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 visited Vermont 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 and content.


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 botanizing.


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 highlight.


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 sighting.


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

831-331-1507 (cell)

831-338-7270 (home)


Bat Week


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 Francisco University 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:


(1)   Breakfast at 0930

(2)   Prepare lunches

(3)   Morning session of class downstairs

(4)   Lunch break

(5)   Afternoon session of class

(6)   A few hours free

(7)   Dinner around 6 pm

(8)   Drive to a bat locale and set up mist nets

(9)   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 Skunks.


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 around.


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. Pelee.]


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 returned.


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 announced "169!"


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!