Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Coolest Place in the Hottest Season: Exploring Mori Point at Pacifica

At Mori Point: View West

Date: May 26, 2014
Place: Mori Point, at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Pacifica, California
Coordinates: 37.619236, -122.486430
Length: about 2 miles
Difficulty: easy to moderate

Memorial Day 2014 found us back home, after our prematurely terminated camping trip to Lake Berryessa. Even at our home on the East Bay it was hot. We quickly got through our morning routine and got in the car, heading to the only region that could promise us relief from the heat - the Pacific Coast.
To be specific - Mori Point, at Pacifica.
It was a beautiful, sunny day. On the warmer side, to be sure, but nothing like the extreme heat present a mere mile inland.
There is no staging area or parking lot at the park's entrance. We parked our car on the street near the main trailhead, and headed down the packed dirt road leading into the park. That path goes between residence fences and a line of planted pine trees that block the view of the hill.
The pine trees are nice to look at, though, and they harbor some nice birds as well.
Pygmy Nuthatch
After some 300 yards the tree line ends and the hills on the south pop into view. And it is a very nice view!

Right by the trail there is a mass of greenery, where native plants are mixed with domestic runaways from nearby yards. I photographed the natives. The domestic plant images can be found in garden catalogs.
Common Yellow Monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus)
Mori Point, which only 20 years ago was saved from the claws of development speculators due to the diligence and hard work of the Pacifica area residents, is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. There is a big effort to not only maintain what is there, but also to re-establish the native plant communities in the park. Little flags in wide patches along the trail show the scale of these efforts.
And some native plants do quite well regardless.
Pacific Aster (Symphyotrichum chilense)
North of the path: a reclaimed wetland area. By the end of May there was still some water in the ponds and the mallards were happy.

That flat wetland area is home to an endemic and endangered species of snake - the San Francisco Garter Snake. I didn't get to see the actual animal, but its photo is on an information sign post. It is a very pretty snake, and it lives only within San Mateo County. Sadly, most of its habitat was destroyed. At least Mori Point was saved.

A boardwalk transverses the wetland area, not to disturb it. What does disturb it is a large golf course that splits the nice wetland into two. Only the southern wetland area is part of Mori Point. The town of Pacifica owns the other half. I can only hope they don't use pesticides on that lawn :-/

Shrubs by the trailside - a perfect perch for sparrows.
White-crowned Sparrow
There are many species of sparrows in the Bay Area. The white-crowned is very common and, arguably, the prettiest.
The sweetest sparrow voice, though, belongs to the well named, Song Sparrow.
Song Sparrow
The easy, straight path reaches the beach. It is a beautiful beach with black, coarse sand, and a big warning of shark attacks. There, the trail turns north and continues between the ocean and the wetland all the way to Pacifica Pier. Along the trail, a loose hedge of tree mallow, another pretty non-native plant, in full bloom.
Tree Mallow (Malva arborea), not native
Complementing the mallow's deep purple, where the daisy's yellow. The crown daisy, another garden runaway that established itself in the wild, occasionally sports a white inflorescence.
Crown Daisy (Glebionis coronaria), not native, invasive
The yellows were proudly represented also by our state flower - the California Poppy.
California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
We walked along that path until we reached a lookout area, with a view to an open pond in the tules.

We stopped there and looked for birds, of which there were many, but not in the pond. Nearly all of them were ravens, but there was also a single red-tailed hawk perched nearby.
Red-tailed Hawk
Another sweet-voiced singer resident of the wetland is the red-winged blackbird. I can listen to their singing for a very long time.
Red-winged Blackbird
Eventually we turned around and walked back south towards the Point. The beach looked very inviting and the chikas were eager to go down to the water. But Papa Quail and I weren't ready to finish the hike yet and persuaded them to go on, promising them beach time at the end.

The Beach
There weren't many people down at the beach, but it wasn't deserted. A few large squirrels sat on the rocks, sunbathing and eyeing the people passing by with obvious interest and hope.
Ground Squirrel
Where the trail bends back between the hill and the wetland there is a group of large Monterey Cypress trees and between these trees there is a long staircase leading uphill. Actually, it isn't that long. Not the hill very high. Still, I found it very challenging to climb up there. I simply had to stop on every step and give personal attention to the flowers that covered the hillside.
Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja affinis) and friends
And there were so many of them!
Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)
One, very familiar plant species, dominated the slope. I didn't recognize it at first: I had never seen it wearing yellow before.
Coast Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja affinis)
And there were other familiar blossoms there. I left many of them out of this blogpost, or it really would have been too long. I had to leave some cyberspace for the surprises that waited for us further along the trail.
Dwarf Checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora)
On top of the staircase there is a flat area where once stood Stefano Mori's Inn. Nowadays there are a couple of benches there, and a spectacular view in any direction.
At Mori Point: View North
There was a nice breeze up there that washed away any residue of Lake Berryessa's heat. We strolled down to the cliff's edge and joined the numerous people who sat there, staring at the waves crashing into the rocks.
At Mori Point: View South
There were many flowers there too, and soon I was walking about in increasing circles, looking down at the ground.
Seaside Fleabane (Erigeron glaucus)
Identifying DYC's (Damn Yellow Composites) is always challenging. I did, however, got a bit familiar over time with the more common local species of the aster family.
Seaside Wooly Sunflower (Eriophyllum staechadifolium)
At any time of year you can bet on finding a yellow aster blooming somewhere in the area. Late spring, of course, features vast yellow carpets. They can be as impressive as a field of gold :-)
Wooly Goldfield (Lasthenia minor)
A familiar coastal member of this family is the Oregon Gumweed. It has large, sunflower-like inflorescences that often appear wet.
Oregon Gumweed (Grindelia stricta)
This wetness is what's left of the liquid that the buds secretes at the early stage of flowering. I wonder what is the purpose of this secretion.
Oregon Gumweed (Grindelia stricta)
Another common California coastal plant I saw at Mori Point was the Seaside Buckwheat (no relations to the buckwheat grain). Its patches of pink covered large areas of the hill.
Seaside Buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium)
And in between the buckwheat and the gumweed I was happy to see the Lupine blues.
Sky Lupine (Lupinus nanus)
And it comes in other colors too!
Manycolored Lupine (Lupinus variicolor)
Meanwhile, Papa Quail got busy too. There were many sea birds flying about. Some were high in the air,
Caspian Tern
and some were flying close to the water below.
Double-crested Cormorant
The water surface was dotted with many birds.
Brandt's Cormorant
Many, many birds.
Surf Scotters
But some preferred dry off their feet on the rocks.
Brown Pelicans and Cormorants on a rock off Mori Point
At some point I heard Papa Quail shouting warnings at me. Apparently I got too close to the cliff edge. I did have a good reason, though. These budding dudleyas were hanging right over the edge.
Bluff Lettuce (Dudleya farinosa)
I took a photo of the slope before we went up to continue our hike. The field of spring colors was just amazing and the photo really doesn't do it justice.

From there we continued southward along the cliff. We passed the eroded remains of Mori's estate under a lonely cypress tree. The coastline had eroded considerably since Mori's time.
Monterey Cypress (Hesperocyparis goveniana)
From there we could look back at the cliff side. It seemed like a good place for seagulls to hang. This pair was having a serious discussion.
Western Gull
I found a pretty flower there, and got very excited about it. Later I found out it was yet another garden runaway that established itself in the wild.
Mexican Evening Primrose (Oenothera speciosa) 
But there were plenty of native California plants there as well. Covering the entire hillside with many shades of green and other colors.

As we continued walking along the continually thinning trail southward, I kept looking at the vegetation.
The more south we got, the lower I had to stoop to look at them as they were getting flatter and flatter.
Narrow-leaf Bird's-foot Trifoil (Lotus tenius) not native
Until it got down to nearly a 100% strawberry field.
Beach Strawberry (Fragaria chioensis)
Strawberry Fields Forever :-) And yes, it was very yummy!
Beach Strawberry (Fragaria chioensis)
The south side of Mori Point used to be a quarry. The tail leading down there is very narrow, steep and slippery. We descended very slowly and carefully, having to get down on our bottoms at parts.
There, as I was sliding carefully down the slippery trail, I noticed that the slope right next to me was dotted with holes.

I looked closely.
There was a strong buzzing sound all around me which I was trying to ignore. Papa Quail, however, caught on immediately: the buzzing came from scores of bees that were flying by me. He yelled out a warning, took hold of the chikas hands and quickly disappeared with them down the trail.
The bees, however, didn't seem to notice me at all. they were too busy digging their little ground nests.
Stanford's solitary bee (Anthophora bomboides stanfordiana)
That's what these holes were: the nests of solitary bees. These native California bees dig holes in the ground where they lay their eggs. They don't form a hive and each bee is reproductive. They do nest in aggregation, though, and that's what we saw.

They weren't easy to photograph. I sat there for quite a long time taking series of photo to get a few decent shots. All that time the bees ignored me completely. I departed without a single bite.

It was a surprising and a very interesting wildlife encounter. But there were more surprises waiting for me down the trail. Like this one, in the middle of a particularly difficult segment of the trail.
Sticky Sandspurry (Spergularia macrotheca)
I had to wedge myself hard between the crumbling walls of the eroding trail to get close enough to these tiny flower for a good enough shot.
Sticky Sandspurry (Spergularia macrotheca)
Another surprise was this milkvetch. A very pretty one, and not common at all, as I found out later. I sure was a good day for lucky finds!
Ocean bluff Milkvetch (Astragalus nuttallii var. virgatus)
As we got closer to the old quarry site the ground was more and more disturbed and only few plants held on to it with their roots.
Short-podded lotus (Acmispon brachycarpus)
Eventually we got down to the bottom of the old quarry. Where once stood a hill like Mori Point is now a big white scar of rock and a flat and dry lime-white earth.

The plants there looked all too thirsty. Still, there were some pretty flowers blooming there as well.
Mediterranean Lineseed (Bellardia trixago) non-native, invasive
From the quarry the trail connects to a paved and nicely landscaped multi-use trail where we had to continuously dodge bikers as we made our we back north. There is a beautiful garden along that path - Pacifica Liberty Garden. Suddenly we were back in civilization. From the challenging, eroding trail to the paved path, and from the rugged wildflowers to the neatly trimmed horticulture pets.
USA flags were planted between the bushes and elderly veterans sat by the entrance. We walked solemnly by. It was Memorial Day.
Memorial Day at Pacifica Liberty Garden
There is no convenient trail between Pacifica Liberty Garden to the trailhead of Mori Point, where we had started our hike. After an futile attempt to cut back uphill through the scrub we gave up and made our way out to the sidewalk along highway 1 and took it back to Bradford Way.

We drove south to Sea Lion Cove State Beach and took the stairs down to the water, keeping our promise of beach time. After about 20 minutes of shivering (it was 60 degrees there) we climbed back up and drove home. It was the end of an intense weekend which begun by nearly getting cooked by the heat at Lake Berryessa and ended with chills on the beach. Both places were new ground for us, full of discoveries and surprises. A few months later I came back to Mori Point, but that experience will await telling at a different blogpost, at a different time.

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