COMING SOON-- WORKSHOPS
What really goes in the blue bin
--and what doesn't
Deepen your outdoor experience
--Use a topo map and compass
COMING SOON-- PHOTO GALLERY
Browse photos of a coming tour
--or of the tour you just took
ARMCHAIR TOUR! Movie: Monumental: David Brower's Fight for Wild America
--Chronicles the life and times of David Brower, the Sierra Club's legendary first Executive Director. --An avid mountain climber, he led campaigns to protect national parks and other wildlands in the 1950s through the 1990s.
-- He inspired millions of Americans to become environmentalists!
Book: California's Wild Gardens: A Living Legacy
--From the California Native Plant Society (www.cnps.org)
--If you lived to be 100 and hiked every day throughout California, you couldn't see as many species of wildflowers and different habitats as in this beautiful book. A biodiversity feast for the eyes!
Music: Beethoven's 6th Symphony, the Pastoral
--By Ludwig von Beethoven
--Portions of this symphony, composed two centuries ago, provide the soundtrack for parts of Walt Disney's animated 1940 film, Fantasia. Whether you've seen it or not, hear the entire masterpiece that paints a peaceful rural landscape in music, as a storm moves over it.
TOUR TIP Summer in the San Francisco Bay Area means lower temperatures at the coast and hot temperatures inland. Always carry water, and dress in layers, because the day can warm up, then cool off again before sunset. It can be 60 degrees F., windy, and cool on the Golden Gate Bridge at the same time it's 97 degrees F., hot, and no wind at Mount Diablo, just 30 miles inland!
CUSTOMIZE Not sure which tour is right for you? Special event coming up? A topic you're especially interested in?
No worries about marauding grizzlies, though -- the Bay Area's last grizzly was shot at Bonny Doon Mountain, only a few miles away from Waddell Creek, in 1886. The grizzly is California's official state animal, seen on the state flag, but it's been extinct in California since the 1920s!
Blog of David D. Schmidt on CaliforniaNatureTours.com
"Eco-History" Blog by David D. Schmidt
"Eco-History" is the fascinating blend of ecology and human history that explains how people and the environment have interacted for centuries. Eco-History makes even familiar places more enjoyable than ever!
As a 5th generation San Franciscan and environmentalist, David fills all the tours with this special perspective. Here on the blog, he delves deeper into a selection of Eco-History topics--
An extra special moment on a recent tour
Plants, animals, birds, or bugs to see right now
A fascinating but little known nugget of eco-history
Insight into environmental issues and controversies
One place I like to go year after year in April, the peak of wildflower season, is the hill on the north side of Rodeo Lagoon in the Marin Headlands.
This year, a couple of parents of high school students from Angwin, Napa County, booked a tour for their sons, to help with a biology assignment from a nature-loving teacher: Find 50 species of wildflowers and photograph them.
I've noticed that it's not a great year for wildflowers -- the diversity of species is great, but the flowers are sparse. However, if we could succeed anywhere, we'd succeed here. We started walking up the old paved road at the west end of the Rodeo Beach parking lot. Within half an hour, and a mile of walking, we found a dozen species, including golden poppies, footsteps-of-spring, cow parsnip, checkbloom, and the yellow sunflower called "mule ears." We also saw the newts that live, all year long, in the round concrete "pond" that was formed by the removal of a World War II-era gun turret about 60 years ago.
We walked through the long concrete tunnel that was part of the historic gun battery, and back onto the road, which led onto a steep trail upward. As we climbed the stone steps, I paused to catch my breath each time I saw a new species, and pointed it out to the two boys.
We saw red Indian paintbrush, blue-eyed grass (which is actually a purple flower with a yellow center), and finally, near the top of the hill, goldfields -- tiny yellow sunflowers that together can turn a hillside golden. There weren't quite enough of them to do that, but there was a good mix of native species on top of that hill -- in fact, more than 80% of the plants on the ridgetop were native species, including the cobweb thistle, a striking plant with grey leaves and thick webs within the spikes of its pink flowers.
On the other side of the hill -- the north side -- there was a completely different array of flowers -- fringe cups, shooting stars, meadow rue, rare coast rock cress, and a flourishing patch of crimson columbine. I really gladdens my heart to see these flowers year after year, surviving in the wild, but not everywhere -- only in wet, steep, rocky, shady areas, where the cows which grazed and overgrazed this hillside for about 150 years did not go -- or at least, not enough to destroy the native plants. As we descended to the Gerbode and Rodeo Valleys, the abundance of native plant species decreased, and the abundance of invasive weeds increased, until we reached the valley bottoms, where native plants are almost entirely missing, except in the wetlands, which are too wet for weeds. This four-mile nature walk takes only three to four hours, but during those hours we found 71 species of native plants budding or blooming. As usual, the wildflowers won't last. If you want to see them, book a May tour right away -- just call me to choose a date, at 415-971-5201.
September 22, 2010
Three Days at Point Reyes' Lakes and Waterfalls
Hiking Point Reyes National Seashore's unique lake country in the Philip Burton Wilderness Area is a treat any time of year, but especially in September, when the region usually has its driest, warmest weather.
When we started from the Palomarin Trailhead at 3:00 pm Sunday, the weather looked terrible. A misty drizzle had been falling all day. But the forecast for the next two days was for the clear skies that are normal for September here, so I wasn't worried. The drizzle stopped just as we started walking.
As we bypassed Bass Lake, I noticed that the drizzle had not deterred one determined swimmer. Had it been sunny, there would have been at least a dozen, because this was Sunday. We walked another mile to Pelican Lake, and stopped for a very late lunch. Despite its setting near the shoreline, there was not a breath of wind. The lake's surface was a calm, silvery reflecting pool -- the only time I've ever seen it this way, in dozens of hikes past it.
Even on this gloomy day, beauty was everywhere. There were pink Clarkia flowers bowing down under the weight of water droplets from the drizzle. Spiderwebs outlined with droplets. Lots of orange sticky monkeyflower. A fat banana slug curled around the fork of a very thin alder branch. A gaggle of California quail, our official state bird, which has vanished from the state's urbanized areas because domestic cats eat their chicks.
There was no sunset, no horizon to be seen, but just before dark, the sea was an opaque, luminous, gently moving mass of liquid silver. The next morning at Wildcat Camp was sunny, with thundering surf and a clear view of the blue sea all the way to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, about 10 miles away, and beyond.
The campsites at Wildcat are surrounded by dried weeds this time of year, but even some of them are beautiful. Tall stalks of milk thistle, silhouetted, reach for the sky. One of the ubiquitous black turkey vultures passes overhead. There's a mix of bird sounds in the distance, indicating the avian diversity of Point Reyes.
I catch a momentary glimpse of a furry animal running away. I give chase for a few steps, just to see what it is -- and it's two fawns, stopped about 20 yards away. They step into the shade and shelter of low willow trees, and are gone.
It's a fantastic, fine weather Monday morning, and we have the entire Wildcat Camp to ourselves. We start walking south on the beach toward Alamere Falls, two miles away. The tide slowly rises as we walk south, until just short of the falls, a cliff jutting into the surf blocks our path. The waves periodically recede, but only for a brief two or three seconds before smashing against the rock again. That's not nearly enough time to sprint around it.
Are we too late? Will a four-mile detour be necessary? I inch along the bottom of the cliff, as the waves crash against it, soaking my hiking boots. I climb 10 feet up for a view of the beach on the far side of this obstruction, and there's a way down. I motion for the others to follow. A minute later, we're on the tiny beach that remains at high tide beneath the final, cliff-jumping Alamere Fall.
We scramble up the steep, rocky path to the top of the cliff, stopping to take in the three smaller waterfalls above, then moving on past Pelican Lake, and back to idyllic Bass Lake for a swim. Only a half-dozen people are there, and everyone's friendly. The water is clear, and refreshing. Life doesn't get much better than this. Unless you come back for another swim the next day, which we did.
On the second and third days, we counted more than 60 species of wildflowers in bloom (even though it's long past wildflower season), including more than 50 local native species. And the last one was the best: just a foot or two off the trail, the foot-long vertical stem of the rare rein orchid, with more than 100 tiny white orchids clinging to it. No, it doesn't get much better than this.
August 22, 2010
Mountain Biking in Marin
I'd been wanting to explore Marin mountain bike trails north of Mt. Tamalpais for a long time, and today I got my chance.
One of these trails, which are also fire roads and ranch roads, begins at the end of dead-end street east of Fairfax, Oak Manor. From there I toiled up, and up, and up, in dry, hot sun to the top of Loma Alta (Spanish for High Hill).
On the far side was Lucas Valley, with forests of live oak and bay trees near the bottom -- and standing out in this rural landscape was a complex of buildings that looked like a hidden fortress, one of LucasFilm's locations (it was called Lucas Valley long before George Lucas got here, but he liked the name, and decided to live here).
Curious, I rocketed down into the valley, toward a place on the map labeled, "Big Rock." At the bottom, right next to Lucas Valley Road, was a gigantic boulder, its sharp top pointed skyward, about 20 feet above the surrounding grassland. Apparently LucasFilm, or Lucas, owns "Big Rock," because there were "No Trespassing" signs posted conspicously on a well-maintained fence, which ran toward the fortress, to keep people away from both rock and fortress.
Nearby, however, a public hiking and biking trail led north, to the top of a massive ridge, "Big Rock Hill." The first half wasn't very steep, so I took it, winding through hilly grassland and chapparal broken by ravines with oaks and bay trees. One of the great things about Marin County is that in addition to keeping urban sprawl under control to protect the landscape for the past 40 years, the Marin County Open Space District has opened trails to and through its hilly land that go through private ranch land.
The result is dozens of miles of trails throughout central and West Marin County, which connect with dozens more miles in the Marin Municipal Water District, Mount Tamalpais State Park, the Marin Headlands, Samuel P. Taylor State Park, and Point Reyes National Seashore. This is a huge landscape where you can hike or bike for days on end, even across private property -- a right that people in rural England, Germany and Switzerland have enjoyed for centuries, but one that is very rare in the U.S.
August 20, 2010
Bus Tour of Yosemite, White Mountains, Big Sur, Monterey Bay, and Point Reyes
Recently got back from a nine-day bus tour of Northern Californa natural parks with a group of 15 people from Michigan. One of the highlights was a boat tour, the Elkhon Slough Safari, at Elkhorn Slough on Monterey Bay. The slough is regarded as one of the top five birding spots in the U.S., and it didn't disappoint. But even more amazing were the sea otters -- over 40 of them -- "rafting" together, doing their signature backfloat, with paws in the air. They do this because their paws are their only parts that don't have thick fur, so they keep them out of the water to prevent losing body heat.
We went from San Jose in Silicon Valley to Yosemite Valley, Mariposa Big Trees, Glacier Point, Tuolumne Meadows (all in Yosemite National Park), Mono Lake, the Owens Valley, the White Mountains, Big Sur, Monterey, Elkhorn Slough, and Point Reyes National Seashore.
Another highlight was a hike on the Mist Trail to Vernal Fall in Yosemite Valley. Once you get halfway to the top of the fall, you look down into the mist and there's a rainbow BELOW you. And Bridalveil Fall does resemble a gigantic bride's veil, constantly reshaped by wind.
At Mariposa Big Trees, everyone's looking up at the world's most massive trees, the Giant Sequoias. The world's most famous tree, the "drive through" tree, stood in this area until 1969, when it fell over, weakened by the huge hole that had been carved in it a century ago to drive through. But no one noticed the hundreds of white rein orchids, thin vertical stems about two to three feet high with hundreds of tiny orchids clinging to each one, in the boggy areas. So I pointed them out.
In the White Mountains, we drove to the Bristlecone Pine Forest, which contains the world's oldest living tree, "Methuselah." It's unmarked, so it's impossible to say whether we saw it. We did see, however, what is probably the world's oldest standing tree -- this twisted, gnarled entity lived for about 4,000 years, but it's remained standing, dead, for another 3,000 years, for a total of roughly 7,000 years. As I stared at it, I thought I heard it say to me,
"I am the Spirit of Nature -- I will outlast you."
At Point Reyes, we took a two-mile hike to see the Tule Elk at Tomales Point, which is a Tule Elk Reserve. These elk, hunted nearly to extinction during the Gold Rush, now number about 2,000 in several reserves around California. Another reserve is in the Diablo Range east of San Jose, where the Hewlett and Packard families (yes, those families) own tens of thousands of acres of rugged hills. But that land isn't open to the public. Luckily, the elk can almost always be seen at Tomales Point -- we saw one herd of more than three dozen, from only 50 yards away.
July 8, 2010
The Long, Cool Summer is the Right Time for a Mountain Bike Tour to Muir Woods
As most of America swelters, visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area are treated to their choice of invigorating temperatures: 55 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit on the Coast, and 70 to 90 degrees in the Sonoma and Napa Valley Wine Country, with very low humidity. Either way, it's great for hiking and bike riding.
For those who are fit and have a mountain bike, I'm offering a new off-road tour: San Francisco to Muir Woods. This Mountain Bike Tour starts with one of the world's most beautiful ferry rides, from San Francisco's Ferry Building, past Alcatraz Island, to Sausalito. From there, we take a paved, flat bike path about six miles to Mill Valley. Then we go over the ridge on an unpaved road that's a remnant of the Mount Tamalpais and Muir Woods Railroad, which operated from 1891 to 1930.
According to a book on that railway, "The Crookedest Railroad in the World," this was the way most people visited Muir Woods from its founding in 1907 to 1930. But today, its Muir Woods terminus is a quiet backcountry area that few of today's visitors ever see.
Those early visitors entered Muir Woods in unique open train cars known as "Gravity Cars," which coasted downhill from the top of Mount Tamalpais without an engine, only a brake. After four or five of the Gravity Cars had collected on the downhill end, an engine would go down there and pull them back up to the summit.
For the last 70 years, the only way for people to get from San Francisco to Muir Woods has been in cars and buses. But now, I can offer mountain bike riders the greenest San Francisco to Muir Woods Tour. It's a 25-mile round trip from Sausalito to Muir Woods and back to Sausalito. It's an all-day jaunt, but well worth the effort, and creates far less Greenhouse Gas Emissions than any other Muir Woods Tour. And at just $99 per person, including your round trip ferry ticket, it's one of the best private tour values around. Call me for details, at 415-971-5201.
March 14, 2010
The Greenest Time of Year
Yesterday I mountain biked from sea level at China Camp State Park, on San Pablo Bay near San Rafael, to the top of the park's 1,000-foot (300-meter) hill. The wetland on the inland side of the road was teeming with tadpoles. The ground was bright green with grass and only scarce wildflowers. But going uphill, wildflowers and native grasses became more common.
There were lavender shooting stars (also known as "mosquito bills"), milkmaids, a small white flower, Indian Warriors, a 10-inch-high plant whose upper leaves are red in Spring, and many star lilies, with a dozen or more white stars on every foot-high stem.
The streambeds in this park, dry most of the year, were babbling brooks. At the top of the hill, I took out my binoculars and looked north to the distant Sonoma and Napa Valleys, all light green with grass. In the middle distance, about two miles away, was a new wetland, the former Hamilton Field, a military airport that closed in 1974. For the next 30 years, Marin County debated what to do with it. Ultimately, the inland, built-up portions were redeveloped as a residential community, while the low-lying runway and surrounding Bayside fields, diked off from the Bay, was designated for restoration as a tidal wetland.
But it wasn't as simple as just breaching the dikes. The dried-out former wetlands had shrunk like a dry sponge, lowering the ground surface about a meter below sea level -- too deep for wetland plants. So the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, local agencies and environmental groups worked out a plan for "beneficial re-use" of mud dredged from the bottom of the Port of Oakland, which has to be removed every year to keep the port from silting in.
Two years ago, the Army Corps began pumping the mud from a barge in the middle of San Pablo Bay, through a flexible pipe, and onto Hamilton Field. The level of Hamilton Field is rising as it gets covered with more and more mud. In a few more years, it will be close to sea level, and the dikes will be breached. Right now, it's covered with fresh water from recent rains, mixed with the salt water that makes up the muddy slurry issuing from the pipe. All this, and the original tidal marsh on the shoreline of China Camp State Park, with its sinuous watercourses, far below, I could see. Plus, an osprey wandered into my binoculars' field of vision. That hill has the best view you can get of San Pablo Bay. It's well worth the walk -- or mountain bike, even if you have to push it up the final stretch to the summit, as I did.
February 7, 2010
Wildflowers and Waterfalls
If you like wildflowers and waterfalls, now through April is the best time to go. Today was a glorious day in the Marin Headlands, full sun after many days of rain and gray cloud cover. The area has no waterfalls, but I could hear the water in willow-shrouded streams in the Rodeo and Tennessee Valleys. Rivulets ran down the trail in some places. I've been to Tennessee Beach at least a dozen times, and normally there's no stream flow beyond the small dam that creates a lagoon near the beach. But this time the water overtopped the dam, meandered across the beach, and rushed into the sea.
I could only imagine the thunder of Big Basin's three waterfalls on Berry Creek, and the dozen waterfalls on Marin's Cascade Creek. Right now, these falls are flowing fuller than some of the celebrated waterfalls in Yosemite Valley, where nearly all the water in the high country is still frozen as deep snow. But anyone who braved the soggy trails to Cascade and Berry Creeks today must have been richly rewarded.
The hills of the Marin Headlands were many shades of green, from the light, almost yellow color of the ground-hugging flower Footsteps of Spring, to the dark green of last year's leaves on evergreen scrub. Here and there, the early native wildflowers were blooming: White flowers I saw blooming included milkmaids, wild strawberry, California blackberry, star lily, miner's lettuce, wild cucumber vines, and a single, just-starting-to-bloom elderberry tree in Tennessee Valley.
Yellow flowers included California buttercup and sun cup. Franciscan paintbrush is both yellow and red. Very few golden poppies were blooming. But the special treat was the blue-purple ground iris on the Old Springs Trail above Tennessee Valley. I also counted nine species of non-native flowers. The most common was the neon-yellow Bermuda Buttercup, a striking clover-like South African weed that you've probably noticed, possibly in your backyard -- it's difficult to miss. Altogether, I counted 23 species of flowers blooming.
I saw some wildlife, too. First, a dark grey hummingbird with a bright red patch on its throat. It was so motionless, sitting on a branch of coyote brush, that I thought at first it must be a fake. On the Old Springs Trail, I saw a young coyote searching for gophers. A grazing deer. And the ubiquitous black turkey vultures.
The Tennessee Valley parking lot was full, as usual on a sunny Sunday. But the trail was uncrowded, even with a couple hundred people scattered over the two-mile stretch to the beach, Marin County's most popular trail (it's so easy almost anyone can do it). Lots of parents with small children. Everyone was having a good time. I even saw a one-year-old in the handlebar basket of a mountain bike piloted by Dad. Lucky kid.
August 15, 2009
Night of the Shooting Stars in Marvelous Marin
Just finished two tours with visitors from outside the U.S. -- three French Canadians joined me for the four-day Point Reyes Backpack, and today three Korean college students trekked with me from Muir Woods to Stinson Beach.
Both trips were carefully planned to avoid the crowds of visitors who visit our national parks this time of year. At Point Reyes, we started our trip on Sunday, first going to Tomales Point to see the rare, majestic tule elk -- an animal hunted to near-extinction during the Gold Rush. Right now, the male elk have antlers as big as a moose's -- which makes it difficult for them to hide. Sure enough, we saw them in a deep, lush, green valley.
Later in the day, as local Californians were clearing out the big parking lot at the Bear Valley Visitor Center, and heading home at the end of the weekend, we started our backpack. We walked west through Bear Valley and Divide Meadow, and ended the day at Glen Camp, a quiet clearing in Point Reyes' extensive Douglas fir forest. This serene spot seems like it's a thousand miles from the nearest freeway (actually, it's about 30).
On Monday we pushed on through the forest, skirted a freshwater wetland that was a riot of greenery, then emerged from the forest onto the top of a coastal bluff, looking hundreds of feet down to the ocean and the scrub-covered hills and headlands beyond Wildcat Camp. This campsite is set in a gigantic natural amphitheater facing the ocean. We camped there two nights.
After setting up camp, we hiked to Bass Lake -- the Bay Area's best natural swimming hole -- for a swim. When you're swimming in the middle of this deep, cool, clear lake surrounded by alders, bay trees, and Douglas firs, you can't see anything made by humans. Talk about getting away from it all -- here, it seems like the Garden of Eden -- no streets, no buildings, just Nature.
The next day, we walked two miles along the beach to Alamere Falls, a series of four waterfalls, the last of which leaps off a 40-foot cliff onto the beach. These miraculous falls have plenty of water throughout the California coast's long dry season, when all other waterfalls go dry. Waiting for us on the beach near the falls was a flock of at least 30 pelicans. After seeing the falls, we clambered up a steep, rocky pathway to a narrow trail that led us up to the main trail -- and then back to Bass Lake for another invigorating swim!
Back at camp, we ate dinner, opened (and finished) a bottle of Bonterra cabernet sauvignon, built a bonfire at the beach, then retired to our tents for the night. Luckily, I couldn't sleep -- because as I lay there looking up at the sky, over the course of about an hour, I saw at least seven shooting stars. One of them lasted long enough that I raised my head to see if it would splash down in the ocean! It was the peak night of the annual Perseid meteor shower. It's always a treat for me, since I can hardly see the stars at all when I'm home in San Francisco, due to the city lights and summer fog. Thankfully, the fog remained offshore this night at Wildcat Camp.
Another treat at Wildcat Camp were the barn swallows, flitting all over the camp at incredible speeds, making impossible sudden turns to snatch their diet of mosquitoes and other insects out of the air. And each day we also saw other wildlife -- seals on an offshore rock; brush rabbits, lizards, and deer on the trail.
On Wednesday we hiked the final 12 kilometers (about 7.5 miles) back to our starting point. On the way back to San Francisco, we stopped in the isolated town of Bolinas, a place where the 1960s never ended.
Today (Saturday), three Korean students joined me on the Muir Woods to Stinson Beach walk on the Dipsea Trail. A flashing sign near the Golden Gate Bridge told us that the Muir Woods parking lots were already full. No matter -- we parked a half mile away from the Muir Woods entrance and started up the Fire Road, and soon we were on the Dipsea Trail.
While Muir Woods near the entrance was mobbed with hundreds of visitors, we saw only about a dozen on our five-mile journey to the beach. Plus fantastic views of the ocean, San Francisco and the Marin Headlands. The Stinson Beach parking lots were also full -- but we didn't need a parking space. After splashing in the ocean and making sand castles, we caught the West Marin Stage back to a place near Muir Woods, and walked the final two miles through the forest, emerging at the entrance at 6:00 pm (a far less crowded time).
May 4, 2009
Six California Nature Tours in Eight Days
It's been a busy week at California Nature Tours -- I've led six different tours of natural areas in the San Francisco Bay Region in the past eight days. Everyone on the tours got a chance to see the Bay Area at its greenest, in the midst of wildflower season.
I took the first group for a hike on San Bruno Mountain -- the mountain that almost everyone flying out of San Francisco, or driving between San Francisco and the airport, sees without really noticing. Yet it's enormous -- three miles long and rising 1,314 feet out of San Francisco Bay. Thanks to 40 years of effort by San Bruno Mountain Watch, it still sprouts more than 400 species of native wildflowers, shrubs, and trees -- though it's surrounded by cities. From the summit we could see 50 miles in every direction, including the Farallon Islands 25 miles offshore. We also visited an ancient Indian village site in a wind-sheltered "sweet spot" at the foot of the mountain.
On Monday there was a smaller group of just three women -- two friends from Solano County, 50 miles northeast of San Francisco, hoping to beat the inland heat, and a visitor from Israel. We met near the Golden Gate Bridge Toll Plaza and walked the Coastal Trail through the Presidio and Land's End, both part of the Golden Gate National Parks. It was cool, sunny, and windy -- very invigorating. Much of the trail is sheltered from the wind, giving everyone a chance to warm up just when we needed it. Views of the Golden Gate, the Marin Headlands, and the Presidio were outstanding.
Tuesday I was in the office, except for a seven-mile run in Golden Gate Park just before dark. Wednesday I set off with the Israeli visitor for the lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore. From San Francisco, it takes an hour to drive to the National Seashore's southern boundary, then another hour to reach the Point itself, jutting westward into the ocean -- you don't expect such vast open space just 30 miles from the downtown traffic jams. The last ten miles is rolling grassland with wildflowers and historic dairies, some abandoned, some still working. After seeing the lighthouse, we drove just a few minutes to another vantage point to watch hundreds of elephant seals lolling on a beach -- the northernmost population of this species, which was hunted to near-extinction a century ago, but started returning to this area in the 1970s.
Thursday was a military history tour of the Presidio and the Marin Headlands for two men visiting from Perth, Australia.
We clambered over century-old fortifications where huge guns once pointed seaward from the Golden Gate. On the Marin side, a Cold War veteran gave us a tour (Wednesdays through Fridays only) of the nation's only restored Nike Missile Base, where sleek 50-foot missiles lie ready for action in case of nuclear attack. The place was decommissioned in 1974, but everything looks just as it did on high alert in the 1950s. We watched a missile rise from its underground lair and point skyward, then rode with it on a giant elevator down to a cavernous concrete room with three more missiles. Behind a heavy metal door, we crowded into a cramped, secure chamber where two keys had to be inserted to fire the weapons.
Later, while we walked through a concrete gun emplacement overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge from the north side, we heard the low rumbling engine of a World War II-vintage plane, and looked up just in time to see a P-47 Thunderbolt fly over, banking sharply, close enough to see the pilot. It was history, roaring to life!
On Friday, I guided two couples from Minnesota over the Dipsea Trail from Muir Woods to Stinson Beach, five miles distant. Rain threatened, but that doesn't deter Minnesotans, who have to deal with some of America's coldest weather back home. We walked uphill through a seldom-visited part of the giant forest, and listened to the stillness.
At one magical moment we watched a doe with her motionless two fawns, all watching us "doe-eyed," then stepping gingerly through the grass. Thankfully, only a few raindrops fell -- until we got on the West Marin Stage, which took us through an unseasonal downpour to the Mountain Home Inn for hot drinks.
Saturday was my day off -- just a three-mile walk to raise funds for the National Brain Tumor Society, and a five-mile run, both in Golden Gate Park. I can't slack off now, with San Francisco's annual 12-kilometer Bay to Breakers Race just two weeks away!
Sunday was my annual ten-mile hike at Henry Coe State Park for the Greenbelt Alliance (www.greenbelt.org), an environmental group that has had amazing success at holding back the tide of urban sprawl in the San Francisco Bay Area for the past half-century. Again rain threatened, but we felt only a few drops. This huge wilderness area of oak-covered hillsides, far bigger than neighboring Silicon Valley, was deserted except for us 11 hikers. All experienced the soul-renewing peacefulness of "Mountains and Rivers [seemingly] Without End," to quote the title of a book of poetry by Gary Snyder. Thanks to the unseasonal cool, cloudy weather, no one broke a sweat -- incredible, considering the uphill return to our starting point at the historic Coe Ranch.
Today, I'm back in the office again -- but when I close my eyes, there are visions of California's unique natural landscapes that remind me why I started California Nature Tours!
April 5, 2009
Wildflowers Abound at Mt. Diablo; Watch Out for Ticks
Yesterday at Mount Diablo State Park's Mitchell Canyon, we found 57 species of native wildflowers, including the extremely rare Mt. Diablo Fairy Lantern (we saw at least 10, more than I've seen previously), yellow wallflowers, the diminutive goldfields, red maids and fluffweed, and shrubs like black sage, yerba santa, buckbrush and jimbrush (two species of ceanothus). Not all were in bloom (the sunflower-like Mule Ears will bloom in about a month), but most were. And we covered less than four miles of trails.
Mount Diablo has tremendous biodiversity because its many folds, slopes, and ridges create habitats ranging from shady and wet to hot and dry, and elevations from 100 to more than 3,000 feet. It's also a botanical crossroads, the eastern limit of many coastal plants, such as coast live oak, and the western limit of interior plants, such as the gray pine. And it doesn't suffer from cattle overgrazing, like many of the East Bay Regional Parks.
Mary Bowerman, a botany major at UC Berkeley in the 1930s, decided to do her senior thesis on the plants of Mt. Diablo; she found so many species it became her PhD dissertation, published as "The Flora of Mt. Diablo." In 1971, she cofounded Save Mt. Diablo to stop urban sprawl from covering the mountain; it's been largely successful.
Sometimes you'll want to step off the trail to see some wildflowers up close, or to sit down and eat lunch. If you do, be sure to check yourself afterward for ticks. These tiny bloodsuckers are not just bothersome, the bite of one species, deer ticks, can infect you with Lyme Disease, a sickness that can sap your strength for years. If you find a tick biting, lift it off and put it in a plastic bag, and bring it to your doctor to identify within 48 hours of the bite. Or see the photos on www.update.com, a medical website that updates doctors and patients about the latest medical treatments.
Or if there's no tick to be found, but you find a bite mark with a circular ring around it, go to your doctor within 48 hours and ask for a dose of Doxycyline, an antibiotic which can defeat Lyme Disease before it starts. It should be taken within 72 hours of the tick bite.
If you live in San Francisco, you don't have to go far to see native wildflowers. More than a dozen natural areas are remnants of the original Franciscan ecosystem, including Twin Peaks, Glen Canyon, the east side of Mt. Davidson, Bayview Hill, and the coastal trail in the Presidio. But don't wait -- spring wildflowers bloom just once a year, so be sure to get to a natural area this month to see them.
March 10, 2009
Waterfalls, Orchids Wowed Bay Area Nature Lovers, Flower Fans Last Weekend
San Francisco Bay Area hikers got a drought-year treat last weekend as rain-fed waterfalls throughout the region spilled over cliffs and rocks in almost every county. In Marin, California Nature Tours had a capacity tour group of 18 people walking to Cataract Falls on Mt. Tamalpais' north slope. The Falls -- more than a dozen of them along less than two miles of trail -- represent about half the region's total waterfalls.
Elsewhere in the region, waterfalls were in fine form in Mt. Diablo State Park's Donner Canyon, Devil's Well east of Napa, Little Yosemite (ordinarily a misnomer) at Sunol Regional Park near Fremont, Uvas Creek County Park south of San Jose, and Big Basin State Park in Santa Cruz County.
Visibility was also tremendous. From Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, I could see downtown San Jose, about 60 miles away, through my binoculars.
Meanwhile, in a dockside warehouse at San Francisco's Fort Mason Center, an astounding, eye-popping spectacle of nature and culture was underway -- the Pacific Orchid Exposition. Hundreds of species and varieties of orchids with thousands of blooms in every possible color, shape, and size were on glorious display. Don't miss it next year -- February 25-28, 2010 at the same location.
March 3, 2009
San Bruno Mountain Was a Popular Spot Last Saturday; Salmon Seen in Muir Woods
San Bruno Mountain is the most-seen, but least-known mountain in the central Bay Area, just south of the San Francisco/San Mateo County line. It looms over San Francisco airport, and if you look down while taking off from SFO, you've seen it right below you. I was surprised, but happy to find four groups on the mountain last Saturday: I was with the Greenbelt Alliance, and there was also San Bruno Mountain Watch, the California Native Plant Society, and volunteers with the Heart of the Mountain ecological restoration project.
I was also heartened to see and hear the babbling streams, all flowing after a soggy February. This is happenning all over the Bay Area, and the flow of Redwood Creek at Muir Woods last week was strong enough to allow salmon to make the upstream journey to their spawning grounds there.
Coho salmon have a three-year life cycle, and they must spawn in the third year -- they can't wait out a drought by staying in the ocean, like steelhead trout can. If they don't make it to their spawning stream one year, there will be none to return three years later.
Back at San Bruno Mountain, wildflower season is still in its early stage. We saw two species of manzanita, shrubs shaped by the fierce, cold summer winds at the summit to spread over the ground just six inches high. One was in bloom, with thousands of tiny lantern-shaped pink and white flowers. We saw yellow Footsteps-of-Spring, which flourishes in bare, rocky places. And purple-pink coast rock cress, and cream-colored Franciscan Wallflower, and yellow Oregon Grape (aka Mahonia) and camouflaged Mission Bells (aka Chocolate Lily).
But there is a non-native predator on the loose on San Bruno Mountain's Saddle Area that's threatening the flocks of California Quail, other birds, and small rodents. It's the common house cat, which has eliminated quail in San Francisco's three biggest parks: The Presidio, Golden Gate, and McLaren. Since quail stay mostly on the ground, cats can pursue them into their hiding places in the shrubs. And kill them. Park management is aware of the problem, and has posted a sign forbidding people from feeding the cats. A better solution would be to trap the cats and remove them from the park before they eliminate the quail from San Bruno Mountain. After all, what's the point of having the quail as a state bird if most California residents never see one?
February 10, 2009
Wet Weather Brings Waterfalls, Wildflowers
At long last, rain! I've been waiting for a heavy rain to make the Bay Area's waterfalls flow, and this is it! Hopefully, it won't be the last big storm this year, but if you want to see waterfalls, better go soon -- President's Day Weekend may have the year's best waterfall action. Anyone care to join me for a waterfall walk? There are three great ones in Big Basin State Park and a dozen small ones on the north slope of Mt. Tamalpais.
The rain is also growing the wildflowers. Right now, pink flowering current is the most spectacular -- it's a shrub that appears to be covered with pink ornaments, which upon closer inspection turn out to be clusters of little pink flowers. Later in the year, the flowers turn into currants -- delicious, black, little round berries. Also appearing now are several white wildflowers -- strawberry, huckleberry, California blackberry, milkmaids, wild cucumber, and the foot-high, sky-pointing spikes of star lily, aka Zigadenus fremontii. On San Bruno Mountain and in the Marin Headlands, you can also see the cream-yellow Franciscan wallflower, which grows only in these two places.
Along city streets throughout the Bay Area, thousands of tiny pink blossoms on otherwise bare cherry and plum trees are giving us their short-lived spectacle of color. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of these splashy pink trees in San Francisco. They're especially visible in the Castro and Mission Districts, and Golden Gate Park.
And if you see a neon-yellow flower growing by the hundreds, it's probably Goat's Foot Oxalis, Oxalis pes-caprae, aka sourgrass. This is an extremely agressive invasive South African plant which spreads like wildfire and is almost impossible to eradicate without herbicides. If you spot it in your garden, don't be tempted by the flowers to leave it alone, pull it out! Its tiny bulb will stay hidden underground and resprout, but if you pull out the resprouts again and again, you'll eventually kill it. The flower stalk is edible, but (hence the name) sour as a lemon.
Another rainy season treat is the edible Miner's Lettuce or Indian Lettuce. The round green leaves taste much like lettuce, only sweeter. California Indians and Gold Rush miners used to eat it because it was the most abundant edible native green available in the winter, thus the names. Now, for the first time, a vendor is selling it at San Francisco's pricey Embarcadero Farmer's Market. Here's hoping you'll see a rainbow this rainy season!
January 23, 2009
Elephant Seals Steal Hearts at Ano Nuevo
They're the biggest, baddest form of native wildlife you'll see on land in the San Francisco Bay Area. They're also rather endearing, despite their ugly, floppy snouts. They're elephant seals, hundreds of them hauled out on the beaches of Ano Nuevo State Reserve, on the California Coast about 50 miles south of San Francisco. Males can weigh up to 5,000 pounds, as much as an SUV. Females usually weigh about 1/4 of that, and newborns about 60. We saw plenty of them last Sunday, basking in the sun, motionless except for when they use their front flippers to brush sand on themselves.
Right now, during mating season, you can't go see them without a ticket reserved weeks or months in advance. But they're there almost all year round, so if you want to see them on the spur of the moment, go during Spring or
Summer, when the crowds (of people, that is) thin out. They're more popular during the winter mating season, when you may see the spectacle of two males battling for supremacy, or a female giving birth to a pup.
I've seen one of these battles before -- two huge, brown, slug-like animals without hands or feet miraculously rise up to at least seven feet in height and bite each other repeatedly on the neck until one gives up and slinks away. We saw no battles Sunday, but we did see a birth. The first sign of it was that birds -- squawking gulls and crows -- gathered around the birthing mother and started making a racket. They were after the protein-rich placenta, and as soon as the pup popped out, they ignored the pup, but fought over the placenta. The pup was a wet, dark chocolate brown, who soon raised his head seeking a teat to suckle.
Every elephant seal birth is a victory for the species, which was completely wiped out in California by hunters in the 1800s. They're no good to eat, since their meat reportedly tasted like rotting fish. They were sought purely for the oil in their blubber, which was used, like whale oil, as fuel for lamps. Luckily, a tiny population of about 20 animals was discovered surviving on an island off Baja California in the early 1900s. Of the 20 survivors, only one was an adult male. They came within a hair's breadth of extinction. But protection efforts since then have paid off, and they are estimated to number more than 100,000 now.
Starting in April, I'll be leading guided tours of Ano Nuevo State Reserve, including the scenic drive down the Coast from San Francisco with California Nature Tours . Interested? Call me at 415-971-5201 for details.
January 2, 2009
Go Wild in the City Sat. Jan. 10 at Crissy Field!
If you live around San Francisco, you've probably heard about the coyotes that have moved into the city in recent years. But what about all the wildlife that was already here, surviving under the radar? And I don't just mean the skunks, raccoons, and crows that have adapted well to urban life, thanks to a never-ending supply of dog and cat food.
On the city's coastline, everyone knows about the sea lions at Fisherman's Wharf. But have you seen the Western Snowy Plover, a tiny brown-and-white shorebird that skitters at the edge of the surf at Crissy Field and Ocean Beach? That's just one of 33 threatened and endangered species that live in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco's backyard national park.
You'll find all 33 of these species at www.ggnrabigyear.org. If you'd like to see two of them in the wild, the Western Snowy Plover and the Brown Pelican, join me at the Crissy Field Center (near Sports Basement, adjacent to Crissy Field) in the Presidio of San Francisco at 1:00 pm on Saturday, Jan. 10, 2009. If you can't make it, I've got plenty more Nature Walks you can take to keep your New Year's resolutions this year -- check them out at www.CaliforniaNatureTours.com .
A couple of weeks ago, on Nob Hill, from the window of a friend's apartment, I observed a peregrine falcon less than twenty feet away from me, perching on a tree branch, picking at the carcass of a smaller bird. A few days later, outside the window of my 19th floor SOMA office, a red-tailed hawk circled around the top of a new skyscraper next to the east end of the Bay Bridge.
Golden Gate Park also has raptors. Last year, running on a trail near the Polo Field, I saw a hawk fly up from the ground to a branch just 10 feet above me, a dead rat clutched in its talons. Back in the 1970s, I used to see brush rabbits on Golden Gate Park trails, but not any more: Feral cats, which proliferated in the 1980s and 1990s, ate them.
Almost every winter day at my office, when I look out my south-facing window right at sunset, I see a huge flock of small birds passing the window, heading northeast to a nighttime roost -- God knows where. On Twin Peaks, one spring day I saw a native garter snake slither out of the bush.
Also on Twin Peaks, I've seen banana slugs -- California's native land mollusk, today frequently seen in redwood forests, but formerly everywhere. Why? Because they can only eat California's native plants -- not the non-native plants and weeds that currently dominate the urban landscape. Twin Peaks is a remnant of San Francisco's original landscape.
November 6, 2008
Heavy Rains Ring in California Nature's New Year
Happy New Year! Not the calendar New Year, but California's Natural New Year usually begins in early November with the first heavy rains. For months, the land had been parched and still, the trails dusty, the streambeds dry or nearly so, the wildlife hiding in shady spots to avoid the hot sun -- as usual here during the dry season. By Halloween, there had been no significant rain in most of California for seven months. Then suddenly the weather changed.
Dark clouds moved in from the Pacific Ocean, bringing with them humidity and the smell of moisture in the air. The rains began intermittently on October 31, then drenched coastal and inland California on November 1. The parched landscape turned soggy. I ran a four-mile cross country trail race that day at China Camp State Park on the Bay shore near San Rafael in Marin County, splashing through dozens of puddles on the trails, while getting wet and cooled by the falling rain.
The soil soaked it up, and beneath the surface, the thirsty roots of native trees and shrubs drank deeply. On the surface, hidden in dry grass, the seeds of grasses and wildflowers germinated and began to grow. The rainy season -- the growing season for native plants and trees in coastal California -- has begun. Coastal California's only other season -- the dry season, aka the fire season -- is over. The annual rebirth of California Nature is underway. Get off the asphalt, look closely at the ground, and notice the seedlings. If the sun is out, you may see steam rising from the wet earth. It's the land breathing a sigh of relief that the rains have finally returned.
October 3, 2008
Bold Coyote and Other Wildlife Sightings at Point Reyes
Last Sunday, we started out on the Palomarin Trail, the southern entrance to Point Reyes National Seashore, with high hopes of a swim at idyllic Bass Lake. The weather was cool and foggy, and it stayed foggy, just a little too cold for a swim. But we saw plenty of wildlife. First was a bold coyote who showed up less than 10 feet behind me on the trail, totally unafraid of humans. There was another group of people about 50 feet behind me. I could hardly believe my eyes -- I had never seen a coyote at such close range. It stepped off the trail, but remained less than 10 feet away.
Clearly, it was looking for a handout from my lunch. This boldness in Marin County coyotes is something new. Within the past year, the National Park Service began posting warning signs in Rodeo Valley in the Marin Headlands, saying stay away from the coyotes, and don't feed them. Apparently, somebody (or somebodies) had been feeding them. But feeding wild animals is like giving them a death sentence. They get hooked on the easy life of human food, and they expect it. Without fear of people, they start coming into conflict with us. People then complain to the authorities, and in most cases, a contract hunter is called out to kill the animal(s).
This is exactly what happened in Golden Gate Park last year. Two coyotes moved in -- most likely from Marin, by way of Golden Gate Bridge and the Presidio. People began feeding the coyotes. They began fighting with dogs. People complained, and the coyotes were shot.
The coyote on the Palomarin Trail eventually moved on, but it's too bold for its own good. So please don't feed a coyote or a bear, even if it looks starved. Let nature take its course. It's kinder to the animals than feeding them.
Other wildlife soon greeted us. There were flocks of California Quail, our official state bird. Quail roamed San Francisco's Golden Gate and McLaren Parks in the 1970s, but only a tiny flock in the GG Park Arboretum remains. The rest were eaten by domestic cats people dumped in the parks, the real basis of the feral cat colony in the late Phil Frank's cartoon series in the SF Chronicle, Farley. The Arboretum's fence, which excludes cats, is the only reason quail survived there. At Point Reyes, it's great to see them flourishing -- in the absence of domestic cats. Wildcats eat quail too, but that hasn't seemed to put a damper on the quail population. But in urbanized areas, you'll seldom see your state bird, because they're wiped out by house cats on the loose. Want to save birds? Keep your cat inside.
Then came the brush rabbits, timid little creatures venturing out of thick brush on both sides of the road to eat grass and seeds. They're not fast enough to outrun predators, but their gray coloring camouflages them perfectly, and they don't stray far from the protective cover of scrub. Finally, while driving out of the Point Reyes National Seashore, we stopped three times to observe native black-tailed deer in the cattle-grazed grasslands just outside the park boundary. This time of year, deer like grasslands better than the park's scrub-covered hillsides. Most of the park was grassland when the Park Service bought out most of the cattle ranches and dairies. But over past 40 years, native scrub species have moved in where cattle have been moved off.
September marked 46 years since President Kennedy signed the bill to create the park in 1962. It took another ten years to buy the land. If you want to see what it looked like before 1962, find a copy of Island in Time, the Sierra Club book by San Francisco author Harold Gilliam, the dean of California's environmental journalists. The late David Brower, Sierra Club Executive Director at the time, designed the book and put a copy on the desk of every Member of Congress and the U.S. Senate. The Point Reyes National Seashore bill was sponsored by Northern California Congressman Clem Miller, who died in a plane crash a month after it was signed. Kennedy was assassinated a year later. And California's U.S. Senator Clair Engle (a man), who steered the bill through the Senate, died of a brain tumor a year after that. Their lives were cut short, but they saved an Island in Time for all time.
September 10, 2008
Return to the Burn: San Bruno Mountain
On the night of June 22, as more than a thousand lightning-sparked fires burned throughout California, a wildfire of unknown origin began at the bottom of Owl Canyon on San Bruno Mountain's north face, about three miles north of San Francisco International Airport. The fire raced up the canyon and over the ridge, and spread into nearby Buckeye Canyon, burning nearly half a square mile containing some of California's most undisturbed native plant communities. Since then, a miracle of nature has occurred: Thousands of native trees, shrubs, and herbs burned in the fire have resprouted with new shoots up to two feet high, in the midst of the dry season.
The burn area is obvious to anyone driving south from San Francisco on the 101 Freeway. From a mile or two away, it looks devastated. But I walked through it last Sunday with San Bruno Mountain Watch founder David Schooley, and up close it's a different story. Almost every charred bush has a bundle of new foliage emerging from the ground like a green ruffled collar around its main stem. Oak trees have clusters of new green leaves bursting here and there from their brances. Bracken ferns and California blackberries by the thousands have sprouted on the bare ground. California's native plants evolved with fire, and they're adapted to quickly bounce back.
I even saw a cool- and moisture-loving banana slug hunkered down in a perennially wet spot in the burn area. Nearby, a few bright yellow Seepspring Monkeyflowers were blooming. Also at ground level, anthills in the burn area were bustling with ants -- one of the Bay Area's more than 200 species of native ants (the ones that infest our homes are non-native Argentine ants).
Farther up the slope, we stopped to rest in an unburned half acre or so, and a couple of fast-moving hummingbirds buzzed over us. Still, it was a far different landscape than before the fire. Thickets of poison oak that had grown since the last previous fire in 1939 had vanished. Only a few tiny sprouts of poison oak were coming up. Entire hillsides once dotted with native bunchgrasses more than a century old were completely bare and brown.
Whether these native grasses will regenerate is anybody's guess. The seeds may be there, but local botany buffs know that non-native grasses grow too fast and thick to allow the slow-growing natives to regain a foothold. The non-native grasses will win the competition for sunlight and space if their seeds are present. For centuries, native grasses easily survived the California Indians' frequent ground fires, but this was an inferno that consumed 69 years' accumulation of fuel.
I'd been to Buckeye Canyon at least a dozen times since my first visit in 1986, but I'd never noticed the forest of native Islay Cherry covering several acres -- possibly the only forest of this species in the Bay Area. All their leaves had been burned off, but they were vigorously resprouting from their living roots. What makes all this new growth amazing is that there hasn't been a drop of rain since Spring. All the new sprouts lose water through respiration. The only source of water in this dry environment (save for a few wet spots where groundwater moistens the surface) has been the plants' own roots. And in those wet spots? Water-guzzling willows have sprouted new shoots more than four feet long.
Burned wildlands across California are now resprouting in a similar fashion. You don't have to go all the way to Big Sur to see it. Just take a walk with San Bruno Mountain Watch, or watch their video of the fire and its aftermath, at www.mountainwatch.org.
August 1, 2008
Muir Woods to Stinson Beach Hike -- Twice!
Last Saturday I led a family from County Cork, Ireland on a guided hike from Muir Woods to Stinson Beach. The following day, I led another group on the same exact route -- but thanks to California's changeable coastal weather and unpredictable wildlife, the experience was far different.
Saturday was clear, dry and warm when we arrived at Muir Woods. The youngest child was nine years old -- a year younger than I usually allow on this five-mile hike, but her Mom and Dad assured me she should could make it. Luckily, the hardest part is at the beginning -- a steep climb from shady Redwood Creek to sunbaked grassland on the Dipsea Trail, an old Miwok Indian route from Mill Valley to the ocean. The Miwoks agreed with mathematicians that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so they went in a nearly-straight bee-line up and out of Mill Valley (a route so steep it's now traversed by 572 steps), down almost to sea level at Redwood Creek, then steeply up and over the southwest shoulder of Mt. Tamalpais.
The hot sun slowed our progress for a short time, but then we re-entered the redwood and Douglas fir forest, stopping to pick and eat ripe wild huckleberries and thimbleberries. The shade lasted until the trail leveled off and took us across a grassy hillside with a fantastic view of the Pacific Ocean, Marin Headlands, San Francisco, and San Bruno and Montara Mountains in the distance -- a view that visitors on tour buses never see. On the sunny parts of the trail, finger-sized lizards made frequent appearances.
We then descended into a steep ravine named, naturally, Steep Ravine. Beneath Canyon Live Oaks, Bay Trees, and redwoods, we followed the switchbacks downward. I remember there were no switchbacks here when I ran the Dipsea Race back in 1975 -- it was a headlong plunge downward, with the bark on young oak trees worn smooth by thousands of runners' hands grabbing them to slow their descent from breakneck to just hazardous. Switchbacks, never used on Indian trails, were added later to prevent soil erosion on the overused near-vertical slope.
Several hundred yards later, we heard the sounds of water in a stream, and then crossed it on a narrow wooden bridge -- one of the few streams in southern Marin County that flows even during the long dry season. Beneath the bridge, one of the kids spotted a small fish, most likely a fingerling trout, progeny of the half dozen full-sized trout we saw in the cool, clear water of a pond behind a small dam another hundred yards downstream.
Having reached the bottom of the ravine, we had to climb out the other side, but it was a short walk to another spectacular view, this time looking north to Stinson Beach, Bolinas Lagoon, and Inverness Ridge in Point Reyes National Seashore. We ambled down into the beach town, and onto the beach, with just enough time to catch the West Marin Stage -- a bus -- back to the Mountain Home Inn, a restaurant on a scenic perch high on the ridge overlooking Mill Valley and San Francisco Bay. It took environmentalists nearly 80 years to win protection for the lands we had walked through in a day, but it only took half an hour to cross it on a bus.
I had only one taker -- the Irish Dad -- for the final two miles through Muir Woods back to our starting point. We returned to Mountain Home with the minivan to pick up the others for the ride back to San Francisco. And the next day, I did it all again with a different group -- only this time, it was foggy and cool most of the way. There were even muddy places in the trail from the fog moisture dripping from the trees. And at the beach, we watched the spectacle of a flock of pelicans diving into the surf repeatedly, like avian bombs, to catch small fish. The hungry birds were oblivious to wet-suited humans boogy boarding only a few yards away.
These two back-to-back, but varied tours reminded me of something pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson once said: "Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life."
July 3, 2008
Point Reyes Lakes and Waterfalls
The first stop on last Sunday's tour was Bolinas Lagoon, where a group of eight to 10 seals typically waits out low tide on a sand bar. They're so motionless that from a distance they look like driftwood -- until one of them waves a flipper. Sure enough, the "driftwood" could be seen with naked eyes, but viewed through binoculars they were clearly seals.
Then we drove on to the Palomarin Trailhead, about 10 miles farther, which is the southern entrance to Point Reyes National Seashore, for my favorite hike in the San Francisco Bay Area. With our daypacks, we headed north, first going through a grove of Australian Blue Gum Eucalyptus trees that's the most visible remnant of a religious community that lived on the site in the 1930s to 1950s. The grove had been thinned considerably since last year, in an effort by the National Park Service to preserve historic trees that predate the park, but clear the ground for the return of native plants, which can't survive the shower of Eucalyptus leaves and bark from a thick stand of Eucalyptus.
Leaving the trees behind, we headed through a mile of coastal sage scrub, sampling ripe California blackberries along the way, as well as a few thimbleberries and salmonberries, which grew near creeks. But we did not, however, eat the shiny, inedible, red elderberries. At two and a half miles, we stopped for lunch at one of California's prettiest lakes -- Bass Lake, so called because its wealthy owner once stocked it with bass for private fishing parties. The fish are long gone, and the lake is back to its natural state -- fishless, but still deep, cool, and surrounded by native forests of alder, bay, and douglas fir.
At three miles, we passed Pelican Lake, in a bowl-like setting overlooking the ocean, and then headed to Alamere Falls, a series of four year-round waterfalls that tumble down a series of cliffs to the beach. The falls never stop because unlike other other waterfalls in the San Francisco Bay Area, they're fed by springs, not rainfall.
If tour buses could drive to Alamere Falls, it would probably be as crowded as Muir Woods. But Alamere Falls' beauty is all the more satisfying because you have to earn it by walking there. And on the return trip, along a clifftop trail, we used binoculars to see all four of the Farallon Islands. Which is four more than the tour bus crowds ever see.
June 22, 2008
Big Sur and its back country
Last week's Big Sur tour is the only one on our schedule that starts on a military base -- Hunter Liggett, in Monterey County. We start there because it's a huge piece of unspoiled, natural California -- vast oak savannahs and hills west of King City. But this time, as we approached Mission San Antonio, giant white and gray smoke clouds rose in the distance from "The Indians" fire, which has burned 50,000 acres (about one-and-a-half times the size of San Francisco) in the past 10 days and is still burning.
Mission San Antonio is the only one of California's 21 Spanish missions that still looks like it did in the mission era, because it's so isolated. Originally on the Spanish trail grandiosely named "El Camino Real" (the Royal Highway), it was bypassed by railroad builders in the late 1800s and by highway builders since then. William Randolph Hearst bought the area from cattle ranchers in the early 1900s, as part of his huge property surrounding Hearst Castle, then the U.S. Army bought it for a training base just before World War II.
The Salinan Indians once populated this area, and a few of them still do -- we passed their meeting house on the road from King City to the ghost town of Jolon, just inside the Hunter Liggett property.
Firetrucks passed the mission on their way to the fire, which was burning a remote area of the Los Padres National Forest adjacent to the military base. Fires in the Big Sur back country are virtually unstoppable because the terrain is steep, dry, brushy and mostly roadless. Next spring, however, the seemingly dead shrubs will sprout new greenery from their living roots. Like all the native plants, they are well-adapted to fire.
We skirted the fire by several miles, crested the ridge of the Santa Lucia Mountains, then descended toward the coast -- just two miles, as the crow flies, from the ridgeline. The ocean was covered by a vast blanket of fog, and as soon as we entered it, the temperature dropped by about 25 degrees Fahrenheit -- one of the world's most dramatic weather changes in the space of about 200 meters.
A few minutes later, we hit coastal Highway 1, turned north, and pulled into Limekiln State Park, where we camped. The next day, we walked through a cool, lush redwood forest along a clear, rushing creek that bounded downhill in many small waterfalls. Almost every mile along the Big Sur Coast, another clear stream tumbles out of the mountains and into the sea.
This exemplifies Big Sur -- cold streams dropping precipitously out of the hot, dry, steep mountains into cool redwood forests and then plunging into the sea, most dramatically at McWay Falls, in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
The biggest stream on this coastline, the Big Sur River, doesn't plunge into the ocean, but winds its way through a narrow coastal valley, through oaks, then redwoods, then sycamores and alders. But you can plunge into it, for a bracing swim in a deep swimming hole, like we did. Join us on next year's Big Sur trip to experience these natural wonders of California -- and more.
May 27, 2008
Last Wildflowers of Spring; Marin Eco-History
Throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, observant hikers are now seeing the final native wildflowers of Spring: Buckeye trees covered with hundreds of stunning stems resembling white bottlebrushes; deep pink Clarkia, aka "Farewell to Spring"; and in shady places, the tiny light pink blooms of Starflower, and the white star-shaped flowers of Thimbleberry.
A few earlier wildflowers, like Douglas iris and Crimson Columbine, still bloom in the darkest, coolest, shadiest spots, such as on the trails of Tomales Bay State Park in Marin County, where I went on Sunday. This park is one of many natural areas of Marin that the Marin Conservation League (MCL) saved from development.
The MCL was founded by four women in 1934. All were active members of the Marin Art and Garden Club: Carolyn Sealy Livermore, Sepha Evers, Helen Van Pelt, and Portia Forbes. They also oversaw the county's first planning survey in 1934, which guided county planners for the next 36 years.
These four women worked tirelessly to save land and build Marin's environmental movement in the 1930s through the 1960s -- more than 30 years. During this period, these four women successfully raised private funding, and lobbied for public funding to purchase and protect the lands that became Tomales Bay State Park, Samuel P. Taylor S.P., Mt. Tamalpais S.P., Stinson Beach, Angel Island, and the Richardson Bay Wildlife Refuge.
Carolyn Livermore founded the Angel Island Foundation in 1945, when World War II ended, to advocate for transforming the island from military base to park. At the urging of Livermore and the MCL, the California State Parks Department acquired the island in three land purchases in 1954, 1958, and 1962. Livermore passed away in 1968, and Angel Island's peak was named Mount Livermore in honor of her 17-year effort.
The MCL was also involved in the successful campaigns to create the Point Reyes National Seashore, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the Marin County Open Space District in the early 1970s. The last of the four founders, Sepha Evers, passed away in 1976. But they left a fantastic legacy: They saved some of the county's best natural areas forever.
May 7, 2008
Did Killing Cougars Wipe Out Yosemite Wildflowers?
A new study on the ecological impact of efforts to extirpate mountain lions from Yosemite Valley in the 1920s suggests that cougar removal triggered a chain reaction of changes throughout the area’s food chain, ultimately destroying oaks and wildflowers that once thrived on the valley floor. The report by Oregon State University’s William Ripple and Robert Beschta was published online in the journal Biological Conservation.
According to the scientists, removal of the cougars, predators at the top of the food chain, allowed deer to proliferate in the valley. The deer ate oak seedlings but not conifer seedlings, allowing the conifers (pines and firs) to eventually overshadow and replace most of the valley’s oaks. This caused once-common wildflowers like evening primroses on the forest floor to die out, and be replaced by conifer-friendly ferns and grasses.
From 1907 until 1963, the State of California paid a bounty on mountain lions to anyone who brought in the head or skin of one. During the 1920s and 1930s, the state also employed two professional cougar exterminators who responded to any report of a mountain lion by bringing in their trained hunting dogs. The dogs generally tracked down the big cat and chased it up a tree, where it would be shot by the hunter. At the time, cougars were regarded as harmful “varmints” (vermin) that preyed on people and livestock. The science of ecology has since proven John Muir’s saying that all living things are “hitched to everything else.”
Mountain lion hunting has been outlawed in California since 1972, except when the State Department of Fish and Game issues a “depredation permit” to allow a specific cougar to be hunted down and killed if it has been attacking livestock or threatening people. Attacks on people are extremely rare. No one has been killed by a mountain lion in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1909, when a sick, rabid lion bit two people near Morgan Hill in Santa Clara County. The bites were not fatal, but the rabies was.
Take An Hour Walk: Wildlife and Solitude By I-280
People in cars whizzing through the Crystal Springs Watershed on I-280 in San Mateo County are often struck by the way I-280 divides urban areas on its east side from pristine watershed lands on its west side. These watershed lands are a haven for wildlife, and portions of them are open to the public. One such area is the Sawyer Camp Trail, the county’s most heavily used trail, which begins just north of Crystal Springs Dam (beneath the Doran Bridge on I-280). Another is the Sheep Camp Trail, which can be reached from I-280 southbound at the exit to a vista point about one mile south of the I-280/92 Interchange.
The trail west of I-280 is only a mile long, but it’s like stepping back in time to the 1800s. The freeway is out of sight, out of hearing. The trail is usually deserted, except for wildlife. Walking at dusk, you see deer, and maybe some California quail and brush rabbits – amazing furry creatures that survive the long dry season without water except the morning dew on (and in) plants. When the trail ends, continue south on Canada Road ¼ mile to the San Francisco Water Department’s historic 1934 Pulgas Water Temple, which has reopened after several years of closure. And just south of that are native oak savannah, a huge mansion, and gardens of the Filoli Estate, where Dynasty was filmed in the 1980s, and deer roam. Turn around, retrace your steps, and you’ll be back at the vista point in half an hour.
April 23, 2008
Everything Blooming Everywhere
Over the past two weeks, I've been on hikes, runs, and shorter walks in the Marin Headlands, San Bruno Mountain, Wildcat Canyon Regional Park in the East Bay, and Golden Gate Park. The good news is, there are more flowers in bloom than any other time of year. Even the native Poison Oak has flowers on it, if you look closely (but don't touch!). Some early wildflowers are still out (generally on the north slopes of hills, where they don't get much sun), and some late ones (like orange Sticky Monkeyflower) are already out (generally on south-facing slopes, facing the sun all day).
The bad news is, it will be over before you know it.
The weekend of April 12-13 was unseasonably hot, speeding up the flowering of the late-bloomers. Everything on San Bruno Mountain April 12 was still green and lush, but it was as hot and dry as early October, foreshadowing the dry season to come. The next day I led a hike in the Marin Headlands where we identified 95 different plant species, mostly native wildflowers and shrubs in bloom.
On April 18, I led an elementary school field trip at Wildcat Canyon, starting at Alvarado Park in Richmond. There, we looked at the ancient Ohlone Indian bedrock mortars used not just for grinding acorns -- in addition to large round depressions (diameter 3-6") there were also small, 1-2" diameter round depressions in the rock believed to have been used by Indians pulverizing minerals for body paint and other ceremonial purposes. While walking along Wildcat Creek, the kids also observed an Anna's Hummingbird making its characteristic "J" flight of mating season -- slowly up to the top of the "J," perhaps 100 feet above the ground, then suddenly straight down to about 30 feet, then turning rapidly up to about 50, completing a "J" in about two seconds flat. Annual grasses in the hills above the creek were still green, but were scattering their seeds, in their final act before dying and drying for the summer. Hundreds of tiny pollywogs swam in a drying pond in inch-deep water, fascinating some of the kids, who drew closer until they sank ankle-deep in mud.
In Golden Gate Park, Spring's arrival is heralded by two species of the native shrub Ceanothus (aka Blueblossom, California Lilac), and two species of exotic flowering cherries, all visible in the less-manicured western half of the park. First come the deep blue Ceanothus with tiny dark leaves, making a striking blue shrub. Simultaneously, the delicate, light-pink cherries blossom, while the trees are still leafless. A couple of weeks later, the roles are reversed: A different flowering cherry covered with fist-sized deep-pink blooms commands everyone's attention, while another Ceanothus, with large leaves and light blue flower stalks, makes a more modest show.
It's a great time for birding in Golden Gate Park, with birders reporting seeing up to 80 species on a single outing. Red-tailed hawks cruise the skies looking for unwary gophers and other rodents. Swallows dip and dart over lakes, catching mosquitoes. A great blue heron regularly hangs out at Elk Glen Lake, probably making its nest on the island in Stow Lake. Honking geese fly over Spreckels Lake at dusk.
Don't miss this once-a-year burst of blooms and activity. Shut down your computer. Go outside and see it.
April 11, 2008
Wildflowers Shine on Mt. Diablo -- Thanks to Mary Bowerman, Art Bonwell
On April 6, David led a group of wildflower lovers through Mount Diablo’s Mitchell Canyon in search of the rare Mt. Diablo Fairy Lantern (Calochortus pulchellus) a rare native lemon-yellow tulip that grows only in a few spots on the mountain – and nowhere else. The searchers spotted about a dozen of the plants, each with a flower or two blooming. It’s just one of 650 species of plants found on the mountain, making it one of California’s richest examples of botanical diversity.
We can thank the late Mary Bowerman not just for her book on Mt. Diablo’s flora, published in 1944, but for her determined and successful efforts to save it from urban development. In 1971 she and fellow Sierra Club activist Art Bonwell founded Save Mount Diablo. The group has lobbied constantly for state and local funding to purchase and protect open space lands on and around the mountain. Bowerman remained an active board member until her death at age 97 on August 21, 2005.
The CNT wildflower walkers didn’t see this species, but they did identify dozens of others. Even before reaching the park entrance, everyone drove by a grassy hillside covered with thousands of blue Ithuriel’s Spear (Triteleia laxa), a perennial that grows from an edible bulb once harvested and eaten by California Indians. Along the trail were bushes festooned with yellow daisies – Interior Goldenbush (Ericameria linearifolia). Deep in the rocky canyons were vines of white-flowered Virgin’s Bower (Clematis ligustifolia), and bushy blueblossom (Ceanothus). And purple-and-white lupines (a tiny annual and a bushy perennial) and Chinese Houses (Collinsia), yellow-and-black violets (Viola pedunculata), pink serrated onions (Allium serra), off-white Fern Phacelia (Phacelia distans), and many more.
The mountain is not just a visual landmark, but one of California’s greatest examples of botanical diversity. No one paid much attention to it until Mary Leolin Bowerman, an undergraduate botany student at U.C. Berkeley in 1930, began trekking all over the mountain cataloguing its plants for her senior thesis. But there were so many species she continued the project as a Master’s Thesis, and finally a Ph.D. dissertation. She found more than 600 species of plants on the mountain, most of them native. She also accounted for the incredible diversity: Mt. Diablo sits at a kind of botanical crossroads between the weather extremes of cool coast and hot interior, and between species common to the north Coast Ranges, and the south Coast Ranges. And, it has varying elevations, geology, and sun exposure, creating a mosaic of different micro-habitats.
Back in 1936, she had been the last person to see the extremely rare Mount Diablo Buckwheat (Eriogonum truncatum) alive. For nearly 70 years, the species was presumed extinct. Then, on May 10, 2005, just months before her passing, a botany student rediscovered it on the mountain, completing, in a sense, her life’s circle. Botanists are now collecting its seeds and propagating the plant to ensure it does not vanish again.
April 3, 2008
Sweeney Ridge, Crystal Springs Trail Bike Ride
At the west end of suburban Sneath Lane in San Bruno, the houses stop abruptly and the road narrows, dips suddenly downhill, and ends at an intimidating metal gate. Beyond it lie the unpopulated, scrub-covered green hills of Sweeney Ridge, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the Crystal Springs Watershed. Last Sunday I led nine fat-tire bicyclists on a rare excursion into these untrod lands.
After helping each other lift our bikes over the fence, we started up the long, narrow paved road to the ridge. It was built about 50 years ago to provide access to a Nike Missile site, abandoned since the missiles became obsolete a few years later. Instead we visited a much more significant historic site: two monuments marking the discovery of San Francisco Bay by a Spanish land expedition under the command of Gaspar de Portola on November 2, 1769. This, for the Bay Area, was the dawn of recorded history.
Of course they weren't the first people to discover the bay, and they knew it. "[The soldiers] had seen an immense arm of the sea or estuary," wrote diarist Miguel Costanso, who was on the expedition. "They had seen some beautiful plains studded with trees . . . from the columns of smoke they had noticed all over the level country, there was no doubt that the land must be well-populated with natives."
Our bicycle expedition headed south, now on a dirt road along the top of Sweeney Ridge. In the distance stood Montara Mountain, a dark green wall on the south edge of Pacifica. Eventually we came to a higher, even more intimidating gate of silvery metal, which swung open for us, thanks to prior arrangement with the San Francisco Water Department, and my status as a docent. We entered the vast Crystal Springs Watershed, larger than the city itself, which has been almost completely forbidden to the public since 1914.
Inside the watershed gate, the hills got steeper, and the brisk wind stronger, until finally we stopped for lunch in a wind-sheltered area. Along the way we'd seen wildflowers, such as light yellow Footsteps of Spring, purple Douglas Iris, and deep yellow Wallflower, but not in profusion. The Water Department and its pre-1930 predecessor, the Spring Valley Water Co., have excluded people and fire since 1914, and cattle since 1940. Without fire and cattle, coastal scrub species, especially Coyote Brush, have advanced at the expense of grassland and wildflowers.
After lunch, we took a short walk, just a few steps farther down the road. And suddenly, on the almost-bare rock of a road cut just a few feet high, we saw: The rare, dark pink-flowered Coast Rock Cress, in full bloom, by the dozens. Before this, I'd never seen more than three or four of these little plants together. By exposing the rock, more than a half century ago, the road builders had created perfect habitat for this species, and we were there at just the right time of year to see it in bloom. It only grows on rocky areas of coastal scrub and grassland from Sonoma to Santa Cruz Counties -- and it's difficult to find even if you know where to look.
The ride back was mostly downhill, and we made good time without much effort. It was an exhilirating, cool, windy day with a great group of people and fantastic views of the ocean, the bay, Montara and San Bruno Mountains. But the dark pink Coast Rock Cress made it even better.
March 15-16, 2008
San Bruno Mountain Walk, Sawyer Camp Trail Bike Ride
San Bruno Mountain looms like a wall between San Francisco and the Peninsula, forming a steep green physical barrier that separates the city from the suburbs. Drivers speed past it on the 101 and 280 freeways, paying little attention to its huge bulk. Most people in San Francisco can't see it, because their view is blocked by the city's hills. But from certain spots, like Mount Davidson, Twin Peaks, and the tops of certain downtown high-rise buildings, like the one I'm in on the weekdays, it's absolutely huge, even though it's several miles away.
Those who make the effort to find their way to the mountain's summit, like the group I was with on March 15, find a lush, diverse miniature forest of native shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers. Within a 200-yard distance, we identified five species and subspecies of the native shrub manzanita, including two that live only on San Bruno Mountain, one that grows mostly on Montara Mountain 10 miles to the south, and one that grows all around the world's northern areas. Rarely, if ever, can a botanist find five different, yet closely related plants in a natural habitat within spitting distance of each other. Luckily, Ken Himes of the Santa Clara Chapter of the California Native Plant Society was with us to tell them apart. It's not easy -- four of them are low-growing mats of shrubbery that look similar, except to experts. Some of the manzanitas were in bloom, with their tiny lantern-shaped white flowers.
But my favorite plant find of the day was San Francisco Campion, a three-inch high flower that's a member of the "pink," or carnation family. Fairly common in San Francisco during the Gold Rush Era, the flower is now extremely rare, existing only as a few isolated individuals on San Bruno Mountain. And it has a melodic Latin name: Silene verecunda verecunda. We saw one individual -- and marveled at its survival.
We also marveled at the audacity of destruction proposed by would-be developers of San Bruno Mountain in the mid-1960s: They wanted to decapitate the summit, and dump the top 200 feet of the mountain into the Bay to create a filled area ten miles long and a mile wide. San Francisco Bay Guardian owner Bruce Brugmann broke the story when he was working for a Redwood City newspaper, and public outrage killed the plan -- but it took 20 more years of struggle before most of the mountain was purchased by the state and San Mateo County, and opened to the public as a park in 1985.
The next day, I took a bike ride with a friend on the Sawyer Camp Trail, a paved bike path that parallels I-280 between the freeway and Crystal Springs Reservoir. The trail is an old wagon road once used by Sunday picnickers from San Francisco, who gathered beneath a huge old Bay tree now marked as the Jepson Laurel -- the state's largest California Laurel. "Jepson" refers to the state's late, great, pre-eminent botanist, UC Berkeley's Willis Lynn Jepson.
The path winds through oak and bay forest, and is cool and green all year round. But this day, every 50 yards or so, we saw huge numbers of bright red Indian Warrior (Pedicularis densiflora), an eight-inch high, Christmas-tree shaped plant whose top two or three inches is deep red. My friend observed that Indian Warrior seemed to have a relationship with the trees, for it was growing almost exclusively beneath the branches of large trees, mainly oaks.
And the profusion of Indian Warrior was fantastic -- thousands upon thousands of them. I'd never seen more than a couple of dozen on any single day before.
So if you want to see an example of California wildflowers in numbers seen by early botanists, hurry down to the Sawyer Camp Trail and look for the fields of red beneath the trees.
February 18, 2008
Habitat Restoration Volunteer Day at Mori Point
On Saturday Feb. 16, three groups of volunteers met at Mori Point in Pacifica to restore habitat for the endangered California Red-legged Frog and San Francisco Garter Snake: Pacifica residents, California Nature Tours, and a group from the San Francisco Zoo. It was a beautiful sunny day on this headland overlooking Pacifica's longest beach, and people had a great time learning about the new ponds, planting native plants, and seeing early wildlflowers.
Luckily, photographer Dale Mead was on hand to record the event. Here's a link to the photo gallery he made on Flickr: Check it out, then come back here to read more.
Until now, the rare and endangered frog and snake have lived in wetlands surrounding a couple of natural ponds known as Laguna Salada in the Sharp Park Golf Course, owned by the city of San Francisco. A dike built decades ago between the golf course and the beach made the ponds fresh, rather than salty. Both species live only in an around fresh water.
The stunningly beautiful blue-red-and-black striped snake, known to biologists as Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia, is especially vulnerable because it lives only in a few freshwater wetlands in San Mateo County -- nowhere else in the world, except for those living in captivity at the Zoo or in private collections outside the U.S. (possessing it here without a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a violation of the Endangered Species Act). The problem is that eventually, the ocean will breach the dike, turning the ponds salty again, and the frog and snake will die out when that happens, unless there's suitable habitat above the reach of the salt water.
So the National Park Service, with funding and staff support from the nonprofit Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy (GGNPA), brought in heavy equipment to excavate three ponds, each a little higher than the other, to give the frogs and snakes extra habitat, and a refuge when the dike is breached. Sue Gardner of the GGNPA explained how the area around each pond site was painstakingly checked to make sure no frogs or snakes would be harmed by the excavators. The pond sites were fenced with snake-proof fencing extending 14 inches underground, and every gopher hole within the fencing was checked for snakes. None were found, so the excavators went to work.
In one of the pond sites, the excavator struck soil contaminated with diesel from an earlier use of the site. The toxic soil had to be removed and sent to a hazardous waste landfill -- which is much more expensive than disposing of clean soil. All three ponds were constructed so they'd be filled naturally by rainwater, and they were. Volunteers then helped plant rushes and other wetland plants around the ponds. This work was all done by the time we got there, so Sue put us to work planting native upland plants like Phacelia and Lizard Tail to restore a former eroding trail that's been replaced (a short distance away) with wooden stairs, as seen in the photos.
Those who walked to the top and out to the end of Mori Point saw the pink wildflower known as Checkerbloom, or Sidalcea malvaeflora. It's a member of the mallow family of plants, one of which, growing in marshes, was formerly used to make a confection called marshmallows. People started adding so much sugar to the confection that they eventually began leaving out the mallow entirely -- today they're made entirely of sugar, though they're still called marshmallows.
To find out more about the Red-legged Frog, San Francisco Garter Snake, and all 33 endangered species of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, go to GGNRA's Endangered Species Big Year, then come on back and see what's next on our tour schedule.
February 7, 2008
What's So Great About Banana Slugs?
Did you know that banana slugs can lower themselves from trees to the ground on a thin strand of slime? And that banana slugs are the official mascot of the University of California, Santa Cruz?
Some people think banana slugs live only in redwood forests. In fact, they live in forests, scrub, and grasslands as far south as the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, in some parts of the Sierra, and in the coastal mountains from Santa Barbara north to Alaska. But they can't eat most plants that are not native to California, and that's why we don't see them in most urban areas -- too few native plants to eat.
Instead, there are the ubiquitous French garden snails and European slugs. French restrauteurs brought their snails to the Bay Area from France in the 1850s and raised them in a San Jose vineyard so they could be served in San Franciso restaurants. Needless to say, they didn't stay put in the vineyard, but spread out across the agricultural and urban landscape as an invasive non-native species.
The San Francisco Bay Area has the greatest diversity of all banana slugdom. The most common banana slug, Ariolomax columbianus, lives in the natural (hilly) areas of Santa Clara, Alameda, Marin, Sonoma, Napa, and Solano Counties. Another species, Ariolomax californicus, lives only in San Mateo County. A subspecies, Ariolomax californicus brachyphallus, lives only in San Francisco and northern San Mateo County. Another species, Ariolomax dolichophallus, lives only in Santa Cruz County. These last three are never spotted and often a vivid butter yellow color. Want to know more? Ask for "The Banana Slug," by Alice Bryant Harper (Bay Leaves Press, Aptos, California, 1988).
January 30, 2008
Muir Woods Salmon and Slugs
A few days ago I led the second of two walks in Muir Woods, a week apart. What a difference a week makes! On Jan. 20, it had not rained for more than a week, and Redwood Creek was down to nearly summertime low water levels -- just a few inches deep, and clear. A week later, after constant rain, there was about 10 times as much water in the creek, the water was cloudy, and rivulets running across the trail from the previous night's rain.
On the 20th, we heard from long-time Muir Woods Ranger Mia Monroe that it was an extraordinarily bad year for salmon spawning -- only two returning Coho salmon had been seen, and one of them was eaten by a river otter. There was no known spawning success. This does not, however, mean that the species is gone from Redwood Creek. On the creek walk, we saw two tiny fish which, on closer examination (with binoculars, from a distance of only about 12 feet), turned out to be a Coho salmon fingerling and a steelhead trout fingerling. The steelhead was brown, the Coho a very light brown, almost white.
Last summer I also saw Coho salmon smolts (juveniles about five inches long) Redwood Creek just inland of Muir Beach. Two researchers from Point Reyes National Seashore had live trapped them, counted, and measured them before putting them back in the creek. They've been swept out to sea by now by the heavy rains of Jan. 22-27, and with luck they'll be returning to spawn in January 2010.
They'll probably need it. On January 30 the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Fall run of Chinook salmon returning to tributaries of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers had dropped to 90,000, the second-lowest ever. The lowest was only slightly lower in 1990, the fourth year of a drought, which is always tough on fish that spawn in shallow creeks. This time there was no drought. No one yet knows what caused the population crash, but it could be something these salmon have in common with the coho in Redwood Creek. It may be that conditions in the ocean have changed, such as a shortage of the salmon's food resources -- the shrimp that give salmon meat its orange color.
On Jan. 27, we saw no fish in Redwood Creek, but that doesn't mean there weren't any. We walked only one mile along Redwood Creek, and were unable to see the creek at all times. The water was cloudy. The fish may have come the next day, or the next. And still expected are the steelhead trout, which return to spawn in Redwood Creek in late January through March. At least we saw the slink pod (or fetid adder's tongue -- a foul-smelling flower) and a banana slug!
Both the Muir Woods walks were part of the GGNRA Endangered Species Big Year, a series of events to see and save the 33 endangered species in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area -- more than any other park in the continental U.S. For details, go to www.ggnrabigyear.org , and check our schedule for Feb. 16, when I'll lead a free walk and habitat restoration outing at Mori Point, to see and help save the California Red-legged Frog and the San Francisco Garter Snake.
January 13, 2008
Birding at Ocean Beach in San Francisco
It was a beautiful clear winter morning when we started from the San Francisco Zoo entrance at Sloat and Great Highway. We walked north on the trail next to the Great Highway, stopping here and there to scan the beach with binoculars, in hopes of seeing the tiny, endangered Western Snowy Plover, a shore bird. After about a mile, someone spotted a couple of plovers running at the edge of the waves, looking for even tinier critters to eat. Plovers' tiny legs move incredibly fast.
We continued north onto the concrete ramp that abuts the beach for a few hundred yards. And there, not more than 20 yards away, were several plovers sitting on the sand, resting, together with several similar birds, sanderlings. From a distance, these two species look the same -- small birds that run along the edge of the surf. But close-up, there were differences in color and markings. The plovers are brown with distinctive white patches that give them what looks like a brown collar. The sanderlings are more grey all over, and slightly larger. We saw about a dozen of each. They're both so small they seem like chicks compared to the much larger gulls.
Watching them resting on the sand, as far inland as they can go on the beach, we could see the challenges to their survival. They are hemmed in between concrete and surf. They want to keep a safe distance from dogs and people, but at high tide there's little room for this. When people or dogs get too close, they must flee. Off-leash dogs can exhaust them by running after them, leaving them vulnerable to predators and too tired for sex. Big black ravens, whose population has soared in recent years, eat plover eggs.
Ocean Beach between Sloat and Lincoln Way (the edge of Golden Gate Park) is posted as a protected habitat for Western Snowy Plovers. There are only about a hundred of them in San Francisco, divided between Ocean Beach and Crissy Field in the Presidio. So please, dog owners, keep your dogs on leash on the stretches of beach where you see the signs about the plovers. And beach walkers, give the plovers some breathing room by staying close to the surf's edge, not the dry upper beach where plovers rest. The tiny birds and bird lovers thank you!
Dec 30, 2007
A Winter Day in the Marin Headlands
It was a beautiful bright, clear, cool day in the Marin Headlands. The view from Battery 129 -- also known as Hawk Hill, the highest hill overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge -- was fantastic. I was there guiding a group of visitors from Germany, in my best, but hardly grammatical, German. We sampled a few young leaves of Miner's Lettuce -- a tasty salad green that's the San Francisco Bay Area's commonest edible native plant. California Indians and Gold Rush miners ate it because it tastes good and prevents scurvy. It's a fast-growing annual that only grows during the rainy season.
Later, near the park Visitor Center in Rodeo Valley (in the former military base chapel), I saw my first wildflower bloom of the rainy season -- tiny white-green flowers on a thick twining vine of wild cucumber. In summer, those flowers will become green spiky balls with three hard bean-like seeds inside -- not edible.
The Visitor Center, with its second-to-none collection of park-related books for sale, will be closed for renovations all through January. If you're there and need to see a live person who works in the park, go to the Marine Mammal Center, also in the Rodeo Valley. But the bathrooms and water fountains at the Visitor Center will be still be open.
November 12, 2007
Rodeo Beach, Five Days After Cosco Busan Oil Spill
November 12, 2007: Today was my first chance to get to the shoreline since the 58,000-gallon oil spill from the cargo ship Cosco Busan on November 7. Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands was closed, and no oil was visible, only cleanup workers in white and yellow protective suits. But just off the beach, the stench of oil was powerful. Still, this disaster involves a lot less oil than the disastrous tanker collision beneath the Golden Gate Bridge in January 1971, which spilled more than 800,000 gallons. In time, the coastal environment recovered.
A mile inland in the Rodeo Valley, there was no hint of the Cosco Busan spill. The air was clean on my hilly eight-mile trail run from the Rodeo Valley, through Gerbode Valley, to Tennessee Valley and back again. As I headed downhill in the final mile, I rounded a turn and saw a coyote bounding off the trail only 30 yards away-- and then, a minute later, another coyote ran off the trail, then stopped and watched me pass by. It was the first time I've seen two of these dog-like animals in a single day. Maybe they were cooperating in their hunt for rodents.
October 27, 2007
China Camp State Park
China Camp State Park's Miwok Meadows was quiet on this sunny morning, until someone blew a shrill police whistle, signaling about 150 runners (myself among them) to start the Tamalpa Runners' annual 4.6-mile cross country race. About half an hour later we returned, one by one, sprinting across the finish line.
This park, with its forested hills and grasslands rising from a pristine salt marsh along the San Pablo Bay shoreline, is far too beautiful to rush through in half an hour. So I scheduled a group to meet me for an easy afternoon hike to China Camp, about two miles distant.
China Camp is a the last of about a dozen Chinese shrimp fishing villages that dotted the shores of San Pablo and San Francisco Bays in the late 1800s. The largest was probably at San Francisco's Hunters Point, before the U.S. Navy built a naval shipyard there in 1940. China Camp was undisturbed, but the shrimp catches declined over the years. Then, in the 1950s, the California Department of Fish and Game discovered a new, meatier species of shrimp in the ocean outside the Golden Gate. Soon, nobody wanted the smaller Bay shrimp anymore, except as bait for sturgeon. Only a lone shrimp fisherman remained at China Camp when the state bought the land for a park in 1977.
And he's still there! Now in his eighties, Frank Quan still lives in his family home at China Camp, and occasionally goes out on the Bay in his boat, sets out his nets, and brings back shrimp. We missed seeing him, but visited the excellent historical museum hidden in a ramshackle building at the shore end of a pier jutting into the Bay. On the way back, we walked through Miwok Meadows again, where the race started and finished earlier. This time, all was deserted and still, except for a dozen deer, quietly grazing. We got within 10 yards, watched them for a while, and they hardly noticed. We moved on, silently.
October 8, 2007
Paradise in Point Reyes
October 8, 2007: This was the year's third and final trip to my favorite spot on earth, a certain lake in Marin's Point Reyes National Seashore. This is the best natural swimming hole in the Bay Area, about 100 yards across, cool and very deep, set in a natural bowl clothed with oaks, bay trees, and douglas firs. After mid-October, the water's too cold for a long swim here. There's even rope swing to drop you into the lake, if you don't mind a scary plunge downward, then up, before you let go!
Also on this day trip, we walked to the Bay Area's only natural year-round waterfalls. All the others dry up during the summer/fall dry season. Miraculously, these three waterfalls-- the third one plunges over a 40-foot cliff onto the beach-- gushed forth as always.
Only two people joined me on this magnificent sunny Columbus Day holiday, and at first I wondered why so few. There weren't many other people on this usually-popular trail either. Then suddenly it was clear: Hardly anyone gets a Columbus Day holiday anymore! It's a real shame, since early October has some of the Bay Area's best weather for swimming-- it's much sunnier and warmer on the coast than summer. We're planning to go back to this lake and the waterfalls in late June, and July as part of our Nature Camp at Point Reyes, and maybe once more in late September/early October-- on a weekend.
June 3, 2007
Pathfinding Trip to Big Sur a Big Success!
We headed south from San Francisco to the Salinas Valley, then west into the vast Hunter-Liggett Military Reservation, a timeless landscape of oaks and rolling hills that is unchanged since the days of Mission San Antonio-- which has been restored to its glory days of two centuries ago, and sits in a valley near the center of the base.
San Antonio is the only Spanish mission in California that's surrounded by natural open space, so visitors can really see what life was like here. All the others have long since been enveloped by cities and towns.
After a stop at the mission, we continued west, stopping only long enough to take a photo of a deserted military tank in an open field. Big mistake! A Military Police SUV was on us in seconds, demanding our film. "It says right there on the permit, no pictures!" But it was a digital camera, so the MP let us keep it.
We entered the Los Padres National Forest, crested the steep Santa Lucia Range in brilliant sunlight, and descended to the fog-shrouded coast, camping among the redwoods at Limekiln State Park. True to its name, the park preserves rusted old kilns that were used to make cement from limestone more than a century ago.
The next day we went north, stopping at waterfalls, beaches, and more state parks along this dramatic coastline. Leaving Big Sur, we passed through Monterey, with its world-famous (and justly so!) aquarium, which showcases hundreds of species of marine life, from sea otters to nudibranchs (sea slugs). This aquarium is a must-see for visitors, so it will be part of our 2008 tour!
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The redwoods were AMAZING! . . . a truly magical experience . . . I felt transported to another world, every step
yielding amazing sights, and
David has so much knowledge
about the flora and fauna
as well as local and national history . . .
I highly recommend David's unique personalised tours . . .
You'll remember it always, I know I will!
I was thrilled to find
California Nature Tours--
a San Francisco Bay treasure!
My tours to Muir Woods and
Point Reyes National Seashore
were relaxing, educational, and just magnificent.
I highly recommend David Schmidt and California Nature Tours.
You will come away feeling great and knowing you have seen California through the eyes of someone extraordinary.
You will love it!
Ms. G. K.
We really loved your wildflower tour, it was
a FANTASTIC day.
Beth M., Australia
In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.
The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.