Tick Talk

•April 12, 2012 • 1 Comment

Spring is here! The kids are energetic, the birds are singing, and the ticks are coming out to play. We’ve found a few ticks in our programs, so I figured I’d write up a some useful info about the little buggers.

Ticks can be intimidating denizens of the woods. Knowing the danger, but not knowing how to protect against it, can keep some people indoors out of fear. If we stay indoors we’ll stay afraid. If we come outside, learn to observe and understand ticks, we may come up with our own answer to the question of how to live in balance along side parts of nature with which we’re currently at odds.

What is a tick?

Ticks are arachnids, like spiders. In California, we have nine species of ticks. Only one of those species can carry Lyme disease.

Ixodes pacificus, the Western Black Legged Tick, sometimes called a deer tick, is the only local species that can carry Lyme. It’s a three-host tick, meaning that it feeds and molts three times in it’s life cycle. Newly-hatched larval ticks only have six legs, are tiny, and probably won’t give you any diseases if they bite because they’ve never bitten anyone before you. After the larvae feed, they shed their skin (molt) and become 8-legged nymphs. Nymphs are about the size of a poppy seed, and may carry Lyme if their first host had the disease. They’re considered the most at-risk for transmitting Lyme, because they’re so tiny they often go unnoticed. After nymphs feed they molt again, becoming adults. The adults feed again, mate, and start the cycle over again.

What is Lyme disease and how common is it?

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection first documented in 1975 in Lyme, Connecticut, and is caused by a spirochaete bacterium (illustrated below). The infection is far older, though, with Otzi, the Austrian iceman being it’s oldest documented case, having lived 5,300 years ago in Europe. Lyme is now thought to be native to most continents.

Some studies have found that only 2% of California’s ticks are infected with Lyme, while others found percentages up to 15%. The CDC does classify the Bay Area as a hot spot for Lyme infections. Common early signs of Lyme seem to be a flu-like illness within a couple of weeks of getting a tick bite, and then chronic fatigue and lethargy. The famous “bull’s eye” rash only happens in 50% of cases. Lyme is easily curable with antibiotics if caught soon after infection. Other alternative therapies also exist.

Western Fence Lizards, or Bluebellies, Sceloporus occidentalis, can cleanse ticks of Lyme. A tick that bites a Fence Lizard can then no longer carry Lyme. Build lizard habitat in your yard!

Where can I find a tick?

Though more ticks hatch when the weather warms up in spring, you can find examples of all life stages active in the woods and grasslands at most times of year. Anywhere deer or other smaller animals regularly roam and make their beds, you’ll find ticks. I once knelt in a deer’s day bed, and when I stood up I found 20 nymphal ticks crawling up my pant leg. Icky I know, but I was able to notice them because I knew to check for ticks after being near deer sign, and I was able to find and remove all of them.

Ticks cannot jump, but find hosts by smell and vibration, either crawling slowly toward the host over the ground or waiting with their front legs outstretched (a behavior called “questing”) on branches and grass for the host to brush past. If you find a questing tick, brush your hand past it and see how easily (or clumsily) it can latch on — it’s OK, it won’t bite immediately. Just don’t let it crawl up your sleeve.

How can I keep ticks from biting me?

Some folks try to avoid ticks in the first place and simply don’t go into the woods. But with ticks present in every county in California, even the urban areas, there are always ways for ticks to find us, whether on a friends clothing, from the deer that pass by the neighborhood park, from the family dog, or from the birds at the bird feeder. The best thing to do, in my opinion, is to carefully check for ticks every day.

Once they find a potential host, ticks are picky about where they’ll settle down. They can often crawl around for hours in clothing looking for the perfect place. So, the first thing to do after coming in from the woods is strip off all your woods clothes and put them in a plastic bag. You can launder them right then, ridding them of ticks, or you can keep them for further woods-use. Just remember that they might have ticks in them, so seal the bag when you’re not using the clothes, and check your body for ticks after you take the clothes off again.

The next step in tick prevention is to check your body. Ticks generally chose a dark, moist area to bite, and underwear bands are a favorite spot. Crotch, underarms, behind the ears, and in the hairline are other areas to check well. Then take a shower. Soap and water will wash off any larval or nymphal ticks that might still be crawling around.

What if I have a tick biting me?

If you find an embedded tick, use fine-tipped or specialized tick tweezers to pull it out. Place the tweezers as close to the snout of the tick as possible. Pull the tick straight out with constant, gentle, firm pressure. Don’t jerk, twist, burn, squeeze, or paint it with vaseline or nail polish. If the tick is a Black-Legged, save it in a glass jar and watch yourself for symptoms for a couple of weeks.

As an additional measure, you can make your own tick repellent oil. Here’s a recipe we’ve used in our programs (makes about 10 oz. of repellent.)

8 oz. sweet almond oil

2-4 oz. pure aloe vera gel

5 mL citronella essential oil

5-10 mL rose geranium essential oil

5-10 mL lemon eucalyptus essential oil

Combine and shake well.


Ticks and Lyme disease are both native creatures to all the lands where we live. If we want to be part of nature, we must learn how to live alongside it’s hazards. Without any of our modern medicine and technology, our ancestors learned to live with ticks for thousands of years. What methods did our ancestors know that helped them to live in balance with ticks?

Additional information:

Common Ticks of San Mateo County

What purpose do ticks serve in the ecosystem?

California Lyme Disease Association

Lyme Disease in California — UC IPM

Kaiser Permanente Lyme Disease Information — A Critique

Alternative Therapies for Lyme Disease

A Wren Finds Love, and the VA Gets Birdhouses

•March 25, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I have a sit spot in my backyard. In the two years I’ve lived there, I’ve gotten to know the squirrels, towhees, and wrens as individuals. So I was really excited when, one day, I saw the local bachelor Bewick’s Wren we call Kitty (because one of the songs he sings at dawn sounds like, “here kitty kitty kitty”) collecting nesting material. Then the next day, I saw him flirting with another wren! Since then, wherever Kitty goes in the yard, the slightly smaller, new wren is close behind. Spring is in the air!

After seeing Kitty, as well as the local towhees, titmice, bushtits, and mockingbirds all collecting nesting materials, we decided to bring some birdhouses to the Veteran’s Affairs Hospital in Menlo Park for our Nature Awareness program there. But birdhouses are pretty complicated things to make, and we didn’t have a lot of spare lumber or lots of time. What to do? We got a hold of some gourds, nature’s prefab canary condos. (Actually, canaries aren’t cavity nesters. Take a look at the list below to get to know some of the Bay Area birds that like indoor spaces.)

Gourds are fruits related to pumpkins and squash. Remeber carving jack-0-lanterns in the fall? Gourds are like that, but dry and woody. Above is a cut-open view of a gourd so you can see what’s going on inside these things. But don’t cut yours open yet!

All you’ve really got to do is drill a hole in the side of the gourd and clean out some of the seeds & stuff inside to make room for the birds. Poking a spoon or chopstick through the hole and scraping around the inside of the gourd, then shaking our the loose stuff works well enough to clean them out.

But the size of the front door matters. Birds need to be able to fit through the hole, but too big a hole will leave the residents open to predators. Starlings, House Sparrows, and other invasive species may also try and crowd out less-vigorous birds if given the right size nest hole. Here’s a list of some Bay Area cavity nesters and the hole sizes they prefer. Also, note that not all birds want to live in holes! Robins, Towhees, Sparrows, Phoebes, and many others like to have a view, so you won’t attract them with an enclosed birdhouse.

Wrens: 1 inch

Chickadees, Nuthatches, Wrens: 1 1/8 inches

Downy Woodpeckers, Oak Titmice, Nuthatches, Wrens: 1 1/4 inches

Nuthatches, Wrens: 1 3/8 inches

Violet-Green Swallows, Tree Swallows, Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Wrens: 1 1/2 inches

Western Bluebirds: 1 1/2 to 1 9/16 inches

Northern Flickers: 2 1/2 inches

European Starlings: 1 5/8 to 4 inches

House Sparrows: 1 3/16 to 2 inches

Sources: Bluebird Box, Amish Gourds, Wild Bird Watching, 99 Birdhouses, Building Bird Houses.

It’s also a good idea to drill some small drainage holes in the bottom of the gourd. Then you’ll have to figure out how to hang the gourd up. Some gourds have a hook-shaped stem, or a bulb at the top that you can tie a string to. We used round gourds, so we put in some screw-in eyelets in the tops. Finally we had 8 good birdhouses, of about the right size for Bewick’s Wrens, Chickadees, or other itty-bitty birds.

We brought the birdhouses to the VA along with a rainbow of paint, some bird posters, and iBird ready to play bird calls. We spend the hour decorating, telling stories about birds, and listening to songs and calls.

Your final step is to invite in the local house-hunters. Finding a place to hang the gourd can be challenging. The spot needs to be away from disturbances, but it’d be nice to be able to see and admire your feathered guests. And it should be high up. All the smaller birds on the list above prefer heights between 6 and 10 feet, to a maximum of 15 feet. Woodpeckers can go up to 20 feet. We have yet to hang up our gourds at the VA yet, as we’re waiting for favorable weather to go out with the veterans. But the veterans are all looking forward to watching the birds explore their new digs.

I hung one up in my yard, along one of Kitty’s common flight paths. I haven’t seen him enter it yet, but the girl wren is still around, and I hear Kitty’s “here kitty kitty kitty,” every morning. Whether he likes the gourd or not, perhaps one day this spring I’ll get to hear lots of little Kittys learning their father’s signature song.

Photos by: Mary Lee Hahn, John Loo, eren {sea+prairie}, Megan Hines, Scutter, DonkerDink, Rainy City

Family Day

•March 17, 2012 • Leave a Comment

This week we celebrated Family Day at our programs. For most of our programs during the year, mom and dad drop their kids off with us, and then come back at the end of the day to hear their child’s story of the day and head home for some rest. But for Family Day, moms, dad, sisters, brothers, cousins and grandparents got to come along and experience a Riekes Nature Awareness day too.

Riekes runs programs 5 days a week, all in different locations, with different instructors and different participants. Each Family Day was unique, but all had some similarities. We all played games that awaken our bodies and connect us to our senses. “One [of my favorite things] was the blindfold walk, where I had to put all my trust in [my daughter] and my ears,” said one mom.

With our senses awakened and our bodies enlivened, we got down to some hard work making fire by friction so our little village could gather around a central fire. We made our spaces beautiful by tidying them up, and worked hard gathering tinder, kindling, and spinning up a coal. Some people got to work on a hand drill or bow drill set for the first time!

All of our Family Days included lots of singing and music. To paraphrase Evan McGown, co-author of Coyote’s Guide, “Mentoring connects people to nature. Music connects people to people.” And what’s another time-proven method of connecting to people? Potlucks!

After a potluck lunch we had some time to craft, tell stories, or just chill out. On rainy days, we took the opportunity to gather around the fire and work on crafts. Some people learned how to cook dough on an open fire, some learned how to tie new knots or make string form dogbane sticks. Some people had fun with a freestyling rhyming circle, and others had a blast playing in the mud and the fast-flowing creeks. On sunny days we ran through the grass, and accepted nature’s invitation to get in touch, full-body, with the earth.

Family Day is over for this year, but there are still lots of ways to come join the Riekes Nature Awareness community as a family. Families can come join us during the Nest-T0-Fledge, NEWT and Kestrel campouts, and 0ur Weekend Workshops are always family events.

Nature Through the Eyes of a Huddart Kestrel Kid

•March 4, 2012 • 1 Comment

One of the Friday Huddart Kestrels has been super passionate about making videos lately. She put this video together of one of our recent Fridays. Stay tuned for more videos by Vero in the future!


•January 26, 2012 • Leave a Comment

“There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud.” — Carl Sandburg

After the rain, the mud! While hiking at Huddart, we found a spot just saturated with thick, slick muck. Even though we had some other goals in mind that day, we could not leave the mud alone.

What started with mud skating and racing, escalated to an all-out clay-lobbing mud fight, and finished with otter slides,  wrestling, and finally lounging in the ooze.

Robin and Hesham caked on the clay to make mud helmets and head butted each other.

When we got back to the van, we hugged it! High fives and body prints livened up the formerly pristine white of the van.

Then we piled in to the van and drove out of Huddart to bring our wearable nature in to the city. We agreed to stop in some public spaces to see how regular urbanites react to our plastered faces.

In the grocery store, people stared, showing shock and amusement at the juxtaposition of the polished, bright, immaculate surroundings with our soiled grunginess.

The In-N-Out guys laughed the whole time they took our orders.

Back at the center we built up a fire.

And dried out our caked clothing.

We were so caked with grunge, some of us could not get in the car to go home untill getting hosed off.

The fire felt really nice after a day of sogginess and a soaked finale.

A Game of Agility and Awareness: Sharp Chickadee

•January 18, 2012 • Leave a Comment

  How is it to be a wild bird? With temperatures below freezing at night, I always wonder about the wild animals who live around us. Birds have no heaters, no blankets, no hot food, no indoors. They live only by the food energy they are able to gather during the day, and the heat they’re able to store in their feathers at night. What is it like to experience such pressure to find food, while constantly looking out for predators? Predators birds, too, must hunt for same food energy so that they can survive the night.

In the Riekes Nature department, we like to ask those questions in many ways. Study, direct observation, and imagination all inform our understanding of the natural world. But one of our best tools for animal empathy is play. The name of this game is Sharp Chickadee, brought to the West Coast Bird Language Intensive by Dan Gardoqui of White Pine Programs.

Here’s how to play: The game works best with large groups, perhaps 15 or more. Most players are Chickadees. Scattered on the land (within the agreed-upon boundaries of play) are Larders, consisting of napkins or plates of treats, some higher value than others. Some good examples of treats might be nuts, potato chips, or peanut butter cups. Every Chickadee’s goal is to eat as many treats as possible.

A few of the players are Sharp-Shinned Hawks. Hawks try to tag Chickadees.

In real life, chickadees are safe from hawks in dense cover. For gameplay, any tree is a safe base. But Chickadees can only stay in cover (touching a tree) for 10 seconds, before their quick little metabolisms drive them out to find more food. Chickadees love trees!

Chickadees have wings, not hands, so they must eat from the Larders like birds, face-first. Just like real-life birds, players can’t watch their backs when they’re chowing down!

When Chickadees get tagged they “die,” which means they must sit down and stay in one place. Every time a Hawk tags a Chickadee they get to eat from a Larder. Now, Chickadees are family birds and in real life, flocks stick together and help eachother. In game, Chickadees can revive their fallen friends if three living Chickadees all touch the dead one at the same time.

Try out this game at your next birthday party or park day, and find out what it’s like to live like a wild bird. Good luck avoiding the Hawks!

Hot Lava!

•January 11, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The Summit and Everest Intersession has begun and Riekes Center is full of excited new people eager to try the many flavors of athletics, arts, and nature connection available here. The Nature Awareness department has our own Summit/Everest program too. This month, we’re training for a two-week wilderness backpacking trip in May.

How do you train for a wilderness trip? Studying the terrain and memorizing maps? Carrying 50 pounds of weights in a backpack over miles of hiking trails? Well, probably. But we’re going for something more fundamental, and a lot more fun, first. Today we worked on getting our woods legs. Getting your woods legs is sort of like getting your sea legs, but for the wilderness. It takes practice, and for most folk used to walking on flat, even pavement, it can be challenging! Luckily, the training is really fun.

Remember playing Hot Lava in the playground when you were 7 years old? We did that, but through the park. We set down our stuff and challenged ourselves to get as far away from it as possible in any direction, without setting foot on the ground. We started out balancing on a fence.

You can probably tell how challenging the fence balancing was (not at all). So we quickly moved up to clamber over logs and branches.

Even though we were only feet (or inches) above the ground, the stakes were high! We all fell into the hot lava at least twice.

Whether we pushed the edges of our experience by simply balancing over a log, or by full-body leaps into trees, we all found our woods legs by the end.


Fire from the Land

•January 4, 2012 • Leave a Comment

On New Years Eve, a group of women and girls hiked out, seeking fire from the land. We started the day, as always, with a thanksgiving circle. We gave thanks to the land and stated our intention to gather Mulefat. In our gathering, we intended to give back to the plant by cutting out the dead branches and opening the way for new growth.

By the end of the day, everyone had gathered enough dead, well-seasoned mulefat wood to make multiple fire kits. We had cut back many more dead and rotten branches, and looking at the shrubs I got the feeling of relief, of breathing easier. The wind could now play freely through the green, supple branches.

Besides materials to keep our central fires burning bright, the greater gift to us  that day was getting to connect with the land itself. On our way, we sighted a golden eagle leaping from the crown of an ancient valley oak, a reminder of the power of wild places like this one. We also sighted countless ground squirrels, turkeys, acorn woodpeckers, lizards, and of course spectacular scenery.

This particular place is land where coyotes serenade the dawn, golden eagles scan for prey from high rocky crags, and mountain lions pace the drainages at dusk.

Huge sycamores cradle blue boulders in their roots, standing against the winter rush of the creek. Ancient oaks drop acorns that sustained Indian villages just a hundred years ago and on back into ancient history.

Uniquely useful and edible plants, thriving in relationship with Indian people for millennia and now languishing in disuse and decline, hang on in pockets here. This is truly a special, magical place. And the rest of the Bay Area can be this magical, too.

The native California landscape requires tending. And tending a landscape requires a community. By holding fire from the land as a communal value, by going out to the land and gathering and tending in support of that value, we’ve taken a small step, as a community, toward restoring our relationship with the land. Thank you Riekes Nature women!

For anyone who’s interested in learning more about tending the wild and restoring Mulefat and other natives to your backyard or open space, here are some resources:

Tending the Wild, by M. Kat Anderson.

How to Grow Mulefat, a creek restoration guide from the San Diego Sierra Club

Directory of Native Plant Nurseries in California

Urban Creeks Council, an organization dedicated to restoring an managing creeks in the San Francisco Bay region

Bug Tracking

•December 28, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The Riekes Nature Department is on winter break, so I think this is a good time to post about fun Riekes Nature events that never made it onto the blog.

In the fall, Noah Charney came out to Hidden Villa to guide us in a bug tracking expedition. Noah and his associate Charley Eisman have written the book pictured at left. It’s titled, “Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates,” and is an in-depth work on finding and identifying invertebrates by the signs they leave behind.

Why track bugs, you might ask. If you’re not a nature geek and don’t understand why looking for bug sign might foster deeper awareness and understanding of the myriad forms of life all around us, then here’s another reason: We got to notice and wonder about all the strange little things that our adult schedules usually force out of our awareness. We got to be curious kids again!

We gathered in Hidden Villa’s parking lot and didn’t have to go far for our bug hunt. We started by upending some furniture — namely, the picnic table that we’d all gathered around. It reminded me of constructing furniture forts as a kid, but with bigger toys. We explored the underside of the table and found at least 5 different signs of invertebrates.

My favorite (not pictured, none of the photos came out well) was a coccoon about 1/2 inch long, made of short yellowish hairs and lined with silk, with a neat circle cut out of one end. The hairs, it turned out, were the caterpillar’s own, shed to provide itself protection as it pupated into a moth. We were able to mentally match the cocoon with caterpillars that we’d seen crawling around, by remembering the color and length of the hairs on the living caterpillars.

Next we noticed the old, weathered logs that lined the parking lot. All the logs sported beautiful carved patterns, called galleries, made by both adults and larvae of particular bark beetle species. Noah showed us how to tell which species made the gallery by the pattern it carved out.

We wandered down to the creek in search of more moisture-loving invertebrates. Here we are investigating some green lacewing eggs, stuck to the bay tree’s leaves by long stalks. The eggs were so small that we could only see their details through a hand lens.

And, of course, the classic bug-hunting strategy of turning over rocks also yielded some interesting finds. Here a caddisfly is anchored alongside a clump of snail eggs.

These little constructions seemed to grow all over the buildings at Hidden Villa. Noah pointed out at least three seperate kinds of mud nests, made by three different species of wasp. The buildings with their many corners and crevices also yielded lots of kinds of web-weaving spiders, all identifiable by their webs, some crickets, coccoons of various sorts, and I’m sure many other signs of invertebrates that I’ve forgotten about. In fact, it seemed easier to find invertebrate signs on our constructed landscape rather than in a more “natural” setting.

One of our final but most interesting stops was this bin that held a couple of inches of water. The silt at the bottom had coalesced into long, narrow tracks that wound labyrinth-like around the bottom of the bin. As we watched, a translucent worm poked it’s head out of the end of one line of silt, grabbed another grain of silt, and placed it on the end of it’s own line, building up it’s protective silt tunnel just a little bit more.

I’d seen these patterns in the bottoms of rain buckets and other vessels left out in the wet. But I’d never even wondered at the pattern. Regarding the bin, Noah left us with one statement that will forever influence how I see and understand the world: Whenever you see any pattern on Earth, it’s most likely the work of a living thing.

A Wild Solstice Feast

•December 21, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The sun’s arc is low to the south, the day is at it’s shortest and the night is the longest of the year. Happy Solstice! Many holidays fall during this time, and our lights push back the dark while food, friends and family buoy our spirits. We’re taking a break from our homeschool programs for the winter holidays, but last week we ended the fall session with a feast and celebration.

The youngest group, Nest to Fledge, cooked up a stone soup with different ingredients from each participant. The Teens crafted chocolate-like confections from our native Bay Laurel nut and cocoa. And the Kestrels had an all-wild feast cooked up over coals in Huddart Park. Later, the NEWTS joined us and added their playful energy to our celebration by leading a tour of the mushrooms of Huddart Park.

What follows is the Kestrel’s wild food feast menu. If you made food on Friday, please add your comment about what you made, what recipe you used, and how it turned out!

We had three drinks to choose from. Yerba Buena, our local wild mint, made a delicious hot tea. We also had pine needle tea, lemony and slightly bitter. Both were sweetened with honey. Our most surprising addition was Manzanita soda, made by adding bubbles to manzanita cider that had been sweetened slightly with maple syrup. So delicious!

Yerba Buena photo by Cactusbones

Monterey Pine photo by jkirkhart35

Manzanita photo by Randomtruth

And we had such a bounty of food. Our staple was acorn that we all pounded and set to leach in a creek for a week. We mixed the meal with water, salt and honey and poured it into a hot oiled skillet, and cooked up delicious acorn cakes. We also mixed in some wheat flour (about 1/4c wheat to 1c acorn) and made cakes that way, to compare. The acorn alone was the best mix, I thought. It cooked up into a deep brown, firm, slightly jellylike cake that was delicious with our jams.

Acorn photos by tallasiandude

Some other participants gathered rosehips and toyon berries and arrived that morning with two beautiful jams. The rosehip jam was a vibrant red and tasted fruity and sweet, somewhat like strawberries and apricots. The toyon was also fruity and very gelatinous, with a tannic pucker in the background of the flavor.

Rosehip photo by Iguanasan

Toyon photo by allisondan

Alongside the acorn and jam we had a ton of sauteed chanterelle mushrooms that had grown in one participant’s backyard. Yum! We had been tracking animals near our sit spots for weeks ahead of time, and we finally managed to trap some! We did not use real traps, but track plates that recorded the passage of the animal and did no harm. So as a stand-in for the wild squirrels that we trapped but did not catch, I brought some grass-fed beef to grill. Everyone got perhaps a quarter pound of meat.

Chanterelle photo by Colros

Squirrel track on a track plate baited with participants lunch.

Western Gray Squirrel photo by Just chaos

My contribution was a survival stew made of wild rabbit meat, dock greens, mallow greens, and wild onion greens. It turned out to taste strongly wild, but very nourishing. I quartered the rabbit carcass, browned the meat, added water, and simmered until I had a good stock. Then I added the young leaves of yellow dock (Rumex crispus), Mallow (Malva neglecta) and Wild Onion (Allium triquetrum) and simmered until the greens were cooked. I did not add any salt, nor did the soup need any.

Brush rabbit photo by terriem

Dock photo by The Weed One

Mallow photo by Matt Lavin

Wild Onion photo by Mat. Tauriello

Altogether we fed 13 people with almost all wild foods gathered by our own hands. The only non-wild ingredients were canola oil for the skillets, salt, honey, other sweeteners for the jams and teas, and some wheat flour. When we all had as much as we wanted, there was still a ton of food left! We invited the Teens and Nest to Fledge to share what we had made, and we got to taste their stone soup, and finish everything off with some bay nut candy.

I for one am especially excited to get the recipes for Manzanita Soda, Rosehip Jam, Toyon Berry Jam, and the Teens Bay Nut Candy. Please post in comments!