Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Cherry on the Pie: A Thanksgiving Hike at Lake Earl Wildlife Area

Date: November 27, 2014
Place: Tolowa Dunes State Park, Crescent City, California
Length: 4.5 miles
Difficulty: moderate

Last year we visited Humboldt Bay NWR. On my way out of the visitor center I picked up a few brochures they had there for give away. One of them was the Tolowa Dunes State Park and the Lake Earl Wildlife Area brochure. When I was planning our Thanksgiving vacation this year I pulled that brochure out and added the place to our list of hiking options by Crescent City. Augmented by a strong recommendation from one of the town's local residents, Tolowa Dunes and the Lake Earl Wildlife Area became our prime destination for Thanksgiving Day hiking.

Our hike of Lake Earl Loop Trail, as captured by Papa Quail's GPS
The chikas were off school for the entire Thanksgiving week, which meant going on a week long road trip. We traveled north along the coast and had several fantastic hikes. The prime destination of our trip was planned to be Fern Canyon at Prairie Creek State Park and indeed it was. Sometimes though, it is another place, an unexpected one, that captures the eye and the heart. Such was the case with Tolowa Dunes and as such, I post it right away ahead of all the other hikes of that trip, while my excitement is still tingling and I can still feel the breeze on my face.

We chose to hike the Cadra Loop Trail at Lake Earl Wildlife Area. The forecast for the day was rain, but precipitation hasn't started yet when we woke up, and I was hoping to get as much hiking done before it did, so we arrived early at the trailhead.
The field near the parking lot provided the first surprise of the hike: flowers! Not many, but still. Flowers in end of November. Flowers that shouldn't be blooming at this time of year. Either they didn't read the book or the book has changed.
Beach Knotweed (Polygonum paronychia)
We took the Cadra Point Trail leading towards Lake Earl, hoping to see water fowl in the water. The trail transverses an open field and plunges into the woods. Nowhere in sights were any dunes. The trail, however, was being used by others, encouraged out of their hiding by the recent rains.
Rough-skin Newt
When I planned to hike in a place that has 'Dunes' in its name I expected to see sand. As it was, we were hiking in a wet forest of mixed conifers and bare-branched, broad-leaf trees. The forest undergrowth was lush with blackberry bushes, ferns and other types of vegetation. The ground was covered with a thick layer of humus and fallen leaves on their way to become humus. A heavy, earthy fragrance was in the air.
The stage center was held by fungi. They were everywhere.
Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor)
Fungi, the silent and mostly invisible link that connects the life cycle on earth. The organisms who break down dead plants and animals and return the nutrients to the soil. The organisms who form  associations with plants and algae, increasing their fitness and enhancing mutual survival. The organisms who grow out of sight inside soil or dead trees but pop out in a spectacular bloom following the rain. The organs we see, those we eat or avoid eating for fear of poisoning, those things we call mushrooms, are merely the fruiting bodies of the fungus.
Fungi are not plants. I underlined this statement because I heard too many people claim that they are. Fungi make their own kingdom, distinct from plants or animals. They may be silent and mostly out of sight, but they play a crucial role in a healthy ecosystem.
Most people see mushrooms only at grocery stores and, following rains, as they pop out of lawns and under trees. Most of these mushrooms look similar: small, dull-colored umbrellas with fleeting existence. In the woods, though, the variety of mushrooms is simply astounding.
Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria)
With my eyes constantly on the ground, it was easy for me to forget that I was walking in a forest. Until we came upon a clearing, that is.

And the clearing itself was a good place to look down at the ground.

This trail has a few side diversions that dead-end at Lake Earl. We skipped the first one but took the second one down to the lake. This side trails was overgrown with vegetation and it was hard at time to figure out where we were supposed to go. Some plants may have been unnecessarily trampled. Then again, it was an opportunity to see things that weren't by the main trail, like this yarrow in bloom:
Common Yarrow
At the end of the diversion trail we had to push through a thicket of willows, blackberries and reeds. Then the view opened up.
Lake Earl, view east
A heaven for waterfowl. But we saw very few of them there. Distant rifle shots attracted our attention and before long we detected the hunters far out on the lake.
Hunters at Lake Earl
If I were a duck I wouldn't be out in the open either, with them hunters about. Even as a Quail I felt very uncomfortable there, so I herded the family back on the trail. Papa Quail brought up the rear. In lieu of ducks he photographed a hawk:
Red-tailed Hawk
Once behind the vegetation barrier I felt more at ease and stooped down to look for more mushrooms.
Russula sp.
It was only when I got home and enlarged the images on the computer screen that I saw that some of them included tiny mushroom tasters too.

Some of the prettiest mushrooms were along that diversion trail to the lake.
Russula (rosea?)
And also some very un-mushroom-like mushrooms.
Purple Coral Fungus (Clavaria purpurea)
Back on the main trail we continued on northward. Half a mile further we saw the first and only dune on our trail.

To be honest, I must say that there were dunes all over the area. They were simply invisible under the vegetation. All the sand was bound down by roots and only at places where the earth was exposed it was clear that the soil is, indeed, sand.
"Look, Mom, Sunny side up mushrooms!" The chikas were yelling from behind me. Sure enough, there they were.
Bolbitius vitellinus
The 'sunny side up' mushrooms were right where the trail opens into a grassy area before the dune. By the trail side - one of the plants I saw blooming out of phase.
California Hedgenettle (Stachys bullata)
And another one, right in the grass: the selfheal, in full bloom, completely out of phase.
Common Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris)
And then, that red dot on the flower, enlarged: someone was enjoying the fall bloom.
Velvet Mite (Thrombidium holosericeum)
By the lake - a more fall-like scenery. A sea of grass waving before the lake. This is the best wind-shot I have from that hike. Trust me, it was blowing hard.

At that point we had a choice which I took - to continue on the narrow foot trail closer to the lake rather than on the wide dirt road which was Cadra Point Trail. Both were taking to the same place but I was hoping to see more interesting sights on the narrower trail. I was also hoping for a better view to the lake. 
There was no clear view of the lake on that trail, it was deep in vegetation. Trees, shrubs and tall grasses intertwined. This trail segment was also going up and down a lot, and occasionally so overgrown with plants that at points it was difficult to determine where to continue. We took it slow.
And all the while, I continued my fascination with the greenery. All kinds of them, even lichen.
 Lobaria Lichen (Lobaria pulmonaria)
Lichen, which are symbiotic organisms comprised of alga and fungus, grow on all kinds of substrates, including trees, standing or fallen.
Lobaria pulmonaria lichen with fungal fruiting bodies
Usually I pass them by, but some do catch my eye. This one, which at first I thought was a fungus, was so small that I was truly surprised to see that the photograph actually turned ok.
Lichen (Cladonia diversa)
That 0.8 mile between the dune and the intersection with the trail to Cadra Point took the larges part of our hiking time. Near the intersection we stopped for a snack break while Papa Quail took off on another diversion trail to take another look at the lake.
There are sand dunes under all this vegetation.
Once again on Cadra Loop Trail we were walking comfortably northward on a wide dirt road.
A few Douglas Fir overlooking Old Mill Rd
For a good mile the trail meanders through open prairie, dotted with occasional mushrooms or aster flowers.
Pacific (?) Aster ( Symphyotrichum (chilense?)
Most of the trees there were Douglas Fir. I couldn't tell, at first, because they were quite short representatives of the 3rd tallest tree species in the world. Foliage and cones, however,
are much better indicators than height.
Douglas Fir, bearing holiday decoration
After about half a mile we reached the intersection with Old Mill Road. From that point, Cadra Point Trail continues 2 miles more to the north tip of the peninsula that separates Lake Earl and Lake Tolowa. Going there, however, would have extended our hike well beyond the time we had, so we turned left and hiked southwest on Old Mill Road.
Right at the intersection point there is a bench overlooking Lake Tolowa, which is the western lobe of Lake Earl. Finally, we had clear view of the waterfowl.

Lake Tolowa
Papa Quail was happy.
Gadwall (male), mallard (female) and American Coots
The birds in the water were mostly coots. Coots are nice, but common. In between them, there were more exciting fowl, such as various duck species, cormorants, grebes and this beautiful pair of hooded merganser.  
Hooded Merganser, male and female
In the reeds: herons and egrets.
Great Blue Heron
And over everything, a northern harrier, ever searching for a bite.
Northern Harrier
The wind was picking up again, and soon we were back on our feet. The chikas started complaining: once again we overshot lunchtime. Luckily, there were enough interesting things along the way to get them distracted.
Like this HUGE anthill we saw shortly after the trail entered the woods again. Honestly, I have never seen anything like this before. It was so much bigger than any anthill I have ever seen in my life, and had many holes. The entire mound was swarming with worker ants, going in and out of the holes, some dragging pieces of plant matter.
I can't imagine all theses ants be progeny of a single queen. I am still looking for more information about this species.
Anthill. Actually, ant mountain. 
As far as ants go, this species is the beauty queen. They look so elegant!
Formica obscuripes
We all stood over the anthill lost in admiration for quite a while, and I must say that the ants were very patient with us and showed no signs of aggression whatsoever.
A few steps further down the trail we arrived at Beaver Pond.
Beaver Pond
We didn't see any beavers, but the pond itself was very pretty.
Beaver Pond Reflection
A cloud of little birds flew by. They were having fun in the wind.
A cloud of Pine Siskin
The chikas remembered they were hungry so we went on. We left the woods and were hiking in a mostly clear, grassy area with some tree groves here and there. There were a few old buildings near the trail, and I looked inside one of them to see if I could find anything interesting there, like bats. I didn't see any bats, but I did see yet another spring flower near that building.
Oregon Grape (Berberis aquifolium)
No, November isn't springtime! But it sure was nice to see flowers.
Seapink (Armeria maritima)
We increased our pace, and I resisted the temptation to stop and inspect every little thing along the way. But when the 'thing' presents itself right underfoot ... what can I do?
Why did the Banana Slug cross the road? 
As we neared the end of our loop trail we saw one more of those giant anthills, and more pretty mushrooms.  There is a lot to see in that place. An information sign posted at the last trail intersection listed six of the area's special organisms. We've seen four of them on that hike, we'll just have to visit again for the other two :-)
Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor)
What a place. What a fine find! While the Northern California Redwoods have international acclaim (and justly so), the pearl of Tolowa Dunes lies right beneath the tourists radar. I found about it by chance, and I feel like I hit the jackpot. We had some fantastic hikes on our Thanksgiving Break this year, but this one was my favorite. It topped them all.
The ultimate proof  that we hiked in wonderland

All of the bird photos in this post were taken by Papa Quail.

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying plants!

Also thanks to members of the California Wildlife Appreciators group for their help in identifying bugs :-)

And special thanks to CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist and to Dr. Horenstein and DR. Ward of UC Davis for identifying the mound-building ants. Such a fascinating species!


  1. Very beautiful hike indeed. I'm very impressed by the variety of the mushrooms.

    1. Ah, Moti, this is just a small sample ... in the woods there were so many more! To be continued, of course :-)

  2. lovely hike! and so many interesting mushrooms! how lovely!

    1. Thank you, my friend! For mushroom sighting, Northern California is a fantastic place to go! (As long as you don't mind the wetness).