Monday, April 13, 2020

In Search of Freedom: Hiking at the Fremont Unit of Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge

November 2014

Date: March 19, 2020
Place: Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, Fremont Unit, Fremont, California
Address: 2 Marshlands Rd, Fremont, CA 94555
Length: 2 miles
Level: easy

On March 16 the shelter-in-place order came into effect in the Bay Area. The schools, and most other establishments were closed or limited to only necessary function. We were instructed to remain at home but were told that it is ok to go out to nature for exercise and for fresh air as long as we avoid getting together with other people. For that purpose most parks and hiking trails remained open and available to the public. One of the places that remained open was the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).
Don Edwards NWR is a frequent destination for my family, and throughout the years we've lived in the area we visited there numerous times. On our last visit there I was conscious about writing a blogpost on this pace and most of the photos here are from that hike, but here and there I added some photos from previous hikes we've had there.
It was partially cloudy on the day of our hike and mostly on the cloudy side when we arrived at the parking lot adjacent to the visitor center, which was closed of course. The wintery air didn't mask the strong signs of spring - the foliaged buckeye and the blooming redbud trees.
At the trailhead
I love the redbud blossom, which covers the tree with brilliant color even before the leaves bud out. At the time it took Pappa Quail and the elder chika to get their cameras ready to go I hanged by the redbud t appreciate its beauty from up close.
Western Redbud, Cercis occidentalis
When we were all ready to go we started down the LaRiviere trail, heading east to the inland marsh.
Our hike as captured by my GPS
 The first part of the trail is a wide gravel road flanked by tall bushes and small oak trees. Little song birds tweeted in the vegetation but were not eager to show themselves. Not on this visit anyway.
LaRiviere Marsh Trail
On previous hikes the birds there were somewhat less shy.

Fox Sparrow, December 2010
Through openings in the tall vegetation we caught sight of the marsh ponds and flooded pickleweed fields. Pappa Quail and the elder chika paused at one of the larger gaps to explore the waterfowl swimming in the ponds.
Green-winged Teal, male
The vegetation near the trail is a good home for other birds as well. On one of our previous hikes there when we hiked late in the afternoon we came upon an exciting surprise - a barn owl getting ready for its night job.
Barn Owl, November 2012
At the end of the gravel path the trail takes a sharp turn east into the flood plain. The path across the water is a nice, wide boardwalk with lovely views on the salt marsh.
LaRiviere Marsh Trail- the boardwalk
The boardwalk connects to a try, raised gravel trail that looked like it was once a levee (and maybe still is). We turned right on that trail and continued south. Alongside the path bloomed the first wave of spring wildflowers.
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium 
There were salt marshes both east and west of the levee trail. To the east was also the industrial area of Newark and the coastal ridge in the background.

Pappa Quail and the elder chika were looking for birds in the sky but although I was the one carrying the binoculars, I was looking at the mountains. What I saw there had me pull Pappa Quail's sleeve and request a special high zoom photo. Rose Peak of the Ohlone Wilderness was snow-capped!
Rose Peak
Mount Hamilton had snow too but it was shrouded in too many clouds to get a clear image.
Once giving me the image I requested, Pappa Quail returned his attention to our feathered friends.
Canada Geese
The slough that leads the bay water up to the salt marsh and its side canals were partially exposed, revealing the muddy banks below the vegetation. This is a good time for wader birds to search for edible mud dwellers such as snails and worms.
Greater Yellowlegs 
This time of the tide cycle is the best for bird watching. In previous visits we were fortunate to see many waders in feeding action.
Great Blue Heron, November 2014
Herons and egrets would ambush and catch fish and rodents but would really eat anything that comes their way and fits in their bill. Once I've seen a great egret pluck from the air an unfortunate  hummingbird that flew too close.
Black-capped Night Heron, June 2015
The waders we've seen on our most recent visit however, were only shorebirds, and they were all poking through the mud.
Long-billed Dawitcher 
The LaRiviere Trail ends at the access road. By the roadside I saw a group of blue-eyed grass but they were too far for my wide angle lens so I recruited Pappa Quail again for a high zoom photo.
Blue-eyed Grass, Sisyrinchium bellum 
We crossed the road and turned onto the trail on the other side. That trail, Kite Spur, surrounds the hill to the salt ponds area. The new grass was green and lush along the trail and enjoying the moisture were numerous snails that were roaming around, feeding or mating.

Much of the sebaceous vegetation in the refuge is invasive. Nevertheless, their bloom is pretty too.
Bird's Foot Trefoil, Lotus corniculatus, Non-native 
We walked slowly along the trail. There were more people there than I usually see on a weekday, but then again, too many people were off work and needed a breath of fresh air. We kept good distancing however, and most of the time we were by ourselves.
Harrier Spur Trail
South of Kite Spur trail was the slough and in the receding water were a few ducks. Most of them were feeding but a few were sitting on the side, resting or contemplating life.

Mallard, male
Kite Spur trail is named after the bird. In previous visits we have indeed seen kites in that area. On our last visit they were elsewhere.
White-tailed Kite, August 2012
Other birds also like that kind of perch.
Northern Mockingbird, February 2011
We followed the curve around the south tip of the hill. I pause there to appreciate the berry-laden toyon bush. I tasted some - they had a dry, unpleasant texture.
Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia 
Up on the hill I saw the familiar grove of agave plants that were brought to the area a while ago for fiber, and maybe tequila as well. The agave blooms once in its lifetime but new plants but at the base of the old mother plant to continue the dynasty.
American Century Plant, Agave americana, Non-native 
The bare rocks of this hill also demand attention - they are old Franciscan rocks covered with colorful lichen and are very pretty.

On this hillside bloomed California poppies. Not in great numbers but in small patches here and there. They're always an eye candy.
California Poppy, Eschscholzia californica, February 2011
Turning the west, the salt ponds came into view. These salt ponds were built by the Cargill Corporation for salt production and the levees used to black the tide cycle from reaching the flood plains, thus altering soil salinity and destroying the precious salt marsh habitat. In recent times some salt pond areas were reclaimed and transformed back into salt marshes to be refuge for wildlife. The Newark Slough now leads water from they to the salt marsh area and maintains tidal access to this land.
The Salt Ponds and the Newark Slough
I gazed north along the slough. The trail would soon fork to three - one goes up along the ridge of the hill, the other continues on along the hillside, and the third, the one we usually take, is the Tidelands Trail, leading down across the slough to the salt pond.
The Newark Sough
Once again we took the trail down to the salt pond. As I stepped onto the boardwalk crossing the marsh I noticed an intense orange color - it was a dodder - a parasitic plant that leeches its nutrients from photosynthetic plants, in this case - the pickleweed.
California Dodder, Cuscuta californica, on pickleweed, Salicornia pacifica 
The marsh is a good home for bugs and therefore are a good feeding ground for insect-eating birds.
Black Phoebe, December 2010
The water level was even lower when we crossed the slough, confirming that the tide was indeed receding.
Newark Slough
A great many snails were exposed in the low tide. I guess it isn't easy to extract these from their shell or that they're otherwise not good to eat because there were no beds picking off these snails.

The birds were there, however, only doing other things. Singing, for example.
Song Sparrow
The wind picked up and rippled the salt pond. The color of the water changes with the level of salinity and the composition and concentration of the microorganisms in the water. 

I approached the water to look for the brine shrimp that grow there. Usually I can see them swimming near the surface but this time I couldn't see any - the water was too murky and the ripples to disrupting.
On the shore however, there plenty of brine flies and little sandpipers were skimming the waterline, picking those off.
Least Sandpiper
On our recent visit there were only the east sandpipers on the waterline, but other times we've seen plenty of other birds enjoying the brine feast.
American Pipit, November 2014
Usually we spend theist time along the salt pond. The birds are a major reason. Looking at water critters is another. On our last hike it was very windy and along the shore were only a few least sandpipers, so we hurried on north along the trail.
February 2013
There was a large aggregate of birds far in the water to the north. Pappa Quail and the elder chika walked faster and opened a large gap. I lingered behind to take some scenery photos and the younger chika stayed near me and told me stories.
Tidelands Trail
It occurred to me that only once in my many visits to the refuge I have been on the ridge trail, and I resolved to go up there on my next visit.

Pappa Quail sometimes goes there on his own or with friends. Once time he got information that a rare visitor - a long-tailed duck, was seen at Don Edwards. He went there and got lucky - he found the rare duck among more common species. This individual doesn't have the long tail because she'd a female.
Long-tailed Duck, female. November 2014
I caught up with Pappa Quail and the elder chickadee's at the north side of the salt pond. Far in the water were the birds they were looking at and across the pond was the Dumbarton Bridge.

The birds that my birdwatchers were interested in were Bonaparte's gulls - a migratory species that stops at Don Edwards on its way.
Bonaparte's Gulls
We've seen these gulls before at that spot. Every time we're there however, we get to see a different community of birds. It depends much on the time of year, of course. 
August 2012
The salt pond is much too salty for any fish to live there. Grebes and other fish eaters must be looking for halophile creatures or otherwise, just enjoying the refuge. 
Eared Grebe, November 2014
Near the pond there is an old shack that is blocked off and is slowly sinking into the marsh. This cabin used to be a hunters place. 
The National Wildlife Refuge system was initiated by hunters clubs who were worried about the fast farming development that came on the expense of wilderness and the habitats of their game animals. These clubs set aside and funded wilderness areas as wildlife refuges where they could continue to hunt. Today still much of the NWR system is funded by hunting license fees and in many refuges there is a hunting season and a quota for hunting permits. 
Hunters' Cabin 
Behind the hunters cabin there's the bridge back to the main refuge area. It goes near other old cabins and what used to be hunters hideouts. Now these buildings serve for education purposes.
Once again we crossed the Newark Slough. Below us there were more waders looking for food before the tide would roll in.
Herons and egrets are common in this refuge. It was strange therefore nt to have seen any on our latest visit.  Actually, we did see one but it was very far. So I include a representation from one of ur former hikes there. 
Snowy Egret, February 2013
Swallows also frequent the refuge but they are much harder to photograph, especially when in flight. 
Northern Rough-winged Swallow, June 2015
It's much easier to get a sharp image of a swallow when it sits still. A few years ago some barn swallows provided Pappa Quail with that opportunity when they were sitting on the posts of the bridge across the Newark Slough. 
Barn Swallow, June 2015
East of the slough on the north end of the refuge is the main education area. The first time I learned about the Don Edwards NWR was when I chaperoned a field trip of my elder chika's class there. She was a first rider then. Field trips there require special preparation from the chaperons as well as from the class teaches, as they are expected to help prepare the kids ahead of time and then run some of the activities while on site. The preparation was very informative for me and I help pass the information along when taking my family hiking group or the 4H Hiking projects on hikes. Not just in Don Edwards NWR, but anywhere around the bay shores. 
Left - the education center. Right - up the hill and over to the visitor center. 
We continued to the right and uphill to complete the loop hike. The trail up is a pretty botanical garden and many of the bushes were in the beginning of their bloom time.
Black Sage, Salvia mellifera
All are California native plants, but not all from the Bay Area. I was surprised to see a plant from the Channel Islands. I didn't see that one there when I was in Santa Cruz Island.
Snowy Island Snapdragon, Gambelia speciosa
Another plant that's native Californian but not from Alameda County was the fragrant Sonoma Sage. I wondered if it would make a good herbal tea but I didn't take any samples.
Sonoma Sage, Salvia sonomensis
By the time I was done looking at these blooming bushes my family was already up the hill so I rushed after them.

Up the hill the trail reconnects with the hillside trail coming from the south side of the refuge. There is an observation deck there with a picnic table. A few people that were sitting there got up and left when they saw us approaching. I really don't like the feeling that this social distancing gives me, but it is the safe way to go about when there's an epidemic going on.
The Newark Slough seen from the observation deck
A few years ago when I took my family hiking group there we sat at that table and had some activity with the children, but everyone's attention was diverted by a pair of red-tailed hawks that circled above us, screaming at the top of their lungs. The scream of the red-tailed hawk is what's sounds in movies when an eagle is shown. The eagle's cry isn't as impressive as its looks so they get the red-tailed hawk to dub for it.
Red-tailed Hawk, November 2014
Over the hill crest the trail is paved and passes between shrubs and small trees - the perfect habitat for small birds.
Anna's Hummingbird, male
On this bit of trail I got ahead quickly, leaving Pappa Quail and the chikas behind to look for birds in the bush. 
Bewick's Wren on sagebrush. 
The small live oaks along this trail make an excellent perch for and hideout for songbirds. All that's needed is patience and they'll show up.
Golden-crowned Sparrow, November 2014
We crossed the road and completed the loop hike along the fence of the little botanical garden near the visitor center. This little garden is fairly new - I've been seeing it being set and planted over time and it's really nice now.

I've been hiking the same loop in this refuge over and over, in the past 10 years or so, mostly in the fall and winter but sometimes in other seasons. Mostly clockwise but sometimes in the opposite direction. Sometimes I time my visit for low tide hours and many times I go regardless of the tide cycle. I never get bored with this place - each time it shows me a different face, a different mood, and a different display of life and nature. It took me very long to write about this place and now I'm glad to share this special place by the Fremont bay shore.  


  1. A very nice hike. I guess you're lucky to have this place nearby and that you got the "official permission" to go there...

    1. Yes, Here in California they have good awareness of what does people good and outdoors recreation is not only allowed but encouraged, as long as distancing rules are observed.

  2. it's a beautiful reserve - I remember pappa quail took me there when I visited you, back in 2/2013 :-)
    it's great to have such a place close to home...

    1. We go there a lot now, during the shelter in place. We're lucky to have such a place so close to home.