Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Many Sides of the Big Salt Pond at the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge

Date: April 26, 2020
Place: Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, Fremont, CA
Address: 2 Marshlands Rd. Fremont
Length: 6.4 miles
Level: easy

Don Edwards NWR is one of the places we visit a lot to look for birds, and we always walk the same loop trail that goes through the wetland area, around the hill, and near the salt pond. One of the days last April my chika saw a post in a local birding group of red-necked phalaropes at the salt pond there. When I suggested going on a hike she insisted it would be to Don Edwards NWR to look for these birds. Being a weekday, Pappa Quail had to stay home and work, and the younger chika opted out. So me an my elder chika only, went down to the bay to hike at the Don Edwards NWR, and this time one a different trail than our usual.
Our hike as captured by my GPS
Vehicles were not allowed in the refuge at the time so we parked in the little parking area outside the gate and walked inside. We followed the paved road to the Kite Spur trial and took it around the hill to the big salt pond. I took a moment to look at the new wildflowers that popped along the trail since my last visit there. 
Ithuriel's Spear, Triteleia laxa 
I'm not writing much about that part of our hike because I've already posted about it recently. Still, I couldn't go by our official state flower as it adorned the hillside.
California Poppy, Eschscholzia california 
My chika too could not go by even the common and familiar birds without giving them due attention.
Snowy Egret
She had recently got a new camera and was checking out its abilities on any feathered being she saw.
Song Sparrow and Barn Swallow 
We curved around the south sode of the hill and below us spread the familiar view of the Newark Slough and th Newark Slough Trail, where we were headed.
The Newark Slough
Every time I visit this place I see a different bird population, and this time was no different :-) The southeastern shore of the big salt pond was teeming with shorebirds.
The salt pond, view south
My chika got to work immediately, zooming in on the birds. Nearly all of them in that corner were western sandpipers. They weren't bothered by us at all. They were so busy eating that they hardly noticed us.
Western Sandpiper, breeding plumage 
The birds were feasting, and I suspected I knew on what. Sure enough, when I approached the water I saw the brine shrimp. My of them, swimming near the surface of the murky water.
Brine Shrimp
My chika and I walked slowly north on the Newark Slough Trail, searching the pond for interesting birds. And "island" of birds aggregated off shore, too far for me to photograph, so I counted on my chika's photo.
And Island of Marbled Godwits 
Snappers were the most common bird species wading along the shoreline, but there were many other shorebirds as well. Nearly all of them were wearing their breeding plumage.
Dunlin, male, breeding plumage 
All these birds can swim but most chose not to. I guess it is easier to forage while walking or wading in the shallows. And the depth of the wading is determined by the length of the feet and the bill, as evolved to specialize in particular foods.
One of the longer-legged shorebirds is the stilt, named so for its long, red legs. The stilt male and female share a sweet, mutual courtship behavior, as well as the responsibility of raising the chicks.
Black-necked Stilt
The "island" of marbled godwits suddenly took to the air. I don't know what provoked them (not us, we were too far away, and there were other people there going back and forth on that trail). The cloud of godwits moved in the air with exquisite coordination and swirled about for nearly a minute before settling back in the pond to form their "island" once again. Both me and the chika captured the motion. My wide view shot heads this blogpost. My chike got a close up clear enough to identify the birds.
Marbled Godwit
On our regular hikes at the Don Edwards NWR we would turn east at the north end of the salt pond, cross the Newark Slough on the wood bridge, and complete the loop trail by the visitor center. This time we were going around the big salt pond so we turned west and started walking on the packed dirt levee that contained the pond on its north side.

North of the levee were smaller, non industrial ponds and slat marsh areas covered with pickled. I could see the thin stripe of ST 84 and the few vehicles with essential workers moving on the road to and from the Dumbarton Bridge. North of the road bulged the round Coyote Hills that are the heart of Coyote Hills Regional Park.
View north to Coyote Hills 
The ponds closer to the trail were covered with light green algae, a.k.a. pond scum. In one of these there was a pair of mallards that didn't seem to be bothered by it.
Mallards and pond scum 
An old dredging barge which looks like it hasn't been used in years rests in a slough between the salt pond and the Bay. I see it each time I drive on the Dumbarton Bridge. This time we were coming near it following the trail as it curved south.
A dredger
As we progressed west toward the Bay, the salt pond became less populated with birds. Perhaps it was deeper there, or perhaps most of the brine shrimp concentrated near the east shore. Either way, there were only a few birds floating on the water neat the northwest corner of the pond. One of these birds however, was a Bonaparte's Gull, a single individual that remained there of the large flock that had overwintered there. I don't know why it stayed behind, and sadly, it was wearing its breeding plumed for nobody.
Bonaparte's Gull, breeding plumage 
My chika did an excellent job documenting each and every bird she saw, in the water or in the air. On the more sparsely populated side of the pond we could finally increase our gait and move faster along the trail.
Forster's Tern 
Eventually we came close enough to the dredger barge to see some more details. It was clear that it hasn't been in human use for a long while. That doesn't mean it was out of use altogether - a large nest was built near the barge's control cabin and a large bird was sitting there with its back to us. We stood there for sometime trying to guess what bird that might be until it finally got up to stand and revealed its identity as a great blue heron.
Great Blue Heron, nesting
We completed the curve and were now going southeast, and at a much faster pace.
There were even fewer birds on this side of the pond. We saw there another solitary bird of a usually social species - a ruddy duck in breeding plumage.
Ruddy Duck, male, breeding plumage 
The trail, which is on the salt pond's levee, became more distant from the slough. In between was an area of salt marsh and a few small ponds. Nearly all the plants there were pickledweed, one of the few plant species that can tolerate the high salinity of the Bay water.

The pickleweed (which BTW is edible), is a keystone species in the salt marsh habitat, supporting a number of wildlife species, and also the salt marsh dodder - a parasitic plant that pulls its vital energy directly from the pickleweed's phloem.
Salt Marsh Dodder, Cuscuta salina, on Pickleweed, Salicornia pacifica 
After a long brisk walk, during which we encountered very few people and saw only a few birds, we turned the southwest corner of the pond and started going east. The wind had picked up and whipped waves, as high as waves could get in the enclosed salt pond.

All the way ahead loomed the Coastal Ridge with Mission Peak directly in front of us. All that time my chika was searching the water fro more birds.

As we got closer to the southeastern side of the pond we were seeing more and more birds. The swimmers first, riding the open waves.
Eared Grebe, breeding plumage 
Among the swimmers, too far away to get a perfect photo but nonetheless a very exciting sighting - the red-necked phalaropes my chika was looking for. The phalaropes are unique in the avian world - it is a species in which the female is more colorful than the male.
Red-necked Phalarope, male, breeding plumage
More east and closer to the shore were numerous shorebirds - least sandpipers and American avocets.

The avocets look very pretty in breeding plumage.
American Avocet, breeding plumage 
And so do the least sandpipers, although they are generally more drab than the avocets. Perhaps being smaller, they are more concerned about drawing attention to themselves.
Least Sandpiper 
The south levee of the big salt pond doesn't meet the Newark Slough Trail but continues nearly all the way to Thornton Ave. Outside of the refuge. Then it turns north again for a short distance before curving back west where it meets the Newark Slough Trail again. At that point my choke started complaining that the hike was getting too long and that her feet were hurting. There was not much I could do about it other than promise her that we were close to the end.
View southwest to the Bay and the old south bay railroad bridge 
Just before turning west, the trail comes really close to the outside parking lot where we were parked. Should be an easy hop to close the loop hike, except for the slough in between. My chika was quite disappointed that we couldn't get to the car right then and there, and I had to decide whether to complete the loop or to take a split-off trail that would lead me to Thornton Ave, but about half a mile south of where we needed to go.

By the time we arrived at the east corner of the pond I decided to take the offshoot trail to Thornton Ave. From there we walked back that half a mile along the road, walking on the west bike lane (there's no sidewalk there), and trying to ignore the trash on the roadside and focus on the pretty sights instead.

We arrived home triumphant. My chika had seen her phalarope bird and I got a very nice hike and a good one on one time with my daughter, something I had very little of ever since the shelter in place begun. And once again, Don Edwards NWR had proved to be a true refuge, and not only for the birds. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

A Very Special Place: the Unique Flora of the Ring Mountain Preserve

Date: May 31, 2020
Place: Ring Mountain Preserve, Tiburon, California
Coordinates: 37.921552, -122.494284
Length: 2 miles
Lebel: moderate

Towards the end of May photos started showing up of a unique-looking mariposa lily, one that I have never seen. This mariposa lily is a species endemic (grows only there and nowhere else) to a small area near Tiburon, called Ring Mountain Preserve. Needless to say, the first chance I had I got my family out over there to go looking for this special flower.
Our hike as captured by my GPS
We arrived inherited afternoon and parked at the big pullout near the trailhead. There were many other cars parked there, indicating there would be plenty of other people on the trail. I reminded the chikas again about practicing social distancing.
The Trailhead
At the beginning we didn't see anything unusual. The grasses were getting their summer brown and most of the wildflowers blooming near the trailhead were non native plants. There were plenty of butterflies flying about, but they wouldn't pose quietly.

The trail bent south and started uphill. The view below was of a wetland creek mouth which looked like a good habitat, but we couldn't see any wildlife from where we stood.

A couple of plum trees near the beginning of the slope had use detained for a few minutes, picking the ripe yellow plums and snacking on them.
We were going steadily uphill, and soon enough I saw interesting wildflowers and started lingering behind. One of the first local wildflowers I saw was the chick lupine. It is a common lupine species but it usually has pink bloom. The Ring Mountain chick lupine was blooming in white.
Chick Lupine, Lupinus microcarpus 
Small clouds of little white flowers started appearing along side the trail. I didn't think much of them so I didn't take many photos. Later though, I found out these were actually quite unique - a local species of native flax.
Marin Western Flax, Hesperolinon congestum
And then there were the common tarweed plants, alate spring/summer bloomer. Long after all other spring wildflowers will have gone to seeds, this one will keep decorating the Bay Area hills.
Coastal Tarweed, Deinandra corymbosa
When I raised my eyes from the wildflowers I saw that we were already quite high above the Bay and had a terrific view down to San Pablo Bay and the Richmond Bridge. I also saw that my family had gone up way ahead of me so I picked up my pace and run after them.

A small party of women was coming down the trail. We stopped and had a little chat, keeping a safe COVID-19 distance. I asked if they'd seen the special mariposa lilies, to which they answered enthusiastically that there were many. They also told me about other interesting flowers I might see up there. And of course, the more familiar ones, like the California State flower, the California golden poppy.
California Poppy, Eschscholzia californica 
The grass had already gone dry on the slopes of Ring Mountain but the numerous wildflowers that bloomed there maintained the liveliness and the loveliness of the place. Many of the blue flowers were western larkspurs that were tall enough to poke through the grasses.
Western Larkspur, Delphinium hesperium
We kept going up higher and the higher we got, more wildflower species were added to my list.
Graceful Clarkia, Clarkia gracilis  
Since the beginning of the hike I told everyone to look for the special mariposa lily for me. Sure enough, they found it before me. Credit to my elder chika who found the first, and the nicest one. After that one we saw many many more, all concentrated in one area of protruding serpentinite rocks. It was certainly worth the trip to Tiburon that day!
Tiburon Mariposa Lily, Calochortus tiburonensis 
A bit further up the trail we found a place by the rocks to sit for a snack break. The serpentinite soil supports a unique plant community, and there were some fine examples in the area where we sat down.
Rock Lettuce, Dudleya cymosa
For most of the snack break I was busy crawling among the rocks looking for interesting wildflowers.  At one point Pappa Quail prompted me to look at the view northeast - a dudleya bloomed there in the foreground of San Quentin jail and the San Pablo Bay. The photo I took of that view is heading this post.
Pitted Onion, Allium lacunosum 
I must say that Ring Mountain isn't exactly a mountain. More like a high hill. Nonetheless, it is prominent and has a distinct peak, and after the break we continued up to that peak, 

More wildflowers appeared alongside the trail. A few at first, then large patches of them, butter 'n' eggs.

The peak of Ring Mountain is topped by a large rock called Turtle Rock. When the rock became visible I could see people sitting on top of it. Below was a field of lupine in full bloom.
Turtle Rock
The lupine was chick lupine, but of an interesting subspecies, unique to that area as well.
Chick Lupine, Lupinus microcarpus var. densiflorus 
We left the lupines behind as we made our way toward Turtle Rock. I took the time to look also at the more common wildflowers that poked through the dry grass on the upper slopes of the mountain.
Hillside Morning Glory, Calystegia collina
After missing out on much of the California spring bloom because of the shelter-in-place, any wildflowers display was like fresh water to the thirsty soul.
Coast Buckwheat, Eriogonum latifolium 
Arriving last at the Turtle Rock  was too late to stop my chikas from climbing it where so many other people had climbed before them. All I could do was to wait for them with a hand sanitizer when they got back down. Meanwhile I enjoyed the magnificent view.
Part of Turtle Rock
The shelter-in-place did good to the air quality in the Bay Area. I honestly cannot recall the last time the visibility was so good. For once San Francisco didn't look blurry.
San Francisco View
When it was time to go downhill we started down the other arm of the loop trail, which led us to a dark knoll of live oaks.

There was a nook under the oaks where people has some recreational time leaving too many evidence of their pleasure behind as litter. It was sad to see. We got back out of the trees and continued down the trail.

Coming down we had a splendid view of Corte Madera and the San Clemente creek mouth. To the north loomed Mount Tamalpais, and I could almost imagine the Titans' castle on its summit.
View north 
Coming down the higher slope I saw member the tarred family - the beautiful rosin weed. They too bloom later in the season and were a nice sight to see between the dry grasses.
Rosin Weed, Calycadenia multiglandulosa 
Further down we got into the trees again. This time it was a grove of California laurel and the rich bay fragrance filled the air. As I usually do, I rubbed my fingers on the leaves and sniffed them on my way down the trail.
California Laurel, Umbellularia californica
 The laurels transitioned into live oaks. The trees were aged and twisted, each having its own 'personality'. I would have loved to climb a tree and rest there for a while but my family were already far below me on the trail. Besides, the tree had some occupants already
Coast Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia
We passed a familiar flower that caused me to stop at my tracks. It was a rose, and it didn't look like the California rose I usually see on hikes. For a moment I wondered it that was a domestic rose, but I don't know domestic roses like that one. It turned out to be another special flower - tthe Sonoma Rose that grows only in the North Bay region.
Sonoma Rose, Rosa spithamea
Don and down we went, passing through small tree groves, open grass slopes, and rocky areas, each with unique landscape and a special plant community.

This hike was focused on wildflowers but the birders my family took every opportunity to look for birds.  Some of the birds didn't need looking for - they were advertising themselves loudly, in the open.
Spotted Towhee 
Other birds, although larger, were more inconspicuous, like this young hawk, sitting quietly on top of an oak tree.
Red-tailed Hawk, juvenile 
I missed the birds, for I kept my eyes on the ground.
Yellow Monkeyflower, Erythranthe guttata 
The view below seemed larger now. Given more time, I would have loved to go and explore the San Clemente Creek and its estuary wetlands. It'll have to wait for another time though.
San Clemente Creek
I came to a staircase. Trying to catch up with my family I skipped the stairs two at a time. I had to halt and give way to a family that was slumbering upstairs. As they were passing me we recognized each other - they were of my family hiking group! So we paused and chatted for  a little while before continuing on our separate ways.

Almost since the beginning of the hike I saw numerous Ithuriel's spear flowers. There were lots of them along the entire trail. They didn't look exactly like those I see on my East Bay hikes, which are larger and paler. At first I thought they might be a different species, but they are in fact, the same.
Ithuriel's Spear, Triteleia laxa 
On the other hand, the soap plant which I usually see lots of everywhere else was represented in very small numbers on this hike.
Amole, Chlorogalum pomeridianum 
The Ring Mountain loop trail is not very long but so full of wildflowers and other interesting sights that it takes a while to go through for those who pay attention to its surprises. Still, the hike was over all too quickly, and before we knew it we were back down at the final level trail segment leading to the parking pullout.

Needless to say, we stopped once again to snack on the plums at the bottom of the slope. This time however, we were not enjoying them alone.
House Finch 
Behind the plum trees bloomed some teasel plants. This is a non-native plant that was brought hither from the old world because its dry inflorescence is used for carding wool. I usually see them already dry and hard but now it was blooming nicely.

Indian Teasel, Dipsacus sativus, non-native, invasive 
When I looked up from the flowers I found out that once again my family had already went ahead. They are already at the car when I emerged from the trailhead. A single crow on their above the road called at me, perhaps telling me to come back again next spring.
American Crow