Falling Anchovies, Dancing Butterflies

On the wonders of exploring nature in San Francisco.

Did you hear that anchovies are falling from the sky? Someone standing at a bus stop in San Francisco’s Castro district was hit in the head by an anchovy recently. This summer’s upwelling of the Pacific Ocean is bringing abundant food for birds, which are feasting so much that they’re dropping fish from the sky as they fly over the city. I love that there are endless natural wonders in our urban environments.

With its hiking trails leading up to wind-swept peaks and 360-degree views of the California Bay Area, the grassy, 64-acre Twin Peaks Natural Area in San Francisco is a popular attraction. The pair of hills, 900 feet above sea level, are a remnant of the coastal shrubland ecosystem and home to the endangered mission blue butterfly, which relies solely on lupine plants. Photo by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid.

Born and raised in San Francisco, I was educated in public schools, including University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco State University, where I completed my master’s degree in marine science and began my teaching career. As a public high school teacher, I shared my love of nature with my students, extending their learning beyond the classroom to the wilds of San Francisco. Recently retired from full-time teaching, I’m now a member of the advisory council of Nature in the City (NTC), a San Francisco nonprofit supported by Earth Island Institute, and a frequent leader of free, public nature walks sponsored by NTC.

Nature in the City had been on my radar for a long time — since I discovered the first NTC map, created in 2005, highlighting trails, natural areas, and local species in San Francisco. This discovery coincided with my classroom teaching approach that focused on bioregions. The map dovetailed with projects outside the classroom and inspired me to engage my students in activities that I found relevant, like the Presidio’s habitat restoration program. I also met an NTC volunteer at the Green Hairstreak Corridor, one of NTC’s biodiversity stewardship projects, whom I invited to speak to my students. San Francisco is a small community, and these spontaneous tendrils of connection kept me enthusiastic about teaching, allowing me to teach from the heart, which in turn motivated my students in their learning.

A few years ago, however, I felt that my purpose was changing. I could see myself in younger teachers, yet I recognized that I no longer had the kind of energy required to continue classroom teaching. I had to listen to those feelings and concluded that I needed to use my talents and energy differently. So I asked myself, “What do I want to do now?”

photo of a smiling person“I love that I never know what I’ll see when I leave home to explore one of San Francisco’s beautiful natural spaces.” Photo of Emil Fogarino by Art Bodner.

Ironically, just as I was exploring new ventures to satisfy my interest in natural history, some organizations that were on my radar shut down their volunteer activities in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Fortunately, NTC began offering nature walks for small groups again early in the pandemic. As soon as I left my position at George Washington High School in June 2020, I began developing local nature walks with other NTC staff and volunteers.

Each walk I lead is an exchange of energy and knowledge with others. I’m not just a guide. I get to be a student and a teacher as I scout out new locations, study their natural history, and develop new partnerships. Each walk has a different vocabulary or storyline and features some aspect of nature in the city, creating awareness of the native plants, animals, and habitats in San Francisco. We explore wetlands being restored to health from Heron’s Head on the SF Bay shoreline to Crissy Field in the Presidio. In Glen Canyon and Twin Peaks, we can traverse 125-million-year-old layers of radiolarian chert uplifted from the ancient seafloor.

The take-home messages from my walks are universal: I want to encourage people to care about the habitats around them and to leave spaces for nature in our urban environment. At NTC, we also want to expand the number of our walks and restoration sites and engage new partners and participants to ensure our offerings genuinely represent the vast human and habitat diversity of San Francisco.

I love that I never know what I’ll see when I leave home to explore one of San Francisco’s beautiful natural spaces. On a recent unusually hot June day in Glen Canyon, I came upon a beautiful Western Tiger Swallowtail butterfly perched in the shade near Islais Creek, one of the few areas where this creek runs above ground — or is “daylighted” — within the city limits. The butterfly just sat there, posing for me and letting me photograph and look at it closely. I said, “Thank you,” and the butterfly flew away, dancing from one elderberry and willow to another as I watched. That just made my day.

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