This time of year is when California earns its nickname as the Golden State. It isn't only the dried vegetation blanketing the hillsides. The light itself takes on a golden hue, especially in the morning and evening when the sun is low on the horizon. Photographers call the time periods just after sunrise and just before sunset the 'golden hour' and with good reason. Some of my favorite photos were taken in either the early morning or late evening.
Today the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (ESNERR) held an open house event. Booths were set up on the field outside the visitor center, with information on native plants, research projects taking place at the slough, a watershed demonstration, mosquito abatement tactics, face painting for kids, and even a food truck. I hadn't been to the slough since early summer, and when I got the notice about the open house I decided to spend the morning there. I'd hike around a bit, take some pictures, and do some nature journaling.
It certainly was a beautiful morning. It had been swelteringly hot earlier in the week, and fortunately the heat had lessened. There was a strong cool breeze and the sky was a clear blue.
In the spring, when I bring my Ecology students to the slough, the landscape is green. The grasses are green and wildflowers are in bloom. Even the pickleweed looks nice and fresh in the spring. Six months later, however, those same grasses are brittle and brown, and most of the wildflowers have long gone to seed and senesced. The live oaks retain their foliage throughout the year, and after two successive wet winters they are lush and green.
When I arrived at the reserve this morning I spent a few minutes touching base with acquaintances and meeting some new people, then wandered off on one of the trails. It was a little chilly, very welcome after the previous heatwaves, and I sat on a bench to do some painting and looking around. After about half an hour I heard something behind me that didn't sound like the wind blowing through the grasses. It was much more rhythmic and regular--definitely some critter walking through the brush. Very quietly, I stood up and sneaked around the oak tree to see a group of three or four juvenile wild turkeys disappearing into a thicket.
All in all I had a pretty good two hours of bird watching. I don't consider myself a birder, really. I enjoy watching birds, just like I enjoy watching other animals. The competitive aspect of birding is a real turn-off for me. I don't care about keeping a life list and comparing it to anybody else's. That said, I do like to keep note of what I see at a given time and place, because it helps me understand the natural world a little better. For example, the other day I heard my first golden-crowned sparrow of the season, and although I haven't seen it yet, knowing it is there makes me think that autumn has truly arrived.
In past decades, several different groups of people have been working to restore natural habitat to the slough. One of the earlier ideas was to build artificial islands, hoping they would encourage the marsh plants such as pickleweed to recruit and expand to their former abundance. It didn't really work, but the islands do provide places for resident and migratory birds to stop and rest.
More recently, a consortium of stakeholders has worked to restore marshlands closer to the ocean. They filled in areas that had been completely flooded, and pickleweed recruited there on its own. That area has been restored to a much more natural condition, with meandering waterways and pickleweed that isn't drowned by seawater. Elkhorn Slough falls into several jurisdictions at the federal, state, and local levels, and getting these groups to work together for a common goal can be difficult. The success that they have had speaks to their willingness to cooperate. I think it helps that any actions taken are based on science, rather than politics or economics.
Over the summer, a lot of work was done to eradicate non-native plant species. This work is ongoing, and may very well never be finished, but it is good to the ecosystem to try. An island called Hummingbird Island has been rid of invasive eucalyptus trees, and now the only trees there are native live oaks and cypress. The trail I hiked went through several areas where trees has been cut down.
Remember that train I mentioned? Here it is, traveling through the slough at about midday.
Sometimes visitors to the slough don't believe that those tracks are actually used.
Much of the land that the ESNERR sits on used to be a dairy. These barns are, I think, the only dairy buildings that remain. Visitors aren't allowed into Little Barn, but we can walk through Big Barn. It is used for occasional equipment storage and is inhabited by barn owls. Sometimes we find owl pellets on the ground beneath the owl boxes mounted in the barn. It is also not unusual to find pieces of those old-fashioned glass milk bottles near the trails.
When I was a little kid I disliked autumn because the shortening days meant that summer was over and winter was coming. As I grow older, though, and gain a presumably more mature outlook on life, I am more able to appreciate the glory of autumn. I still think spring is my favorite season of the year, but autumn in California is indeed golden and lovely.
This weekend a subset of my students and I spent a day at the Fort Ord Natural Reserve (FONR) to participate in the 2018 spring Bioblitz. We were supposed to visit FONR for a class field trip in early March to do some vegetation studies, but that trip was rained out. Today's visit was sort of a make-up for that missed lab; because it's a Saturday I couldn't compel the students to attend, but I offered a little extra-credit for those who did. It just so happened that Joe Miller, the field manager at FONR, had organized a Bioblitz for another group of students, and he welcomed my Ecology class as well.
Located adjacent to the city of Marina in Monterey County, FONR is one of five natural reserves administered by the campus of UC Santa Cruz. The other four are the Campus Reserve (on the main campus of UCSC), Younger Lagoon Reserve (on UCSC's Coastal Science Campus), Año Nuevo Natural Reserve (up the coast in San Mateo County), and Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve (along the Big Sur coast). FONR occupies some 600 acres of a former military base that was closed in 1994. The reserve opened in 1996. As with all the other UC natural reserves, FONR exists to provide students, teachers, and researchers with natural lands to be used as outdoor classrooms and laboratories. Field courses at UC Santa Cruz and CSU Monterey Bay make extensive use of FONR, and students carry out independent studies and internships there.
After all of the participants arrived at the Reserve, Joe described the activities he had planned for the day. He told us that we could wander around the Reserve on our own if we wanted, but there were several hikes we could choose to join:
One to where some people were finishing up the day's bird banding activities
One to collect samples of environmental DNA
One to ID various tracks in the sand
One to the different habitats and vegetation types
One to check out some pitfall traps for small rodents and reptiles
Because my knowledge of the local flora is sorely lacking, I went on the plant hike with Joe. Many of the spring wildflowers had either finished or were finishing up their yearly bloom. The poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is looking amazing this year; I think it has been able to take advantage of two consecutive wet seasons with a decent amount of rain. There were many poison oak plantlets scattered around all over the place, and the established bushes are lush and green. There is no way I didn't come into contact with the stuff at least once on this hike, so today is going to be the true test of whether or not I am allergic to it.
Much of the terrain at FONR is a maritime chaparral. The soil is extremely sandy (Pleistocene sand dunes, Joe says) with a poor nutrient load and water content. It's not a desert, because we do get a fair amount of precipitation along the Monterey Bay, but the plants have adapted to thrive with low soil moisture levels. It's also often very windy, and there are no trees. Even the coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia), which can be magnificently massive and meandering, are stunted here. Much of the foliage is low-growing perennial shrubs or annual plants.
Joe led us through the habitats of the Reserve, mostly on trails but also along narrow-to-nonexistent tracks that we called Poison Oak Lane, Rattlesnake Drive, and Tick Alley. And yes, we did see a rattlesnake! My husband spotted it, right about where he was going to put his foot. It wasn't a big snake, maybe half a meter long, and was sunning itself in a narrow opening between manzanita bushes. I didn't stop to take a picture because there wasn't a good space to do so, and I wanted to let other hikers pass the snake quickly. The snake didn't seem to react to us, but it's always a good idea to leave them alone.
Just beyond where we saw the rattler, Joe had found a pair of southern alligator lizards (Elgaria multicarinata) mating. When Joe picked them up the male had grabbed the female with a bite behind her head; he does this to keep her from running away, and it also shows his strength and suitability as a father for the female's offspring. The lizards didn't like being interrupted in copulo, so to speak, and the male released the female and escaped back to the ground, leaving his lady love behind in Joe's hand. Hopefully they were able to find each other again once they were both let go.
To me, the picture above exemplifies what a Bioblitz is all about. We have two people examining a natural phenomenon, and one of them is taking a picture that he will presumably upload to iNaturalist. People learn a lot when they participate in a Bioblitz--they usually see things they've never paid attention to before, and when their observations are ID'd or corroborated by the community of iNat experts, they get to put a name to the thing they saw. True, it's a better learning experience to sit down with a specimen, hand lens, and book to figure out what an organism is, but most people don't have either the inclination or the luxury of time and the necessary books. And while I'd rather have people look at the real thing with their eyes instead of their phones, getting people to go outdoors and pay any attention at all to their surroundings is a minor victory. I find Bioblitzes to be a little unsettling sometimes. My preferred method for observation is to examine fewer things in greater depth; this is what my graduate advisor Todd Newberry referred to as "varsity" observations. I don't think a Bioblitz has any place in varsity studies, because of its very raison d'être--to record as many observations as possible--means to some degree that instead of taking a deep look you have to glance-and-go. Still, it does have its place in natural history, and I value it as a way to get more people involved in science.
I was on the plant hike, so many of the organisms I photographed and uploaded to iNat are new to me. Some are California endemics and all have adapted to survive in the difficult conditions of a maritime chaparral.
And I did see one of the California native thistles. Invasive thistles are such a problem that the knee-jerk response is to stomp on them or yank them out of the ground. This one, for which I'm still waiting on an ID confirmation, is silvery and sort of looks like cobwebs. Joe said that its blossom is a bright pink.
And one of my newish old favorite wildflowers, Castilleja exserta, was there. The purple owl's clover occurs throughout California; in 2017 I saw a lot of it on my wildflower excursion to the southern part of the state. It varies in color from purple to pink to white and thus has multiple common names.
We also saw a lot of the peak rushrose, Helianthemum scoparium. It is a California native species that does well in dry, sandy areas, such as throughout most of Fort Ord.
While I was leaning down to photograph this plant, one of the Reserve volunteers pointed out a much paler version nearby. He told me that most of the time the peak rushrose has brilliant yellow flowers, but there are always a few that have this much more delicate color.
And speaking of yellow, I discovered another new-to-me organism! What at first glance looked like a blotch of spray paint on a tree trunk turned out to be something much more interesting--a gold dust lichen in the genus Chrysothrix.
The lichen book1 that I have describes two species of Chrysothrix, both of which can be found in coastal regions of California. The species have some overlap in habitat, with C. granulosa usually living on bark and occasionally on wood or rock, while C. xanthina can regularly be found on bark, wood, and rock. Nor is color by itself an entirely useful characteristic: C. granulosa is described as brilliant yellow, and C. xanthina can be brilliant yellow, yellow-green, or yellow-orange. There are certain tests that would be able to distinguish between the species, but field ID when the lichen is 'brilliant yellow' remains problematic. So while I'd guess that this specimen is Chrysothrix granulosa (based on a combination of color, location, habitat, and good old-fashioned gut feeling) I can't be at all certain.
The discussion of lichens brings us around to the animals. Did you know that fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants? Well they are, despite being included in more botany than zoology courses. And of course we did see animals on our plant hike. Hawks and turkey vultures soared overhead, song birds and hummingbirds flitted among the trees and shrubs, alligator lizards mated, and there was that one rattlesnake, which even the people on the herps walk didn't get to see. As we hiked through the various plant communities in the Reserve, Joe occasionally called out "If you see a horned lizard, catch it!" A woman in our group, Yvonne, managed to do so, despite being loaded down with a backpack and a camera. She pounced on it and held it up for us to photograph.
Cute little thing, isn't it?
The last critter we saw as we were walking back to the gate after lunch was a juvenile gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer). By the time I got there the snake was resting in the road. It was a very pretty snake. I wanted to take it home and release it into my yard, where there are enough gophers to feed an entire family of snakes, but alas, collecting is not allowed at the Reserve. I do wish that a gopher snake would move into my yard, though.
It is now about 24 hours since we got home. We did our tick checks and didn't find anything, thank goodness, then showered and scrubbed. There's no doubt that we were both exposed to poison oak; it is impossible NOT to be, this time of year. This is the real test for whether or not I am allergic to it. I haven't been so far, but there's a first time for everything and I will never say that I will never get it. My husband, who gets poison oak very easily and very badly, says it could take up to two days to be sure. I'm not itchy today. Tomorrow may be a different story, though.
1Sharnoff, S. 2014. A Field Guide to California Lichens, Yale University Press
The Sierra snowpack is California's largest single reservoir of fresh water, accounting for 1/3 of the state's water supply1. A state with a mediterranean climate, such as California, receives precipitation only during the short rain/snow season. During years of drought, when the average Californian frets about how little rain is falling, state water managers are keeping a worried eye on the amount of snow falling in the Sierra. Snow surveyors use remote sensing and field measurements to estimate the water content of the snowpack. The snow water equivalent on 1 April is used to compare snowpack water content across years.
The 2016-2017 snow year was a productive one, dumping near-record amounts of 'Sierra cement' on the mountains. (Skiers accustomed to the powder snows of Utah and Colorado often disparage the heavy snow in the Sierra, but Sierra cement carries a lot more water than powder so is much more beneficial to the state's water supply). Most of that snow eventually melts, births streams and rivers, and flows from the mountains to lower elevations. After a good snow year, though, snow fields remain at high altitudes even during high summer. That definitely is the case around Lake Tahoe.
A few days ago my husband and I hiked from Carson Pass to Big Meadow, a through hike about 8 miles long. The hike goes through some gorgeous alpine meadow, with an absolutely stunning display of wildflowers. Even in late July we had to cross several streams and saw lots of snow.
If you look closely at the bottom photo, you may notice some faint pink streaks on the face of the snow field. This pink snow is called 'watermelon snow' because of the color. It is a phenomenon that occurs only at high altitudes or polar regions in the summer. Here's a closer look, taken with a 70-200 mm lens that I rented for the week.
Given the color of those streaks, you'd think the organism producing it would be a red alga of some sort, wouldn't you? I did, too, until I did some research and learned that it is a green alga! Chlamydomonas is a genus of unicellular green algae, most of which are indeed green in color because the only photosynthetic pigments they contain are chlorophylls. However, Chlamydomonas nivalis also contains reddish carotenoid pigments that serve to shield the cell's photosynthetic pigments from excess radiation, which is intense at the high altitudes where the algae live. The pigments absorb heat, which increases the melting of snow in the immediate vicinity and provides liquid water that the algae require. Watermelon snow is found in alpine regions across the globe, although it isn't known whether or not the same species of alga is responsible in all cases.
Cross-country skiers and snowshoers pass through these areas in the winter, and never report seeing watermelon snow. What happens to the cells in the winter? Do they die?
It turns out that the alga persists year-round, although in different life history stages. Given the inhospitality of their habitat, most of the life cycle involves waiting in a dormant stage, with a short burst of activity in the spring. The red form that we see in the summer is a dormant resting stage, having lost the pair of flagella possessed by swimming unicellular green algae. These spores, former zygotes resulting from fertilization, are non-motile and cannot escape to deeper snow to avoid UV radiation, so they use carotenoids to serve as sunscreens. They are not dead, though, and continue to photosynthesize all summer. They rest through the winter and germinate in the spring, stimulated into activity by increased light and nutrients, and flowing water. Germination involves the release of biflagellated cells that swim to the surface of the snow, where at least some of them function as gametes. Fertilization occurs, with the resulting zygotes soon after forming the resting spores that result in watermelon snow.
It may seem strange that this organism spends most of its time in a dormant stage, but this is not at all uncommon for things that live in hostile habitats. When conditions for life are difficult, the best strategy can be to hang out and wait until things get better. Chlamydomonas nivalis does this on a yearly basis, as do many of the marine unicellular algae. And some animals, namely tardigrades, can dry out and live for decades or perhaps even centuries in a state of suspended animation, returning to life when returned to water. As with many natural phenomena, this kind of lifestyle seems bizarre to us because it is so unlike how we do things. But if C. nivalis could observe and think about how we live, it would no doubt consider us inconceivably wasteful, expending enormous amounts of energy to remain active at times when, clearly, it would much more sensible (from C. nivalis's point of view) to sleep until better conditions return.
I am fortunate to live in a place of great natural beauty. While the Pacific Ocean dominates much of the landscape, we are also partially surrounded by mountains. I grew up in the flatness of the San Joaquin Valley, a couple hours' drive from both the sea and the Sierra Nevada but not near enough for either to have any appreciable effect on daily life. When I first moved here from the Sacramento area to start graduate school, I felt claustrophobic because I had been used to looking out in any direction and being able to see for miles around. I've long since grown accustomed to the fact that the only miles-long vistas we get are over the ocean and have come to appreciate the proximity of the mountains.
Here we are ideally situated so that ocean and mountain forest are close enough that both can be explored in a single day. And in fact, I did just that the other day, on Boxing Day. The elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) breeding season has started, and I wanted to go up to Año Nuevo State Park to see them. Alas, this idea didn't occur to me soon enough to purchase tickets for the docent-led tour to the elephant seal reserve area, so we didn't get close to the seals. But it was a gorgeously clear day and the scenery was every bit as spectacular as you'd expect from this part of the coast.
Año Nuevo Island lies a short distance to the southwest off Año Nuevo Point and is reachable only by kayak. The island is a marine wildlife refuge closed to the public, uninhabited by any humans except scientists. Elephant seals, northern fur seals (a type of otariid, or eared seal), rhinoceros auklets, western gulls, and Brandt's cormorants all breed on the island. California sea lions don't breed on the island, but several thousand use it as a haul-out site throughout the year. During the elephant seal pupping season white sharks come to the waters around the island to feed on pups as they learn how to swim.
It is not common for the air to be so clear. Usually there is fog or haze that obscures the buildings. There used to be a lighthouse on the island; the dilapidated tower was pulled down in the early 2000s to safeguard the wildlife. Some of the other buildings--a 19th century residence and foghorn station--are currently used as research facilities.
Even without a ticket for docent-led tour of the elephant seal reserve area, you can hike to the staging area from where the tours depart. The trail passes a freshwater pond that is home to two endangered California herps: The red-legged frog (Rana draytonii) and the San Francisco garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia). Years ago I had a colleague in graduate school who studied the elephant seals up at Año Nuevo. I went in the field with him one day and got to wear the special blue research windbreaker. He told me that before being allowed to drive into the reserve area all of the researchers have to take a driving test that involves not running over plastic snakes that are placed in the road. This is to make sure that the endangered snakes won't be inadvertently killed.
We ate lunch at a lookout point of the tour staging area. Because the air was so clear we could see quite a way down the coast. Highway 1 as it passes under the cliffs immediately north of the Waddell Beach is visible at the far right edge of the photograph.
After lunch we headed away from the coast and drove up Gazos Creek Road a few miles into the forest. It took all of about 15 minutes to go from beach to redwood forest. How cool is that? Two completely different ecosystems to explore easily within a day. Even the weather was different: sunny and warm at the beach, much cooler and damper among the trees.
Although we were up in the redwoods, this day I was fascinated by all of the moss growing on the trees. We've had a decent amount of rain so far, and the forests are satisfyingly wet and squishy. The creek we followed had washed out a bit of the road in a couple of places, and was closed to all traffic about 5 miles from the highway.
We didn't have a lot of time to poke around in the forest, but since we were in the area we stopped at Rancho del Oso on our way home to visit my favorite tree. Rancho del Oso is at the bottom of Big Basin Redwoods State Park. I take my ecology students there for the first field trip of the semester, because there I can introduce them to two of the ecosystems that define the natural history of Santa Cruz.
My favorite tree is a coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) that lives just off the trail at Rancho del Oso. I love its gnarled branches that grow horizontally at ground level. It is an old, wise tree. Looking through its branches you see into the redwood forest of Big Basin. I normally photograph this tree at a different angle, looking into the forest away from the trail. This day I decided to shoot it from an angle parallel to the trail. I don't think it's quite as dramatic from this angle but there's no denying the magnificence of the tree.
Rancho del Oso is also the downhill terminus of the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail. The entire trail is about 30 miles, and most hikers take two or three days to hike the whole thing. I'm not much of a backpacker but one of the things I'd like to do this spring is the day hike from Big Basin down to Rancho del Oso. Doesn't that sound like great fun?
In recent years the day after Thanksgiving has become known as Black Friday, a day when retailers across the nation offer fantastic sales in order to separate Americans from their hard-earned cash. I hate shopping even under the best of circumstances, and you couldn't pay me enough to step foot in a shopping mall on Black Friday. Fortunately, a trio of organizations have put together about the most awesome alternative to Black Friday that I could imagine. They call it Green Friday.
The idea behind Green Friday, as I understand it, is to get people to spend the day after Thanksgiving outdoors enjoying nature instead of fighting over $5 t-shirts at some big department store. The three organizations--Save the Redwoods League; the California State Parks Foundation; and the California State Parks--sponsored some number of free parking passes at the state parks. I have a Golden Poppy pass, which gets me into state parks in northern California and we didn't need one of the free passes, but I've been wanting to go hiking up in Big Basin so I rounded up my husband and a few friends and off we went.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park is the oldest state park in California, established in 1902. It has long been my favorite of the state parks I've visited.
I have to say, the Green Friday thing seemed to be working. The park was very crowded, with lots of families. We chose to hike the Sequoia Trail, a 4-mile loop that begins at the park headquarters and goes past Sempervirens falls, a monument to the founders of the park, and a treacherous passage called Slippery Rock. The oldest and tallest redwood trees in the park are seen from the Redwood Loop trail, which we didn't hike this time. But it is impossible to see any redwood forest, and not feel awed.
The oldest of these trees have outlived multiple human civilizations. It's humbling to be surrounded by such ancient beings.
The forest floor is shaded by the canopy of the redwood and other tall trees. At this time of year, and especially after a rain, the understory is spectacular with greenery and life. It's all about the mushrooms. California had four dry winters before last year's El Niño rains, and so far this autumn has been fairly wet. Well, October was wet; we didn't have rain in November until last weekend. The fungi have been biding their time, waiting for enough water to fall from the sky before sending up their fruiting bodies. Now, I freely admit that mushroom identification is a major weak spot of mine, so take these names with a grain of salt. But I'm learning! The duff on the ground in the area we hiked was a mixture of redwood needles and leaves from tan oak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus) and California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica). Many mushrooms were growing directly through the duff, while others were growing on living or dead trees.
This so-called coral mushroom is, I think, Ramaria formosa. We saw a few clumps of it right at the beginning of the hike, in this pale orange color. The branching at the tips appears to be more or less dichotomous, and the overall shape and size of the body reminded me of the intertidal rockweed Pelvetiopsis limitata.
These really pretty bracket fungi may be turkey tails (Trametes versicolor). We found lots of them on both dead and living trees. The ones that are brilliant orange and brown I do recognize as turkey tails, but when they're pale and creamy like these I'm not sure whether or not they're the same thing.
And there were spectacular displays like this:
and strange things like this:
I was able to identify those strange white things as Clavaria fragilis, or fairy fingers. The mycelium of this fungus lives underground in grasslands and wooded areas; it is described as common in this area, especially during the wetter months. The arrangement of these fruiting bodies in a more or less straight line is interesting and makes me wonder if the mycelium is living in a log buried under the duff. I don't know what else would cause the mycelium to grow in such a linear fashion.
My favorite mushroom photo of the day was of these LBMs (little brown mushrooms) that were growing out of a downed redwood. The mushrooms themselves are extremely cute, but what I really like about this picture is the bokeh. I've become intrigued by the practice of composing and exposing photographs so that the the non-subject matter is deliberately blurred and becomes part of the overall aesthetic quality of the image. I think I've noticed it before, but never really thought about how to achieve it. Practicing it is a whole lot of fun, and I think there will be many more photos like this in my future.
Where there are mushrooms there are mushroom predators such as banana slugs. I think we counted about 10 of the bright yellow gastropods on our hike. Alas, none of them were copulating. But one of them was eating a mushroom!
What a great afternoon it was! Given how crowded the park was I'd say that Green Friday was a success. I'd so much rather see people hiking or at least spending time outdoors than shopping for material things. I hope that Green Friday is here to stay!