Friday, August 30, 2013

The Butterfly Realm of Giants: Mariposa Grove and Wawona Point

Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum)
Date: June 18, 2013
Place: Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia, Yosemite National Park, California
Difficulty: moderate to strenuous

A day after taking my friends to Vernal Fall and Mirror Lake I took them to see the giant sequoias. Yosemite National Park is, among many other things, a home to some of the most impressive groves of Giant Sequoia: the most massive tree on Earth. The Mariposa Grove, located at the southern tip of the park, is one of the oldest known and most explored one. It is also the first one to become protected by the Act for the Yosemite Grant, much due to the efforts of Galen Clark, the first European-descent to discover the grove.
The trunk of a mature Giant Sequoia tree
To the visitor's convenience, there is a tram that goes on an interpretive route up and around some of the landmark trees. The tram stops at the little Galen Clark museum at the upper grove and those who wish can hike back down through the forest. So did we.
I've hiked in that area several times before and the bis trees are always impressive. It was my first time, though, to have noticed the festival of wildflowers that was going on there in full force.
Wild California Rose (Rosa californica)
While spring flowers were gone from the bay area, at the Sierra Nevada mountains they were at the peak of their bloom.
Alpine Lily (Sierra Tiger Lily, Lilium parvum)
My friends got neck pains from bending up looking at the canopies. I got neck pains from bending down to the wildflowers! 
Broad-leaved Lotus (Hosackia crassifolia)
There is a web of trails all over the mountain, connecting one landmark sequoia to another. I did my duty as a tour guide and led my friends to many of them. This one, the Telescope Tree, has been hollowed by fire years ago and survived. One can go inside the tree and, looking up, see the sky.
Inside the Telescope Tree
Giant sequoia are amazing trees. Not only can they live to 3000 years and hold the world's biomass record, but they are also fairly fire resistant, due to the high level of tannins in their bark, which also give them the reddish hue. The forests of the Sierra Nevada mountain range are subject to frequent fires that have become a significant factor in shaping the area's ecology. The fire scars on many of the giant sequoia there are evidence of such fires. Thick cambium growth over the char marks tell the time passed since the fire.
The root crown of a fallen tree

Giant Sequoia also form a community by linking their roots underground. However, the roots of these massive trees are anything but massive. In fact, they are very sensitive and easy to damage. This was learned at the sad price of tree death due to too much human activity around and tampering with the trees. Such was the fate of the famous 'Tunnel Tree' that was weakened by the tunnel carved in it and eventually collapsed in the winter of 1968. Nowadays, landmark trees are fenced, and visitors are advised not to come up to the trees and stomp on their delicate roots.
The parasitic Snowplant (Sarcodes sanguinea) growing under the Sequoia

The wood of the Giant Sequoia is brittle and no good for construction. Very lucky for this species!
We walked from one tree to another, and I continued to enjoy the colorful spring spectacle of the forest.
Douglas' Iris (Iris douglasiana)
Then, after passing the tree named after Galen Clark, I seduced my company to hike up to the top of the mountain: to Wawona Point.
Pacific Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)

It is only half a mile more, and the view is worth it. The children grumbled, but we went there anyway. There are no giants there but many wildflowers still.
Leichtlin Mariposa Lily (Calochortus leichtinii)
And the view from Wawona Point was indeed breath taking.
View North from Wawona Point
My chicas thought that the bright lawn below (yes, it is a golf course) look like a bunny rabbit :-) The haze is from the smoke of a fire that was going on southeast of Yosemite that day.

We had a long rest stop there, enjoying the view.

View East from Wawona Point
Eventually we started walking back. I don't remember how (maybe it's denial) but somehow the word 'tram' was heard. That word ignited an all out mutiny among my company, and after a very short discussion we returned to the Galen Clark Museum where I saw everyone, including my chicas, off to the tram, promising to beat them to the parking lot on foot.

I didn't beat them there, but I can excuse my tardiness by all the beautiful wildflowers I saw on my way down (of which I only present a small selection here).
Floral buds of White-veined Wintergreen (Pyrola picta)
I can't really blame my friends for deserting me. After all, I did drive them pretty hard on the previous day, dragging them all the way up to Vernal Fall. I was also in a very happy mood: now I could enjoy the forest beauty in peace.
Narrow-leaved Lotus (Hosackia oblongifolia)
My company (especially the younger ones) had a good time too: they raided the gift shop and had ice cream. So everyone had their pleasure.
Forest Clarkia (Clarkia rhomboidea)
The trail downhill goes through a drier area where no Sequoia trees grow. Many other trees do, however, and the pine and cedar forest is very beautiful too.

The trail leads back to the landmark trees of the lower grove, where it goes through the California Tunnel Tree which still stands, and visitors take their pictures inside it. It gives one a bit of a feel to the size of this tree.
The California Tunnel Tree
The foot trail also took me right by the biggest tree in the grove and one of the biggest in the entire world: The Grizzly Giant. 34,005 cubic feet of wood. Its limbs are as big as trunks of nearby trees. My photo really doesn't do it justice, so you must go there and see it for yourselves.

The Grizzly Giant 
Dizzy with delight I made it back to the parking lot and found my company slouching by the gift shop and my young chica's teeth gleaming in a joyous grin in the dark frame of chocolate ice cream that covered her face.
That was the end of the brief intro to Yosemite I took my friends to this summer. I don't know when would be my next visit to this magnificent park, but next time I will probably try to see more of the wilderness areas and less of the tourist hot spots. Next summer, perhaps?

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

Friday, August 23, 2013

Slow Season My Foot: Wildlife at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Date: August 21, 2013
Place: Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, 3842 Warner Avenue, Huntington Beach, California
Difficulty: easy 

My summer vacation in Southern California is not yet over. I am writing this post in my hotel room, using my raw images. I am hurrying this post along, urging my friends and other readers in the area or those who plan to visit Orange County, to go and visit this lovely nature spot.

"It is the slow season now," said the docent at the interpretive center. Well, for a slow season, the place turned to be very rich with wildlife indeed.

We met with friends at the interpretive center and started hiking south on the Lower Mesa trail.

Almost immediately we had one unexpected wildlife encounter: two dolphin swimming lazily in the slough water.
(Common) Dolphin in the Bolsa Chica slough
A pacific Brown Pelican flew overhead. One of many we saw that day.
Brown Pelican
Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is owned by the State of California, but all of the restoration, maintenance and educational activity is done by the Bolsa Chica Conservancy nonprofit organization. Scientists from area universities do their research there as well.
The trail goes along the edge of the mesa: or the higher, flat dry land to the east, and the flooding area of the salt marsh wetland to the west.
Great Egret

It was high tide when we started out hike.
The slough at Bolsa Chica Reserve, The thin dark blue stripe far in the back is the ocean. Hwy 1 is in between.
Over the last 150 years California lost over 91 percent of its wetlands to agriculture and development. Bolsa Chica Reserve was founded to save what little is left of the coastal salt marsh wetlands, a unique and important habitat for many plant and animal species.
Least Sandpiper

Some of which are quite rare.
Southern Tarplant (Centromadia parryi ssp. australis) 

Hot and dry August, yet many plants were still blooming:
Bush Sunflower (Encelia californica)
Nearly all the blooming plants were yellow.
Bladderpod (Isomeris arborea)

A close-up of the bladderpod. It is so named because of its puffy bladder-like fruit.
Bladderpod (Isomeris arborea)

The bladderpod is home to the colorful Harlequin bug:
Nymphs of Murgantia histrionica (Harlequin bug) on the bladderpod plant
No everything there was yellow, though. 
Seaside Heliotrope (Heliotropium curassavicum)
A close-up of the Heliotrope's pretty, star-shaped flowers:
Seaside Heliotrope (Heliotropium curassavicum)
However, most of the plants that were not submerged were rusty brown or bone-dry. That's August.
The airways were very busy, though. There were many gulls in the air.
Ring-billed gull
And a few terns too:
Elegant Tern, adult, breeding.

Bolsa Chica was one of the fortified coastal areas during WWII. The remains of cannon rings and bunkers tell this part of the place's history. This base has gone to flowers since, as it should. Even if prickly ones.
Coastal Prickly Pear (Opuntia littoralis)
When we reached the Bolsa Pocket Canal where some of the military remains could be seen we had to make a choice, and we chose to continue along the canal rather than the Inner Bay. All the area north of the canal called the Bolsa Pocket, is a magnificent wetland.
The Bolsa Pocket area. 
We saw numerous herons and egrets there, but were really excited to find the Reddish Egret, which is a new species for us.
Reddish Egret
It was a beautiful sunny day, but very windy. The water rippled constantly and I couldn't get a good reflection image. It is so beautiful that it's easy to forget all the human development which surrounds it.

Human activity, such as oil pumping, just east of the Bolsa Chica boundary:

The bridge at the end of the canal trail was closed so we had to turn back on the same trail. Still, there were more birds to see in the air:
Caspian Tern, adult, breeding
Or in the water:
The tide was receding as we were walking back and shore birds came to wade in the exposed mud, hunting for worms and other mud critters. We saw willets, dawitchers, sandpipers, curlews and other, not yet identified shorebirds. There were many of them digging in the mud but I liked this picture best, as it shows the beauty of the slough in low tide:

The dry land also provided new encounters:
Loggerhead Shrike
We walked about three miles altogether in the reserve. We walked very slowly and easily. The children were very happy sighting birds and also took the initiative and collected trash along the trail to dispose of properly at the trash bins at the trailhead.
We returned hungry and went for lunch. The rest of the afternoon we spent at the Bolsa Chica State Beach where, despite the strong wind, we had great ocean time. Papa Quail stayed dry and kept his camera busy. Here are some of the birds he photographed at the beach:
Shorebirds at Bolsa Chica State Beach
Where gulls make prominent presence:
Heermann's Gull
Gulls performing aerobatics in the wind:

The pelicans kept perfect formation despite the wind:

Perhaps a new encounter for us: Red-necked Phalarope.
Red-necked Phalarope, adult non breeding.

I just love the reflection of the birds in the wet mud.
Sanderling, adult, non-breeding.  
It was a perfect way to finish a perfect day. If only we didn't have to travel through the traffic jam of I-405 to our hotel in Van Nuys ...

In short, if this is what the slow season at Bolsa Chica looks like, we are sure to visit there again during winter to see the place during peak season. That's a promise.