Saving One Small Piece of the Planet

Every now and then you can go home again… at least, home to a better planet. Here’s another story (OK, we admit to too many stories about the ducks…) from Mountain Lake in San Francisco’s Presidio National Park.

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Mysterious whirlpool

Recently a few Mountain Lake Park regulars began to notice a strange and mysterious phenomenon: whirlpools in the lake! Mineral springs? Fresh water from the bowels of the earth bubbling up into this water-starved state? A submerged hot tub? As the King of Siam would have said, “It’s a puzzlement.”

Enter Jason Lisenby, Biological Science Technician with the Presidio Trust and a particular friend of Mountain Lake Park. It was Lisenby who intervened when this writer wanted to mount a campaign to find a mate for lonely Musco the Duck. “Wait, wait,” he said. “You will wind up with a lake full of – non-native – Muscovy ducks and nothing else.” Musco apparently got bored with being behind the giant dark fence while the non-native fish were being removed anyway, and has relocated to other waters. Where we hope he has found a family more appropriate if less devoted than the human admirers he had at Mountain Lake.

The whirls and bubbles, Lisenby explains, “are from a newly installed aeration and water-mixing system” recently turned on. “We are using a compressor to pump air through hoses to twelve locations around the bottom of the lake. The added oxygen and movement will help keep algae blooms at bay while we get the lake’s aquatic plant communities restarted.

whirlpools
More whirlpools, and a spot that’s lovely even on a foggy day

“Limiting algae will keep the water more clear, and clear water is good for our newly reestablishing aquatic plants. In the long run, the aquatic plants will do the work the aeration system is currently doing, but this is a solution until then.”

Who knew? Biological science knew. Already the lake is so clear it’s possible to see eight feet down (don’t try this yourself; the lake is not for swimming and diving), and this is a body of water so polluted by highway runoff, abandoned pets and assorted human detritus that only a few years ago you couldn’t see your hand six inches below the surface. You wouldn’t have wanted to get too near the water anyway.

aquatic plants
Aquatic plants coming soon (or their relatives will be coming soon) to Mountain Lake

All this, a little good news amidst the abundant smoldering global bad news, right here in the Presidio National Park. Your tax dollars, and biological science, at work.

Halleluia.

When Fences Come Down

Fence.Mtn Lake

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost, and I think he was onto a larger truth. Of course, Frost – in his “Mending Wall” – was talking about rocks and neighbors, and the poem leaves us with ambivalence about the goodness of fences.

Fences and walls may, at times, make good neighbors – but the big ones tend to be symbols of enmity (think Berlin, Israel, Arizona…) and we just want them down.

A few months ago a high, dark fence went up around lovely Mountain Lake, in the San Francisco park that is one of my favorite spots on the planet. It’s a city park, but the lake (fortunately for us all) is part of the Presidio National Park and has been undergoing an extraordinary restoration for the past few years. It may not yet be back to the purity that made its water just fine for Spanish settlers (and probably the Ohlone and Coast Miwok indigenous people before them) to drink, but years of accumulated glunk, trash and sludge have been hauled away and the lake’s return to life has been a rare joy to watch.

The problem? Although the waters began to clear and native greenery emerged, a proliferation of non-native fish were quashing any hope of bringing back the fish who once belonged. We’re not talking just a couple of ordinary intruders. It was possible to stand on the beach near the murky water’s edge and watch goldfish the size of ahi tuna swimming casually back and forth. With native fish and turtles long displaced by casually dumped household pets, the lake was overrun with carp, bullfrogs – somebody reported a sturgeon – and who knows what else. This writer remembers the brief residence of an alligator, who famously evaded a gator hunter imported from Florida but was eventually removed to the local zoo.

Presidio Trust personnel tried snagging, netting and every known removal method before conceding that the only solution would be to poison the lake. They chose plant-based Rotenone, which kills everything with gills (and happily not much without) and disappears within three days. Thus the fence went up – presumably it was still not a good idea for gill-free people to be wandering near the water. Almost the moment the solution was poured into the four-acre lake, the alien fish died. They were scooped up by the thousands to be studied by ecologists (who reluctantly went along with the project) to determine their origin and soon composted as a final act of goodness. But the fence, for assorted reasons, did not come down.

Sign.Mtn Lake

And over the long weeks that followed it was as if the park itself was inhabited by an alien being. Children still played on the adjacent swings and slides, dog walkers still tossed tennis balls, this writer still exercised on the bars of the fitness trail – but the now-sparkling lake was hidden behind its foreboding shield. Even when the gulls could be heard returning beyond the black screen, and actually seen if you peered through the mesh, the park felt bifurcated and somehow forlorn. Thanksgiving came and went, Christmas was less merry, the New Year not yet happy.

A few days ago, the fence came down. Mountain Lake, the shimmering heart of Mountain Lake Park reappeared, putting on a show of new life. A few familiar ducks may never have left; now they have been joined by coots and grebes and a spiffy ruddy duck who is apparently courting two slightly less flashy lady ruddy ducks. Western pond turtles, chorus frogs and native fish will begin to return in the spring.

Lake.Mtn Lake

The metaphors are abundant: fences come down, sunlight spreads from reflected waters, varied creatures happily coexist, romance blooms.

 

Where is Robert Frost when we need him?

 

 

 

 

When a duck needs a duckmate

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Musco the duck is in existential pain.

I know this from the way he rolls his beady eye away from me, not that long after he has ambled over for a visit, briefly offering a ruffle of his topnotch feathers. Musco faithfully ambles over, despite the fact that I have repeatedly explained to him people food is not good for waterfowl, and we do not feed the ducks at Mountain Lake. Nevertheless, if he’s in the area when I come sit on the rocks, Musco ambles over, and we commune blissfully with nature, in a sort of duck-to-human relaxation therapy session.

But duck does not live by bread alone. Duck should not, in fact and in the natural state of things, live alone. And Musco is all alone. I am on a one-woman campaign to find him a Muscovy mate.

Just to clear things up: Musco may not be his proper name. He may even be a she, what do I know? All I know is this: among the coots and Mallards and miscellaneous waterfowl that have returned to Mountain Lake since the Presidio Trust (thank you, taxpayers!) undertook the monumental job of rescuing it from centuries of neglect and abuse, there is only one Muscovy duck. A lovely, friendly, peace-loving duck, but all alone.

Could we please find him (or her, as the case may be) a mate?

I first met Musco a few months ago on one of my regular visits to Mountain Lake Park, a lakeside San Francisco park with a Parcourse fitness trail which functions as my personal outdoor gymnasium. Wondering who this strange new creature might be, I posted his photo on my Facebook page with a comment that I had spotted a turducky on the lake.

Not so, immediately replied my far-flung Facebook friend (that’s another story) in Sarawak, Borneo. “It’s a Muscovy. In Sarawak we call it a Serati.” Turns out, a lot of people call it an ugly duckling, and worse. Florida has more of them than they want in some spots, elsewhere cross-breeding has created strange water-fellows.

Musco, however, seems quite beautiful to me, and here he is all alone. He swims on the periphery of the coots, ducks and assorted seabirds. He is, happily, not the least interested in the pigeons on the beach. What’s to be done?

An eminent visiting biologist friend pooh-poohed Musco’s singularity. Muscovy’s are all around California in ponds large and small, he said. If this is the case – and who’s going to dispute a distinguished Professor Emeritus? – then surely there is a mate for Musco. Surely some nearby pond owner would like to make such a match and surely the Presidio Trust wouldn’t mind?

The incredible, beautifully restored Mountain Lake might even be home to a family of little Muscovites.

I’m just sayin’.