Friday, November 29, 2019

A Golden Time at Hammon Grove Park

Fall Colors 

Date: November 10, 2019
Place: Hammon Grove Park, Browns Valley, California
Coordinates: 39.229179, -121.400839
Length: 1.5 miles
Level: easy

One of the places that were recommended to us after we finished the birding field trip at the  Bobelaine Audubon Preserve was Sycamore Ranch, about 20 minutes drive east of Yuba City. When we arrived there we found out that although it is a very lovely place, there weren't any real hiking trails there.
Dry Creek at Sycamore Ranch
Sycamore Ranch is primarily a campground place with access to the water where Dry Creek (which wasn't at all dry) spills into the Yuba River.
Dry Creek at Sycamore Ranch
We did take some time wandering around the creek access and the campground, checking out the beautiful fall colors and the birds, which were mostly little bush birds.
Golden-crowned Sparrow at Sycamore Ranch
Both Pappa Quail and the elder chika were following the chirps t spot those which emitted them. They found quite a few.
House Finch at Sycamore Ranch
Me and the younger chika followed them. I admired the fall vegetation, but I was eager to go hiking somewhere and Sycamore Ranch wasn't the right place. So I took a few moments looking online for more suitable places in the vicinity.
Red-breasted Sapsucker at Sycamore Ranch
The nearest place was Hammon Grove Park, just across Dry Creek. But we couldn't simply walk there - we would have to drive out of Sycamore Ranch and enter Hammon Grove Park through a separate access road. I also found Black Swan Preserve, a bit further east. When I showed the options to Pappa Quail he chose to go to Black Swan Preserve.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet at Sycamore Ranch
So after walking around Sycamore Ranch grounds we drove away and went on a nice hike at the Black Swan Preserve. A nice hike it was, but we saw very few birds there. So it wasn't too difficult to persuade Pappa Quail to use what left of the day to hike a bit at Hammon Grove Park.
Our hike as captured by Pappa Quail's GPS
At Hammon Grove Park we were welcomed by a stunning show of fall colors. Really, I haven't seen such a beautiful display of fall since I moved to California from the midwest. Not to say that there isn't beautiful fall colors displays in California, in fact there are many such places, especially in the Easter Sierra, but I only get to see them second hand through someone else's photos. Now, I was seeing first hand this fall beauty right by the Yuba River where the Sierra foothills begin to rise.

When we walked to the waterfront, just across Dry Creek from Sycamore Ranch where we were earlier that afternoon, the beautiful fall scenery was doubled in the calm water mirror.
Dry Creek at Hammon Grove Park
We found the trail near Dry Creek and followed it down toward Yuba River.

Here too, just like in the Bobelaine Audubon Sanctuary and the Black Swan Preserve, one of the main color contributors was the wild California grape. It was hanging from trees all over the park, its leaves ranging fro light green through many shades of yellow and orange, to deep red and mottled brown.
Wild California Grape, Vitis californica 
Pappa Quail didn't lose focus of his primary agenda and soon he found his little feathered treasures.
White-breasted Nuthatch 
For a trip that was to focus on birds we saw only a few, but those we did see treated us to a nice show.
Scrub Jay
Only 4pm but the sun was already very low and the trail leading down to the Yuba River was dark. We hurried down to the river to see what we could see there.

Down by the river the sunlight was still bright and the water shiny. We started going back east along the shoreline. Papa Quail and the chikas moved fast - they had seen birds on a pebble island up ahead. I suppose that the river has been low for a while because in between the pebbles grew little plants. One of these was a small black nightshade. I took a photo before consuming its yummy berries.
American Black Nightshade, Solanum americanum
The black nightshade is a California native, relative of the tomato and the berries taste similar. I add that it is crucial to identify this plant to a 100% assurance before eating the berries because it has toxic relatives that look similar. 
The other plant is saw in miniature version between the pebbles is the non-native water speedwell. It had cute little pink flowers.
Water Speedwell, Veronica anagallis-aquatica, non-native
The river was indeed low, waiting to be fed by the winter snowmelt. The Yuba River, like nearly all the rivers in California, is dammed and its flow is controlled by the dam release.
Yuba River
I hurried along the pebble shoreline to catch up with my family. My younger chika looked for interesting rocks and sticks but my elder chia and Pappa Quail were clicking away at birds that they spotted by the water.
There weren't many birds there and those that we'd seen didn't seem to mind our presence there. The shorebirds moved about, looking for food.
Greater Yellowlegs
Two turkey vultures were feeding on a carcass of something on an island of pebbles off shore. They seemed agitated, kept switching position, hopping and bouncing near the carcass.  Not because of us though, we were quite far from them.
Turkey Vulture
The setting sun painted the river banks in soft rusty hue which complemented well the autumn colors of the trees. It was also signaling us that it was time to get back so we climbed the bank and went up to the trail.

The chikas wanted a snack so we sat on a bench that we found near the trail and gazed down at the river, enjoying the afternoon warmth and the light breeze that rippled the water.
Yuba River

Two common mergansers were also enjoying a leisurely swim on the realm river.
Common Merganser
Eventually we got up and continued on the trail that circled back and around to the park entrance. We came upon a dead tree that served its afterlife as a perch and granary for acorn woodpeckers.
Acorn Woodpecker
The trail turned into a wide dirt road that curved through a thin oak and pine forest. I couldn't tell what species of pine these were and I didn't dwell on it too much. Many of the pines however, were infected with mistletoe - a parasitic plant that grows on host trees and taps into their sap.
Dwarf Pine Mistletoe
As we were making our way back the sun slowly disappeared, first behind the treelike, then behind the horizon. We were in twilight time.
Sunset Light
With the last sun rays at the very tip of the tallest trees we made it back to the parking lot. I was now looking at the pretty maple that I admired at the beginning of our hike from a different direction and with a different backdrop. This one seemed more fitting of the season.

California has a wonderful fall and many places in California display fall colors worthy of the season. Hammond Grove Park is certainly among the best of these places. I loved that charming little hike, it was the best place to end our day with. 

Monday, November 25, 2019

A Sweet Discovery: Hiking the Black Swan Trail

Black Swan Lake

Date: November 10, 2019
Place: Black Swan Trail. Smartsville, California
Coordinates: 39.209342, -121.278121
Length: 2 miles
Level: moderate

After our guided field trip at the Bobelaine Audubon Sanctuary we were left to bird (v.) on our own. Just before departing the sanctuary's parking area I took a few recommendations from one of the participants, and one of the places she suggested was to  visit the Sycamore Ranch campground, at the shores of the Yuba River. After lunch we drove there and found out that is was indeed a very pretty place, but sans hiking trails. So while Pappa Quail and the chikas walked around looking for birds I scanned the area with my phone and came up with a couple of trails nearby that we could hike at. The first one we went to was a few minutes' drive east, at a place called Black Swan Preserve.
When we got to the point at the map we found a very small and very uneven dirt parking area. There were two cars already there and we parked next to them, grabbed our water and cameras and went down the trail. 
Our hike as captured by my GPS
Almost immediately we came upon the loop fork and the chikas decided to go downhill first, so down we continued, on a middle sloping dirt road. 

We were walking through a low forest (or a high chaparral) of pines, oaks, manzanita and some other prominent bushes. The vegetation was thick enough so we didn't see the lake until we were right by it.
Black Swan Lake
Our primary objective was to look for birds and there were a few ducks, all mallards, swimming between the dead branches poking through the water surface. We didn't see there any swans, certainly not black ones. I wondered how this place got its name.
The lake was very low. Not surprising, since we were there after a long and dry summer and fall. A bet of dry vegetation surrounded the water, and behind it - the forest. The soft ochre and yellow colors of fall dyed the warm afternoon of the north Sierra foothills.

Most of the oaks in the preserve were blue oaks but a few valley oaks here and there were adding their beautiful fall colors to the overall scenery.
Valley Oak, Quercus lobata
We slowly circumvented the lake which, at a close distance, looked more a pond than a lake. In fact, there were several shallow ponds near the main lake (I assume that when full to capacity they are all connected into a one body of water). The shallow ponds were covered with light green pond scum. I didn't get close enough to see if these were algae or anything else.

Here too I got to see the buttonbush that I was introduced to earlier in the day at the Bobelaine sanctuary. Here however, the 'buttons' were mature and dry already. Fall was more advanced.
Common Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis
I did't expect to as much bloom if any, and indeed there was very little of it. Tar plants, mostly. But I did see a few vinegar weed flowers, very miserable looking, but flowers nonetheless. These are pretty hardy plants - I see them blooming in the heat of summer on the dry, exposed hills of the East Bay as well.
Vinegarweed, Trichostema lanceolatum 
Being in daylight savings time now, the day seemed awfully short. On the clock it was still early in the afternoon but the shadows were getting long and the lighting was softer and accentuated the fall colors. Soon the sun wood disappear behind the cliff and we would be waling in the evening shadow.
Black Swan Lake 
The dirt road curved southwest and we started ascending, mildly at first. Exposed stone outcrops revealed interesting formations and colorful layers.

Soon we were walking beneath a tall, sheer cliff. In the gold rush era this place was used as an hydraulic pond, serving the local mines.

The cut cliff face was beautifully decorated with California wild grape in fall colors. Much of the cliff face was still exposed, the huge scar in the land not yet covered by the vegetation.
California Wild Grape, Vitis californica 
Beneath the cliff we were in the evening realm. {a[[a Quail and the chikas were ahead of me, going quickly up the trail and I took my time, giving due attention to the funny looking rocks and the smooth manzanitas.
Common Manzanita, Arctostaphylos manzanita 
Higher up the train we came out of the cliff's shadow and into the sunshine once more. Of the few plants that were still blooming were small buckwheat shrubs bearing pinkish-white inflorescences.
Buckwheat, Eriogonum sp. 
The strongest red there however, was not a flower but a fruit - berry-laden toyon, all ripe. I like its taste.
Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia
The trail led us up around the cliff through a low mixed forest. The fall colors of the valley oaks mixed nicely with the dusty green of the blue oaks and the gray of the pines. Everything below seemed bone dry.

Well, almost everything. The spikeweed wasn't dry. In fact, it was blooming. One can count on the tar plants and their like to show their colors at the very end of summer and of fall.
Spikeweed, Centromadia fitchii
Then the dirt road we were walking on curved sharply to the right and into the forest in a suddenly steep slope. Having no map with us we might have continued up that most obvious trail if not for a scary warning sign at the bottom of the curve, announcing that beyond the sign was private property.
Do you sit on that pile of gold still? 
We continued south on a narrow foot trail that split from the dirt road where it turned private. Luckily there was another sign there, a simple one with an arrow and a singe word - Trail.
That foot trail led us over the cliff we'd seen earlier from below. Now we had a spectacular view of the lake and near ponds.
Black Swan Lake
After I detached myself from the pretty view below and caught up with the rest of my family Pappa Quail told me that they saw a scrub jay grabbing a mouthful of acorns. Later I saw his photos of that jay.  It really did get acorn gathering to the level of perfection.
Scrub Jay

The lat afternoon shadows were getting longer even on to of the cliff. We all quicken our pace and moved faster down the trail.

I knew that we were getting close to our starting point, yet we were still high over the cliff. As I expected, the downhill segment came soon and was steep. Sliding down the dusty switchbacks I paused to look at a few buckeye trees, already 2 months into their own personal winter. This tree species is probably the earliest one to go through senescence.
California Buckeye, Aescuus californica
The loop closed behind a huge rock that supported a thin, unsteady tree. From there it was a short walk back to the parking lot which was now full. Someone was waiting for us to vacate our parking spot and we obliged by sliding into the car and driving back to Hwy 20 and to the Yuba River.

The Black Swan Preserve will be managed in the future by the California Department of Fish and Game. It wold be interesting to see how they'll care for this pretty little area. I would like to see it again, perhaps in spring time at peak bloom.