Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Thirsty Wetland: Fall Hikes at Coyote Hills Regional Park

Dates: November 7, 8 and 9, 2013
Place: Coyote Hills Regional Park, Fremont, California
Coordinates: 37.55026, -122.08607

I reside near Coyote Hill Regional Park and visit there frequently. I have seen the season changes, observed the wildlife, and attended several events and class field trips there. I have never before seen it so dry as in this fall. Never before have I witnessed the waterfowl-rich ponds parched-dry and the reeds thoroughly browned. It was a mystery to me.
I hiked in Coyote Hills several times earlier this month. The place is beautiful any time of year but this fall it was very tranquil and calm. I post here about three of these hikes.

Meadowlark loop
Length: about 2.5 miles
Difficulty: easy

 The Meadowlark loop I hiked by myself, checking to see if it would be suitable to lead the chikas' 4H group on. On the first hike I took photographs of the unexpectedly dry wetland and wondered about the cause.

I started hiking at the Quarry staging area, the parking that's about 1/2 a mile before the visitor center. The first lag of the trail is a paved road leading to Dairy Glen group campground. A small hill oversees the trail from the north. Pretty rock layers tell the tale of moving ground from long ago.
The hill overlooking the Quarry staging area.
I was focusing on the beautifully decorated, large Toyon bush on the hilltop. The red berries are, as I recently learned at the latest Ohlone Gathering, very good to eat. 
Fruit-laiden Toyon
The trees at the Dairy Glen campground are a perching place for scrub jays, kestrels and white-tailed kites. I noted the pair of white-tailed kites that were sitting there, but couldn't get a good enough photo of them. Passing the campground, I walked along what used to be the South Marsh.
The South Marsh
The reeds were completely dry and the ground parched and cracked. Bothered, I did something I don't normally do while hiking: I stepped off the trail and ventured into the reeds to see if I could find any wildlife there. There was nothing. No birds, not even rabbits.
Just dry and drying vegetation. 
The South Marsh
Bewildered still, I returned to the trail. There were quite a few birds there: all sparrows. 
Sparrows strewn on the Meadowlark Trail.
One of them was an unusual species for the area. Not one we've seen before: the Brewer's Sparrow.
Brewer's Sparrow
There aren't many trees in that area. The few that were there were turning their leaves. Fall colors are beautiful in California too!

At the edge of the park the trail takes a sharp turn right and begins ascending uphill. A small flacon was perched on one of the poles that are along the trail, but each time I walked closer, the falcon flew a bit further and eventually flew away altogether.
My disappointment over not having photographed the falcon was dispelled when I got to the hilltop and looked west: 
Cargill Salt ponds
The view is gorgeous there, no doubt. At that point I was still unaware of the role these ponds play in the current state of affairs at the park. 
I strolled down towards Bayview Trail, then took a few steps west into the salt ponds realm on No Name trail, enticed by the shore birds that were wading to and fro in the tranquil pond:

Most of these birds were American Avocets:
American Avocet
A sole egret was wading in the mud by the pond north of the trail. It was a good day for reflections! 
Snowy Egret
From that point it was a short walk back to the campground and the parking lot. The Meadowlark Loop is a very nice trail and easy walk. I preferred, however, to take the group on a different trail, away from the now dry wetland.

No-Name Trail
Length: in and out to one's content. We walked about 1 mile in before turning back.
Difficulty: easy

On the following day I visited Coyote Hills again: this time with a friend. We went looking for birds  and headed directly to No Name Trail.

Firefighters were drilling at the campground. There was no sight of the kites. We did, however, saw this meadowlark perched on a tall dry fennel on the hillside:
Western Meadowlark
The group of shore birds at the nearest salt pond seemed more diverse than the day before. The avocets were there still, but there were also plenty of other waders. Every now and then, a group of them would take into the air, circle the pond a couple of time, then land back in approximately the same place they were before.

Somewhat away from the group, a sole yellowlegs was searching the mud for morsels.
Greater Yellowlegs
There were many pelicans about. Some group-huddling on the levees, some flying above and some floating lazily on the water. And all of them far away.
A white Pelican in the tranquil salt pond
No Name Trail is on a levee between the salt pond. It connects to the Shoreline Trail that stretches south of Dumbarton Bridge to Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, and north to the San Leandro Marina. My friend and I didn't go that far. We were enjoying the birds in the near ponds.
Spaced in regular intervals the long white forms of great egrets were sticking out of the water, as still as statues, ambushing fish.
Great Egret
The muddy shore was left to the great blue heron that, surprisingly, didn't fly away when we passed right by it.
Great Blue Heron
Before to long it was time to pick up the chikas from school so we turned around and returned to the parking lot. What a lovely morning we had!

Gilder Hill-Bayview loop
Length: about 2 miles
Difficulty: moderate

On the following day I was, once more, at Coyote Hills Regional Park. This time accompanied by my family and the 4H Hiking Project children and their parents. It was on this hike that I finally got the the sad and not very surprising answer to the riddle of the dry wetland: human interference. Direct, local interference, rather than global changes.

Map section downloaded from EBRPD site. My hike is labeled yellow.
Starting once more at the Quarry Staging Area, we found our first treat right there at the parking lot: a merlin sitting in a nearby tree. Merlins are not a common sight. Two days before it was camera shy. This time it let itself be on display:
Merlin (photographed by Papa Quail)
Not wanting to take the group by the sad and dry marsh, I lead them up Gilder Hill. The hill isn't that high, but the trail is steep and somewhat slippery. There is a picnic table at the top and we stopped for a snack.
On the way up Gilder Hill
Children have their eyes closer to the ground, where they find all kinds of treasures, like this pupa:

A small vehicle came by the dirt road and stopped near us. I went over and asked about the dry wetlands.
The driver, who turned to be the park's supervisor told me the story of the Bay Area salt marshes: of brackish water rising from the bay with the tides and mixing with the fresh runoff water from the hills.
Cargill Salt Corporation has blocked the tidal water from entering the marsh. Unlike in Don Edwards NWR where a slough still allows for bay water to come inland with the tide, at Coyote Hills there is no more salt water feed from the bay. Cargill has stopped it all.
The water that was flooding the wetlands until last year, he told me, was fresh water pumped year-round from underground. The wetland has been transformed from a salt marsh to fresh water marsh. The pickleweed and tule were replaced by reeds and cattails. The animal community has changed too.
This has now stopped. No more water is being artificially pumped into Coyote Hills. The only source of water now would be the rain and runoff water.
If and when Cargill Salt Corporation cuts a pass for tidal water to the wetland, the marsh could be restored. The company, according to their website, tales part in Bay Area Nature conservation projects and takes pride in being environmentally supportive. It aught to take action here too, and allow the tides reach the shores of Coyote Hills and beyond into the marsh land. With so few of the Bay Area wetlands remaining, it is important to save what's left, for the sake of our future!
White Pelicans (photographed by Papa Quail)
Coming down the hill we found ourself right by the salt ponds, where I met the waders again, for the third day in a row.
Dunlins, perhaps?
I could sit there and watch them the whole day but the group was eager to continue.
A willet wading among Dunlins
Coming back toward the hill. a northern harrier swooped by:
Northern Harrier
Before reaching the Dairy Glen campground, Papa Quail split from the group. Intrigued by the Brewer's Sparrow I saw there a couple of days before, he took off on his own to the Meadowlark Trail to see if he could spot that sparrow too.
He didn't see that sparrow, but other kinds:
White-crowned Sparrow, juvenile (photographed by Papa Quail)

And also the resident white-tailed kite:
White-tailed Kite (photographed by Papa Quail)
Now that the rains have begun, I aught to go back there and see if there's any water in the marsh. I miss the ducks ...

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Wade in the Water Children: Our Horse Linto Water Adventure

Date: July 6, 2013
Place: Horse Linto trail, Six Rivers National Forest, by Willow Creek, California
Where we parked: 41.00703, -123.60427
Where we entered the Horse Linto Creek: 41.00714, -123.60219
41.00703, -123.60427

Where we exited the creek: 41.00541, -123.60605
41.00703, -123.60427
41.00714, -123.60219
41.00703, -123.60427
41.00714, -123.60219
41.00703, -123.60427
41.00714, -123.60219
41.00541, -123.60605
Length: 1/2 mile
Difficulty: strenuous and potentially dangerous.

We slept better on our second camping night near Willow Creek, and were ready for a good hike. The heat wave was still going strong and we decided to go to the Horse Linto trail that was suggested to us at the Six Rivers National Forest visitor center at Willow Creek on the day before. The trail is deep in the forest, meaning shade, and right next to flowing water, meaning the option of a cooling dip, if needed.
After 30 minutes of driving slowly on a narrow and winding forest road we reached the Horse Linto campground, which was completely deserted. We parked our car a bit further behind it where the Horse Linto dirt road splits to the right, and continued on foot on that road for about 1/4 mile.
The bridge crossing the Horse Linto creek and the dirt road beyond it are over-grown with Himalayan Blackberry, an aggressive, invasive species that is taking over the forest undergrowth in that area. Our progress was slowed down considerably due to thorny branches extended into the road and the plentiful bounty of ripe blackberries.
Himalayan Blackberry on the Horse Linto Bridge
On the other side of that bridge there's a trailhead to the Horse Linto creek trail. It used to be a road too, we were told at the visitor center, but is now closed to vehicles and is basically, impassable. We immediately saw what he meant.
The Horse Linto Interpretive Trail
Before long we realized that this trail is impassable for hikers too, unless equipped with machetes. We weren't.
Horse Linto Interpretive Trail. Invisible under blackberry, poison oak, and other hostile vegetation
After we gave up on negotiating the brush any further we backtracked our steps to the bridge, where we found a bootleg trail going down to the creek and a makeshift campsite that has been used not that long ago. We sat there, staring at the water, and sulked.
Horse Linto Creek
Sitting by the creek has its calming effects. During that time Papa Quail managed to photograph this water-tension shadow of a water strider:
Water Strider
and with some patience, this elusive thrush as well.
Swainson's Thrush
I, too, was absorbed in photography experiments to take my mind off the unsuccessful hike:
A cloud of gnats sparkle in mid-air over the water
Eventually, it was Papa Quail who saved the day. He suggested that we get back to the Horse Linto campground through the creek. In the water.

I will pause now for a stern warning and a disclaimer. Entering a flowing mountain creek can be seriously risky. The current can be strong and treacherous, the water depth variable, and the footing slippery and unpredictable. This isn't an easy walk for adults, let alone young children. I would not recommend this sort of adventure to non-experienced people, particularly not with young children.

That said, since we do have ample experience in flowing creek hiking, including a fairly recent one with the chikas, we did take the chance and waded into the water. Papa Quail and I, each of us holding a sturdy stick in one hand and a chika's hand in the other, started walking slowly downstream.
We met an acquaintance there:
Darmera peltata
It was a short stretch of only 1/4 mile but a slow and treacherous one. The The creek bottom was uneven and slippery. It was difficult to hold my own footing even with the aid of a stick, let alone supporting my chika who was thigh-deep in water most of the time.
Ferns on the creek bank
That section of Horse Linto Creek is flat, but we did encounter some small cascades and a couple of deep pools. We did have our shoes on the entire time but still got to jam our feet between rocks every now and then. Not to bad, though.
Horse Linto white-water 
At some point Papa Quail wondered if we would know where to exit the creek. Good point - we haven't really thought about it when we entered the water. I did remember, however, that the Horse Linto campground had a large and obvious access to the water and I was sure it will be visible from the creek side too. In any case, if we got to the bridge then we would know that we've gone too far and have to backtrack.

As it was, the campground access was indeed quite visible and we got out of the water, soggy, tired, but thoroughly satisfied. I left Papa Quail with the chikas and went to get the car only to discover once more that walking in soggy-wet jeans isn't a very pleasant experience.
We had a picnic lunch at the Horse Linto campground and, after drying off, we drove back to Kimtu Beach on the Trinity River just to get wet all over again. It was a very hot day.