14 December 2008
Dear Friends and Family,
There is intermittent rain as I
start to write this, our 23rd annual Christmas letter. We are glad
to see the rain, as we had a bad drought this summer, during which there were
many serious fires in California
(one was only 7 air miles away, on the other side of our mountain). Our
homeowners’ association ran low on water for the second year in a row, a
formerly rare occurrence, despite our relying entirely on flowing surface water
and storage tanks.
Although the year has mostly been
a good one, it has seen some very sad events. While on a Christmas-time camping
trip last December in the southern California
deserts, we got a call from my Aunt Agatha in Vermont, saying that my father had been
hospitalized with pancreatitis. We immediately started home, and on the way I
was able to talk with him one last time. He lived a long life (92 years), with
good health and mental acuity right to the end. Everyone in the family had seen
and/or talked with him recently and he had just had a lovely Christmas with
Agatha’s family a day before. He was only in the hospital a few days and
suffered little. So it was as good a way to go as could be hoped for. We
in August for the burial ceremony, which was attended by almost all his living
relatives as well as friends, some traveling from other states, which was
greatly appreciated. I was very grateful that he decided to move back up to Vermont about 5 years
before. There, his sister Agatha, her husband Warren, Dad’s nieces Rebecca,
Amy, and Ginger, and their families welcomed him and made his last years warm
Fate was not done with the Keelan
clan. In late March, we lost my younger brother, Chris, to complications
arising from 25 years of alcoholism. This occurred just over two years after
the death of my older brother, Chuck, also from alcoholism, leaving just my
mother, my sister Cathy, and me. And my mother’s dementia has continued to
progress; on our last two-day visit in August, really nothing she said the entire
time made any sense. She always does recognize us (even our voices on the
phone), but I don’t know how long she remembers after we visit. She is in a
nursing home close to Cathy, who sees her regularly.
To balance out some of these
losses, there is a gain to be reported: we have a new nephew, Enzo, born in
July to Eileen’s brother Rob and his wife Mahrla! We saw him while in El Paso in August, and
returned over Thanksgiving for the baptism, as Eileen is his godmother, a role
I know she will fill admirably.
Otherwise, life continues here in
much the same fashion as I described last year. Eileen made her first big push
on her garden this year, which is doing well, despite the ravages of our local
striped skunk, whom we otherwise like very much. It still may be possible to
exclude him from the garden by shoring up the deer fence (we regularly see mule
deer, often with fawns, on the property). The garden is now about half planted,
and is very colorful at present, despite the late date and the light freezes
overnight (to about 30 degrees, though it typically warms during the days into
the low 60s).
Eileen continues her weekly
volunteer work at the University of California at Santa
Cruz. One day per week she works in the Arboretum in
the Australian section, and once a month mounting plants for the herbarium. She
has now tamed the chipmunks and squirrels in the yard to the point that when
she has her morning coffee on the deck, they hop up into her lap and eat seeds
from her! She’s had as many as 7 at one time, though usually they start being
territorial at lower numbers. If it is raining, she just opens the door instead
and the chipmunks come inside to be fed (though this means that no door can be
left open and unattended for even a few seconds). Occasionally, when seeds ran
low outside, a squirrel will travel around the house to a window where she
often sits, get her attention, and then meet her back at the feeding area! Both
our chestnut-backed chickadees and pygmy nuthatches will on occasion feed from
our hands, but more effort is needed there to make it a consistent habit.
Eileen fell a bit below last
year’s one book per week average, probably due to all our travel, but still
read an impressive array of literature. A few of her favorites, in no particular
order, were: “Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious
Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever”, by Susan Warren; “Secrets of the
Savanna: Twenty-three Years in the African Wilderness Unraveling the Mysteries
of Elephants and People”, by Mark and Delia Owens; “Home to Holly Springs”, by
Jan Karon; “To the Last Man: A Novel of the First World War”, by Jeff Shaara;
“April 1865: The Month That Saved America”, by Jay Winik; and “Four Years in
Paradise”, by Osa Johnson.
It has been a bit of a roller
coaster at work this year for me. In March, my boss and the manager with whom I
worked most closely left to form a start-up company together. Just after they
left, the main project in our area suddenly became a critical priority for the
company. This led to a very stressful 3-month period, starting with a business
trip to Tokyo and culminating with one to Finland and Sweden. My primary role on these
trips was as a “scientific ambassador”, trying to demonstrate our higher level
understanding of the technology compared to competitors. Subsequently, the
pressure has tapered off somewhat, and I have now dropped back to consultant
status on this project, allowing me to do a bit of new research again.
In October, the imaging unit of
Micron was carved out as a wholly-owned subsidiary, called Aptina Imaging,
preparatory to being spun out as privately-held separate company, once the
investment market recovers (or hopefully sooner). Aptina has about 600 people,
and sales well over half a billion, but if we are successfully spun out, it
will be a bit like being in a start-up. We will be given equity in the form of
stock options at what is likely to be a very low valuation, given the stock
market and economy. The hope would then be that the company is reasonably
successful, and is able to go public 3-5 years after spin-out. I hope that
spin-out does happen early next year, but these are almost unprecedented
financial times and it is difficult to predict what will occur.
It was a very busy year with an unusual amount
of travel in the latter half of the year. It started slowly in January and
February, our rainiest months. Paul Kane from Rochester
visited for a weekend, which included a half-day whale-watching trip into Monterey Bay. We were very fortunate in finding a
pod of killer whales down from their usual haunts in Puget
Sound (the individual whales of that exact pod being
identifiable). They treated us to 20 minutes of spy-hopping, tail-slapping, and
breaching, a very memorable and unusual experience! In February we spent a nice
day looking at birds and sea mammals along Monterey Bay
with Elaine Jin and her husband John and their two sons Adam (age 8) and Daniel
(6). Elaine and I worked together at Kodak, then coincidentally both found jobs
at Micron, she in Pasadena, and I in San Jose. But part of the
Aptina carve-out process was closing down the Pasadena site, and they had just relocated to
the Bay Area. Elaine and I now work together in the same group, which is a lot
of fun. Other field trips during these months included a weekend looking at
ducks in the Merced area refuges, a couple of Christmas birds counts, a sea
watch, owling, Panoche Valley (with bobcat there for the second year in a row –
this one at close range in a telescope!), and 4 days of early-season
Starting the second weekend in
March, through the third weekend in July, we spent all but a couple weekends
looking for native plants in California,
our primary emphasis this year. I mentioned last year how I had learned to
write software for a PDA (like a handheld computer), and programmed information
on plant distribution into it to facilitate identification and recording of
observations in the field. The system turned out to work extremely well in
practice and it really helped us learn new plants (and review ones we had seen
before) much more effectively. At the beginning of 2007, we started keeping a
new list of all California
plants we saw, and the total number of taxa (species + subspecies + varieties)
we saw in 2007 was 754, a good total. But in 2008, we added a surprising 591 additional
taxa, bringing the grand total to 1345. The 2008 accomplishment was much more
impressive, because in 2007 we saw mostly easy to find and identify plants,
whereas those added in 2008 were on average much more challenging. This sort of
diminishing return (of new taxa) will continue as we do more field work. Of the
1345 taxa we saw in 2007-2008, we had seen fewer than 500 previously. We have
now seen about 18% of the total California
flora (about 7200 taxa).
Several trips stand out from this
4-month period of intense botanizing. We spent several days in the western
Mojave Desert (Antelope
Valley) in April, seeing
incredible displays of California Poppies, as shown in enclosed/attached photo.
We made 4 trips up to Napa Co. for fascinating field trips with Mike Parmeter
and the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS). We always
appreciate the hospitality of Mike and Sally while we are there, and enjoy the
companionship of Juanita and Margaret as
well on the fields trips. By the beginning of June, wildflowers are
really winding down at lower elevations in central California, so it is time to head to the
mountains or farther north, both of which we did. For example, we had a great trip
to Yosemite and adjacent Stanislaus
National Forest for our
anniversary in June.
Near the end of that month, we
started a 12-day trip to extreme NW California, an exceptionally rich area for
plants. There we joined the friendly Arcata chapter of the CNPS for two field
trips, one overnight. We had a wonderful time with this group, and left with
lots of information on where to go during the week, with plans to meet up the
following weekend again in a different area. However, massive forest fires in
the region canceled the following weekend’s trip, and so we covered the
fascinating Mt. Eddy area ourselves. However, we did cut
back to the coast and were able to spend a wonderful day and night with our new
friends Carol and CJ Ralph, from Arcata. That day netted a record 28 new native
taxa; the trip as a whole added an impressive 172 taxa. In addition to plants,
we also saw some nice mammals on that
trip. Eileen added California Vole and Shadow Chipmunk to her life list,
and we both added Siskiyou Chipmunk. Good views of calling Marbled Murrelets at
dawn in Prairie Creek Redwoods
State Park were a bird
In late July we took a delightful
one-week course on bats at a field station NW of Lake Tahoe, which Eileen has described
in a separate account at the end of this letter. The wildflowers in the Sierras
near Carson Pass, where we hiked two days in a row
before the class started, were probably the best subalpine floral display we
have ever seen. Motivated by the bat class, we tracked down a new bat, the
Western Mastiff Bat, in Pinnacles
National Monument the
following weekend. This is the largest bat in the U.S.
and one of only two U.S.
bat species with echolocation calls that can (barely) be heard by humans.
In August we visited El Paso and saw Eileen’s
folks, including the aforementioned star of the show, Enzo. Eileen’s parents
joined us for three day trips into three separate areas of southeast New Mexico
as we sought and found our last three species of chipmunks in the U.S.:
Gray-footed Chipmunk in the Sacramento Mts.; Colorado Chipmunk in the Organ
Mts.; and Gray-collared Chipmunk in the Mimbres Mts. At one time these were
regarded as a single species but have since been split. As background, there
are 22 species of chipmunks currently recognized in the U.S., though
more species are likely to be split off as more genetic work is done. After
completing our project to see 98 North American conifers last year, we adopted
as an interim project locating all 22 chipmunks. The first time we made a
special effort to seek out a chipmunk was
in 2003 when we searched for and saw Palmer’s Chipmunk, found only in
the Charleston Mts. of Nevada; it was #14. After moving back to California, we started
systematically looking for new mammals in the state, finding 3 new chipmunks in
2007 and 2 this year, on the NW California trip described above. Our first
chipmunk together was a California Chipmunk in the Santa Rosa Mts. in southern California in May, 1985, so it took us about 23 years to
find the 22 species, culminating with the last 3 species in 3 consecutive days
in New Mexico.
We’re still thinking about our next project along these lines.
Our main trip in September was a
12-day sojourn to Finland
and Great Britain.
Nokia, the largest cell phone manufacturer in the world, asked if I could
present two one-day workshops on image quality at their sites in Finland and the U.K. This was arranged far enough
in advance that I was able to get reasonable airline fares for Eileen to join
me, and we turned the trip into a short vacation. We did quite a lot of birding
and botanizing while there. My Aptina colleague and friend Petri drove us
around for 3 days of birding, with good sightings of the sensational Black
Woodpecker being a particular highlight. Another Aptina compatriot, Ahti, took
us out one day to a lovely fishing lake ringed by a bog, and we had a wonderful
time identifying the plants found there. All but one species (heather) were in
genera we knew from the Northeast US, and even
many of the species were the same! When you get far enough north, many plants
are holarctic, occurring all the way around the pole. This hike was a dramatic
demonstration thereof! In the U.K., we
enlisted the help of Jack Fearnside, a guide with the “Birding London” tour
company, who had treated us to such a fine day two years ago when we were on
our way to Kenya. This time we did a
weekend with him and it was marvelous from start to finish. Bearded Reedling, a
handsome and scarce marsh bird, was seen very well and perhaps was our favorite
We got out on a couple of pelagic
trips into Monterey
Bay in late September and
early October, the best time of year there. We always hope for the very rare
Streaked Shearwater on such trips; this bird nests in Japan and a couple are detected
along the west coast each fall. On our October trip we finally lucked out and
saw one; it was probably a life bird for everyone on the trip except the
leaders, and was my last annually occurring west coast pelagic bird. If that
were not enough, a small pod of common dolphins was called out, and we rushed
up front where they were riding the bow wave. We had a clear look at their head
shape and were able to definitively identify them as Long-beaked Common
Dolphins, a new species for us! This relatively recently split-off dolphin is
not that uncommon, but most years it stays farther south than Monterey, and it must be seen well to be
identified. This was the last cetacean regularly seen in Monterey Bay
that we had not encountered before. With this sighting, our continental US + Canada mammal lists now stand at 184 (Brian) and 175
(Eileen), out of about 432 possible species. These are by far our most
impressive list totals in any area of natural history, when difficulty is factored
in, and we had a banner year in 2008, adding 16 (Eileen) and 13 (Brian)
species. We have begun thinking about what it would take to break 200 species,
or even hit the 50% mark (216), and it will be very difficult – practically
everything left is small, nocturnal, and hard to identify! We had one last boat
trip in November, when Petri from Finland visited on a business trip.
As he had never seen whales, we took a half-day trip that yielded Humpback
Whales almost touching the boat, good looks at Blue Whales, and 3 species of
dolphins, a very successful venture!
Our major trip of the year was a
4-week excursion to southeast Brazil,
mostly in November, on a birding tour with Field Guides, Inc., the same company
with which we went to Kenya.
SE Brazil has more endemic species (those occurring nowhere else) than any
other comparably sized area in South America,
which is itself by far the richest continent for birds. This was our first trip
to South America, and in fact our only previous trip to the neotropics was to Costa Rica in
1994. We chose this particular tour to have a chance to bird with our long-time
friends Jim and Ellen Strauss, from Pasadena,
with whom we have gone to Costa Rica,
Baffin Island, and Australia.
The tour was excellent, with outstanding leaders and a very seasoned group of
participants. The majority of time was spent in Atlantic Rainforest, which
perhaps three times over the millenia has been connected via rainforest
“corridors” with the Amazonian rainforest. Each time, there was an influx of
species from the Amazonian region, which then, during times of isolation, had
the potential to evolve into new species in response to the somewhat different
conditions of the Atlantic rainforest. This process was further enhanced by
breaks in the Atlantic rainforest itself, probably corresponding to large
drainages, that further divided and isolated populations, providing conditions
for further speciation. These are the basic reasons for the exceptional species
diversity and endemism in the region.
In total, we saw about 458
species of birds on the trip, of which about 363 were life birds; the
difference, 95 species, are mostly birds we saw on our Costa Rica trip. Both
Eileen and I saw our 2000th bird species in the world on this trip,
a significant milestone. We also saw 11 native species of mammals, 8 of which
were new, and heard one additional species, as well as seeing the tracks of
another 4 species, including a very clear print from a Jaguar! Our mammal life
lists (worldwide) are now 282 (Brian) and 274 (Eileen).
Eileen and I hope that you and
your families are doing well. We always like to hear from people or have them
visit if in the area; our contact info is given below. Happy holidays!
Brian and Eileen Keelan
580 Burnside Bend
Boulder Creek, CA 95006
Interested in increasing our
mammal list, and curious about the bats flying around our house in the evening
(and, apparently, making occasional use of our upstairs bathroom), we decided
to enroll in a class offered by San
at their Sierra Nevada Field Campus. If we wanted to handle bats, we had to get
the rabies vaccine. We made arrangements to do that, but were told by the
doctor that there was a shortage of the vaccine and it was only being given to
people who had already been exposed. However, while he was explaining, his
nurse, in another room, was mixing the vaccine. Since they couldn't let it go
to waste, we were allowed to complete the series of three shots.
We started this adventure the
Friday before, spending the morning packing the camper and getting the house
and my alleged garden ready to be ignored for nine days, and hoping they could
tell the difference. We even remembered to go on-line to put the mail on hold
instead of waiting to be reminded by driving past the mailbox about a half mile
down the road from our house and having to turn around and go home to do it,
like we did the last time. Thus we saved valuable minutes and were on our way
by 2 pm.
Around 6 pm we stopped in Placerville for a
pre-arranged dinner with two of my sisters and their families at the Buttercup
Pantry (Ranunculus Pantry for those who are botanists). We got to catch up on graduations
and school plans, Karate levels achieved, up-coming job opportunities, and
baby-shower dates. At the end of a very nice evening, Brian and I camped in El Dorado National Forest for the night.
We spent the weekend hiking and
botanizing at Carson
Pass. At these higher
elevations, there is still a lot in bloom, compared to areas closer to home.
A highlight of the day is
choosing the spot for lunch. Saturday, we had a view of Winnemucca Lake,
made dramatic by a darkening sky and warning rumbles of thunder . On Sunday, we
chose Frog Lake, which we had almost to ourselves.
We sat in the shade of a tree, with the nest-hole of a Mountain Chickadee in
the branch overhead. We watched the parents go in the nest and heard them
singing and calling from nearby.
From Carson Pass,
we drove to the Field Campus. I stayed in the truck with my book while Brian
went to check in, but he was back before I'd even read a page. The check-in
procedure consisted of the director, Jim, asking, "Are you here for the
bat class?" and Brian replying, "Yes."
We set up the camper and walked
to the dining hall. A few more class members arrived during dinner. The cook
asserted his dominance over us newcomers [and perhaps fended off future
complaints] by announcing, "Just remember, I have complete control over
what ends up in your food!"
The electricity went off during
dinner. Not much of a problem in the dining room with lots of windows. But
later on, in the windowless, basement bathroom, it was quite a challenge to
find the soap when I dropped it in the shower.
Brian was outside early the next
morning doing some pre-bat botanizing. The electricity was still out so some
folks drove into town to get coffee. We were all gathered in the dining room
when the power came back on. The chef came to the window between dining room
and kitchen and yelled, "There, now you can have your damned coffee!"
During breakfast, sandwich
fixings were put out and we made lunches, setting a routine that would continue
throughout the week:
Breakfast at 0930
Morning session of class downstairs
Afternoon session of class
A few hours free
Dinner around 6 pm
Drive to a bat locale and set up mist nets
Home after midnight
Day One Highlights:
Practiced keying out bats with specimens.
Instructor, Joe, demonstrated how to take a bat out of the net. Went outside
and practiced setting up and taking down the mist nets. After dinner, carpooled
to Carmen Meadows and set up nets. On our arrival, surprised a family of five
Drawbacks: Did not catch any
bats; we were skunked!
Day Two Highlights:
Class. Carpooled with Deb and
Jenny to Graeagle and set up nets along the creek. Nice night -- pleasant
temperature, full moon, no bugs. I held my first bat! [A silver-haired bat caught
in someone else's net.] On the way home, checked under bridges for bats. Good
looks at Big Brown Bats.
Drawbacks: My first bat bit me!
Day Three Highlights:
Class. Set up mist nets
[including triple-high ones] at Sulfur Creek Restoration Area, near Clio.
I assisted my first bat out of
the net [a Yuma Myotis]. It really helps to have a good understanding of bat
anatomy in order to untangle the bat from the strands of the net without
harming him. If you know how he is put together, you can carefully unfold the
wings, etc., to remove him from the web. In order to help you, the bat takes a
firm hold of your finger with his strong jaw and sharp teeth. This will anchor
him while your do the maneuvering.
Ran through the key with Colleen
and Brian. The little Yuma
remained calm and quiet. The fur is soft and silky and I could feel his heart
beating. Bats are smaller in the hand than they appear when they are flying
When we were ready to release
him, I put him on my shirt and he crawled up to my shoulder, around to the back
of my neck and flew off.
Brian removed a Silver-haired bat
from the net. We got to hold a Hoary Bat. [We saw our first Hoary Bat at Pt.
Heather retrieved a Big Brown Bat
from her net and after keying him out, gave him to me. He bit me by way of
greeting. When it was time to release him, I put him on the front of my fleece
jacket and he roosted there, head down, for about 40 minutes. At one point, he
raised his head to snap at a passing insect. Finally, after looking around for
a few minutes, he started crawling toward my shoulder where he opened his wings
and launched himself into the night.
Day Four Highlights
After morning class, we drove to
the Kentucky Mine in Sierra
City where we had a
picnic lunch and then visited the Stamp Mill Building to see Townsend's
Long-eared Bats, which roost inside. We saw 5 of these bats once in a cave at Pinnacles National Monument, but this time got
really good looks at them hanging from the ceiling, crawling on the walls, and
flying around inside the old building. We could hear their little chittering
calls. During the afternoon break, Brian and Deb keyed out plants while I read
and caught up in my journal.
After dinner, we drove across Yuba Pass
to Antelope Valley Wildlife Area, our best field location of the week. We set
up our net along a creek. It was a beautiful evening: a full moon and no biting
insects. Our net caught seven or eight bats including Little Brown Bat and several Big Browns.
I wrestled with a Big Brown caught
in our net, but even with the help of Brian and Stephanie I couldn't quite
convince him to turn loose. I let him chew on my finger for a good while to
keep him occupied while Stephanie and Heather got him out.
Throughout the evening we saw and
heard Common Nighthawks, and, in the distance, a couple of Poorwills.
Brian rescued a California Myotis
from misidentification in someone else's net. We saw a Pallid Bat, also
detectable by its distinctive and strong scent.
Day Five Highlights
Had our final class this morning.
After lunch we drove to a nearby campground where we got the very last site.
Took a nice late-afternoon/early evening hike of about 1.5 miles to a cascade
where we sat up on a smooth rock outcrop and enjoyed a picnic dinner. There were
lots of orange lilies in bloom and we saw our first Snowshoe Hare in California.
Saturday 19 July 2008
Hiked from the campground to Silver Lake
where we ate lunch. Brian took a quick dip in the lake and then hiked on to Round Lake.
I stayed at Silver
Lake and read until he
Sunday 20 July 2008
Hiked the Sierra Buttes Trail, a
scenic and steady climb through a rock garden of beautiful flowers. Stopped for
lunch at an overlook with a terrific view of the surrounding peaks and of
several lakes below us. At the top of the trail Brian climbed the steps to the
fire tower. Earlier, we had spoken with some hikers on their way down who
claimed there were 300 feet of stairs, but when we got to them, Brian estimated
it at closer to 90 feet. While we were standing there figuring, three girls
came down from the tower and, when she hopped off the bottom step, one of them
We found two special alpine
species, Sky Pilot and Sierra Primrose. There were only one or two blooms left
on the Primrose but the toothed rosettes of foliage are also beautiful.
We had determined that in order
to arrive home at a decent hour (Monday would be a work day), we had to be back
at the truck no later than one p.m. and so we left the tower promptly at 1:30
p.m. and headed back down the trail. Arrived home around nine p.m.
Bat Week proved to be quite a
unique experience. We learned an enormous amount about these fascinating
animals and so enjoyed our time with them that we have begun to consider
investing in ultrasonic equipment to definitively identify them. Then, if a bat
shows up in the bathroom (bat-room?) again, we’ll be able to tell who it is!