Monday, February 23, 2015

Perfect for a Quick Getaway: Ed Levin County Park

Fall Colors at Sandy Wool Lake Picnic Area, November 18, 2014

Date: Nov. 18, 2014 and Jan. 10, 2015
Place: Ed Levin County Park, Milpitas, California
Coordinates: 37.453905, -121.861138
Length: 2.5 miles
Difficulty: moderate

For some time now I had my eye on that green spot on the map, just south of Mission Peak Regional Wilderness. Last September, when I planned for  Redwood 4H Hiking Project year I added Ed Levin County Park to the list of destinations. Then it was time to go there and explore.
I went by myself last November, when the rains just begun and the winter looked promising. The 4H hike took place on January, after the rains had stopped, but we were still hopeful. The photos posted here are from both of these hikes. All bird photos (with one exception) were taken by Papa Quail who joined us on the 4H group hike in January. 

The trail I selected begins at the small parking lot on the south side of Sandy Wool Lake, right by the dam. The first thing I heard when I stepped out of my car was the rusty door hinge call of the acorn woodpecker. They are permanent residents there, and the tree by the dam is holed all over, being used as these birds' acorn granary.
Acorn Woodpecker
On the map, Sandy Wool is a lake. After three solid drought years it looked more like a pond.
The water surface was about a quarter of what it should have been when full. A few birds were floating on the surface, and a few more were resting on its shore. A sole angler was sitting with his rod at the lake, which hasn't been stocked for some time, and the entire scenery looked bleak. I begun to think of alternative destinations for the group hike. Only for a minute, though.
Sandy Wool Lake
I continued on my solo hike though, and eventually I did take my group there. When we returned in January, the water level had risen considerably, and the lake was teeming with birds.
While I gathered the group Papa Quail was clicking away with his camera.
Great Blue Heron on a trashy background.
Sadly, there was quite a lot of trash lying about near the dam. It always pains me that it doesn't come naturally to people to keep their environment clean.
There were plenty of ducks in the lake, most of them mallards. One domestic hybrid: another evidence of people's carelessness.
Duck Conference
Domestic animals should not be released into the wild. Those who don't get eaten by predators breed with their wild relatives and mess up the species.
Interesting Pair
I was surprised to see pelicans at the Sandy Wool Lake. It seems too small for even one such large fish eater, let alone a group of them.
The pelicans and the much smaller cormorants had some debate over the fishing area, but the moment they noticed the Great Blue Heron on the lake side catching something, they all forgot their argument and rushed across the water to see if the heron would share. (It didn't).
American-white Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants
The trail we hiked crosses the dam and circumvents the lake from the north. At the northwest end there is a large picnic area and across the rod from there a cow fence. Beyond the gate there's trail that goes into and up the hills, and then back down along the road. The entire area is fenced off and there is no shortcut pass to the lake. The trail continues inside the fence along the road all the way back to the gate. From there it's a nice short walk along the south lake shore back to the starting point. 
Our hike as captured by Papa Quail's GPS.
I'm familiar with the annual rhythm of colors of the East Bay hills. The summer's yellow turn to deep brown with the first rains. Last November the hills wore their brown with expectation. under the dead weeds a mat of green seedlings was growing not visible from afar but very apparent up close, under my feet.
November 18. Ready for the rains.
I was walking slowly along the north lake shore, revering the view and getting lost in my thoughts. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard sudden screaming from above. i looked up and there was a great Blue Heron - a usually quiet bird - perching on a tree branch over my head and shouting at me. Then it defecated (missed me, thankfully) and flew away. It headed straight into a eucalyptus tree further up the hill. I raised my binoculars.

See the heron?
Eucalyptus trees are not native to California. They were brought here from Australia and took a strong hold in the Bay Area. A lot has been and will be said about the role they fulfill in the local ecosystem and I'm not going to dwell on that here. These trees, however, are also the preferred wintering home for migrating monarch butterflies. The butterflies feed on the eucalyptus blossoms and hang in large groups from the drooping boughs like shimmering, orange stalactites.
Eucalyptus blossom
I looked for the butterflies. Looked very hard. I only saw one and couldn't get a photo. They seem to prefer the eucalyptus grove at Ardenwood Historic Farm.
I did find the angry heron, though.

As I came around the lake I caught a glimpse of something moving on the dry lake bed. I turned my binoculars over there and couldn't believe my luck: a bobcat! It must have been really thirsty, because they don't normally go out like that, in broad day like, and in full view. It was quite far and I did not have the strong zoom lens with me but I did manage to capture a photo of the cat.
Needless to say, the cat wasn't there anymore when I got closer. I didn't expect to see it again when I returned in January and I was not surprised.
Bobcat. November 18
The picnic area on the northwest side of the lake is separated from the parking lot by a row of planted redwood trees. Even when used in landscaping, away from the forest, redwoods are impressive trees. The trees were laden with little, round cones, resembling cypress cones. The lowest branches were low enough to get a good close-up of the reddish cones while still hanging in the tree.
Redwood Cones
On our January hike we were handed a special treat by these trees: a female Anna's Hummingbird was buzzing around the redwood trunks, hovering close to the bark very close to the ground.
It was only fairly recently that I had learned that hummingbirds main food source isn't actually nectar. Rather, they feed primarily on bugs. That makes sense, especially at times when flowers are scarce. Here was this little bird, displaying her bug-hunting skills. Also great show of skill by Papa Quail, who took this photo.
Anna's Hummingbird, female
I crossed the road, went through the gate, and started westward, into the hills. The seedlings awakened by the recent rain were still very small but the mushrooms were quick to grow.
Mushrooms on the trail. November 18. 
Two months later the weeds had grown tall and we didn't see many mushrooms. The all-eyes children found another interesting item - a severed foot of American Coot. They had some interesting theories about the whereabouts of the rest of that coot. My hypothesis was that it was being digested inside a hawk's belly.
Coot Foot
By January the hills had turned fully green. Bright, happy green. It hadn't rained since the end of December but we were still giddy from the wet beginning of winter.

So were the birds. There were so many birds of so many species! Truly, Ed Levin County Park should be high on any Bay Area bird-watcher list of places to go birding. Papa Quail was very happy.
Western Bluebird, male
I already knew that in November, of course. Just didn't have with me the right zoom lens to photograph all the birds I saw. And if I didn't see the bird itself - there were clear evidence of its being there. Like this poor lizard stowed away by a shrike for future snacking.
The work of a shrike
Not just in the bushes: the sky was busy too. Turkey vultures circled overhead, looking for the dead.
Turkey Vulture
Turkey vultures are a common enough sight all right. Sometimes, though, it is good to get a better look at those large dark birds that surf the heavens: not all of them are vultures :-)
Golden Eagle
The children don't look up very often. They are more focused on the ground. They, too, find surprises.

Mule Deer
The steady climb on the hill isn't difficult and the view from the top is lovely, even when visibility is far from perfect.
Milpitas and beyond: Santa Clara Valley (a.k.a. Silicon Valley)
That hill top is a perfect place for a rest stop and relaxation. There was hardly anyone else there on both of my hikes. Coming down though, is a different matter. The trail going down is very steep and can be very slippery when wet. Hikers with bad knees are advised to bring hiking poles along or to hike this loop in the opposite direction.
Last November, as I hiked slowly downhill I became aware of a red-tailed hawk that was patrolling the sky above me. Below, ground squirrels were bolting to their holes. After I completed my hill and was driving out of the park on Old Calaveras Road I saw that hawk on the ground and I stopped and took some photos from inside the car. The hawk wasn't in the mood to be on display and took off to the air, and it was carrying a squirrel in its talons. And the squirrel was still writhing.
Red-tailed Hawk atop a ground squirrel
Once down at the valley on the trail that parallels Downing Rd there are some nice opportunities to view the entire Sandy Wool Lake. I took he photo below in November.
Sandy Wool Lake, November 18.
The next photo I took in January from a nearby spot. While the photos are different in angle and zoom, the difference in the lake's water level is clear. Still, the lake isn't full and winter seems to be over. This is very, very worrisome.
Sandy Wool Lake, January 10.
Back at the picnic area was stopped to appreciate the activity that was going on on the hillside: hang gliding. Turns out Ed Levin is a place hang-gliders go to launch off.

What is good for vultures is good for hang gliders too. My young chika announced that she wanted to do that too and I sighed in agreement: this looks like mega fun!
I told her she'd better start saving: this sport isn't cheap.

While most of us were looking up. papa Quail was focusing on the lawn, where numerous birds were raking and pecking the ground in search of earthy morsels.
Northern Flicker
The entire lawn area was bubbling with activity. Lots and lots of birds. Did I mention already that Ed Levin County Park is a wonderful place to go birding?
Hermit Thrush
Not that the air was empty ... swifts were zooming above the lake. They are very quick and loopy and it takes a lot of patience to get one on camera. This might not be National Geographic material, but considering the challenge, Papa Quail managed a pretty good shot.
White-throated Swift
From the picnic area it is a short stretch along the south shore back to where we started. That trail segment is narrow and wedged between the reeds on the lake side and coyote bushes on the road side. The coyote brushes were still in bloom last November.
Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis)
The trail goes under a large, drooping willow tree. As we single-filed under it I heard the name 'Whomping Willow' mentioned and I wondered if any of us will be swatted by an angry bough.
Whomping Willow?
An in the branches of another willow tree: a varied thrush. I remember that not too long ago these birds were hard to spot and even harder to photograph. In the last year, it seems, they are everywhere.  I now see them often, and they hang out boldly in the open, in full view. Very pretty birds, these.
Varied Thrush
I had two lovely hikes at Ed Levin. I saw it in its fall browns and its winter greens. I would very much like to go there next month to see the place wearing spring flowers!
And in case it didn't come up yet, if you like birdwatching, do add Ed Levin County Park to your 'To Go' list.
January 10, after two months of good soaking.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Bradley Grove of (would be Giant) Sequoia at Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Date: September 1, 2014
Place: Bradley Grove at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, Angels Camp, California
Coordinates: 38.244343, -120.268958
Length: about 2.5 miles
Difficulty: easy

Way back when during the California Gold Rush, a group of miners sent a hunter out to the forest and he returned empty-handed but with fantastic news: he had discovered a grove of giant trees, bigger than anything within human knowledge until then. The miners dismiss his story as fibs and send him off again. On his second return he tells them he had shot a bear and asks for help carrying the carcass. A group of men goes along with him and he leads them to a grove of giant sequoia, the grove he had discovered on his first hunting trip. In this story's aftermath one bear goes unharmed while a miners go hungry a little longer.
And the biggest trees in the world, the biggest known organisms in fact, become known outside of the local Native American tribes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

The area in which giant sequoia trees were first seen by European-descent people is now part of the Calaveras Big Trees State Park. It is there that my chikas and I had hiked on Labor Day after breaking camp at the Spicer Reservoir.

I had promised the chikas a morning swim in the reservoir so we took our time in checking out of the campground. When we arrived eventually at Calaveras Big Trees SP I found that the park was overflowing with people and that the North Grove area was heavily congested with cars with no parking available within any reasonable time. I drove to the more distant South Grove area, where I did find parking. The grove, however, was too far for us to hike on the time we had before having to head out back home. So we went hiking on the shorter Beaver Creek/Bradley Grove loop trail, which proved to be just right for our time and ability, and for the hot weather that day.

From South Grove parking lot to Beaver Creek crossing and Bradley Grove, labeled yellow.
We quickly descended the short trail to Beaver Creek crossing. That's where we saw the last of the people on our hike.
The creek bed was very colorful and pretty, and the water looked very inviting. A group of people sat by the water and the chikas wanted to join them but I urged them onward.
Beaver Creek
We started ascending up the hill. Near the creek the trees were mostly broad-leaf but the higher we hiked we saw more and more conifers, until they were the majority.
Some trees stood out with interesting appearance, like this one, with a bulging burl mid-trunk.
None of the plants were blooming. Calaveras Big Trees SP is at a lower elevation than Lake Alpine, where we had hike the day before. There it really was the end of summer. It felt that way too.
But fruit also add nice colors to the forest.
Starry False Lily of the Valley (Maianthemum stellatum)
Getting close to Bradley Grove we came upon a sole Giant Sequoia. It wasn't as big as the trees we've seen at Yosemite's Mariposa Grove or at Sequoia National Park. Even so, that tree stood out above and beyond every tree around it.
My young tree huggers took turns trying to encircle the tree with their arms :-)
Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum)
We continued walking further until we reached a small clearing and a sign saying 'Bradley Grove'. We were there, but where were the giants?
There were plenty of trees, all right, some very large new too, but none were giant. After a fews dumbfounded seconds I realized that this was a young grove: they were giant sequoia 'babies'. In a thousand years or so some of these will indeed become giant.
Bradley Grove of (would be giant) Sequoia
I made myself a mental note to come back to this place in a thousand years, and we moved on.
A short dead-end trail splits off right at the point where there trail curves back toward Beaver Creek. That trail leads to another lone Giant Sequoia. I convinced the chikas that it was worth the extra walk and we had a nice, quiet rest stop under that gentle giant, silently revering it.

When the European-descent settlers found the giant sequoia they immediately set about lumbering them. Fortunately for these trees they make really bad lumber: unlike their cousin the Coastal Redwood, the Giant Sequoia wood is just too brittle for building anything bigger than matchsticks (apart from their own enormous trunks, of course).

These trees are very resilient. The high content of tannins in their wood, which gives them their beautiful orange-red color, also renders them immune to nearly anything that eats wood. (Not sure about that bug in the photo, though). The tannins are also fire-attenuants and Giant Sequoia can withstand most natural forest fires.
Sequoia bark. Can you see the camouflaged bug?
Giant Sequoia cones are quite small and can fit easily inside a child's hand.
Sequoia cone
A modest beginning for a giant :-)

On the way down to Beaver Creek we passed a grove Sugar Pine. I believe this species holds the record for biggest cone!
Sugar Pine cone
We saw more conifer trees along the way. I liked this pine with the three-way split top:

Pinus sp.
As we got closer to Beaver Creek we were once again surrounded by broad-leaf trees. While these trees were still wearing full green we could tell that fall was around the corner simply by looking at the ground:

The last segment of our loop trail follows Beaver Creek. We stood there for a few seconds to appreciate the lazy flow. All too quickly though, a cloud of mosquitos descended upon us and, having no bug repellent to ward them off, we took our feet and run down the trail all the way to the bridge.
Beaver Creek
At the bridge I allowed the chikas a little creek time before we hiked up to the parking lot. They didn't want to leave the water and I couldn't blame them, but we still had a long drive ahead of us, and it was school night. I didn't have to argue, though. The words, 'gift shop' have intrinsic magic to them.
There were much fewer people at the North Grove area nearing the end of the day. At the visitor center I educated myself some more about this lovely park and I fully intend to return and explore it more in the near future.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

End of Summer Hike Around Lake Alpine

Date: August 31, 2014
Place: Lake Alpine, Arnold, California
Coordinates: 38.481008, -119.996949
Length: about 4 miles
Difficulty: easy

Our hike around Lake Alpine. Pine Marten Campground area and walked clockwise. 
Lake Alpine is a popular summer vacation place. One look at that lake (a reservoir, really) and it's clear why. High up in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, this small,calm lake is like a precious blue jewel, sparkling in the bright sunlight. With several inviting beaches, a couple of resorts and heavily-used campgrounds, the lake area was filled up to a choke with Labor Day vacationers. 
I suppose that included us, as well.
Finding parking at any of the lake access points proved to be quite a challenge. After a slow drive through all the parking lots on the north shore we managed to squeeze the cars on the roadside of Hwy4 at the very northeastern tip of the lake, just before the turn to Pipe Marten campground.
Lake Alpine, northeastern shore
I bravely resisted the children's begs to stop at the first beach. I promised we will go to another beach on the other side of the dam but even so it was hard to direct our no-delay gratification offspring from the waterfront to the hiking trail.
I would have loved to stay there all day too. California Towhee.
After detaching from the beach we plunged into the woods with gusto and got underway on a really good pace. Before too long, though, we got side-tracked again. This time by a big and beautiful pile of granite rocks. Within the 2 seconds it took my to switch on my camera the rocks were conquered by our jubilant group of youngsters, all happily practicing their primate climbing skills with varying degrees of success and their social graces and un-graces with absolute perfection. It took even longer time than at the beach before they were all off the rock and walking again.
Meanwhile I I walked over to the nearest flower and photographed it.
Checker Mallow (Sidalcea asprella)
There weren't that many plants in bloom at the time, but evidence of those that were not too long before were everywhere.

Snowline Wintergreen (Pyrola minor), finished blooming.

The slope grade was very slight. We were ascending without feeling it at all. Then we broke out of the woods and found ourselves way up above the lake, at the edge of a sheer granite cliff.

The view was stunning. We sat there for a while, eating and relaxing. I found a blooming penstemon and was happy.
Mountain Pride (Penstemon newberryii)

Then the youngsters tried to find out how far they can scale down the cliff. That was our cue to move on. The youngsters complained but eventually came along. Three of them were playing silly games with the radio communicators and kept being yelled at by the others, until the other dad ordered them to stop, threatening to confiscate the radios. Eventually he did take a communicator from one of the kids and handed it to me. I shrugged and hanged it on my belt.

We were descending along the granite rocks and soon the lake disappeared from our view. We were now walking on a narrow trail inside a small, dry creek and our group stretched into a meandering human serpentine whose head couldn't see its tail and vice-versa.
At some point the trail became less obvious. The leading people (myself included) continued along the creek following a bootleg trail. The people behind followed what turned out to be the actual trail to the right and up the granite rocks again.

Then the bootleg trail disappeared and we found that we had no idea where the others were. At that point I was really, really thankful for the radio communicators. It would have taken us much longer to sort out the situation without them.
We were somewhere west of the dam when we reached Silver Creek.  There, too, were bootleg trails and we took some time figuring out the real one.

This little mountain creek was also a foot place to stop and enjoy the view.

We stood on the narrow wooden bridge and while the adults appreciated the view ...

...  the children were busy making shadow figures on the water.

Our trail joined with a packed dirt road and we continued along that road into the woods. Along the way we came upon a lovely green meadow.

The meadow looked inviting but we were getting near the lake again and the youngsters reminded me of my promise of beach time. I took a quick photograph of a daisy I saw there and we moved on to the beach.
Oxeye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), non-native, invasive
The beach, as expected, was jam-packed with people. We managed to find an unclaimed corner and within seconds the kids were stripped to their swimsuits and at the water. All except one of them who fell asleep on a flat granite rock.
I let my camera rest too. It was good to just sit there and stare at the water. Ducks swam too and fro, un-phased by the small canoes and kayaks that rowed by along the shore, or by the numerous children who splashed at the shallows. Very few people ventured into the ice-cold deep waters.
That's the best way to bird-watch!
We stayed there at the northwestern beach for a long time indeed. Eventually it was the children who prompted us to move on: they were hungry and wanted something more substantial than the snacks we carried.
We plowed back to the road via the campground, not stopping until we reached the little gas station and store that serve the Lake Alpine resort area. We went inside and bought popsicles.

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel
The children sat down near the store, licking their popsicles and looking exhausted. They wouldn't go any further.  So me and the other father took off to get the cars whale everyone else waited for us near the store. It was only us drivers that completed the entire loop and that was just fine by me. And I got to see an eared grebe fishing along the lakeshore on the way to the car :-) 
Eared Grebe
We returned to our campsite at the Spicer Reservoir. My friend's husband who stayed behind because he was sick, had taken the time of our absence to break camp. That evening, after we all had dinner together, both families took off, leaving me and my chikas to complete our vacation by ourselves. Our plan for Labor Day was to visit the Calaveras Big Trees State Park on our way back home.