Saturday, March 30, 2013

Little Yosemite at Sunol: a local treat

Date: March 15, 2013
Place: Sunol Regional Wilderness, Sunol, California
Coordinates: 37.50773, -121.82875
Difficulty: Easy to moderate

My friend came all the way from overseas to witness the great desert bloom. The hike we started with at Mount Tamalpais State Park was a very promising start. Our big desert trip, of which I will write separate posts, although rewarding in many ways, was a bit disappointing in regard of blooming, since winter had arrived late to Southern California and with insufficient precipitation.
The bay area, on the other hand, provided my friend with more than enough compensation. Springtime here this year is truly sensational. So I once again jump ahead my posting timeline to share the final hikes we did in the Bay Area before she got on the plane. 

Choosing of Sunol Regional Wilderness was almost instinctive. This park is just about the top of my list when it comes to adventurous solo hiking in the East Bay. Some of my most memorable wildlife encounters happened there, as well as my first (and hopefully last) encounter with an aggressive cow who didn't like to share the trail.

The boldest evidence for spring we met even before we entered the park itself: on the turn to Geary Rd. there is a regular flock of Wild Turkey. I see them nearly every time I go there. This time, however, they were busy courting.
Here's one of the males, showing off what he's got. As a mamma quail, I find him really cute :-) 
Wild Turkey, male, in display. Isn't he a hunk?
The girls didn't seem very impressed though. Considering, though, that new turkey chicks hatch each spring, I assume that some of the puffed-up males do get their way with the females. 
Wild turkey, females.
We didn't go an any adventurous trail this time, just walked along the Alameda Creek on the wide and comfortable Ohlone Camp trail. The trailhead is at the farthest parking lot in the park, right next to the woodpeckers' tree. There always there, the Acorn woodpeckers. This time, however, they didn't pose to the camera so I had to upload another woodpecker from a different tree, further down the trail.
Acorn woodpecker

Early on the trail we saw many wildflowers. I liked this shooting star most :-) 
Dodecantheon hendersonii
Next to the pinks there were also purples:
Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum)
And blues too:
There were also yellows and whites and everything surrounded by 50 shades of green, just as a good spring should be!

There were quite a few more hikers on that trail. Even though we could see many birds very very close. This hawk, for example, only hopped to the next tree over when we approached. It has a regular nest there on one of these trees. I've seen it populated a couple of years in a row.
Red-tailed hawk
After about a mile of walking we arrived the area called 'Little Yosemite'. The name might get some giggles from people who've been to The Yosemite, but seeing that park of the creek from up close it is clear why it is so named.
Some of the cascades of the Little Yosemite area. 
Other hikers that came down to the creek actually climbed the rocky cascades to explore further, but my friend and I were  happy just sitting on the rocks and enjoying the watery view. It was a great sight, particularly in comparison to the same time last year, when the Alameda Creek was reduced by the draught to a mere trickle.  
A water pool between the cascades.  
Beyond the Little Yosemite area the trail continues into the Ohlone Wilderness - an area that requires a wilderness permit. At that point we turned around and started back.
Fern on the rocky canyon walls
We encountered this little Dark-eyed Junco as we scrambled back from the creek to the main trail. It is a very common bird in the Bay Area.
Dark-eyed junco
A little less common, and much more exciting - a Golden Eagle glided above. A truly majestic bird.
Golden Eagle
Spring time is flower time. Flower time is butterfly time!
Sara Orangetip (Anthocharis sara)
My friend specializes in photographing butterflies. After chasing the Orangetip myself for some time, trying to catch it in a restful second for a good shot, I could really appreciate her patience and skill.  The  Blue was easier to photograph. It is territorial, said my friend, and always comes back to the same spot.
Silvery Blue (Glaucopsyche lygdamus)
The Little Yosemite of Sunol is a beautiful trail, about 2 miles in and out, also passable by large-wheeled strollers. It is an excellent choice for a family outing any time of year, but this spring it is absolutely gorgeous!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Life and Death at Salton Sea

Date: December 28, 2012
Place: Salton Sea, Bombay Beach, California
Difficulty: easy
Salton Sea, a view to the north from Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR
The water of Salton Sea bring life to a large desert area, where it had supported and still supports rich plant and wildlife as well as human settlements throughout its existence period. At Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR we enjoyed viewing many of the bird species that make this sea their home, throughout the year or just for the winter, or make it a rest stop on their migration.
After leaving SBSSNWR we continued north along the eastern shores of Salton Sea, and in the little town of Bombay Beach we stopped and went for a walk on the beach.
A salt crusted field lies between the town and the beach
Salton Sea is a periodical lake. It is fed by washes from the surrounding mountains, but its main body of water originates from flooding of the Colorado River. The Salton Basin was formed and dried numerous times throughout its geological history. The latest flooding and the creation of nowadays Salton Sea happened in 1905, with unintentional human mediation, when an irrigation canal that diverted the water of Colorado River to irrigate fields was breached. This flooding was a major prompt for the Colorado River damming.
Someone went shopping for salt?
Being a basin with no outlet, the salts remain in Salton Sea and with the Colorado River under control, no more unexpected flooding are expected. Therefore, water level continuously drops and water salinity continuously increase. It still supports aquatic life so is not yet a dead sea, but it is going in that direction.
The white-crusted beach at Bombay Beach
There is no specific trail there. It was all about walking on the beach for however long we wanted. There were very few people there so we literally had the beach to ourselves.The chikas soon found an interesting play thing - some mummified fish stranded of the beach. There were plenty of them around. 
This was once a living Tilapia
The ground under our feet felt course and our footsteps made loud crunching sounds as we walked on the beach. It didn't feel or sound like a mere salt crust. At some point I knelt to check the ground more closely and discovered the disturbing truth: we were walking on a thick layer of fish bones.
A mat of bones
Not just in a small area. Everywhere!
Not the work of local fishers but evidence of a large-scale calamity that befell these fish.
That evening I searched online and found that the fish disaster had happened just a few month before. The mass death was attributed to the drop of oxygen levels in the water due to a prolonged heat wave in the area. The stench of the rotting fish, it said, was so strong that it could be smelled at Los Angeles.
A sea of dead
I was glad we had missed these odors. 
Not just dead fish: the mark of man.
We had stopped at Bombay Beach with the idea of looking for more birds but there weren't that many there. Just a few cormorants and gulls. The sun was already setting so we returned to our car and drove north to Palm Springs, for the third part of our winter vacation.
Seagulls at Salton Sea

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Who's at Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR?

Salton Sea, a view to the north from unit 2 of SBSSNWR
Date: December 28, 2012
Place: Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, Calipatria, California
Coordinates, Unit 1:  33.0860, -115.7096   Unit 2: 33.1767, -115.6190
Difficulty: easy

In the middle of the Southern California desert there's a large body of water called the Salton Sea. It is a periodical lake of which I plan to write a separate post. Being a source of water and food in a vast desert area, it is also a big attraction to wildlife, primarily birds. Several areas along the Salton Sea shores were set aside as refuges, We visited to of these at its southern shores: Units 1 and 2 of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge.
Snow geese in the fields. Unit 1 of SBSSNWR.
Unit 1 has an observation tower and a short foot trail of about 1 mile. We spent some time observing the birds from the tower and conferring with other bird watches who came by.
The fields to our south were filled with Snow geese but the ponds were relatively empty, save for a few ducks.

The water ponds at unit 1.
We did see a few raptors hovering in the sky and quite a few warblers who were quick to hide when we tried to photograph them, Even the Great Blue Heron we saw trotted away quickly.
The foot prints of a Great Blue Heron
We walked the foot trail and listening to the bush birds among the high and dry tules and cattails. Then we returned to our car and drove on to Unit 2.
Ring-billed Gull, Unit 1 of SBSSNWR
Beside a 1.5 miles hiking trail and an observation deck, Unit 2 also has a nice visitor center with a landscaped yard. This yard alone is an attraction for many animals. For example, this barn owl that we saw sleeping, tucked in one of the fan palms, just outside the visitor center.

Sleeping Barn Owl
On the ground, many cottontails were hopping around, to the delight of my chikas.
Cottontail rabbit
The high-pitched squeaks and the low-pitched buzzing of hummingbirds was in the air.
Anna's Hummingbird, female
And a species of dove we've never seen before. Those tiny little doves were very shy and kept to the bushes. Eventually, Papa Quail's patience and high zoom lens paid off:
Common Ground Dove
But I think that our nicest encounter was with my close relatives, the gorgeous Gambel's Quail :-) 
Gambel's Quail
Eventually we managed to collect the chikas from their activities and went on the trail. It is a very nice in and out trail along a canal and later along the Salton Sea shore itself. It is completely flat, except at the end where it climbs a small hill. From this trail we had a fantastic view to the northwest, where we could see the snowy caps of Mount San Jacinto (left) and Mount San Bernardino (right).

The canal and the bushes along it harbored several bird species. This Lesser Yellowlegs was one of them:
Lesser Yellowlegs

When we got to the Salton Sea shore we saw it was quite popular among seagulls. There were quite a few other birds there, from various ducks to some waders, and four or five large Great Blue Herons that stood still in the water, keeping respectful distance from one-another.
Gulls and friends
When we approached the shore the water appeared rusty red, as if soiled by a river of blood. I don't know what caused the coloration - probably just the ground underneath, I guess. Nevertheless, it was a strange sight. 
No Pharaoh here, no real blood.
From what we read about the place we learned that even deep ocean birds occasionally make it to Salton Sea. We didn't see anything unexpected. Here are some of the birds we did see:
Ring-billed gull
Black-necked Stilt
Western Sandpiper (adult, non-breeding)
We had a great time at Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. We hiked the trails and saw many birds. For any nature lover who travels in the area, this is certainly a good place to stop. Personally, I believe it is worth a special trip :-) 
Salton Sea, shining in the sun

Sunday, March 17, 2013

An Oasis on the Flyway to the South: Cibola NWR

Date: December 27, 2012
Place: Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona
Visitor Center coordinates: 33.36337, -114.66931
Trailhead coordinates: 33.36511, -114.67808
Difficulty: easy

It was only a matter of time before I started including out-of-California posts in this blog. This is the first one, about Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, on the Arizona side of the Colorado River.
After we discovered Colusa and the National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) system, we keep looking for them along every vacation route we take. They provide a combination of some nice and easy hiking trails with great opportunities for wildlife viewing, with a birding car tour to satisfy the bird watchers in our family :-)
On our last winter road trip to the deserts of Southern California, we decided to cross the border to Arizona to check out the refuges on the eastern side of the Colorado River.
A green parch in a brown desert - the crane fields.
Our original plan was to visit both Imperial and Cibola NWRs. However, considering that it would have taken us about 2.5 hours to get from one to the other, we sadly decided that Imperial NWR would have to wait for another trip to the area. 
Canada geese swarming the air above the refuge
We left Brawley in the morning and after a quick stop at the Imperial Dunes we crossed the Colorado River south of Blythe and made it to Cibola NWR at about noon, just when the visitor center was closed for a lunch break.
Some time later - the gaggle of Canada geese at rest.
Behind the visitor center there is an observation deck from which we watched a huge gaggle of Canada geese flying over and over the refuge area with great noise. At first we thought that some bird of prey scared them into the air but a local person who came by told us that the geese do that fly at the same time every day.
A White-crowned Sparrow by the water
We had a picnic lunch ourselves and took the car on the birding tour. We parked at the trailhead and took the foot trail.

The first part of the trail stretches along a water canal. On both sides there are large bushes that at the time we were there were shedding enormous amounts of fluff-covered seeds.

The fluff is the plant's mechanism of seed dispersal, as they are carried away by the wind. The chikas had a great time shaking the bushes and so 'helping' them disperse their seeds even more. I stopped them when I realized that many of these seeds were about to be carried away in our clothes and hair.

Every now and then we would see an opening in the bushes and go to observe the canal. The birds preferred to be in a different place.

Although the end of December is a bit late for Fall, the poplars wore full Fall colors. I always enjoy these, even off season.
We turned with the trail into a poplar grove, where we could hear many little song birds. It is very difficult to get good photographs of these birds but Papa Quail has a lot of patience.
Orange-crowned warbler
I didn't try that hard. Canada Geese in flight are much easier to photograph.

The poplars still had all their leaves on. In a hot day I might have been thankful for that, but despite the sun and clear skies, it was quite a chilly day.

The little chika kept robbing me of my camera throughout the walk. She can photograph quite well, my little one. Her main subject isn't nature, though, but her sister and parents in funny positions.

The foot trail isn't long and was over way too quickly for me. We entered the car and continued our birding tour.
There are burrowing owls in Cibola NWR - they nest in man-made tubes that are placed there to protect them from coyote raids. We saw two owls, but they were too far to get a good photo of them. But further along the road we got to see an osprey busy with its catch:

The road goes around tended fields. Birds weren't the only wildlife enjoying the greenery:

The tending of these fields is done for the benefit of one species in articular - the sandhill crane.
I was very glad to see the sandhill cranes again.
Sandhill cranes
The sandhill cranes arrive from the north to spend the winter in warmer climate. We've seen them in large numbers earlier that year in the Central Valley around Lodi. They do go even more south, and a population of them over-winters in the area of Cibola and Imperial NWR. The cranes we've seen were the greater subspecies. There were not very many of them - maybe we should have stayed until sunset to see more - but they seemed much less skittish than the cranes in Lodi, and we could get much better photographs of them.
I particularly liked this family - mother, father and youngster - that stayed very close to our car, even if somewhat hidden in the cornfield.

We admired them for a long time, but eventually, like all good things, we had to say goodbye and go our separate ways. They walked majestically away and we drove into the sunset to spend another night in Brawley.
Have a good flight back to Alaska!