Sunday, December 9, 2018

Surfbirds at Point Pinos

Yesterday, Eric and I spent the day in Monterey with some friends, browsing used book stores, taking in the historic sites and, of course, exploring the tide pools and the rocky shoreline around Point Pinos.  The area affectionately known as The Great Tide Pool, made famous by the research, collections and publications of Edward Ricketts, is not only one of my favorite places to peer into tide pools, but also to bird, particularly with an eye for the birds of the rocky shore, like turnstones, oystercatchers and the appropriately-named Surfbird (Calidris virgata).

Surfbirds are stocky migratory sandpipers, closely related to other familiar shorebirds such as sanderlings, dunlin, and least and western sandpipers.  Surfbirds are relatively common along California's rocky shores during migration and winter, from late summer through late spring.  They are almost always found within the splash zone, just out of reach of the pounding waves and foaming sea spray.  Only during the breeding season do Surfbirds venture inland from their beloved wave-splashed habitat to nest in the rocky ridges and tundra of Alaska and the Yukon.

The winter range of the Surfbird, from which they are best known, is longer and narrower than that of any other North American breeding bird and extends along the rocky coastline from southern Alaska all the way to the Strait of Magellan in Chile.  While their range is over 10,000 miles long, it is only a few meters wide - just as wide as the intertidal and spash zones, where waves meet the rocky shore.

Surfbirds make their living by prying mussels, barnacles, limpets and other aquatic invertebrates from rocks, for which their thick, strong bills are specially adapted.  They are often seen hurrying over rocks in search of prey.

So, while the abundant life found within tide pools draws scores of curious human visitors, remember that these beautiful places are rich and critical habitats for an array of birdlife as well.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Pacific Dogwoods: One Last Dose of Fall Color Before Welcoming Winter

The rain is falling, the wind is blowing, and on a day like today, I am (for once) content to be indoors.  The storm is doing a number on the autumn leaves, which are fluttering wildly down from trees to lay in thick tapestries of color on the wet earth.  We've had several weeks of glorious color, trees ablaze in crimson and gold, and I have happily followed the progression of autumn from the golden quaking aspens of the high Sierra, through the magical scarlet dogwoods of mid-elevations, all the way down to the mellow-hued riparian willows and riotous colors of introduced ornamental trees which grace neighborhoods of the Central Valley.

But now, with Thanksgiving leftovers [hopefully] gone and sodden leaves blanketing the ground to become next year's mulch, it's time to turn our attention to the winter season and all it entails: sparkling snow in the Sierra, mysterious tule fog in the Valley, stalwart conifers and their intricately beautiful cones, resplendent red berries of Toyon, massive flocks of migratory birds and - of course - Christmas!

But first, let's send autumn out with a fond farewell, one last ode in praise of her splendor, personified in the Pacific Dogwood.

The queen of autumn in the Sierra, and the entire mountainous West, is undoubtedly Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides).  But if she is the queen, Pacific Dogwood (Cornus nutallii) is surely the princess, no less radiant, no less graceful.

Breath-taking in every season, this small tree graces the understory of mid-elevation forests throughout the Sierra Nevada, Klamath Mountains and North Coast Range.  Dogwoods of all varieties (for there are many) thrive in rich, moist but well drained soil and are often found growing near stream banks.

Though it can attain mature heights over 60 feet, the Pacific Dogwood is often found growing as a large, multi-stemmed shrub beneath the shady protection of conifers, including Ponderosa Pine, Incense Cedar, Douglas Fir and White Fir, among others.

While autumnal dogwoods light up the forests with their brilliant scarlet foliage, they also shine during spring (typically April and May) when their graceful branches are adorned with bright green new leaves and large, creamy blossoms.  There are few experiences more magical than walking through a grove of Pacific Dogwoods in full bloom!

The flower "petals" of the Pacific Dogwood are actually bracts (modified leaves).  The true flowers are inconspicuous and clustered at the button in the center of the showy bracts.  Each "flower" is between four and six inches in diameter, and later in the season gives way to showy red fruit which is relished by birds.

It has certainly been a glorious autumn.  Now, I have my eye on the weather updates, eagerly keeping tabs on snowfall in the Sierra in anticipation of our first snowshoe trek of the season!

Happy hiking!

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Black-billed Magpies East of the Sierra Crest

The light was fading, the temperature dropping, and the visitor center restrooms were closed at the very worst time restrooms could be closed.  We had been in the car for quite some time, and I had been counting on these restrooms.

My traveling companions were in no hurry to leave the breathtaking Mono Lake overlook and Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center (the official, lengthy title), despite its unfortunate and very definite status as "closed."  I, on the other hand, had been there before.  Restlessly I told myself I'd seen all the sights, read all the signs, etc. etc., and was impatient as only a women in dire need of a restroom can be.  My husband kindly scoured the map for an alternative stopping place, and eventually our group piled back into the car.  Shifting into drive, I hurriedly left the deserted parking area, bound for relief elsewhere.

It was at that moment, leaving the visitor center parking lot on an otherwise empty road through Great Basin sagebrush scrub, that I saw the bird, perched on a low shrub.  I stopped in the middle of the quiet road after a brief glance in the rear view mirror - birders understand this maneuver - just long enough to get a good look.  All thoughts of cold, hunger, impending darkness and the dire need of a restroom were forgotten for the moment, absorbed as I was in this fascinating winged wonder.  (Again, birders will understand.)

Immediately I recognized the bird as a Black-billed Magpie: a lifer!

Where I live in the Great Central Valley, California's endemic and striking Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli) is a common sight.  Its iridescent beauty calls to mind distant tropics, its intelligence bespeaks its relation to other Corvids, the crows, ravens and jays.  But never before had I seen the closely related and common Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) of the mountainous western United States.  (Of course, they showed up a few more times during our visit to the Eastern Sierra, eventually allowing for a couple of semi-decent photos.)

Black-billed Magpies are widespread across rangeland, sagebrush, farms and other open country of the West and their populations remain stable, despite decades of persecution by farmers and ranchers who deemed them pests.  Today, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act affords them full protection.

Bold and gregarious, Black-billed Magpies tend to gravitate toward human habitation rather than avoid it, drawn, as other Corvids are, by our garbage as well as accessible livestock feed.  They are opportunistic feeders, but I would argue they are certainly not pests!  Magpies provide valuable services through their varied diets, often targeting other small creatures farmers and ranchers battle against, such as insects like grasshoppers, caterpillars and beetles; carrion and associated maggots; ticks plucked from the backs of cattle and other ungulates; even small mammals, like squirrels and voles, which these tenacious birds kill themselves.

So, we begin to see the complex interactions between species at work, and the value magpies are to the ecosystem.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Autumnal Wildflowers Along The Pacific Coast

Fall is not exactly peak wildflower season.  Most of us have our hopes set on brilliant fall foliage this time of year, while simultaneously peering beyond to the hints of a wintery wonderland and snowy pines just on the horizon.  But California's seasons are unique, due to its Mediterranean climate, and even during this quiet season of senescence, a few flowers are still blooming along the coast.

Seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus), pictured above and below, is a hardy perennial at home on the dunes and cliffs up and down California's rugged coast.  These beautiful little daisies are also excellent plants for a low-water native garden, and are commonly available at nurseries that sell native plants.

Coastal weather in the fall is often sunny and clear - ideal for strolling along the winding pathways that lead from Monterey, around Point Pinos and south to Asilomar State Beach.  This two or three mile stretch is just about one of my favorite walks anywhere!

Pictured below is another common dune plant, beach sand verbena (Abronia umbellata) This prostrate plant plays an important role in dune stabilization, and is much more valuable to the ecosystem than introduced, non-native (and invasive) iceplant.

California is home to over 100 species of buckwheat.  Ranging from alpine regions to deserts and coastlines, there is a buckwheat for everyone!  That being said, I can't tell with 100% certainty which species I'm showing you in the photo below.  I assumed when I was photographing it that it was coast buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium), but now after looking more closely at those little leaves, I'm going to call it seacliff buckwheat (E. parvifolium).  (Feel free to correct or confirm my guess.)

Buckwheats are extremely valuable plants for gardeners and wildlife alike, and, happily, a decent handful of species are commonly available in native plant nurseries.  Even after their flowers fade, many types hold onto rusty-colored dried seedheads that are really quite ornamental in their own right.

Gumweed (Grindelia stricta) brightens up coastal areas with its sunny composite flowers.  As its name might suggest, parts of the plant are sticky to the touch.  A closely related species of gumweed is found in the Great Central Valley as well.

The flowers of beach sagewort (Artemisia pycnocephala), pictured below, may not elicit much enthusiasm from most, but this humble relative of sagebrush is a fragrant part of the coastal strand plant community.  And its soft, silvery foliage just begs to be touched!

Taken together, coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), buckwheat and beach sagewort form a beautiful tapestry of color across coastal dunes.  (Other common plants in this mosaic include Eriophyllum spp. and Lupinus arboreus.)

Coastal strand, looking like it should!

I found myself admiring how perfectly the colors, forms and textures of these various plants blend together into a seamless work of art, clothing the dunes to provide erosion control as well as valuable habitat.  I can't believe we once thought the dunes needed "improving."

A gorgeous coastal tapestry

Diminutive common sandaster (Corethrogyne filaginifolia) is also called "silver carpet" for it's soft gray foliage and spreading habit.  The flowers are small, so keep a sharp eye out for this one along the paths around Asilomar.

Sea thrift (Armeria maritima) may be familiar to gardeners, especially those with a penchant for the cottage garden style.  But these little beauties are really at home along the rugged coast of Northern California.  Dainty balls of pink (or white in cultivation) flowers top grassy clumps of leaves, making them attractive and popular garden plants.  (Most of them are no longer blooming this late in the season; I was lucky to spot a few lingering blooms!)

Though it will be several months before wildflower season kicks into gear again, it's fun to search out a few out-of-season beauties in unexpected places.  But really, with autumn days along this coast this beautiful, who could ask for more?  The wildflowers are really just icing on the cake!

Click here to read more about the ecology and restoration of California's coastal dune habitat.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

California's Gold: Aspen, Willow, Oak & Friends

Autumn might just be my favorite season in the Sierra Nevada. Maybe. Gone are summer's long, lazy days of exploring creeks in cutoffs and swimming in mountain lakes. But I'll make the exchange, for golden leaves swirling on the breeze and crunching underfoot, chilly nights with starry skies, cozy flannel shirts and woolly mittens holding warm beverages around the campfire...

We spent last weekend on the Eastern side of the Sierra, taking in the sights and reveling in the beauty of the season. And I can safely say, fall is in full swing: now is the time to get out and see the fall colors!

California is known as the golden state for the obvious reason: gold was discovered here, triggering a booming gold rush during the mid-to-late 1800's. But I'd like to add a few more of my own reasons for the nickname.

In spring, golden carpets of wildflowers spread across hills and valleys in varying hues: California poppies, goldfields, tidytips and their yellow composite kin. As spring fades into summer, grasses turn from green to gold. (Not "brown," mind you. Gold.) Mile after endless mile of golden hills reach nearly every corner of the state, blanketed in these sleeping grasses (which are mostly introduced annual species, but that's a story for another day). Even during the winter months, seemingly endless golden sunshine streams down on this land called California.

Gold medallions! Aspen leaves shine in the sunlight.

And during this season of changing autumn winds, as the heat of summers wanes before the coming winter, the predominant fall foliage color in California's varied woodlands is gold.

Without a doubt, the undisputed star of the autumn show in California and across the West is the aspen.

A grove of golden aspens

Tall, stately trees with smooth, elegant white trunks and masses of gracefully trembling leaves, the quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) easily steals the show, lighting up canyons, creek beds and lake sides of the Sierra Nevada with brilliant gold foliage.

The beautifully smooth, white bark of the aspen

The aspen certainly deserves its reputation as the golden star of the west.

A grove of aspens, tucked in a low spot in the Bodie Hills

But there are other, more humble deciduous trees and shrubs that are worth praising as well, as they quietly contribute critical background harmonies to the aspens' brilliant melody.

Creek-side willows showing their fall colors

Various species of willow (Salix spp.) turn lovely shades of gold in the autumn, and can be found lining nearly every damp place throughout our wild lands. Pictured above, rusty gold willows line a peaceful creek.

Golden fall leaves of black oak

Black oak (Quercus kelloggii), above, and Big Leaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum), below, are both important elements in the autumnal symphony of the west. Both are majestic trees with striking foliage that turns golden (and even red and rust-colored, in the case of black oak) in the fall, and both are scattered throughout the mountains of California, in mixed evergreen and yellow pine forests; big-leaf maple is likely to be found in riparian areas as well.

Bigleaf maple leaves, just beginning to turn from bright green of summer to autumn gold

Related to quaking aspen, black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) and Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii) both display golden fall color as well, and are more widely distributed across the state.

One of our few native trees with truly red fall foliage is the mountain dogwood (Cornus nuttallii), found growing as an understory tree in pine forests throughout the Sierra and mountains of northern California.

Mountain dogwood, just beginning to turn, in Yosemite Valley

Red fall foliage of mountain dogwood (pictured here in the snow, near Calaveras Big Trees

But the forests are painted gold by more than just trees. Currants and gooseberries (Ribes spp.), thimbleberries and other brambles (Rubus spp.), wild roses (Rosa spp.) and even ferns add a delightful touch of unexpected color to the understory and forest floor.

Ribes sp.
Rubus sp. (Thimbleberry)

Golden ferns

Rosa sp.

Late summer and fall is also the season when rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa) really shines. Brilliant gold late-season flowers are followed by golden-tan puffy seed heads. These subshrubs are found in dry, mostly arid parts of mountainous regions and are common throughout the Great Baisin desert, east of the Sierra Nevada.

Rabbitbrush, near Mono Lake
Rabbitbrush in the Bodie Hills

Autumn is certainly a wonderful time to take a walk in the woods! I recommend the following places in central California:

* Eastern Sierra: One of my favorite places on the planet (though I've been known to say that about many places...) Mono and Inyo counties are well-known for their splendid show of aspens, which generally reach peak color in mid-to-late October. Check Mammoth Lake's website for more ideas, and download their Fall Color Map. The Eastern Sierra is really the place to go to see aspens in all their autumnal glory.

* Western Sierra: My stomping grounds. Lassen, Plumas and Tahoe National Forests put on a display of mellow fall color in October and even into November. More southerly national forests are worth investigating as well, like El Dorado, Stanislaus and Sierra National Forests. In my experience, fall color in Yosemite Valley seems to peak during the first two or three weeks of November. Try Calaveras Big Trees State Park for red mountain dogwoods.

* North Coast: Not to be left out, Big Leaf Maples and other trees color the north coast forests of California as well. Near the Bay Area, Big Basin Redwoods State Park has miles of hiking trails and a mild climate year-round.

For more fall color locations, the California state parks system has published this no-frills list of parks.

In California's forests, expect pockets of color rather than sweeping New England hillsides of fiery red maples. Often, hidden gems of color are found along rivers and streams. Weather plays a big role in intensity and timing of fall colors, so no two years are quite the same. But the fall color show lasts quite a while in California, slowly progressing from high elevations to low over the season.

A perfect day for a walk in the woods!

Check out this website, dedicated exclusively to California fall color. It even has a map showing locations where fall color is at its peak!

I highly encourage you to get outdoors and explore the beauty our golden state has to offer this autumn!

Friday, October 26, 2018

Introduction to the Backyard Naturalist Series

Occasionally, we tend to forget that nature is all around us, that the urban greenspaces, suburban backyards and even small farms we encounter in our everyday lives may be considered mini-ecosystems in their own right.  Sometimes we don't need to drive to the mountains or coast, or plan an epic week-long camping trip; sometimes we just need a reminder that the neighborhood in which our home now sits was once a balanced natural ecosystem, and perhaps all we need to do is rediscover it.

Charismatic and dazzlingly blue, California scrub-jays (Aphelocoma californica) are common
backyard residents in these parts, as well as characteristic denizens of the surrounding
oak woodlands.

My house sits on the fertile soil (Tujunga loamy sand, to be exact, derived from ancient alluvial fans) of California's Great Central Valley, in an upland region between two major rivers, the Tuolumne to the north and the Merced to the south.  The San Joaquin River lies twelve or fifteen miles west of town and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada begin to rise less than 20 miles to the east.  While lush and verdant riparian woodlands once lined these valley rivers, the region now occupied by my neighborhood was an upland habitat, one of predominately bunchgrasses and wildflowers, perhaps scattered with a few valley oaks.

Today, it is a town of 70,000 inhabitants, with acres upon acres of lush green lawns, non-native trees, pavement and ever-growing shopping centers (who shops in all these stores??), hemmed in on every side by agricultural fields, orchards, vineyards and dairies nearly as far as the eye can see.  On hazy horizons to the east and west, rising up from the otherwise flat landscape, are golden hills that hint at wilderness regions beyond.  I was raised in this town, enveloped as it is by suburban homes and farms, with nary a native plant in sight.  But I plan to change that, by bringing a bit of the natural world to my own land and planting a garden of native plants around my home.

(Aside: if you are so fortunate as to live in a house situated in an intact ecosystem, surrounded by native vegetation and visited by native wildlife, I am immensely jealous.  Bonus points if you have hiking trails that begin in your own backyard!)

My ever-growing collection of native plants, waiting to be planted this fall

I am a strong advocate of experiencing nature wherever there is nature to be experienced, even if it is no farther than your own backyard.  Even a suburban backyard can provide a wealth of fascinating discoveries for the budding naturalist.

Now that I actually have a backyard of my own, I have decided to begin writing a "Backyard Naturalist" series, which I intend to revisit from time to time.  My objective is to document our progress as we slowly convert our quarter acre piece of of the Great Central Valley from a huge 1950's-era Bermuda grass lawn to a thriving and productive mini ecosystem that will eventually supply the majority of our fruits and vegetables, along with an abundance of food and habitat for pollinators and other wildlife.

Our front yard, in the beginning stages of lawn removal

After studying environmental horticulture in college and earning a degree in agricultural biology, I happily got my hands dirty and boots muddy working at a nursery, and went on to spend nearly four years of work on an organic market farm.  Now, after a few years of apartment living (and terribly unsuccessful container gardening on our shady patio), I am happy to have the chance to garden on a large scale once again!

Seedling of a locally native silver bush lupine (Lupinus albifrons)

So, what does being a gardener have to do with being a naturalist?

For certain types of folks (I call them backyard naturalists) is has everything to do with being a naturalist!

Backyard naturalists are every bit as interested in the natural world around them, but for one reason or another prefer to stick closer to home.  Rather than roaming farther afield, backyard naturalists make a point to intimately acquaint themselves with the natural world just beyond their doorstep.  Whether in an urban apartment, suburban neighborhood, or small farm, backyard naturalists discover and delight in the weeds and wildflowers, bats and squirrels, birds and bugs, lizards and frogs that live in close proximity to our dwelling places.

Flowers on a newly-planted Woolly Blue Curls (Trichostema lanatum), a wonderfully fragrant California native plant

Backyard naturalists and those gardener-naturalists among us are those who realize that we have a responsibility to the land we have been blessed with, a responsibility to care for it through organic, sustainable practices.

Backyard naturalists realize the sad truth that many of us have become almost entirely divorced from the rhythms and cycles of nature and food production.  (And, more profoundly, they realize that these two factions - nature/ecology/the environment and gardening/agriculture/food production - don't have to be and shouldn't be at odds with each other!)

A Western fence lizard eyeballs me from its sunny perch on the fence.  These guys are great to have around the garden!

Articles in the "Backyard Naturalist" series will celebrate these fine folks and their unique love of the natural world that is so nearby though often sorrowfully neglected, as well as document my own ventures into the wilderness of suburbia.

Topics will include some of my very favorite activities, drawing upon my past experiences as well as my current trial-and-error projects.  A few themes I hope to explore are:

Gardening with California Native Plants
Gardening for Pollinators and Other Beneficial Insects
Wildlife Habitat Gardens (including building nesting boxes and bird baths)
Fruit Trees, Berry Bushes and Grape Vines
No-till Organic Vegetable Gardens and Cut Flower Gardens

Two of my first projects are converting our 1200 square foot front lawn (pictured above) to a native plant garden, and planting a backyard desert garden around an existing palo verde tree.

Late October, and our palo verde tree is still blooming!

The plant palette for the front yard is loosely based on nearby central oak woodland habitats (though most unfortunately a web of overhead power lines prohibit the planting of a large Valley Oak), with a few compatible plants pulled from more southern and even coastal plant communities, purely for their ornamental value (because what's a California native garden without a few of our native Salvias?).  My backyard desert garden was inspired by camping trips in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park, and already includes one of my favorites, Apricot Globe Mallow.

Flowers on a newly-planted Apricot Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua), a plant native to California's deserts

I've already counted 17 species of birds in and around our backyard, including Great Horned Owls and Western Screech Owls, a Cooper's Hawk, and a Red-breasted Sapsucker.  I am curious to see if the addition of native plants, water features and even nesting boxes makes our property more attractive to native species.

To prepare for this project and your own endeavors as a backyard naturalist, I recommend the following books:

The California Wildlife Habitat Garden: How to Attract Bees, Butterflies, Birds and Other Animals (Nancy Bauer)

Native Treasures: Gardening With the Plants of California (Nevin Smith)

Gardening with a Wild Heart: Restoring California's Native Landscapes at Home (Judith Larner Lowry)

I hope you will enjoy the adventure of becoming a backyard naturalist!