Wednesday, April 29, 2015

From Petite to XL: The Pygmy Forest and the Beach at Van Damme State Park

Date: November 25, 2014
Place: Van Damme State Park, Mendocino, California
Coordinates: 39.264248, -123.736827
Length: 0.33 mile
Difficulty: very easy

Grandma Quail was the first of our family to step on California ground. She did so a long time ago, touring around the Golden State with Grandpa Quail and another relative who'd showed them around.  The evening before our hike at Russian Gulch State Park she was telling us anecdotes from that long ago trip.
"There is a forest of dwarf redwoods somewhere around here," she recalled. Maybe we can check it out."
After spending some quality time with Google at the hotel room that night I soon found what she was talking about. It was called "The Pygmy Forest," it wasn't redwoods, but pygmy pines and cypress, and sure enough, it was nearby - it was in Van Damme State Park, just a few miles south of Russian Gulch SP.

Needless to say, the Pygmy Forest made it on our list for the day. So after a good, hearty lunch picnic at Russian Gulch SP we headed south to Van Damme SP to check it out.

We could have hiked to the forest through the park but after a short debate in which some hurting knees and floppy chikas had the upper hand be drove around the park through the town of Little River to the nearest access point where we could park the car right by said forest. From there, the entire hike is just a 1/3 of a mile of a really easy boardwalk loop.
The trees around by the parking lot were no pygmies but beautiful full-size pines.
Bishop Pine (Pinus nuricata)
Soon enough though, were had entered tree Lilliput kingdom.

Surrounded by full-size trees is a small patch of forest where similar trees that can be decades and even hundreds of years in age, grow to be shrub size.
Bolander Pine (Pinus contorta ssp. bolanderi)
Information boards, strategically placed throughout the loop, tell the story of this forest. In short - old soil. This area is an alluvial plain that has no drainage and there is no turnover period for the soil accumulated there. It is, therefore, a very poor soil that cannot support the growth of full size trees.

Pygmy Cypress (Cupressus goveniana ssp. pygmaea)
And not only do these trees look stunted, most of them look pale, sick with lack of iron.
Not all of them though. Some of the cypresses we've seen did look quite comfortable in petite appearance.
Pygmy Cypress (Cupressus goveniana ssp. pygmaea)
We didn't actually see the old soil of the forest. It was covered with fallen leaves and patches of lichen.
But the biggest surprise at the Pygmy Forest were the rhododendron bushes. That they were there - not a big surprise. Also not their smaller than normal stature. But they were blooming! In November! And not just one random flower but many. A beautiful site it was, and also a disturbing reminder that the environment wasn't 'behaving' as expected. Not this winter.
California Rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum)
After our visit at the Pygmy Forest it was time to keep our promise to the chikas and take them to the beach. Not that it was such a sacrifice :-)
The beach at Little River isn't a part of the state park and we didn't do any hiking there except from the car to a nice spot on the beach. There we sat and observed the ocean and our fellow beach goers, both human and avian.
The humans we excluded from the photos.
Assembly at the Beach
I saw two types of birds on the beach - Black Oystercatches and Seagulls.
Papa Quail on the other hand, felt like having been invited to a party and kept photographing each and every bird he saw. Later he sat with me and explained to me in pained patience that not all gulls are alike. That there were several gull species on that beach that afternoon and they were clearly distinct (yeah, the spot on the bill was dark instead of red or the legs grey instead of yellow. How could I not tell the difference?)
California Gull
And that at least one of these very distinct gull species was a very rare sighting: a European Common Mew Gull that is never seen in California. Well, we saw one :-)
Common Mew Gull
I guess I'll fever make a true birder. Seagulls are the true test of one. Not only will I need the ability to tell the different species apart but I'd also have to care enough in order to do so ...
Herring Gull
And maybe there's hope for me still. After all, I did learn to identify the Western Gull (and some other gulls) from all the rest.
Western Gull
Oystercatchers are much less confusing and much more amusing. Papa Quail photographed several of these beautiful shore birds that day and I liked best the one that was bathing in the brackish estuary water.
Black Oystercatcher
We spent a long and relaxing hour at that beach, enjoying the sun and the peace. At some point I saw a cormorant drying its wings on a far rock and tugged at Papa Quail's shirt. But he was tired by chasing all those gulls and shrugged me off claiming it was 'just a cormorant'. So I reached over him, grabbed his camera and photographed the bird myself. There.
'Just A Cormorant'
 The sun was getting lower and we struggled back to our feet and shook off the sand. With only one objection (little chika's) we agreed to go into the park for one last hike that day, just to get circulation going in our legs again. And so we headed back into Van Damme State Park, to hike the Fern Canyon.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Fantastic California Coastline: Hiking at Russian Gulch Cliffs

Russian Gulch

Date: November 25, 2014
Place: Russian Gulch State Park, Fort Bragg, California
Coordinates: 39.330419, -123.801966
Length: 1.8 miles
Difficulty: easy to moderate

After the boom start of our Thanksgiving vacation at Annadel State Park it was clear that on the following day we'll hike an easier trail. So after spending a relaxed night at Fort Bragg we drove a few miles south on the beautiful Hwy 1 to a cluster of coastal State Parks, the first of which is Russian Gulch State Park. After a speedy exploration of the trail options we selected the South Cliffs trailhead. 
Most of our South Cliffs hike, as captured by Papa Quail's GPS, labeled green. Everyone but Papa Quail continued to the Point's point and made it back only to the first road. 
The northern California coast was already soaked by the early rains. We arrived at Russian Gulch State Park on a beautiful, sunny day, but the trail was very muddy. This made going up the initial slope a very challenging ascend.

The trail begins at sea level right by the beach and goes immediately up the cliff south of the gulch. Then it meanders along the cliff edge about a mile and a half to the south.
We didn't have to go very far to find mushrooms. They were everywhere. A fungi splendor worthy of NorCal coastal area.
Witches' Butter (Tremella mesenterica)
Not every mushroom we saw had such a unique and unmistakable appearance. Many had a very standard umbrella shape and dull colors. Most of the time I didn't bother to look under the cap and see if there were any gills.

But even the simpler-looking mushrooms look great at peak season. I liked the creamy look of this one below and the contrast with the dark earth and pine needles:
Gemmed Amanita (Amanita gemmata)
We climbed uphill slowly, struggling in the mud, taking every excuse to stop. Most were good reasons anyway.
Banana Slug
That climb to the cliff edge was all in the woods, in the shade. So it was there on that fairly on that short trail segment that we saw most variety of mushrooms.
Looking at these fabulous caps it is easy to forget that these are merely the fungi's fruiting bodies. The fungus itself exists away from view, underground or inside wood, decomposing dead tissue and other organic matter, releasing the precious nutrients locked inside dead wood and and returning them to the ground to be taken up and reused by living plants.

On the way uphill we also caught a glimpse of Highway 1 bridging the gulch. Below it - Russian Gulch Cove which was almost empty of people.

Soon after, our eyes where back on the ground, looking for more mushrooms. I was amazed at the variety of the mushrooms we saw and even more so by the great variance in appearance between individual mushrooms of the same species. The stage of development adds a great deal to this variability.
Gemmed Amanita (Amanita gemmata)
Many of these mushrooms were huge, too!

Of course, not all fungi look like mushrooms. They have, nonetheless, the same function: to produce and release spores.
Straight-branched Coral (Ramaria stricta)
Of all the trees on our way up the cliff it was this one below that caught my eye. The tree itself was dead - probably for a while now. Still, it was teeming with life.

Here's a close up on one of the branches. A fungus, already feasting on the dead wood, is blooming under the limb in white blotches. On top of the limb is a green carpet made of the light-requiring moss. Anchored in the moss in vivid green, like surrogate leaves, were sprigs of fern.
I was standing too far below but I am positive that a closer look would have revealed some invertebrate life in that living balcony supported by the tree which died standing up.
We saw variations of this kind of community all over the place. It is the mark of a wet forest.
Aerial Gardens
After a slow uphill struggle on the muddy, slippery trail we reached a small clearing at the cliff's edge. There was a partial view of the cove below and a glow that filtered through the canopies. The early morning chill had vanished: we were all hot from the ascend and the sunlight penetrated the woods enough to keep us warmed.

Through the thick carpet of pine needles poked a large mushroom that was already past its peak. It was the first of numerous of its kind that I've seen and my heart skipped a bit - the boletus is one of my favorite wild mushrooms to eat!
Bay Bolete (Boletus badius)
I didn't pick this one, nor any others I've seen at the park, but my senses were heightened now - it is illegal to harvest wild mushrooms in the parks but surely there are unprotected forest areas in the vicinity where I could legally hunt for mushrooms.
Meanwhile, Papa Quail had captured his first bird on camera: a gracefully gliding Pacific brown pelican.
Pacific Brown Pelican
We progressed along the cliff. The trail, which on dry conditions would have been easy to walk, had remained somewhat challenging due to the wet conditions. Most of it was fine, but at times it narrowed considerably and at some points it appeared as if the main trail had been washed away and a lesser quality makeshift trail was carved on the slope by the trampling feet of the hikers before us.
Either way, we were now walking on the edge of the cliff and the view was absolutely stunning. The Pacific was indeed peaceful that day, but also very playful. An ever-changing pattern of white lace danced on the surface as the mild waves lapped at the rocks, probing every hole within reach.

The receding California coastline leaves behind numerous rocks ind islets that protrude through the water, some all the times and some pop into view only at low tide. These rocks are a safe haven for a myriad of ocean life, from the invertebrates clinging to the rock face to the seals and birds that find these rocks the best resting and toasting place that can be.

We made our way south along the cliff edge. At some point we arrived at an intersection with a road coming down from Hwy1, ending in a small parking lot. Because we were worried about sliding back down the cliff on the muddy trail Papa Quail volunteered to go back and bring the car to that point. Grandma Quail, the chikas and me continued on.
The conifer woods continued to provide semi-shade and many beautiful sights. Like this varied thrush that Papa Quail photographed before turning back to bring the car.
Varied Thrush 
Or these button mushrooms growing from a tree trunk:

And lichen, blooming everywhere, like tiny trumpets blown by the moist humus:

The chikas had their eyes on the ground, looking for little treasures. Little chika found an empty snail shell. For all the wetness I had expected to see many live ones but other than the occasional slug I didn't see any.

I didn't expect to see any flowers either. The latter half of November isn't the time for wildflowers. Nevertheless, I did see some late bloomers.
Seaside Fleabane (Erigeron glaucus)
Then we emerged from the woods out into an open coastal meadow that covered the headland area all the way to its tip. It was from there that we had a full view of the cove we had started our hike at.

The meadow was covered with low, aromatic shrubs with rough foliage that poked through our clothes. We followed the narrow trail all the way to the tip of the headland, me stopping occasionally to inspect something that the chikas had found or to acknowledge another fall flower.

Sporadic red dots in the meadow turned out to be Indian paintbrush flowers. 
Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja affinis)
But mostly, what was blooming there was the cowparsnip. This plant, which often towers to a man's height when growing in the woods, was considerably shorter in the open meadow. I assume the coastal winds have also something to do with its diminutive size.
Common Cowparsnip (Heacleum maximum)
The cliff at the tip of the headland was low enough and makeshift trails led down to the exposed rocks below. A sole angler sat there on the bare rocks, his rod in hand and a bucket nearby.

I barely managed to stop my chilkas from going down there too - I knew that if they did we would have stayed there for much longer than we had planned. I had to promise them some beach time later in order to keep them by my side. 

I admit that I too wouldn't have minded staying there a bit longer. But there were other places we wanted to see that day and Papa Quail may have already be back at the parking lot. With some effort and some help from Grandma Quail I managed to herd the chikas back on the trail.
A view south on Mendocino coastline. 
We made it back to the conifer woods, which consisted mostly of pine trees.

Papa Quail was nowhere in sight so we lingered a bit longer under the trees, appreciating the undergrowth.

It was much dryer in that pine grove, but there were still quite a few impressive mushrooms to appreciate.
Russula sp.
The pines were less yielding to be multi-story ecosystems. Still, accumulated pine needles in a tree wedge can make a most suitable potting soil for a fern.

Papa Quail hasn't yet arrived when we got back to the small parking lot where he was to meet us so we waited there, sitting on a fallen log next to a thicket of blackberry and listened to the bird chirping all around us.
And I found a spider right behind me, busy hunting:
Spider gotta eat, too. 
Finally Papa Quail returned with the car and our next and most immediate destination was the park's picnic area where we sat and had lunch. 
It was there that I found the richest cluster yet of the pine mushroom, Suillus granulates. I was salivating, but it is forbidden to harvest mushrooms within the State park so all I took were photos and all I cooked were hopes to see some more in a non-protected area later on.
Suillus granulatus
It was only mid-day when we finished our lunch so we kept on driving south to Mendocino Headlands and to Van Damme State Park to visit the famed Pygmy Forest there.