Friday, June 30, 2017

Who wants a Hug? A Tour of the Cholla Garden (and other Sonoran Pricklies)

Date: April 19, 2017
Place: Joshua Tree National Park, Twentynine Palms, California
Level: easy

There was still plenty of daylight left when we finished our little hike at Barker Dam, so we turned the car south and drove to Cottonwood Spring. Our plan was to hike a bit over there and then check out the Cholla Garden on our way back north to Twentynine Palms. In one of the yards in town there I saw an ocotillo in full bloom and I was all jazzed up about seeing the ocotillo blooming in their natural place.
We didn't cover much distance before I pulled over to admire a large lupine shrub in full bloom by the roadside.
Silver Bush Lupine, Lupinus albifrons
After a long linger at the Cottonwood Spring visitor center we drove to the trailhead and headed down to the oasis.
A small group of fan palms marked the presence of water. It is a short distance from the parking lot.
California Fan Palm, Washingtonia filifera
I wanted to hike the Mastodon loop trail but only the younger chika wanted to come along, so I set out on the trail with her and left the rest to rest in the shade of the palms at the oasis.
Desert Senna, Senna armata
On our way we run into by now old acquaintances - the caterpillars of the sphinx moth. There were many of them, and they came in all sizes, and ate pretty much everything plant.
A Sphinx Moth caterpillar
The first part of the Mastodon loop overlaps with the trail to the Lost Palms Oasis, which I first hiked with Pappa Quail over 13 years ago.
4 years ago I hiked it a second time with my friend Anenet. We were out to look for the big desert bloom I had promised her. That year however, the bloom was very weak and disappointing. That trail was at the end of our big desert road trip, and it was only there that we finally got a nice taste of what the desert has to offer.
Small Desert Star, Monoptilon bellidiforme
But although it was the best display we've seen that year it was nothing compared to what unraveled before us now.
Mojave Aster, Xylorhiza tortifolia var. tortifolia
There was colorful bloom everywhere. Every plant, be it a shrub or an annual herb, was putting forth its best and most spectacular show, and the overall effect was absolutely stunning.
Desert Bluebells, Phacelia campanularia

While many of them I have already seen earlier that day, I also found there species that were new to me.
Sand Blazingstar, Mentzelia involucrata
Nearly all of them had not been blooming on my previous visit there. Some of them were quite challenging to photograph.
Thomas' Buckwheat, Eriogonum Thomasii
Others didn't look like much, but I was photographing everything with exaggerated enthusiasm, and later I found out that some of these are really unique plants.
Brittle Spine Flower, Chorizanthe brevicornu
We were about half a mile into the trail and still swooning from the superbly display when Pappa Quail caught up with us, sweating and out of breath. He had run all the way to inform me that I misread the map and that the Mastodon Loop was 3.5 miles long and not 1.5 as I thought. Oops ... if we want to see the ocotillo and the Cholla Garden we had to turn back and drive north now, otherwise we would not get there in daylight.
Cottonwood Spring, viewed from our turning point. 
We hurried back to the parking lot. Papa Quail took the young chika's hand and sped up with her while I took it a bit slower to leave. 
But Pappa Quail did stop a couple of times on his way back, on on one of his stops he caught this lovely lizard on camera. 
Common Side-bloched Lizard
We drove back north and stopped at the roadside where we had seen the ocotillo blooming on our way south. They really cannot be missed: they are just about the weirdest looking plants in that part of the desert.

Ocotillo, Fouquieria splensens
And when the ocotillo blooms it looks like flaming red candles, standing out brightly against the desert backdrop.

And we also got to see the pollinators in action: sphinx moths that was fluttering about in a low-pitch buzz, looking almost like hummingbirds.
White-lined Sphinx Moth pollinating an ocotillo
Only a bit more north there is the Cholla Garden, and there we went next.
Teddybear Cholla, Cylindropuntia bigelovii

The Cholla Garden is a dense field of a cactus called teddybear cholla. And they do look very cute, almost inviting a hug.

There is a short and easy loop trail in the field and although the chikas complained (they said they had had enough hiking for that day), be managed to get them out of the car and onto the trail.

Our stroll at the Cholla Garden as captured by Pappa Quail's GPS
They cholla were magnificent. And their bloom was in its beginning, far from peaking yet.

It was obvious that the cholla field had sustained damage due to the long drought years, but they seemed to be on the mend  when we were there.
Recovering cholla
And while the cholla was the dominant species at the garden, there were other plants there too.
Fremont Indigo Bush, Psorothamnus fremontii

Some were really small,
Cryptantha sp.

and others really weird.
Climbing Milkweed, Funastrum cynanchoides

The ground was littered with segments of cholla that had fallen off the bigger plants. I believe this is one way that the cholla reproduce - when a detached segment set roots in the ground where it had rolled to after detaching from the mother plant.

I accidentally stepped on one of these founded segments when I strayed off the path to inspect more closely an interesting plant nearby. Serves me right.
Desert Lavender, Condea emoryi
The sun was setting and the chikas were getting anxious. They demanded dinner. We collected back at the car and as we drove off I took a longing look at the cholla patch. We checked out several places in the park that day, hiked the Hidden Valley and the Barker Dam trails, and drove all the way to the south entrance and back. We had covered much ground, but I felt rushed, and once again feeling that this was but a taste. I was not yet sated.

On the way out of he park I stopped once more to photograph a shrub blooming by the roadside, a datura this time. We had the morrow still, one last day at Joshua Tree National Park, and I was determined to make the best of it. Indeed, it was the trail to Pine City that we hiked on the morrow that I finally got satisfied. 
Jimson Weed, Datura wrightii

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

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Bird's Heaven and A Birder's Paradise: Shollenberger Park and the Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility

Canada Geese over Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility

Dates: November 3, 11 and 12, 2016
Place: Shollenberger Park and the Ellis Creek Water Treatment Facility, Petaluma, California
Coordinates: 38.229431, -122.598254
Length: 4 miles
Level: easy

Last fall I scouted the North Bay in search of nice birding trails for our 4-H Hiking Project. I had my mind on the San Pedro NWR but thought I'd look around some more. A green spot on the map labeled 'Petaluma Marsh' grabbed my attention so I drove there. I couldn't find how to enter the place and soon was lost in some damp area that didn't look very inviting. I turned around and was making my way slowly back to the freeway when I saw an official looking pickup truck heading my way. As the truck approached I rolled down my window and hailed the driver, saying I was lost and asking for directions  to the Petaluma Marsh. The driver scratched his head, saying he wasn't familiar with any such place. Then his eyes lit up. "You must mean the Shollenberger Park," he said, and proceeded in giving me directions. It wasn't what I meant but I nodded anyway, seeing that I won't be getting to Petaluma Marsh that day. I was quite fine with checking out the Shollenberger Park instead.

I followed the instructions to the town of Petaluma and found the narrow road hidden between large industrial building that led to the park's parking lot.
After passing the reeds and brambles that block my view of the park the first thing I saw is a wide, shallow lagoon, flanked by reddish-brown wetland vegetation.
Shollenberger Lagoon
 An elderly birder approaches me and we engage in a small chat during which he points out to me a large bird on a human-made nesting box. It is a red-shouldered hawk and I am pleased to photograph it. That same hawk was present also a week later when I come back with my entire family, and Pappa Quail also took its photo, perched on a street light near the parking area.
Red-shouldered Hawk
The main trail of the park circumvents the large lagoon. I said goodbye to the birder and started going south, going counterclockwise around the lagoon.
Our hike on November 12, 2016, as captured by Pappa Quail's GPS
A short distance into the hike I saw hidden in the hedge a narrow trail fork, leading west. I turned to check it out. The trail crosses a narrow creek and continues west toward the freeway. I stopped on the bridge and looked down: a single snowy egret was prowling the mud, foraging. It looked a bit different than other snowy egrets I've seen - its crest and tail had a rusty color that stood out against the white plumage. That individual was a resident there - I've seen its photos posted by others onthe California Birding page. Sure enough - it was still there when I arrived there a week later with my family.
Snowy Egret, 11/12/2016
I returned to the main trail and continued counterclockwise around the lagoon. The western side of the loop is somewhat removed from the water, separated by a flat area of grass and shrubs. Near the shrubs I could see the large ears of jackrabbits moving about in the tall grass. I tried focusing on the hares for a clear photo when I detected another small, gray animal, about the rabbit's size but without the long ears - a domestic cat. It didn't move, but its presence made for a nice rabbit photobomb.
Surprise Cat
Of course the nicer photo of a jackrabbit was taken by Pappa Quail on my following visit there at the time of which the cat was nowhere to be seen. 
Jack Rabbit

The western part of the loop reaches the Petaluma River, where I went on an observation deck over the water and looked across the water.
Petaluma River
There were a few mallards there, a great blue heron standing on a post protruding put of the water, and cormorants. The cormorants were still there on the following week.
Double-crested Cormorant, November 12
Pappa Quail didn't look just on the water but in the air too. On November 12 the water and the sky had the same color - a gloomy gray.
California Gull
Birds are clearly the main attraction of this place. But other creatures, even other winged creatures, are also present, and nice to see. 
A moth
The trail curves eastward and follows the river for a stretch. There were very few birds on the river itself - a coot, a few mallards and a couple of grebe. On the opposite bank however, I saw a family of mute swans: two adults and four, almost full-size young, still wearing their grayish youth plumage and bill. The photos I took didn't come out all that well, and by the following week when I returned with Pappa Quail, this swan family was no longer there.
The trail curved back north. I left the river bank and was walking on a levee between the lagoon and a large mud flat flanked with dry cattail and other wetland vegetation.

Naturally I started to search for rails. I even saw one but it was far and stayed among the reeds. Pappa Quail had better success on the following week, but even that was after a long and patient search.
Virginia Rail
The sora was a bit more yielding. Just a bit more.
While the lagoon to my west was mostly vacant, the mud flat to my east was teaming with waterfowl, waders, and an occasional turkey vulture.
Green-winged Teal and friends

A number of canals criss-crossed the mud flat, seen from above only as darker lines along the surface. Once at level with the canal I could see all the waterfowl that were casually swimming in it.

But then again, some waterfowl are just not short enough to inconspicuously remain below the mud surface. On the other hand, they have the benefit of seeing what's up before any of the other canal's residents.
Mute Swan, November 12
The lagoon on the west was mainly empty of waterfowl, but that meant a beautiful reflection to appreciate .

The water levels were quite low. At the time we had no foretelling of the wet winter to come, only the wake of a 5-years long drought.
Shollenberger Park Lagoon
The dry area between the vegetation belt and the water was empty when I was there on my solo hike. A week later, however, we saw there tow carnal representative of the highest Native American holy spirits - Coyote and Raven. I wonder what they were discussing at the time.
Raven and Coyote

When I arrived at the north segment of the lagoon-surrounding trail I needed to make a choice. A left turn would bring be back to the parking lot after completing the loop around the lagoon. To my right, however, was a trail connecting to the Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility (WRF), that according to the information sign posted at the trail intersection, was a worthy place to see.
A quick look at the time left - and my decision was made - I took the right turn.
The way to Ellis Creek Water Facility
The area between Shollenberger Park and the Ellis Creek facility and area of tall weeds and some human-planted trees among which several cottontail rabbits were hopping.
I also brought my family down this trail on my second visit there. A tiny hummingbird observed us from atop one of these small trees. There were hardly any flowers blooming at the time, and the few that did were dandelions and relatives, which do not offer nectar to hummingbirds. Yet the Anna's hummingbird overwinter in the area. It is a relatively new knowledge to me that these birds main food is in fact small insects. Nectar, apparently, is just their energy drink to supplement their animal protein meals.
Anna's Hummingbird
But I've seen there birds much better suited for flycatching, like this Say's phoebe that guarded the information post near the WRF pond.
Say's Phoebe
As I approached the pond I found another formidable hunter - a great egret that was ambushing some unsuspecting amphibian or rodent.
Egrets eat whatever they can catch. And they are lightning-quick catchers. Once I saw a great egret catching a hummingbird, plucking it from the air in mid-flight. This one in the photo below, however, remained still and didn't budge even as I walked past it on the nearby trail.
Great Egret
The water recycling facility has four ponds separated by levees and connected by underground pipes and pumps that move water from one pond to another. The ponds are surrounded by thick belts of tall tule, but at fairly regular intervals there are breaks in the tule that allow a look onto the pond itself.
I started my tour of the place around the largest pond. Each time I came by a tule gap I stopped and searched the water for fowl. Looking through one of the nearest gaps I saw a sora and a couple of couple of common gallinule. But the best photo I took there was of the tule reflection.
Pappa Quail did better with the gallinule on the following hike.
Common Gallinule
As I came upon a wider gap in in the tule I saw a family of mute swans, just like the one I saw earlier on the bank of the Petaluma River. It wasn't the same family, but the composition was the same: two adults and four maturing youth.
Mute Swans
Mute swans are an introduced species in North America, brought here for pond decorative purposes, and kept from flying by the awful practice of wing clipping. Swans, however, can also walk, and can certainly breed. Enough mute swans made their escape so that now feral mute swans can be seen in places, like at the Shollenberger Park and the Ellis Creek WRF.
One of the adults in the family I saw was a clipped-winged escapee. I couldn't tell that as long as the swans were swimming in the pond. At some point however, the swans took to the air: five of them did. The sixth one, the clipped adult, tried to take off too, only to sink miserably back to the water. Then I also found out that mute swans aren't really mute. I watched the flying parent and youth and listened to the parent left behind calling after them and my heart went out to it.
Mute Swans
The swans were there also on the following week and Pappa Quail took some nice close up photos of them.
No enchanted princess. A Mute Swan at the Ellis Creek WRF
It wasn't all about swans, though. Plenty of other birds enjoy the Ellis Creek ponds as well, and we got to enjoy watching them all.
Lesser Goldfinch, male
I was a bit short of time on my solo hike there, so I walked around one pond only. On my second visit there with my family we had more time to enjoy the ponds and walked around and between all four of them. 
On my way back to the Shollenberger Park I saw a northern harrier circling above. One harrier, and later on one kite. And that was all for non-scavenger raptors.
Northern Harrier

On our second hike there we a vulture standing behind the fence that separated the northern trail segment from the nearby buildings. The vulture was busy eating a possum that looked long time dead already.
Turkey Vulture eating a Possum
Walking back westward along the Shollenberger Lagoon I looked more closely at the small group of birds that were resting in a tight group near the northern shore.

Most of the sleepers were northern shoveler ducks.
Northern Shoveler

Here and there there were a few stilt too, standing or wading around the group.
Black-necked Stilt
We completed the loop around the Shollenberger Lagoon. The dray cattail and brambles that separated the trail from the street and the parking area was full of birds. Our second hike was later in the afternoon and all the red-winged blackbirds were settling in the thicket for the night and before going to sleep they were making the loudest and shrillest cacophony ever. 
But there was a great blue heron there too, and it was very quiet.
Great Blue Heron
On the lagoon side of the trail down below where the cattails were green Pappa Quail caught a marsh wren on camera. They sing really nice, but are not easy to spot, let alone to see.
Marsh Wren
Our family hike at the Shollenberger Park/Ellis Creek WRF was part of a family weekend out in the Novato-Petaluma area. On the Sunday following our hike there we went to explore some of the waterfalls near Novato, and we were done with that sooner than I had thought. I had no plan as to what to do next, so I suggested going back to the Ellis Creek facility to see the evening birds there. Pappa Quail and the elder chika agreed before I even finished my suggestion. So we went back there, this time parking right away at the Ellis Creek WRF.
Right there at the parking lot a California towhee was scratching in the leaves looking for some good eats. 
California Towhee
 Not far from there near the parking area still, a kite stood atop a small willow tree. A wary blackbird watched it really closely from behind.
White-tailed Kite
 We hiked slowly around the large pond, looking at the swans and ducks. I said to the others that it would be nice to see a bittern to complete our birrding experience of that place. Sure enough, within a few minutes, an American bittern jumped out of the tule near us and flew across the pond, settling in the tule on the other side. I took some time to see it there, but Pappa Quail found it right away.
American Bittern, November 12
 At the smaller ponds we split. Pappa Quail and the elder chika went around one pondwhile me and the younger chika went around another. Pappa Quail's pond was shallower and had some nice waders prowling it's water.
American Avocet
Avocets were many all throughout the park, but the yellowlegs is a more solitary bird. It too was wading the shallows in search of food.

We had a lovely and very peaceful evening stroll, enjoying the nice weather and the beatiful colors of the slowly setting sun. Blackbirds were coming in for the night, perching on tule and calling their shrill cries at the top of their lungs.
Red-winged Blackbird, male
Female red-winged blackbirds look so much like sparrows that they have an entry at the birder guide book right next to them.
Red-winged Blackbird, female, November 12

Everything that evening was mellow and peaceful, and the sun was setting in a beautiful color display. Then we noticed the clouds. Black clouds that were moving fast, and as Aragorn had said - not in the direction of the wind. These were starlings. Many, many starlings. Clouds of them, murmurating (yes, this is a real word). That means, flying in complete synchronization, all thousands of them. Here is a video I took of the murmuration:

Pappa Quail noticed something else and took a fully zoomed image: a peregrine falcon was flying among the starlings. It was flying in and out of the bird cloud, trying to capture dinner, no doubt.
Starlings, mumurating
Either the falcon wasn't giving it its best shot or that there really is safety in numbers and the starlings managed to confuse the falcon into going to bed hungry, but for all the time we observed the phenomenon, and that was until nightfall, the falcon hasn't managed to catch any starling. Moreover, while busy with the starlings the falcon had completely ignored other, solitary fowl the flew nearby.
Peregrine Falcon
The starling clouds converged on the facility ponds, flying over our heads. Like other clouds, these were dripping too, and not water. The chikas hurried and hid under the information sign while Pappa Quail and I braved the 'rain' and observed and photographed until nightfall. When the starlings finally settled in the tule we made our way in the dark back to the car and drove off to our hotel to shower off all the 'rain' marks.
Peregrine Falcon amid Starlings
Shollenberger Park and Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility are a bird haven and a birder's paradise.Now we know where to stop whenever we're in the area. If that nice fellow in the truck I had run into on November 3rd happens to read this post - many thanks to you!