Saturday, January 25, 2014

Outside the Crooked House: The Hidden Valley of Joshua Tree National Park

Date: March 11, 2013
Place: Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park, California
Coordinates: 34.01262, -116.16763
Length: about 1.5 miles
Difficulty: Easy

In 1940 the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein published a short story called, "-And He Built A Crooked House". In the story, people get lost inside a 4-dimentional house. When they manage to get out they find themselves in a very strange place with a scenery so strange that they first think they might have gotten to another planet.
That place is now Joshua Tree National Park.

Just 2 hours drive east of Los Angeles, this park is one of the most stunning deserts I have ever seen. In beauty, complexity, vastness ... you name it. Too bad it is so far away from the Bay Area, otherwise I'd be visiting there more frequently.
When I took my botanist friend on a California deserts tour last March, we traveled from north to south. We visited Death Valley National Park and Mojave Desert Preserve and at last, we got to Joshua Tree National Park.

Our first port of call was a place called 'Hidden Valley'. It is a short loop trail nestled inside a ring of granite walls that form a unique niche, separated from the open desert outside. It is, in my humble opinion, a must see place.
Part of the Hidden Valley wall
Once, Hidden Valley used by thieves to hide away and rebrand stolen cattle. The only cow that can be seen there today is made of rock.

Rock formations are the most conspicuous and spectacular sights there. The weathered granite can truly be awe inspiring.

And sometimes a little bit suggestive ...

Climbers from all over the world are inspired by these rocks. We've seen quite a few climbers there, some ascending the sheer rock faces and some merely hopping on the granite ledges wherever they saw fit.

Being relatively protected from the elements, Hidden Valley is home to rich vegetation. The three most common trees there are the pinion pines, the California junipers and of course, Joshua trees. There were many of them in the valley, but I liked in particular those that chose the most impossible places to root:

And there was this tree, no longer alive but still with strong presence:

A photo taken from another angle shows a Giant Nolina plant with its inflorescence pitting that dead pinion in perspective.
Giant Nolina (Nolina parryi)
These Agava-like plants are very impressive in size and appearance.
Giant Nolina (Nolina Parryi)
The most common animal we saw there was Homo sapiens ... which might account for the low appearance of other species. We did, however, see some lizards. And not all of them run away immediately.

We also heard many tweets in the air. Seeing the little tweeters has proven quite a challenge, though. Photographing them was nearly impossible. Eventually, with much patience, I managed to catch one of them on camera:
The loop is short, but we took a long time completing it. We enjoyed the sights, waited patiently for the birds to show themselves, climbed some rocks and photographed ourselves near every pretty landmark, just as any good tourist would.
Desert has very little rot. This dead tree has been there on my previous visit to Hidden Valley too. 
But every good thing must come to an end. We completed the loop and I got a quick shot of this shy pricklypear on the way out.

Opuntia sp.
If you plan to go to Joshua Tree National Park, or just driving through, make a stop at Hidden Valley. It will be worth it in every possible way.

Many thanks to my friend עננת and to Papa Quail for identifying the plants and the bird :-)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sometimes It's Green: Flag Hill at Sunol Regional Park

Date: January 13, 2013
Place: Sunol Regional Wilderness, Sunol, California
Coordinates: 37.5155, -121.8319
Length:about 3.5 miles
Difficulty: strenuous

On January last year I went to Sunol Regional Wilderness to check out the Flag Hill trail for the 4H hiking group. As it turned out, we ended up going to Little Yosemite instead. We had a very good reason: it was right after a very wet Fall and the Alameda Creek was high and flowing strong. I wanted the group to enjoy that sight as well.
I did have a very nice hike, though. For some reason I've been lingering in posting that hike. Now when I look at the photos I took exactly a year ago, I feel sad. This year there's a bad drought here. The creek is but a trickle and the hills are parched dry.
Still, I would recommend going there, even now. Sunol Regional Wilderness is beautiful any year. This year, however, you'll get to hike in summer's scenery at winter temperatures.
Flag Hill, Valley and Hayfield Rds Loop. Map downloaded from the EBRPD site. My hike is labeled yellow.
I parked right by the little foot bridge that's a little further down the road from the visitor center, took my backpack and crossed the Alameda Creek. 
Alameda Creek flowing
Several trails split from that point, some of which I know well from having hiked them numerous times. It was my first time, however, to hike up Flag Hill Road, which is the trail that splits to the left (east). After a short walk upstream the Alameda Creek I begun ascending the hill.
The lines of trees mark the creek valleys, forming a riparian habitat.
The hills of the southern regions of the Alameda County are too dry to support a thick forest. The trees, oaks mostly, grow in wiggly lines along creeks, or otherwise dot the open grassland. January is a good month to observe the contrast between the deciduous and ever-green oaks. I ache now to see how green were these hills last year.
See that bare rock in the background? That's where I'm headed. Flag Hill. 
The trail going up to Flag Hill has been newly redone by the Boy Scouts. Many other trails were cut across the grassy hillsides. These weren't done by humans, though.
Bovine trails
Ascending Flag Hill is a good workout. But there's nothing like the feeling of sitting at the summit, the winds of heights blow-drying the sweat from my face. The views are spectacular.
Maguire Peaks, a view from Flag Hill.
For a while I had the peak all to myself, but after some time other hikers were coming up the hill. I gathered my things and continued northward on the Flag Hill Road that linked me to the High Valley Road. Along the trail there were many oak trees, both dead and living, that had holes in their trunks. The drillers of these holes - Acorn Woodpeckers - were flying all over the place but didn't sit still for a photo.
Acorn Woodpecker was here!  
Plump ground squirrels were busy all over the place. They too, were quick to run down their holes when they saw me approach.
I spy with my camera eye ... 
The hills north of my trail were very alluring. I would need longer time to hike the trails that go up there. It would be a hike for another time.
Riparian habitat in the hills
Where Flag Hill Road meets Valley Road there is an old homestead and a cattle area. There is also this interesting tree, standing all alone:

The trail goes right by High Valley campground, then it meets Hayfield  Road and goes down.
I was a bit surprised to see this rather large thicket of prickly pear there. I should remember to go there late next summer with an empty can and a knife on sticks :-)
Prickly Pear
The way down was quick. This time, though, I paused on the bridge and photographed the rippled reflection on the swollen Alameda Creek. I still hope to see this sight again this year. Alas! There's not much time left. Let's all hope for rain to come!
Reflection in a calm section of Alameda Creek

Do click on the photos for a larger and crisper view.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Nature Reclaimed: The Hookton Slough at Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Date: July 7, 2013
Place: Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Loleta, California
Coordinates:  40.6774, -124.2219
Length: 3 miles in and out
Difficulty: easy

Our morning hike of the Shorebird Loop Trail was not enough for us. After a short lunch break we drove around the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge to the Hookton Slough Unit and embarked on the Hookton Slough Trail.
Map copied from Hamboldt Bay NWR brochure. Our trail is labeled yellow.
150 years ago, Hookton Slough used to be an active port. Boats used to go up the slough and dock there, right where we parked our car. Carts would ride the dirt, sometimes muddy, roads that connected the town to the port, and the place was busy with human activity.
Hookton Slough, view east
Today, very little remains of all that commerce activity that once took place at Hookton. There is a dock there all right, where people take their kayaks to the water.
We just walked on the trail that stretches along the slough on its southern bank.
Hookton Slough, view west
The trail is completely level, wide and super easy to walk. Even so, we hiked it slowly, because it is also rich with wildlife and other pretty sights.
Pale Swallowtail
The grey overcast was starting to thin out. There was still enough of it though, to make a good background for a flying heron.
Great Blue Heron
There were many weeds in bloom along the trail. Most of them were invasive crucifer species. On the water side there were clusters of cloud-white blossoms: the prevalent California native narrow-leaf milkweed.
Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
 Going out west, I paid more attention to the water side of the trail. Besides the milkweed I took notice of the lichen-decorated levee rocks and the salt marsh swamp fire plants that grew between them.
Lichen and Pacific Swampfire (Salicornia pacifica)
The wind kept blowing in our faces as we headed west. None better to demonstrate that than the flexible blossoms of the tuft grass. The yellowish tips shined and sparkled against the grey background. I couldn't quite capture that effect on camera.
Tuft Grass (Deschampsia caespitosa ssp. holciformis)
A group of great egrets blocked our way. They seemed to have been discussing some serious matter between themselves. As we drew near they flew a bit further down the trail. They did so again and again as we progressed down the trail. Eventually, they flew away altogether.
Great Egret
I looked south. A dark grove of trees far across the field was there, carrying a large number of roosting egrets and herons.

A few more steps and I run into what could possibly have been the point of discussion: a broken egg shell.
And another. And another. That entire section of trail was decorated with numerous broken eggs in varying degrees of shatter. Some had still dried yolk smeared on them, suggesting that they were stolen from the nest and eaten, rather than the shells being the removed remains of hatched eggs. The eggs are a but smaller and more slender than an ordinary chicken egg and I suspect they might have originated at the heron colony in that far away grove.
We went on walking. The tide, that was receding the entire time we were walking west, has reached its lowest point and we were nearing the end of the trail.
The changing of the tides at the Hookton Slough. 
Our hike ended abruptly at a gate carrying the sign 'End of Trail'. The trail does continue, however, into private land.
The view beyond the end of Hookton Slough Trail
We stayed there for sometime. The chikas went down to the exposed tidal zone and drew pictures in the sand. As appreciative as I am of my daughters' artwork, I do prefer the natural ripples pattern etched in the sand.
Low tide
Eventually it was time to head back. The sun was making good progress in breaking through the overcast, the tide was coming in now and the smaller birds were all over the place, looking pretty:
Cedar Waxwing
And sounding great:
Song Sparrow
It was only on the way back that I noticed a canal of what looked like fresh water on the east side of the trail. I looked closely, but couldn't see anything swimming there.

The way back didn't yield any more surprises. The chickas were busy looking for ladybugs and snails. They even found some :-)
European Brown Snail
Before long we were back at the parking lot and done with our Forth of July vacation. It was 4 hours of quiet drive all the way back to the Bay Area.

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

You can click on the photos to get a better view.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Things I saw in the Slough: Hiking at Humboldt Bay NWR

Date: July 7, 2013
Place: Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Loleta, California
Coordinates:  40.6861, -124.2124
Length: 1.75 miles
Difficulty: easy
Comment: bring mosquito repellant.

Map copied from Hamboldt Bay NWR brochure. Our trail is labeled yellow.

The last night of our 4th of July trip we spent in the coastal town of Eureka. We woke up to the chill of a foggy morning which, after the intense heat of Willow Creek, was a much welcomed relief. After a quick breakfast we headed straight to the sole destination we planned for that day: the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

After a short visit to the visitor center we went out on our first trail: the Shorebird Loop Trail, that begins right behind the building.   For about half a mile the trail meanders along a narrow slough. Close to the beginning there is a small observation hut.
A Black-crowned Night Heron on the little foot bridge behind the visitor center
By the time we were there I already had to run twice back to the car to get the chicka's sweater and the bug repellant. Throughout the hike we were walking through a cloud of hungry mosquitoes. We needed the protection.

The ground, even on the trail itself, was completely covered with green vegetation. Many plants were blooming.

Most of what I've seen in bloom were invasive plant species.
Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare). Non-native, invasive.
Nonetheless, the flowers were very pretty.
Common Brassbuttons (Cotula coronopifolia). Non-native, invasive.

After half a mile the trail splits and loops around a large pond. The calm water was closely watched by egrets and herons.
Great Egret
The dense cattail thicket provided shelter to many birds. We heard them well enough. On occasions, we saw them too.
Mallard chicks speeding after their camera-shy mother 
If they stayed long enough above the water, that is.
Pied-billed Grebe
The pond water was so calm, like a perfect mirror. It is difficult to select from the many beautiful reflections I photographed that day.

We walked slowly, imbibing the sights and sounds carried by the thick, humid air. As always, the chickas were quick to spot the ground crawlers on the trail.
Stop the traffic! I'm crossing! 
Or those winged ones that just sopped for a rest, like this moth:
 Red-shouldered Ctenucha (Ctenucha rubroscapus)

Bu then the elder chicka made a much more important find: A Virginia Rail that stepped momentarily out of the cattails.
Virginia Rail
Rails aren't that rare. They are, however, very difficult to see. They spend nearly all of their time hiding in the thicket. Needless to say, Papa Quail got very excited about the rail and the chicka was very proud of herself for having spotted it in the first place. In fact, she kept going on and on for the rest of that day about finding a rail for Papa :-)
The trail continues beyond the pond and near the slough that extends from Humboldt Bay. It was low tide and the mud flats were criss-crossed with bird tracks. The birds themselves were no longer there.

We looped back and neared the canal once again.

I was looking at the weeds that were blooming along the canal banks, coloring it with whites, pinks and yellows, and rendering those very same colors to the murky water below.

And it was there, in the canal, while I appreciated the flowers, that I saw something brown swimming. Sure enough: there was a pair of river otters! Right there in front of our eyes!
River Otter
We were very excited, of course. The otters were less excited and swam off.
River Otter
It was a very good hike for viewing wildlife. While there wasn't as much excitement as with the rail and the otters, we were very happy to see the Black-tailed Deer in the meadow behind the canal.
Black-tailed Deer
And as always, the small, pretty singers who hummed all around us while we hiked.
Song Sparrow
At that point were were getting back into mosquito-dom and found out that one layer of bug repellant was not enough. Each of us was sporting quite a few bites. We hurried to the end of the trail.
Black-capped Chickadee busy seed-tasting. 
What can I say? Mosquito bite, plenty enough to play connect-the-dots on our skins were a small price to pay for the chance to walk in this beautiful refuge and to see its rich wildlife.
American Goldfinch, male
We had enough of the mosquitoes but not of the Humboldt Bay NWR. So we packed ourselves and drove around to the other side of the park where, after a quick lunch, we embarked on another hike along the Hookton Slough.

Many thanks to members of the California Wildlife Appreciators for their help in identifying the moth!

A few months after that trip my elder chicka was still talking about the Virginia Rail she had sighted. Being the artist she is, she drew a painting of the rail and added a few avian friends too :-)