We spent our second night on the coast in Morro Bay and came home via Highway 25. I would have enjoyed a drive up the coast, but given the road closures in Big Sur that wasn't a possibility. Highway 25, however, proved to be a very pretty drive. It was nice to see wildflowers closer to home, too.
Almost all of the hills sported bright yellow patches, some denser than others. At first I thought they were goldfields, but as we got closer I could see that the color was too bright and lemony to be goldfields, and the plants proved to be wild mustard (Sinapis arvensis). Mustard is widely considered a weed in California. Its native habitat is the Mediterranean basin, and one hypothesis is that it arrived in California with the Franciscan friars who established missions up and down the state. Mustard is one of the first plants to bloom every spring, and it covers hillsides, agriculture fields, and the side of the road.
For the first time in several years the oak trees appear to be flourishing this spring. There was a lot of rain this past rainy season, and it's such a relief to see the trees coming back to life. I'd forgotten what it is like to see so much green in a California landscape. I mean, just look!
Unfortunately for us, most of the land through which Highway 25 winds is private owned, which means we couldn't just wander off on some back road to get closer to the wildflowers. We did happen upon some lupines which were growing conveniently along the side of the road. These were the big purple bush-type lupines. They were not growing in any kind of park or protected area, so I tossed a couple of sprigs into the plant press.
By this time the light was fading as the sun began to set behind the western hills, so we headed home. I made it through three days of riding in the car without having a panic attack, which is much better than my concussed brain could have managed a few months ago. All in all it was a great trip, made even better because we got to spend some time with friends and family. These superblooms don't occur every year, and I'm very glad that I was able to see some of this one.
If you're considering making a trip to see the wildflowers in the desert areas of southern California, stop thinking about it and just go! If you can spare even a single night away, you will see some awesome displays of Nature's majesty. And it won't last much longer, so go now. Don't worry so much about actual destinations; just keep your eyes open for blooms wherever you can see them and be prepared to travel off the beaten path, because the flowers could be anywhere.
Day 2 (24 March 2017): Tehachapi, Antelope Valley, and Wind Wolves
We spent the night in Bakersfield and the next morning (24 March 2017) headed up over Tehachapi Pass and headed into Antelope Valley.
It had been many years since I'd driven over Tehachapi Pass, and I didn't remember ever having seen Joshua trees before. Maybe I was always sleeping on that part of the trip. Once we got past the windmills at the top of the pass--most definitely Not Good for my concussed brain--and started descending into the valley there were Joshua trees all over the place! So cool! And with this year being the 30th anniversary of U2's best (in my opinion) album, how appropriate.
To my admittedly inexperienced eye, Joshua trees are the symbols of the Mojave Desert, as the saguaro is the symbol of the Sonoran Desert. None of the Joshua trees that we saw at Tehachapi were blooming, although I heard from a friend that they were in bloom slightly farther south at Lancaster.
Continuing on, we drove through the desert scrubbiness and eventually could see orange splashed onto the distant hills. We stopped to pick up sandwiches at a corner market and then headed towards the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. And bang! all of a sudden we were in the poppy fields.
California's state flower grows as either a perennial or an annual, depending on how much water it receives. In desert areas in the south it behaves like an annual, whereas in moister areas along the coast and in gardens it can come back as a perennial. There are several subspecies of E. californica, each adapted to a particular habitat within the state. Blossom color varies from a golden yellow (very similar to that of fiddlenecks, actually) to a deep intense orange.
Our intent was to stop at the visitor center of the park and pick up a trail map, but we never got there. We arrived at early mid-day on a Friday, when everybody from Los Angeles showed up, and the line of cars trying to get into the park was backed up almost to the road. Um, no thanks. Besides, we saw all these poppies from the road, and could find places sort of off the beaten track with fewer people tromping around with selfie sticks than would be inside the actual park. Now I'm not one to discourage people from visiting our state parks, but if you decide to go here, try to arrive earlier in the morning on a midweek day. And time your visit for a sunny day, when the poppies will be open.
And looking up towards the hills we saw pastel paintings. The orange flowers are poppies, I'm guessing that the yellow is goldfields, and the purple is lupines.
And in terms of lupines, Antelope Valley was the best place we visited. When we made plans to come here I had grandiose ideas of capturing that perfect iconic photograph of purple lupines and orange poppies together. You know the one. Unfortunately I think we arrive a week or two early to catch the peak of the lupine bloom. I never did see nice full lush poppies and blooming lupines in the same spot.
We did, however, see several nice lupine bushes in the various washes around the poppy reserve. Honeybees were glad to see them, too.
As glorious as the poppies were, we needed to keep moving in order to meet up with friends on the coast. Working our way westward we stopped at the Wind Wolves Preserve, an ecological reserve managed by the Wildlands Conservancy. I had never heard of the place and wasn't sure what to expect. What I got was a lovely surprise.
There are, of course, no wolves in this part of California. So then, why the name? According to a sign at the head of the wildflower trail, the name refers to the Preserve's long grasses, which undulate like running animals when the wind blows through them. I wasn't carrying the tripod with me so I didn't try to take any video. However, on our way from Antelope Valley we stopped at Tejon Pass, where the wind was blowing pretty well. I took this video there.
It does look like one of those aerial views of a herd of galloping ungulates, doesn't it? Perhaps not wind wolves, exactly, but at the Preserve it was easy to imagine how the place got its name. The wildflower walk, a bit less than a mile long, winds through rolling hills covered with grasses and dotted here and there with flowers. There were several small groups of people hiking the trail, and it wasn't uncommon to have them disappear completely from the landscape when they got lost in the grasses as the trail dipped into a small depression.
No doubt the resemblance to running wolves will be stronger when the grasses are a bit taller.
We were perhaps two weeks ahead of the bloom and most of the flowers were just starting to open up. The overall effect was a cool wash of green dotted here and there with bright splashes of color. There were lupines, of a smaller ground-growing type rather than the bush lupines we had seen in Antelope Valley, and a plant that we had first seen a lot of on the Carrizo Plain, another whimsically named flower called purple owl's clover (Castilleja exserta). As its scientific name implies, owl's clover is a member of the paintbrush family of plants.
And this might well be my favorite photo of the entire trip:
We had already seen many familiar and not-so-familiar birds on the trip, and it was at Wind Wolves that I saw my first ever horned lark (Eremophila alpestris). This individual wasn't very shy at all; it let us approach within 2 meters on the trail before running off ahead to wait for us again. It had such expressive postures, and a curious look on its face. If there hadn't been a family with small kids behind us on the trail, I could have watched this bird for a long time. But we couldn't block the trail just because there was an interesting (to us) bird standing in it, so we let the family pass and the lark flew off into the grasses. They are social birds so no doubt it had friends and family of its own to join.
We saw lizards, too, most notably the western side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana ssp. elegans). These lizards have very interesting gender expression, depending on color morph: there are three male morphs (orange-throat, yellow-stripe, and blue-throat) and two female morphs (orange-throat and yellow-throat). Sounds crazy, doesn't it? The female morphs differ in egg-laying strategy. Orange-throat females lay many small eggs and defend territories, while yellow-throat females lay fewer larger eggs and are less territorial.
Work by Barry Sinervo's group at UC Santa Cruz showed that the three male color morphs also have different reproductive strategies. They are locked in an evolutionary game of rock-paper-scissors: each color can dominate one (but not both) of the other colors. Note that in this context 'dominate' doesn't necessarily mean that one lizard beats up the other, but rather has greater reproductive success than the other. Orange-throats are the most typically testosterone-driven males; they are more aggressive towards other males and control territories containing several females. Yellow-stripe "sneaker" males hang around the edges of an orange-throated male's territory and sneak copulations with females while the territory holder's attention is elsewhere. Blue-throats have an intermediate level of aggression; they can defend a single female from other blue-throats and yellow-stripes, but not against an orange-throat. In a nutshell:
Day 1 (Thursday 23 March 2017) cont'd.: Carrizo Plain National Monument
The Carrizo Plain is an enclosed grassy plain in the southernmost "toe" of San Luis Obispo County, lying between the Temblor Range to the northeast and the Caliente Range to the southwest. Its average elevation is about 700 meters (2200 feet). The main geological features of the plain are a seasonal lake that receives water from both mountain ranges, and the San Andreas Fault, which runs along the northeast edge of the plain up against the aptly named Temblor Range.
For most of the year the Carrizo Plain is hot, dry, and dusty. For a few weeks in the spring, especially if a decent amount of winter rain has fallen, the Plain explodes with color. As in most of the state the dominant color of the flowers is yellow, and the goldfields (Lasthenia californica) grow in huge swaths. Although it is always fun to focus on individual flowers, which I will do later, at the Carrizo Plain the focus is on the landscape.
Soda Lake Road bisects the Carrizo Plain and passes through so many stunning vistas that it is hard to decide where to look. The eye travels from the side of the road, across Soda Lake, and up against the Temblor Range hills and sees amazing splotches of color. It's quite a spectacular display of natural beauty. Well, there's also the humongous solar farm at the northwest corner of the lake, but let's pretend we don't see it, shall we?
In only a few weeks the entire landscape will have transformed from this lush green and yellow to unrelenting dusty brown.
And now let's get up close and personal with some of the flowers. As mentioned above the goldfields were very common. I did not see any tidy tips on the Plain, although of course that doesn't mean they weren't there. One of the most abundant flowers on the Plain is fiddleneck (Amsinckia menziesii), which was just beginning to bloom.
In a couple of weeks the inflorescences will be longer and curled into the shape that gives them their common name, and the overall color of the landscape will shift from the brighter yellow of goldfields to a softer golden shade. Wherever the fiddlenecks occur they are extremely abundant. According to what I've read about this plant, later in the season its seeds will be a major food source for seed-eating birds such as finches and sparrows. I don't remember seeing any finches when we were there, but we did see several white-crowned sparrows flitting about on the tops of the sagebrush.
Fortunately for the retinas of human visitors, the flowers were not all yellow. Along Shell Creek Road and at the Carrizo Plain there were two types of blue or purple flowers. The bluer of the two, baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) occurred both in small patches on the flats and in big carpets on the hillsides. The bluish patch in the photo of fiddlenecks on the hills (up the page a bit) are all baby blue eyes.
The Great Valley phacelia (Phacelia ciliata) is a delicate, periwinkle-colored flower that contrasts beautifully with the golden orange of fiddlenecks. We saw it scattered here and there, and while it wasn't uncommon it never seemed to occur in large patches in the Soda Lake area.
Continuing along past Soda Lake we passed hillsides covered with brilliant yellow and purple flowers. In this area of the Carrizo Plain the phacelia did form larger patches, although they were still not as dense as either the fiddlenecks or the goldfields.
And in case you think there might not have been enough yellow in the landscape: BAM!
Next installment: Antelope Valley and the Wind Wolves Preserve.
That's one of the truisms of life in a Mediterranean climate such as ours. The official water year as measured by NOAA runs from 1 October through 30 September, and along the central/northern California coast most of the rain falls from December through March. The rest of the year, April through the summer and most of the fall, is the long dry season.
Plants that have evolved to live in Mediterranean climates respond quickly to water when it is available. For many annual plants, this means rapid growth in the spring when the soil begins to warm up and the days are getting longer, followed by a burst of flowering as the plants complete their life cycles. Once the rain stops falling there is no water except what is stored in the ground, out of reach for most shallow-rooted plants. The annuals take advantage of the short window between the end of the heaviest rains and the onset of yearly drought to bloom and have sex (i.e., set seed). From 2011-2015 there was moderate to severe drought through most of the state and spring wildflower blooms were anemic and less-than-spectacular. In April 2016, after the El Niño rains of the previous season, some friends and I went down to southern California to check out the bloom. We had made a day trip of it, and it was a very long day that didn't allow for much meandering or poking around. This year we had read from several sources that the heavy winter/early spring rains followed by sunshine would result in a very strong superbloom and managed to squeeze in a 3-day trip, which allowed us to visit more places and change our plans at the last minute if we heard about something interesting to see.
Day 1 (Thursday 23 March 2017): Shell Creek Road
Shell Creek road is the little road that runs north-south from the hamlet of Shandon to the northwest corner of the Carrizo Plain. The roadbed runs along a little creek that meanders through rolling hills dotted with oak trees. It is really pretty when covered with grasses and wildflowers in the spring, although it will be hot, dusty, and brown for half the year. This is where we caught our first glimpses of the superbloom in action.
The dominant color of the landscape is yellow. A quick thumb-through of any western wildflowers field guide will confirm this. We do have a plethora of yellow flowers in California. In fact, one of the hypothesized reasons California is referred to as "the golden state" is the flood of yellow that carpets hills and valleys in the springtime. The other hypothesis I've heard is that "golden" refers to the color of the hills during the long dry season. Both of these seem feasible to me.
So who's responsible for all this yellow?
The main culprit is the aptly named goldfields (Lasthenia californica). They are very common members of the daisy family, the Asteraceae, and are found in most regions of the state except at higher elevations in the Sierra Nevada.
Another goldfield look-alike is a flower with the strange common name of Bigelow's tickseed. Its real name is Leptosyne bigelovii. It's a California endemic, found only in the southern half of the state. I looked at a lot of photos, mine and others', trying to learn how to distinguish between the tickseed and goldfields, and hope I have it right.
This is Bigelow's tickseed:
See the differences in flower morphology? I've got samples of each species (I hope!) drying in the plant press, and should be able either to confirm or refute my identifications once I can take a look at them. It's always a good idea to calibrate my intuition whenever I can.
A third yellow flower, which occurs throughout the coastal mountains but we saw only at Shell Creek Road, is the delightfully named coastal tidy tips (Layia platyglossa). This is the kind of common name that makes me smile. You'll see why.
Perhaps the tidy tips form large dense patches more readily at other locations, but this year we saw them mostly interspersed among the goldfields. They are conspicuous enough that I think I would have noticed them if I'd seen them last year. From a macro perspective the white petal tips lend a more creamy yellow color to the landscape, compared to the unrelenting blinding yellow of the goldfields. I had never seen them before, and there's something about those white tips that just tickles my fancy. How could I not be enchanted?
As lovely as it was, Shell Creek Road was only the first location we wanted to visit that day. Our ultimate destination was the Carrizo Plain National Monument, in southeastern San Luis Obispo County. More about that shortly.
Last week I went up to Davenport to do some collecting in the intertidal. The tide was low enough to allow access to a particular area with two pools where I have had luck in the past finding hydroids and other cool stuff. These pools are great because they are shallow and surrounded by flat-ish rocks, so I can lie down on my stomach and really get close to where the action is. At this time of year the algae and surfgrasses are starting to regrow; the surface of the pools was covered by leaves of Phyllospadix torreyi, the narrow-leafed surfgrass.
Parting the curtain of Phyllospadix leaves to gaze into the first pool I was pleasantly surprised to find this. What does it look like to you?
There are actually two very different organisms acting as main subjects in this photo. The pink stuff is a coralline alga, a type of red alga that secretes CaCO3 in its cell walls. Coralline algae come in two different forms: one is a crust that grows over surfaces and the other, like this, grows upright and branching. Because they sequester CaCO3, corallines are likely to be affected by the projected increase of the ocean's acidity due to the continued burning of fossil fuels. Ocean acidification is one of the sexy issues in science these days, and although it is very interesting and pertinent to today's world it is not the topic for this post. Suffice it to say that changes in ocean chemistry are making it more difficult for any organisms to precipitate CaCO3 out of seawater to build things like shells or calcified cell walls.
It's the tannish featherlike stuff in the photo that I was particularly interested in. At first glance the tan thing looks like a clump of a very fine, fernlike plant. It is, however, an animal. To be more specific, it is a type of colonial cnidarian called a hydroid. I love hydroids for their hidden beauty, not always visible to the naked eye, and the fact that at first glance they so closely resemble plants. In fact, many hydroid colonies grow in ways very similar to those of plants, which has often made me think that in some cases the differences between plants and animals aren't as great as you might assume. But that's a matter for a separate essay.
I collected this piece of hydroid and brought it back to the lab. The next day I took some photos. To give you an idea of how big the colony is, the finger bowl is about 12 cm in diameter and the longest of these fronds is about 3 cm long.
And here's a closer view through the dissecting scope.
Each of the fronds has a structure that we describe as pinnate, or featherlike--consisting of a central rachis with smaller branches on each side. This level of complexity can be seen with the naked eye. Zooming in under the scope brings into view more of the intricacy of this body plan:
At this level of magnification you can see the anatomical details that cause us to describe this animal's structure as modular. In this context the term 'modular' refers to a body that is constructed of potentially independent units. A colony like this is built of several different types of modules called zooids, some of which are familiarly referred to as polyps. Each zooid has a specific job and is specialized for that job; for example, gastrozooids are the feeders, while gonozooids take care of the sexual reproduction of the colony. In this colony of Aglaophenia each of these side branches consists of several stacked gastrozooids, which you can see as the very small polyps bearing typical cnidarian feeding tentacles. Aglaophenia is a thecate hydroid; this means that each gastrozooid sits inside a tiny cup, called a theca, into which it can withdraw for protection. Those larger structures with pinkish blobs inside are called gonangia. A gonangium is a modified gonozooid, found in only thecate hydroid colonies, that contains either medusa buds or other reproductive structures called gonophores.
Pretty complicated, isn't it? Who would expect such a small animal to have this much anatomical complexity?
In the second pool I found an entirely different type of hydroid. At first glance this one looks more animal-like than Aglaophenia does, although it is still a strange kind of animal. This is Sarsia, one of the athecate hydroids whose gastrozooids do not have a protective theca. It might be easier to think of these and other athecate hydroids (such as Ectopleura, which I wrote about here and here) as naked, with the polyps not having anywhere to hide.
Each of these polyps is about 1 cm tall. The mouth is located on the very end of the stalk. The tentacles, not quite conforming to the general rule of cnidarian polyp morphology, do not form a ring around the mouth. Instead, they are scattered over the end of the stalk.
Here's a closer view:
In the hydroid version of Sarsia, the reproductive gonozooids are reduced to small buds that contain medusae. You can see a few round pink blobs in the lower right of the colony above; those are the medusa buds. The medusae are fairly common in the local plankton, indicating that the hydroid stage is likewise abundant. Here's a picture of a Sarsia medusa that I found in a plankton tow in May 2015.
The medusa of Sarsia is about 1 mm in diameter and has four tentacles, which usually get retracted when the animal is dragged into a plankton net. Sometimes, if the medusa isn't too beat up, it will relax and start swimming. I recorded some swimming behavior in a little medusa that I put into a small drop of water on a depression slide. It refused to let its tentacles down but you might be able to distinguish four tentacle bulbs.
There's a lot more that I could say about hydroids and other cnidarians. They really are among the most intriguing animals I've had the pleasure to observe, both in the field and in the lab. I've always been fascinated by their biphasic life cycle, with its implications for the animals' evolutionary past and ecological present. Perhaps I'll write about that some time, too.
Recently I've been thinking a lot about our species' relationship to the natural world. These musings have been brought on not only by my own impairment and inability to spend as much time in the field as I would like, but also by the current political climate in the U.S. Recent Executive Branch appointments and policy announcements make me fear that we, as a country, are going to be even more removed from the natural world than we currently are. This will have dire long-term consequences for all of us. Much has been made lately of federal cuts to spending on science and environmental protection. I am not qualified to address the economic aspects of cuts, but can speak to what I feel will be their effect on quality of life.
For several generations now, humans have become increasingly separated from the natural world around them. We live in cities surrounded by concrete and steel, most of us don't grow or kill our own food, and we tend to view the natural world as "other," differing from us in some fundamental way. Even among people who spend much of their leisure time outdoors, many at least occasionally view nature as something to be conquered--by climbing the highest peak, hiking the longest trail, visiting the deepest part of the ocean, or surfing the biggest wave. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with testing your skills and challenging yourself to perform at the highest level possible. I do that all the time, by trying to learn the names and biology of the organisms I encounter in the wild. But if that's what you're doing every time you venture outdoors then you are missing out on something.
Sometimes you need to just be.
One of my graduate advisors, Todd Newberry, used to tell students when we went into the field to "get your face down where your feet are." It was a simple phrase to remind students that none of the interesting stuff going on in the intertidal occurs at human eye level. And even things that you can see while standing up are very different when you observe them from the level at which they experience the world. For example, can you identify this very common and conspicuous animal from the intertidal at Natural Bridges?
The observation skills that Todd taught us were the kind that reward patience and a certain ability to lose oneself in time. "Glance-and-go" was something that he taught us to despise as both lazy and weak, a mindset to be tolerated for a short time in rookies but completely unacceptable for anyone aspiring to the Varsity team. The true rewards of observation in the field come when you spend real time with the organisms, learning enough about them to imagine what their lives are like, and appreciating them for what they are instead of disregarding them for not being more like us.
In my experience there is something transcendent about simply being in nature. And I don't mean temporarily occupying a bit of space that happens to be out-of-doors. I mean the act of immersing yourself, mentally as well as physically, in the natural world. I mean, instead of using your time outdoors to get from point A to point B or achieving some tangible goal such as bagging your limit or adding to your life list of species seen, stopping for a while and just being. Slowing down and stepping back from the frenzy of modern human life, even for a few minutes, allows you to notice things that ordinarily don't catch your attention. Even seeing this happen second-hand is a lot of fun. One of the best things about taking students out in the field is hearing them exclaim, "I never noticed that before!"
I have to admit, though, that it's not always easy to do this. Not everyone gets--or even wants--to make the Varsity team. Many people don't have time in their busy lives to spend hours in the field every so often; certainly most don't have the luxury of a job that requires spending time outdoors like I do. And of course there are those who just aren't interested. That's fine, too. After all, I'm not at all interested in the stock market, soccer, or stamp-collecting.
Now, back to that picture above. I bet that from this view, as you would see them from eye-level, you'd be able to made a good guess.
These are the famous owl limpets, Lottia gigantea. They are the largest limpets on our coast, and are notable not only for their size (up to 10 cm long) but also for some rather extraordinary behavior. These large individuals, which occupy suspiciously blank areas of the mid-intertidal at Natural Bridges, are all females. The limpets are very territorial: when immersed at high tide they will cruise over the area that they monopolize and push or scrape off any interlopers such as other limpets, barnacles, or newly settled larvae.
See those zig-zaggy marks no the rock in the photo above? The owl limpet is also a farmer. As she's patrolling her territory she uses her radula to scrape off the film of algae that grows on the rock. It takes a while for the algal film to develop, so the limpet restricts her grazing to one area at a time. She is, in effect, manipulating her environment to produce food. When humans do this we call it agriculture. Why not use the same term when a snail does it?
These Lottia farms are exactly the kind of thing that people overlook, and even stand in, without noticing that they are there. In the intertidal, as in many natural places, you don't really see what's going on until you slow down, let yourself just be, and get your face down where your feet are. You might be surprised at how much you can see.