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.


  1. This place is very beautiful (I was very impressed by the fall colors on the first picture), the birds are beautiful. But seeing a real live wild bobcat tops it all :-)

    1. It is a lovely little park, and very close to where I leave, too. I wonder why did it take me so long to find it.

  2. What a lovely place!
    Your area if full of those jams, and it's great that you bring them here :-)

    1. And so close to my home too :-) Hope to see you some time in our lovely Bay Area.

  3. very nice, and so many lovely birds
    I really agree with you about not releasing domestic animals to the wild. this is really something that will have only bad results.
    but the bobcat!!! what a great sighting!

    1. Wild cats are always a treat to see out in nature :-) Perhaps on your next visit you'll get to see one too!