Monday, November 23, 2015

The Perfect Gift: Hiking the Pine Trail at Henry Cowell Redwoods SP

Pileated Woodpecker

Date: November 19, 2015
Place: Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Felton, California
Coordinates:  37.031863, -122.041874
Length: 2.6 miles
Level: easy

I planned a special surprise for Papa Quail's birthday. I convinced him to take a day off from work, arranged with the babysitter to pick up the chikas from school, and I took him to the redwoods. The surprise was a canopy zipline tour in Mt. Hermon but we arrived there nearly 2 hours early so we went hiking in the nearby Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
I visit this park frequently enough, but nearly always I hike in the old growth area near the main park's entrance. This time we went to the campground on the east side of the park and hiked the lovely Pine Trail that goes in a wide loop around the campground.
Our hike as captured by Papa Quail's GPS
We parked near the campground's entrance booth and immediately plunged into the woods. Redwoods are not the prevalent tree species on that side of the park. Much more common are the oaks. Most common oaks there are the live oaks but valley oaks are quite common there s well. I saw quite a few nice, large valley oaks with distinct personalities that had me stand still and gape. Some of them even fit in my camera frame.
Valley Oak (Quercus lobata)
Some segments of the trail were completely roofed with oaks boughs, transforming it into a living tunnel.

As we curved around and started going south the trail broke out of the trees and into chaparral. The soil in that area is sand and the vegetation is very different than at the west side of the park.

Common chaparral member in that area are manzanita bushes. I always love to see their deep red branches. On this hike they also glistened with morning dew, still hanging on the bark even so late in the morning.

We heard the knocking of woodpeckers. Not surprising, the most common woodpecker there is the acorn woodpecker.
Acorn Woodpecker
But Papa Quail kept his ears open and soon spotted a hummingbird who drew attention to himself with his high-pitched buzz-like call .
Anna's Hummingbird
It was a bright, crispy-cool morning. I didn't notice any insects around. Papa Quail, however, noticed a dead leaf that was flying about in a non-dead leaf fashion. When that 'leaf' came to a rest it was nearly invisible - it's camouflage was so effective! Only by seeing where it had landed Papa Quail could tell where it was. And only in the enlarged photo I could tell it was a butterfly.

We continued on. While our trail was in chaparral, the valley below us was fully forested. A multi-level forest of oaks and Douglas fir. And then, the bright red fruit-laiden Pacific madrone.

From the campground the trail mildly slopes up towards an observation deck that's up on the hill. Up near the observation deck the chaparral subsides and spaced, knee-high shrubbery takes its place. One of the shrub species is the silver bush lupine, pretty with its palm-like leaves even without blossoms.
Silver Bush Lupine (Lupinus albifrons)
The observation deck provides a great panoramic view all around. We stayed there for some time, looking in all directions, appreciating the views and looking for birds.

It is up there on the hill that the pine trees after which the trail is named are most prominent. There too it is apparent that pines can have an attitude as well :-) 
The Trident. 
I would never have seen it. Papa Quail, however, has hawk's eyes. He pointed at a bare tree and informed me that one of the branch tips was, in fact, a bird. A cedar waxwing, to be exact. It was quite far but after straining with the binoculars I could see it too. 
A Cedar Waxwing, on the right, near the top. 
It's all downhill from the observation deck. We headed down a mildly descending slope southbound, back into the forest.
Pine Trail south of the observation deck.
Not all the conifers up on the hill were pines. Some were Douglas Fir that can be almost as majestic as redwoods. Almost.
Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
We walked briskly, keeping in mind that we had a deadline to meet. Still, there were too many interesting sights along the trail that I could not ignore. Like these galls, for example, which I previously seen on creosote bushes in the Southern California deserts.
Papa Quail too found reasons to stop. We heard bird calls and woodpecker knocks all around us. Sometimes we could see them too.
Hairy Woodpecker
While Papa Quail had is eyes trained on tree branches I had mine on the ground. Wet with recent rains, a carpet of lush moss covered every square centimeter that wasn't taken by higher plants.
Hair Moss (Polytrichum commune)
What area that wasn't overgrown with moss was taken over by lichen: a unique alga-fungus symbiotic organism.
We curved with the trail again, heading back north toward the campground and the entrance road. For the first time in that hike we encountered redwood trees. Young and thin they were, but redwood nonetheless. All of the old growth trees in that area were logged during the gold rush and the development that followed.  Except for a small area of old growth trees by the park's main entrance, all the other redwoods in the area are under 100 years old.
Coastal Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)
Because the redwoods there are so young and do not thoroughly shade the lower forest levels, other trees grow there too. Like the Pacific Madrone, for example.

We were nearing the end of our hike when a large bird flew by Papa Quail, and he followed it. When the bird came to landing Papa Quail uttered a single word, "Pileated," and hurried forward. 
My heart skipped a bit. For years we've been trying to see the pileated woodpecker, a magnificent bird that has proved to be very elusive. It isn't common in California, and while I did know that they've been regularly sighted at Henry Cowell Redwoods SP, I have never seen them there. 
I hurried after Papa Quail and looked at where he directed his camera. There it was: a male pileated woodpecker, standing high on a large, fruit-bearing madrone, feasting on the sweat, red berries. 
Pileated Woodpecker eating madrone berries.
Pileated woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in North America. It is the size of a crow. Still, it was quite far, and in between all the little branches, and it was hard to get a good quality photo. But then a wonderful thing happened: the woodpecker flew closer, landed on a tree right by the trail and posed!
Pileated Woodpecker, male
There couldn't be a better birthday gift for Papa Quail :-)

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

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Nature's Reflections: Reflection Lake at Lassen Volcanic National Park

Date: June 7, 2015
Place: Lassen Volcanic National Park, Mineral, California
Coordinates: 40.536426, -121.562437
Length: about 1 mile
Level: easy

Reflection Lake is that body of water that's across the road from Manzanita Lake. Clearly visible, beautiful and inviting, and last June was the first time I hiked around it. All those times I visited Lassen Volcanic NP we (family only or with friends) we always hike around Manzanita Lake. On my solo visit last June, however, I dedicated a morning hour to Reflection Lake before moving on.
The trailhead is by the Loomis Visitor Center, by that of Lily Pond trail. I crossed the road and started  walking around the lake, counter clockwise.
My trail around Reflection Lake, labeled yellow. 
How Reflection Lake got its name is obvious from the first look. A bright spring morning is a good day to demonstrate it. The quality of the reflection, however, depends on the stillness of the water. On that June day there was much activity in the lake, and the surface was constantly rippled. So was the reflection.

I remember the previous time I looked upon that lake. It was in April (of 2014), but the place was deep in winter wonderland. The water was still the reflection was perfect.

Reflection Lake, April 2014
In June, however, there was much spring activity going on in the lake and outside it. On the lake's surface: a gaggle of Canada geese were floating gently to and fro.

Canada Geese
There were mallard ducks there as well. As I walked around the north shore I saw a flash of metallic green in the grass and a bright, beady eye that followed my every move.
Mallards aren't usually skittish birds but this one wasn't very tolerant. Although I wasn't close to him at all, nor did I make any threatening moves, he decided to slip into the water and swim away, adding more ripples to the vibrant lake surface.
Mallard, male 
I saw plenty of waterfowl there, but there weren't the only birds about. By the north shore there is an area of many fallen logs and many little brown birds (LBB) that were hopping on and between them. There were several LBB species there, but only the chickadees stopped long enough for me to get an acceptable photo.
Mountain Chickadee
Some of the fallen trees were over the lake, sectioning off little coves away for clear view. A perfect hideout for new coot hatchlings.

A little bolder, chaperoned by their parents, the coot chicks are out to explore. 
As I came around the northwest shore Lassen Peak came into perfect view over the lake.
Lassen Peak peeks
A few steps down the path and Chaos Crags pops into view.

All the way around the corner the south lake shore meets the road and the trail squeezes in between them. There I walked briskly, already thinking about my next hike - to Mill Creek Falls.
Sugar Pine (Pinus lambertiana) cone

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Lilies in the Water: Lily Pond at Lassen Volcanic National park

Rocky Mountains Pond-lily (Nuphar polysepala)

Date: June 6, 2015
Place: Lassen Volcanic National Park, Mineral, California
Coordinates: 40.536426, -121.562437
Length: about 1 mile
Level: easy

Last June I visited Lassen Volcanic National Park to prepare for the camping trip that I planned for the following month. I was by myself but by no means alone: the park was alive with wildflowers, and the wild animals were all out and about, enjoying the early summer.
On the first day of my visit I hiked to Kings Creek Falls and Sifford Lake. It was early enough still when I finished my hike, so I decided to stop at the Loomis Visitor Center and hike around Lily Pond.

I saw several deer on my way. This one, however, made me stop. Then he walked slowly and very princely to the edge of the road and waited patiently until I took his photo. Then he walked away and I continued driving to the visitor center.
Prince of the Forest
After a nice chat with the naturalist at the visitor center from whom I learned about the planned closure of Kings Creek Falls access trail for the summer, I took on the Lily Pond trail. 

The trail begins across the road from the Loomis Visitor Center, and almost immediately disappears into an open forest of small lodgepole pines. 
Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta)
 The trees are far enough apart that the sunshine illuminates directly much of the forest floor. There isn't much of an undergrowth in this forest. There were plenty of lizards, though, basking in the afternoon sun on top of exposed rocks. 
Western Fence Lizard
There are two ponds marked on the map, and promptly I arrived at the first one, in which there were no lilies, just tall, green grass. That pond looked well on its way of transforming into a meadow.
Only a bit further, though, I arrived at Lily Pond, which indeed was covered with pond-lilies, many of them in bloom.
Lily Pond
The water was very calm and very dark. It reflected perfectly the trees overhead.

I started circumventing the pond, walking slowly. Movement in the large lily leaves caught my attention: a couple of mallards were rippling the water between the plants. The male was out in the open and eyed me cautiously. The female was well camouflaged under the large leaves. 
The trail got nearer the water and I had better view of the pretty flowers. Not flashy like garden ponds water lilies, but delicate and shy, not widely open, and very pretty.
Rocky Mountain Pond-lily (Nuphar polysepala)
The pond isn't big. Although I walked very slow I was around it in a short time. Soon I left it behind me and continued through the forest.
Under the lodgepole pines: the snow plant candlesticks burning red.
Snow Plant (Sarcodes sanguinea)
Small birds were hopping between branches. When they stood long enough I identified them as chickadees. Then one of them dropped to the creek to take a bath.
Mountain Chickadee
It was a very leisurely hike. I walked slow, imbibing all the sights, sounds and fragrances. More trees, more birds, another clearing carpeted with new spring grass.

Lily Pond trail connects with Reflection Lake loop trail. At first I thought I'll hike both loops on th same hike but as I approached the trail intersection I decided to use the rest of the afternoon for better exploring the Hat Creek campground area where I was staying. I headed directly back to the visitor center, stopping briefly to say good evening to the cute squirrel that agreed to pose for a second and get photographed.

Lily Pond is also an interpretive trail with make signs and a brochure with explanations to match. It is short, easy and very interesting - the perfect hike for anyone but particularly suitable for little children. 

I went back to the campground and called it the day. I would hike around Reflection Lake on the morrow, before going on to Mill Creek Falls. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

An All-Seasons Forest: The Alec Creek-Contour-Waterfalls loop at Uvas Canyon County Park

Uvas Canyon Upper Falls

Date: October 2015
Place: Uvas Canyon County Park, Morgan Hill, Califronia
Coordinates: 37.084501, -121.792897
Length: about 4 miles (including trail to Triple Falls)
Level: moderate

Last year I finished my hike at Almaden Quicksilver County Park with a visit at the park's museum and visitor center (highly recommended!), and chatted with one of the park naturalists. I asked her which of Santa Clara County parks was her favorite, and she said, Uvas Canyon, with musty eyes and a longing voice. Naturally, I had to check it out, and sure enough, it made it into my list of places to hike with my hiking group.

The first thing that welcomed me when I exited the car at the day use parking lot was a hefty madrone tree, laden with fruit.
Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii)
Adjacent to the day use parking lot there is a large picnic area, very nicely shaded by a magnificent grove of large black oaks. The black oak, so named after its acorns, was a staple for the local Native Californians: the Amah Mutsun tribe.
Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii) acorn
I hiked there several times throughout the month of October, solo and with my hiking group. All the photos in this blog post are from those hikes.
My original plan was to hike up the Alec Creek trail only to the intersection with the Contour Trail. On my solo hikes, however, I couldn't resist the temptation, so I hiked all the way to the Triple Falls at Alec Creek, and then backtracked to the Contour Trail and on to the Upper Falls and Swanson Creek.
My hike, including the Alec Creek excursion, as captured by my GPS. 
I started the hike by ascending the hill on the Alec Creek Trail. Alec Creek Trail is a wide and comfortable dirt road. About 100 yards up the trail there's a large, green water tank. The water is pumped from an in-site well, and the water level marker was very low. On my first hike there I wasn't sure at all that there will be an water in the creeks.
Across the trail from the water tank there was a group of trees with a very distinct and beautiful bark: Tanbark Oaks. There were quite a few of them along the trail.
Tanoak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus) 
The incline is about half a mile long. Mostly under shade, but on occasions the tree cover parts and the trail is lit with sunshine. On one of the curves I noticed a bunch of bright red, succulent berries. They looked very attractive. I didn't taste any, though.
California Honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula) berries
All along the trail I found little dark heaps of feces of an animal that feasted on other kind of berries. The highway poo, likely to have been left there by coyote (although raccoons and foxes were suggested as well as possible culprits).

On the sunnier parts of the trail I found the source of the poo berries: a California Coffeeberry bush.
Hoary Coffeeberry (Frangula californica ssp. tomentella)
Just before the intersection with the Contour Trail there is a nice vista point with a bench. The view eastward shows the route of the creek to Coyote Valley and the mountain range to the east. Mount Hamilton is a bit north of the visible skyline, blocked from view by the nearby hills.
View to the east
From far, the forest seemed healthy enough. On a closer look, however, the effects of the long drought were visible and poignant.
A dead pine
As I mentioned above, on my solo hikes I passed the turn to the Contour Trail and went on to Alec Creek. Curving around the south-facing slope, the trail broke into chaparral area. The photo below showed the distinct boundary of the south-facing slope (to the right), covered with dense chaparral, and the north-facing slope (to the left), covered with forest.
South-facing slope means more direct sunlight and less moisture. 
Entering Alec Creek, the trail plunges into a deep, and very dark forest. All of a sudden I felt a chill.
Alec Creek
In that area there is a grove of young redwood. Only young, because the older ones have been logged before the place became a park.
Coastal Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) 
I arrived at Triple Falls and found them dry. Not completely dry - there was some moisture on the rocks, but there was no flow. I should go back there after a few good rains.
Triple Falls
The trail to Triple Falls dead-ends there so I turned around and walked back down Alec Creek. On my way I passed under tall laurel trees. So tall they were that they seriously competed with the redwood. I don't recall seeing laurel trees so tall anywhere else.
California Laurel (Umbellularia californica)
The ground was littered with fallen redwood and laurel leaves, as well as dropped laurel fruit. The fruit is edible, although there's very little to eat there, and that too is bitter. I read that the laurel nut can be roasted, ground, and steeped into a coffee-like drink. One day I'll try it myself.
California Laurel (Umbellularia californica) fruit
I returned back to the intersection with the Contour Trail and took the turn.
Contour Trail
This trail, as implied by its name, follows the contour of the hill with only mild sloping most of the way. The trail is tree-shaded nearly entirely, but at the few breaks in vegetation, I caught a glimpse of the Knibbs Knob Peak across the canyon.

Uvas Canyon County Park is a home to a fascinating forest comprised of rich variety of tree species, not one of them truly dominating the scenery. One of the tree species there is the Douglas Fir, some of which have reached a size that dwarfs even the local redwoods.
Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menzeisii)
The Douglas Fir I saw there were grand and majestic. On a closer look, however, I saw that many of them were unhappy, oozing resin from in ample quantity. This is a likely response to a wood-boring beetle attack.

The Contour Trail provides plenty of opportunities to see and feel the infinite aspects of Nature. One only needs to look. I chanced to look down at the base of one large laurel trunk, therefore I saw this beautiful moth sitting motionless o n the ground.

On one of the curves the trail dips shortly into a dry wash. A few undergrowth greens were hanging from the rocks, all very similar.
I assume there is an evolutionary advantage to having sprawled, pinnate leaves when growing under dark tree canopies.
Oregon Grape (Berberis aquifolium)
Right at the wash's corner I had my first sighting of water on that hike: a tiny puddle surrounded by mud. That puddle was there every time I was there throughout October: it is an active spring that's too week to flow beyond that puddle area.

Almost every park in the Bay Area has poison oak growing near the trails and Uvas Canyon is no different. There is, however, much less poison oak there than in other parks with similar vegetation communities. The examples of poison oak I've seen along the Contour Trail were hardly impressive.
Poison Pak (Toxicodendron diversilobum)
What was very impressive to me were the large numbers of pacific madrone trees I've seen there. I'm used to seeing its red back standing out here and there in Bay Area forests. In Uvas Canyon CP, however, there are lots and lots of madrone trees, their shiny, rust-colored back adding a special character to the forest.
Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii)
I usually look at oak trees for artistic inspiration. But Uvas Canyon's madrone trees display some unique personalities as well.
Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii)
There were absolutely no flowers blooming anywhere along my trail. I still looked down, though, and found other interesting sights, also morbid ones.
Final Rest
After a mile and some, the Contour Trail meets Swanson Creek. At the meeting point, the creek was completely dry.

A few yards below, however, the water was flowing openly on the surface. Not a big flow, but for 4 straight years of drought, it was nice to see the creek running.

The trail continues on the other side of the creek. There's no bridge there, just a few large rocks to hop on. On high flow times, the trail is closed to hikers.
A third more mile down and I was at the Upper Falls. Finally, a waterfall that flows.
Uvas Canyon Upper Falls
Upper Falls is the best place to stop and relax. The sound of running waterer, so rare here these days, has a wonderful effect on the mind.
From there on, the trail follows the creek downstream. About 50 yards below the falls the trail splits into two: the left is a wide dirt road that stretches high above the water. It is wide and comfortable, sunlit in more than one place, and the perfect trail to take if seeing reptiles is on the agenda.
Western Fence Lizard
I saw a ring-necked snake on that trail too, but it slithered away too quickly as I lifted my camera. The alligator lizard, however, stayed put so motionlessly that I wondered if to was dead. (It wasn't.)

Aligator Lizard
But up near the Upper Falls where the trail splits, the right choice takes close to the water. It is a narrow trail that crosses the creek a few times on narrow wood bridges. Narrow, shaded and uneven, and wilder. 

I didn't see any reptiles out on that trail. There was plenty of vegetation, however. Including the nicest specimen of poison oak I've seen at the park. 
Poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum)

That trail runs much closer to the water and provides wonderful opportunities to appreciate the little cascades and the tiny ripping pools the create.

Both these trails form the two arms of the Waterfall Loop. They meet again and reunite a quarter of a mile downstream at the old, broken dam.

Uvas Canyon is one of the few places around the Bay Area where the creek still runs after the 4 long drought years. It is a wonderful place to visit any time of year, but makes a particularly good hike in the fall time, where everywhere else is hot and dry. I was amazed by how rich this park is. The diversity, the wildlife encounters, and the strong sense of wilderness, so close to San Jose's urban conglomerate, yet so distant in every other way. Uvas Canyon County Park is the perfect getaway for those who want to reconnect with Nature, and with themselves. 
Wild Turkey on a roof at Sveadal, near the park's entrance. 

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying the coffeeberry and the droppings :-)