Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Triple-Break Hike at the Mormon Rocks

Named after an old Mormon encampment: Mormon Rocks

Date: November 23, 2016
Place: Mormon Rocks Fire Station, Phelan, California
Coordinates: 34.316742, -117.502256
Length: 1.2 miles
Level: Moderate

A day after our fabulous hike in Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve we said goodbye to our friends and started northeast on the road to Death Valley.
For a good part of the morning we were crawling on I-15 with all the mass of humanity that was migrating out of the larger LA area before Thanksgiving. We needed a break from driving, a place to stop and stretch out and a short online search came up with a little place in the San Gabriel Mountains called Mormon Rocks.
Mormon Rocks is a small area of San Bernardino National Forest on Hwy 178, about 1.5 miles from Cajon Pass. The short loop trail begins (and ends) at a local fire station that other than two picnic tables on the adjacent lawn has no other public-accessible facilities such as restrooms or a faucet for drinking water.
We found the place without difficulty, got the cameras out of the car and went on our hike.

The Mormon Rocks could not be mistaken - huge lumps of wind-rounded white sandstone protruded from the earth, standing out against the dark landscape.
From the first look we realized that something was wrong. Everywhere our eyes could see the landscape was black, save for the sandstone rocks. It looked like every living thing in the surroundings had been incinerated to ashes. As it happened, we were there shortly after a large wildfire had devastated the entire area.
Blue Cut Fire aftermath
A part of me wanted to turn and bolt, but it was too late to go looking for another hiking place nearby. Besides, I still wanted to see the place, so I kept quiet and followed the rest of the family up the trail.
This is (or was) a chaparral dominated area. The charred remains of the bushes were the only testimony for what must have been a thick vegetation cover.

We ascended the hill on the trail leading to the rocks. The bushes by the trail looked most definitely dead. Only some had a bit of base budding, suggesting that the underground parts of the plant were alive still and ready to regrow.
The yucca was a more visible survivor. Charred pineapple-like ovals protruded from the powdery soil, with light green tufts of blade leaves in their center. A core yet lining from which the plant will regrow.
Chaparral Yucca, Hesperoyucca whipplei
I didn't expect to see any wildlife in the place. Indeed, it was eerily quiet. Pappa Quail, however, did find a few birds. They too were subdued, emitting no tweets.
Dark-eyed Junco
A kingbird perched atop a corpse of a sycamore tree some distance from the trail. Kingbirds use perches like that, searching for food with their keen eyes. What was this bird hoping to find in the desolation, I cannot tell. Perhaps it was lamenting its burnt home.
Cassin's Kingbird
My feelings arose a little when I saw clear evidence of recovery. The area had already seen some rain, and little annuals were sprouting in small patches between the charred bushes. The less thrilling thing was that most of this new growth was of stork's bill, a non-native, highly invasive weed.
Stork's Bill
We got up the ridge of the low hills and looked on the other side. A wide river stretched below us, completely dry save for a narrow trickle at the base of the hills. It was there that is became apparent to us just how big the fire was.

There was no one there we could ask, and nowhere a posted sign with information about the fire. I've done some research in preparation for this post and found out that less than two months before our visit there the area has been devastated by the Blue Cut Fire, which burned over 20,000 acres.
I though it ironic that this fire raged right by the local fire station. From the ridge we had a good view of the fire station area where we had begun the hike. We also had a nice view across Hwy 178 and of the rocks on the other side.
Cajon Pass Fire Station
And we also had a great view of the rocks. There was a big one behind us, but the large mass of them was ahead of us, east of the fire station. We were heading intuit direction.

The trail now followed the ridge. Soon it became apparent that there wasn't just one trail, but many makeshift ones that looked as much used as what would be the official trail, and we could only guess which one was that. So we simply followed the one that seemed to lead us in the straightest path to the rocks.
All that time I kept looking around for more signs of recovery. They were there, but still small. At the very beginning.

Then, as we came across a minor hill crest, I saw a patch of green to the south. It was mature chaparral! That patch of chaparral was the only surviving area that escaped the fire. I could see the reddish-brown rim of dead vegetation that died just before the fire did.
Surviving Chaparral
It was too far for us to get close, but I did take a photo with the highest magnification I had so see if I could make any details when looking at it later. But even like that, all I can tell for sure is that the bright green lumps are manzanita. Everything else was too distant for me to make any clear identification.

The trail we were walking on got really, really narrow. Moreover, we were walking at times right on the blade of the ridge. While Pappa Quail and the elder chika were making fast progress, the younger chika had some difficulty transversing this terrain so I held her hand and we walked slowly, step by step, until she was once again sure of her footing.

The slow pace allowed me to take a longer look at the new growth. It appeared that the fresh green grass was growing in small bunches, at small ripples of the hillside caused by the now dead old vegetation.

After some slow, careful treading, younger chika and I were making a still slow descent to the big group of Mormon Rocks.

It was a beautiful day, but windy. A coulee of ravens were circling the sky over the highest rock. Occasionally they landed on it, then took off to the air once again.
Ravens over Mormon Rock
Pappa Quail and the elder chika had breezed by the rocks without stopping, and were now two tiny dots on the trail way down below. The younger chika felt two unsure to get near the rocks so I asked her to wait for me by the main trail while I went to check them out up close.
Mormon Rock
I was fascinated by the layers of sediments apparent in the rock. Stones of different colors and sizes were embedded in a finer grain long ago soil, now packed into a hard sandstone. They looked to me like gems.

I came back to the trail, helped my chika back on her feet and we resumed our descent to the valley and the fire station below.
Dead manzanita and survivor yucca
We came down to an alluvial plain that was dark with ashes and dotted with the charred remains of the former chaparral. It was a pretty dismal sight.
It was there that area that Pappa Quail saw another bit of life in a mostly dead area.
Yellow-rumped Warbler

As I approached the incinerated field I noticed the bright green 'flames' that were licking the base of some of the charred bushes. They were regrowing!
This new growth really cheered me up. I wonder how this area look like right now, after a good rainy season and a few more months to recover.
We crossed the charred area and made it back to the fire station parking lot. As I approached the car I noticed right away that something was wrong. My elder chika was sitting quietly at one of the picnic tables while Pappa Quail was working frantically to prepare some lunch, and I could tell that he was very upset. Then I saw the black mass on the asphalt behind the car. It was Pappa Quail's new, and much prized camera.
When he saw me, Pappa Quail told me that that as he got the stove and food out of the car the camera dropped out through the opened back door and crashed in a fashion that broke both camera and lens. As he told me that he picked up the remains and tossed them into the large waste container at the end of the parking lot (after getting the memory cards out, of course).
"There goes the rest of the trip," he said. " There won't be any birds anyway in Death Valley," he added.
We had a very quiet lunch.
Chaparral Yucca, Hesperoyucca whipplei
As we were cleaning up and getting ready to go I suggested checking out the nearest town, Phelan, for a camera shop. It was already late in the afternoon and the day before Thanksgiving so Papa Quail wasn't all to hopeful, but he did a quick online search and found a store that would be open till somewhat later, so we set our navigator to that place, because although Pappa Quail's camera was totaled, our road trip experience could still be salvaged.

Monday, March 13, 2017

High Season at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Date: November 22, 2016
Place: Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Huntington Beach, California
Address: 3842 Warner Ave. Huntington Beach, California
Length: 3.3 miles
Level: easy

Three years ago our friends introduced us to the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach. I was so impressed by the richness of this beautiful place that I quickly wrote up my hiking experience there and posted it while still on our road trip then. Ever since I've been looking for an opportunity to revisit this place, and last November I finally had it.
Botanical Nature Trail, near the visitor center.

The night of our hike at the San Joaquin Fresh Water Marsh Reserve was our last camping at O'Neil Campground. Our original plans were to hike somewhere in Cleveland National Forest in the morning, then start on our northeast journey towards Death Valley where we planned to stay during Thanksgiving. Upon hearing our plans, our friends bade us to stay with them for one more night at their home, and we gladly accepted their offer. But we did have to split for the day time, however, so while our friends went ahead with their own plans, we decided to go hiking before joining them in the afternoon.
Pappa Quail didn't need much convincing to go to Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve. In fact, he was quite excited about it. The chikas, who were eager to get together with their friends as soon as possible, were willing to go an what we promised them to be a short and easy hike where we were expecting to see lots of wildlife, especially of the feathered type.  

We had breakfast together with our friends, then broke our camp, packed everything in the car, entered the reserve's address (which I quickly pulled out of my old blog entry) into the navigator, and were on our way.
Our hike as captured by Papa Quail's GPS
The trail extends from the small visitor center across the bridge and along the eastern bank of a wide slough. I stopped momentarily on the bridge to take in the view south of the bridge.

Late fall is high season for birding at Bolsa Chica, so I was very pleased indeed to see some wildflowers there too. Some where the same as I've seen at San Joaquin Fresh Water Marsh Reserve on the day before, but I was glad to see them again nonetheless.
California Brittlebush, Encelia californica
There are active efforts to restore native vegetation on the reserve, done by the Bolsa Chica Land Trust. Along that entire part of the trail I saw areas with native shrubs planted in soil bowls, designed to keep moisture at the base of the plants. I hope to see them all established in future years. (Yes, I do plan to go back there again).
Native Plants Restoration Area
The slough water was fairly shallow, as evident from the wading shorebirds. At least it was shallow in the center area where the birds were wading.

A bit further down the slough Pappa Quail spotted the reddish egret. This egret species is seen in the southeast of the U.S.A., but in California its range is limited to that area. In fact, all of the California reddish egret photos I've seen posted were taken at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.
This egret does the fishing dance. It runs in the shallows, spreading its wings to shadow the water. In this way the egret herds the fish and controls their movements until it manages to catch one.
Reddish Egret

The snowy egret, of which species we have seen plenty in Bolsa Chica that day, also does this fishing dance as part of its foraging strategy, but non of theses egrets we've seen that day did it, so the show was left to the reddish egret alone.
Snowy Egret

We arrived at the second, middle bridge across the slough, and stood there for some time, watching the water. A number of terns were patrolling the area north of the bridge, circling above and occasionally stopping to hover in mid-air, poising for a possible plunge, then continuing their patrol.
But some times they did plunge. And even pulled out with a fish held in the beak.
Forster's Tern

This spot must be a good fishing place - for a grebe was circling the water there, occasionally diving under and returning to the surface with its catch.
Horned Grebe with fish 
At a distance a gull was crossing the sky, flying quickly eastward. At home, when looking at the photos we saw that it was holding something roundish in its bill. A clam, most likely.
Ring-billed Gull, taking a  clam for an air ride.
At the second bridge and needed to make a choice. On our previous visit there we went inland on the Pocket Loop Trail. This time we crossed the bridge and continued on the west bank of the slough, hiking along the Outer Bay Trail.

There, at the side of the packed gravel trail, I saw another wildflower in bloom. Over two thirds of the wildflowers I see blooming in fall time are of the aster family, and this was one of them.
Telegraph Weed, Heterotheca grandiflora 
As we started along the southern part of the slough I noticed a pickleweed plant. Near the salty water within the tidal zone is its range. It was, however, a single plant, unlike the widespread mats of this species that I usually see in wetlands.
Biglow's Pickleweed, Salicornia biglovii
We passed next to a low tree. There, hidden between the bare branches was a night heron, waiting quietly for the sunset.
Black-capped Night Heron
There wasn't much activity in the water, A few sleepy ducks floating lazily, and some ergets prowling the banks.
Ruddy Ducks
In the sky, however, a peregrine falcon swooped by. Now, that's exciting!
Peregrine Falcon
The falcon flew away all too quickly, and I returned my attention to the water. In the shallows near the bank grew copious amounts of colorful seaweed, and little schools of little fish were swimming in and out of the algae clumps.

The elder chika, who was walking a few yards ahead of me, was searching the water too. Suddenly she let out an excited exclamation she saw a sea slug!
She recognized it right away from the nature programs she'd watched (Thank you, Sir David Attenborough!) and was dancing up and down with unconfined excitement that had attracted not only the rest of us Quails, but also a few other hikes that were near by.
Of all the beautiful sightings we've had that day, this one certainly made the top.
California Aglaja sea slug, Navanax inermis
The slug glided gracefully along the bottom of the slough until it vanished under the seaweed. While I like to see beauty in all of the living creatures, I think this one makes the beauty consensus for everyone, even those who don't generally get excited over mollusks.
We moved on.
The southern bridge
Nearing the southern bridge and reserve access point there were more ducks in the water, and these were not asleep, but actively swimming about. In that area they were mostly surf scotters, which are ocean fowl.
Surf Scotter, female

While the surf scotter female is drab like other duck females, the male wears shiny black plumage and a white forehead, but his most noticeable feature is his strangely shaped bill in bright red and white, and what appears to be high nostrils. Can't mistake that one.
Suf Scotter, male
There were other waterfowl in the slough nearer to the bridge. One individual in particular was stretching and flapping her wings as if getting ready to fly, but then relaxed back into the water. Pappa Quail got the hint and took her photo.
Red-breasted Merganser, female
We arrived at the bridge. Pappa Quail and the elder chika went ahead while I lingered some time with the younger chika in the little parking lot of the south access to the reserve. It was sunny day and just after noon, and it was getting pretty hot. I tried to find some shade under the tall bushes that grew by the parking area, but there wasn't much of that. At least they added some nice color to the place.
Brazilian Pepper Tree, Schinus terebinthifolius. Non-native, invasive.

When we reconnected with Pappa Quail on the bridge I found that he had already seen some more birds that, while not uncommon, would have been missed if not seen. Such was the Pacific brown pelican.
Pacific Brown Pelican
And a little pied-billed grebe that was diving in the slough and popping back to the surface in unexpected places, some quite distant from where it had plunged under.
Pied-billed Grebe

It was slow crossing the southern bridge. Not because it was long, although it was the longest bridge in the reserve, but because there was so much to see. Also, because the elder chika enjoyed conversing with the other birders that were there and it took some effort to pull her along.
Of course, there were more birds on the other side. Just waiting, posing nicely for the camera. I wonder if they are aware that they are the centerpiece of the Bolsa Chica Reserve :-)
Savannah Sparrow
A tall chicken wire fence was erected on the other side of the bridge, directing foot travelers back north on the Inner Bay Trail. We followed the trail that circumvented the fence until we left it behind. At the meeting of the levees there was an observation area with benches a small group of very still and quiet birders (I don't think that the birders were a permanent exhibit ... or maybe they are ... ). There we had a clear view of the flooded area beyond it.
A view south from the observation area
There was a low island far to the southeast. On and near it were many white pelicans and brant geese who were too distant to get a good images of. But a foraging osprey dived to the water a bit closer to us.

To the north was another, shallower flood flat, with large area of exposed mud and multitudes of shorebirds dotting it.

The mostly brown shorebirds blended very well in the muddy background. Much more conspicuous were the egrets that stood there in spacious intervals, ambushing the mud wildlife.
Great Egret
We slowly walked north along the Inner Bay Trail atop the levee. At that time the sun was already westering so we kept our gaze to the pond on the east, trying to identify the numerous shorebirds.
Greater yellowlegs
Pappa Quail took his time walking a long the levee with the elder chika. The young chika was beginning to get impatient, She wanted to see her friends. I quickened my pace a bit, but soon we came to an area with many shorebirds and my chika agreed to sit down on the gravel with me and wait for her father there.

One of the most common shorebirds in that pond were the black bellied plover which I first saw up at Point Pinole and later in other places along the coast.
Black-bellied Plover, non-breeding

And a species I first saw at the Hayward Shoreline - the beautiful marbled godwits.
Marbled Godwit

As we progressed north the pond filled up. There were ducks in the water.  A pair of scaup.
Scaup, female

The female scaup is very pretty, more than other female ducks I've seen. The male, however, is quite fancy. Male ducks are very beautiful birds. 
Scaup, male

We made it back to the middle bridge. It has been a couple of hours since we first crossed it. What could be different now?

The birds, of course. Now there were bufflehead ducks in the water. The males look very festive in their black and white tuxedos, but when the light shines on them in a suitable angle, they show their full, iridescent colors, which are a candy to the eyes.
Bufflehead, male
On the other side of the bridge where previously stood a single snowy egret now were a bunch of them, accompanied by a tired great blue heron which kept yawning, and a group of double-crested cormorants, preening after must have been a busy morning of fishing.
Double-crested Cormorants

We crossed the bridge again and soon were walking back on the trail we had started with. And at a much quicker pace.
Not too quick for me to ignore the blooming bladderpod, though.
Bladderpod, Peritoma arborea
We were walking briskly now, heading back toward the first bridge and the visitor center. The elder chika needed to hurry back so she run ahead of us. I followed here at a quick pace, but not in running, and Pappa Quail lingered behind with the younger chika.   As we approached the end of our hike I noticed a bird sitting on the fence to my right. The bird didn't move even when I was level with her. It was an American kestrel. A female kestrel, as I later learned.
A view north at the first bridge and the visitor center area. 
I took several photos and moved on. But I was using a wide lens, so I hoped that the kestrel would stay put until Pappa Quail would get there. And she did! Pappa Quail And she was still there when he eventually moved on after some good long minutes of kestrel photographing.
American Kestrel, female

We didn't have time to go to the beach after our hike. For it was 'The Season' at Bolsa Chica reserve. There were multitudes of birds, and each one deserved due attention. There were many more species than those I've posted here - it was very challenging to select from our photos. And there was more to see there than the birds. I totally see this place as another pilgrimage site for us, whenever we head south to Orange County. 

That night we stayed with our friends, and on the following day we headed northeast, aiming to reach Death Valley National Park by Thanksgiving Day. On our way we stopped for a fateful hike at the Mormon Rocks of Cajon Pass.