiversity contributes to human wellbeing, providing food, fuel, breathable air, potable water, fertile soils, productive lands, and pollination. Over the last century, humans have caused rapid ecosystem alteration and massive loss of biodiversity across the planet—changes that inevitably affect humans as well. Major direct threats to biodiversity include habitat loss and fragmentation, unsustainable resource use, invasive species, pollution, and global climate change. These threats have caused an unprecedented rise in the rate of species decline and extinction.

The good news is that it is within the individual’s power to take actions to help support species survival and the health and integrity of ecosystems. Native plants in home gardens can aid local plant communities fragmented by expanses of lawn grass and imported plants like jasmine, roses, and hydrangeas that provide little for our wildlife. If we take our gardening cues from nature, some of the intricate relationships between plants, insects, birds, and other animals can be revitalized. If we each make small changes, together they become significant. Given that so much of our land is under cultivation or development, it is more important than ever to do what you can in your own backyard.

Any native plant added to your garden will help support important insect populations that are the foundation of the food chain. One example is helping plant-pollinator interactions. The timing of plant flowering and pollinator activities each year are cued by temperature, moisture, length of day or a combination of these factors. Climate change is slowly altering the timing of temperature and moisture cues, resulting in shifts in the timing of flowering and pollinator activity. In some cases, this may decrease the overlap in timing, which may lead to depressed pollinator activity and pollinator starvation. Higher biodiversity and habitat complexity in our gardens can aid these relationships by supporting a longer overall flowering season, filling in gaps in pollinator food sources that may arise.

Using a variety of native plants in our gardens will welcome wildlife to the neighborhood. Photo by Laura Lovett

Here are some ways you can increase your garden’s diversity, extend flowering time, and help pollinators thrive in your home garden:

Plant a broad suite of flowering species. Something will always be in bloom. It is especially important to include plants that flower from the early months of the year into late fall to provide food sources on the margins of the season.

Of the species that flower early, manzanita (Arctostaphylos species) is an important one. If you have a garden, try to find a space for a least one. There are many varieties from groundcovers to large shrubs. Other early bloomers include redbud (Cercis occidentalis), wild lilac (Ceanothus species), currants and gooseberries (Ribes species), goldfields (Lasthenia species), California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and buttercups (Ranunculus californicus).

Late bloomers include narrowleaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis), coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), California fuchsia (Epilobium canum), goldenrod (Solidago species), tarweeds (Hemizonia and Madia species) and Pacific aster (Symphyotrichum chilense). Most of these will spread out rapidly, so be sure to choose a location where you have space for them.

Go for complexity. A simple landscape like a lawn supports very little life. Try to have many varieties of plants. Sites with higher overall richness (number of species) exhibit greater length of flowering.

Where possible, encourage genetic diversity. Planting multiple individuals of the same species may extend the flowering season, as individual plants will flower at slightly different times. In a larger garden you could consider planting from a variety of seed sources where appropriate, as ecotypes from warmer/drier conditions tend to flower earlier than those from cooler areas.

Utilize the natural microclimates on your land: south-facing slopes and areas with more direct sunlight will flower earlier, while north-facing slopes and areas with more shade will flower later. This can extend the flowering season up to a week or two, depending on the plant species present. It is particularly beneficial if these two options are within close range of each other, enabling even the smallest of pollinators to make use of both options as the season progresses. You can create varied microclimates in your yard by different amounts of watering, use of structures for shade, or by planting vegetation of different heights that can create shade. The Marin chapter of the CNPS lists plants for a variety of conditions on its website,

Weed! The removal of competing plants you don’t want greatly aids young plants in getting started and can extend flowering time in some species. This may include direct pulling, or grazing and mowing

at a larger scale, if done at the right time to reduce competitors.

Make space for nests. Leave some bare ground (don’t mulch everything!) and dead plant stems as material for nesting. The majority of our native bees nest in the ground and can’t dig through mulch.

Use water strategically. Additional water may extend bloom time as it will allow some species to produce more flowers and continue flowering into the drought of summer. Be judicious with your water, however. If the plant has set seed, additional water won’t help.

Avoid pesticides. These cause damage to the root microbiome and to pollinators. There are many nontoxic ways to keep things in balance in your garden. Marin County Parks manages a website that offers homeowners lots of resources on integrated pest management at

Avoid fertilizer. It encourages quick growth of competitive grasses and alters the nutritional qualities of vegetation. Native plants should only be given green compost or mulch—those without animal products in them.

This article was originally written for the Marin Chapter of CNPS.