30 November 2007


Dear Friends and Family, 


I am starting to write this letter on my birthday, on a flight from Copenhagen to Newark, at the end of a business trip. Usually I have all our notebooks from the year at my disposal when I write this account, but this time I guess I’ll have to remember what we did without aid.


It’s been a very stimulating and enjoyable year for us, and we have settled in nicely to living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, in the Bay Area. We are both reveling in the wonderful weather, our lovely property, and the very interesting natural history of the region. Eileen continues to volunteer once per week at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, which specializes in plants of the Mediterranean climate regions of the world. Mediterranean climate is characterized by cool summers and ample rainfall during mild winters, and it is ideal for vineyards. This climate occurs in only five areas of the world, each in narrow coastal strips: the Mediterranean region; central California to northern Baja; Chile; southwestern Australia; and a small area west of Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. These areas have structurally similar plant life, and California and Chile even share a few native plant species such as a strawberry. Eileen works in the Australian section of the Arboretum, with an enthusiastic group known as the “Aussie Weeders.”


As usual, Eileen read a number of books this year, of which some of her favorites were: Two Roads to Sumter: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and the March to Civil War, by William and Bruce Catton; Nobody’s Horses: The Dramatic Rescue of the Wild Herd of White Sands, by Don Höglund; Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party, by George R. Stewart; and The Bear in the Attic by Patrick F. McManus.


My job is going very well. It took about five months for me to really settle in and feel that I understood how to have an impact in the company. But since March or so, I have been involved in a series of interesting projects and efforts in which I have been able to make unique and valuable contributions. These have involved a nice balance of using my existing expertise and learning new areas. I’m starting to have a fair amount of interaction with customers, as the marketing organization actively seeks involvement from research staff in technical discussions. I have particularly enjoyed the amount of time that I have been able to spend writing software using the Matlab programming language, and the fact that I have no responsibilities for other people, and a negligible amount of time spent on “overhead.” I finally got a viewing laboratory set up with a large liquid crystal display and good lighting, and it has been seeing quite a bit of use by me and others. I’ve gotten used to the commute, if not totally reconciled to the time it takes (50 minutes each way); it’s been a lot easier since getting a new car, a Toyota Prius, which is a hybrid that handles well on mountain roads. We also replaced Eileen’s badly rusted Subaru after almost 15 years of service; she got a Toyota Yaris in a pretty pale green color.


We’ve now seen 57 species of birds on our property, most recorded while eating dinner out on the deck, which we do virtually every evening we’re home from April to September. We do it when we can the rest of the year as well, but usually I am home too late to have any daylight left after finishing my run. Perhaps our most exciting bird to date was a peregrine falcon that came tearing over the deck and sounded like an artillery shell speeding past. Other nice species include Vaux’s swift and hermit warbler. A slate-colored junco, an eastern subspecies, recently showed up for his second winter. Raccoons and striped skunks frequent our feeder and water dish at night, and we’ve enjoyed listening to the bats that are present most warm evenings, using a ultrasonic bat detector that shifts the frequencies down so that they fall within the audible range. Our most exciting reptile to date was a 3-foot pacific rattlesnake on our front walk one afternoon when I got back from a run. We’ve not yet done a real plant inventory of the property, but a brief walk one day yielded about 40 native species, including two rare manzanitas and an unusual saprophytic species, gnome plant, that looks like a mostly buried tennis ball covered with small pink flowers. 


One area of major focus this year has been getting our house and property fixed up to our liking. We had a pretty long list of items to be addressed, based on the house inspections when we bought, and our own desires The major items finished this year by contractors were: adding a small deck to the front of the house; replacing the rotten lower deck in back; fencing in an area for a garden; replacing the windows on the main floor; adding extensive lighting to the house; and pouring some concrete for better drainage near the house and safer steps. The front deck was the most challenging project in terms of design and execution; our final solution was a narrow deck with an elastomeric (solid, waterproof) surface, which served three functions nicely: (1) provided a sitting surface nearly always in shade, as it is on the redwoods side of the house; (2) creating a roofed entryway underneath, which is out of the rain; and (3) breaking up the 3-story vertical front face of the house, which looked somewhat barn-like (especially with the house painted a typical barn red color).


Eileen did a lot of work painting and staining the new construction, and we both put in quite a few hours digging up the garden area, sifting the sandy soil free of rocks, and adding addenda to enrich what was essentially sterile fill. As soon as the winter rains start, Eileen will begin planting, and our last major planned project will be underway.


As planned, we did little distant traveling this year, to spend time exploring our more local area (within a 5-hour driving distance), and to accrue some vacation time. The one significant exception was a 13-day tour in the camper to northeastern California, to see this infrequently visited part of the country, and search for our last two remaining native conifer species of North America. As a reminder, after publication of the first volumes of the Flora of North America, we decided to try to track down all 98 native spruces, firs, cypresses, junipers, pines, yews, cedars, etc. occurring north of the Mexican border. After our southern California trip four years ago, which cleaned up a number of species of cypresses of very limited distribution, only the enigmatic Washoe pine and the localized Baker cypress were left. Searching the internet, including labels of specimens from herbaria, I had found several potential locations for each species, but none were sure bets; all were described imprecisely or ambiguously. Our search pattern was complicated by our desire to have the Baker cypress be our last species, as the taxonomic status of Washoe pine is in question; it may be better treated as a subspecies of ponderosa pine. But we ultimately prevailed, finding each species in 3 different places, including the type localities of both (from which the species were first described). Our little project took 14 years, and involved a lot of detective work, with visits to many remote locations that we would otherwise never have seen. It was quite a thrill to stand in our first Baker cypress grove, but we were sad to see the odyssey end. We have not yet started a replacement project, but are tempted to try to complete the list of 22 species of chipmunks in North America.


Some of our favorite “local” areas that we have visited repeatedly include Elkhorn Slough, an hour away, which makes a perfect full day paddle with sea otters, harbor seals, and many birds; Pinnacles National Monument, about 2 hours away, with interesting geology, bats, reintroduced condors, and nice hiking; Yosemite, 4 hours distant, and needing no description; the coast north of San Francisco Bay, about 4 hours away, with excellent birding at Pt. Reyes, Bodega Bay, and elsewhere; and Napa Co., 3 hours away, where Mike and Sally Parmeter kindly put us up and we can explore with Mike and fellow botanists the fascinating flora of serpentine area. Serpentine and other ultramafic rocks are low in calcium and high in magnesium and nickel, precluding growth of most plants; the species that do grow there successfully have often evolved to specialize in the habitat and do not grow elsewhere. 


We’ve also taken advantage of nearby Monterey Bay to get out on four pelagic trips this year, which have provided some of our most exciting sightings. An April trip yielded short-tailed albatross, my one life bird in North America this year; this species was nearly extinct a century ago and now numbers just a few thousand birds, breeding on just one island in Japan, and rarely visiting this side of the Pacific. Horned puffin was a treat on a May trip, and a September trip provided our mammal high point of the year, a pod of Baird’s beaked whales at point-blank range for several minutes. This medium-sized whale dives to the deep sea bottom to feed on large squid; a typical dive lasts about 50 minutes, and it only takes them 5 minutes to reoxygenate, so they spend very little time near the surface. This, combined with rarity, occurrence only in very deep waters, and their small blows, which are not visible very far away, makes them extremely difficult to see.


Other mammal highlights of the year (but not on pelagics) included 4 bobcat sightings, alpine chipmunk above timberline in the Sierras, Townsend’s big-eared bats at a cave roost, and Sonoma and redwood chipmunks, the three latter species being lifers for both of us. Miscellaneous bird highlights included Brown Booby in Monterey in January and 6 blue phase Ross’s geese among tens of thousands of white geese at Greylodge Wildlife Management Area over Thanksgiving; the latter was a highly desired life color phase for us, and the birds were extremely handsome.


A major focus during this year was starting to learn the flora of central California. We attended numerous trips organized by the chapters of the California Native Plant Society during the months of March, April, and May, the most spectacular time of year for flowering plants in the region. During this time we saw somewhat over 600 species of plants, although it will take a few years to practice the commoner ones and fill in some of the less common ones (there are about 1800 species in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, the destinations of most of our local trips). To help try to learn these species better, about a month ago we got a PDA (a calculator-sized computer), which I have been programming using a databasing language, Visual CE, to look up and record California plant species. It has been interesting work setting it up, and now we can look up past records, check species occurrence, and record new records in the field with just a few clicks. Eileen is working now on entering our backlog of California plant records since we moved here, but all 11,000 of our natural history records through 2005 have been converted and downloaded. 


We managed to see a good fraction of our relatives this year. On the way out to our northeastern California trip, we visited with Eileen’s sisters Susan and Liz and their entire clans in the Placerville area; it was great to see everyone again. While Eileen was in El Paso, I flew to Vermont to see my dad, his sister Agatha, and her family; then to Philadelphia to see my mom, my sister Cathy, and her husband Doug. From there I headed to El Paso, but was stranded in Fort Worth by American Airlines after 11 hours on a plane. Because of flooding, many travelers were stuck there too, so all motel rooms and rental cars had been taken days before. There were about 400 people who would be spending the night in the airport. On my second round of the rental car companies, the Hertz attendant again said that no, there were no cars available without a reservation. I jokingly asked whether there was any way to get a reservation, and she said I could always call the national number and see. As unlikely as this possibility seemed, I tried it, and less than 10 minutes later, at 1 a.m., I was on the road with an 11-hour drive to El Paso ahead of me. As it turns out, had I waited for a plane flight, I would have been there 3 more days. Reaching El Paso only one day late, Eileen and I were able to join John Parmeter and friends for a wonderful day of birding in Guadalupe Canyon, New Mexico, a classic locality with interesting plants and scenery as well. Among many highlights were our first violet-crowned hummingbirds in breeding territory (as opposed to visiting feeders during post-breeding dispersal).


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

831-331-1507 (cell)

831-338-7270 (home)