Saturday, April 29, 2006

Morning Walk

Lea (our female field spaniel) and I are home alone this weekend — Debbie is off at an agility show in Walnut, along with Mo’i and Miki. This morning I was in a mood to relax a bit, and Lea was showing signs of restlessness — and the sun was out for the first time in several days, with wall-to-wall patented California blue sky, and it was 62 degrees and 50% relative humidity. In other words, a perfect day for a nice walk! So Lea and I (with my camera, of course) headed out of our yard and up the small hill that is just west of our home. We walked for a couple of hours at a very leisurely pace, covering perhaps 2 miles — and stopping frequently to enjoy the springtime flowers, lush greenness, and returning migrant birds in our local chaparral…

Somehow in the photo above right, I managed to catch Lea’s toung in mid-pant, curled up oddly (at least in stop-motion like this). She was hot, though — that dark brown coat of hers absorbs the sunshine very efficiently, and from this point onward in our hike she sought out shade at every opportunity. The big rock in the other picture is an odd boulder near the top of the hill. It’s heavy enough that it seems unlikely to have been placed by human effort, and yet it’s hard to imagine how it got there naturally. One of those things we’ll never know, I suppose…

On the beginning of our walk we followed a dirt road that goes by our home. It’s on private land, and is officially closed (with hefty gates at both ends) — but the owner doesn’t actually object to reasonable use of the property, allowing hiking, horseback riding, and bicycling without complaint. He does try to keep off motorized vehicles, though (except in an emergency, such as a fire). This road was bulldozed a long time ago, perhaps 25 years, and the chaparral has started to invade its edges. The three plants show at right (sagebrush, buckwheat, and ceanothus) are all common chaparral plants. The sagebrush is one that my father and I took to calling “super sage” on our recent trip to Big Sur — it’s leaves, when crushed, have a powerful sage scent. I think it’s foliage makes it one of the more attractive native sagebrushes; it’s one I’d like to see thriving in my yard instead of mustard. The buckwheat is one of about a bazillion species we have in the chaparral, and I can’t even begin to differentiate them. The flowers are inconspicuous, but the dark reddish-brown dried flowerheads and seeds are one of the trademark visuals of the summertime chaparral. The blue ceanothus is one of three (perhaps four) species that are native here, and except for one that has very white bark I haven’t learned to distinguish them.

The ceanothus this year have been simply spectacular, and in some locations still are. There is a northeast-facing hillside between Jamul and Rancho San Diego that has one of the most intense displays of dark blue ceanothus bloom that I’ve ever seen, covering an extent of perhaps 200 acres. In our own hills the bloom has been more intense than in past years I can remember, with most plants having more flowers than usual. There are a couple dozen individual plants in my yard whose habits I know fairly well; all of them are more showy this year than in any year in my memory.

Yuccas — several species — are very common in our area. This year we’re seeing a great many “babies” (presumably because of the heavy rainfalls and subsequent flowering last year), and also an above-average rate of blooming (yuccas don’t bloom every year). In the photos at right you can see at least two species (one of them has distinctive purple-tinged flower edges), and probably three. Most yucca plants occur at apparently random places in the chaparral soil, but for whatever reason yuccas are especially good at finding a home in rock crevices. When their flower stalk first appears, its interesting to visit the plant every few days to see how fast that very bulky-looking stalk (which can be up to 20' or so high) grows. These flower stalks, when dry, fall over and lay on the ground like small logs. If you pick one up, you’ll likely be surprised by two things: they are remarkably lightweight, and they are strong. I’ve measured one of these fallen stalks at 16' long, and at its base it was 5.5” in diameter. I was able to pick up that stalk with one hand circling its base, and I could easily flick it about with my wrist. I didn’t think to actually weigh it, but I’m pretty sure it was only about 6 or 7 pounds. Our dogs didn’t like it when I flicked it around, and especially if I tapped them on the shoulder with it when they weren’t looking!

This morning I noticed that the top of the hill has dozens of yucca “babies” — compact little yuccas as small as 8 or 10 inches in diameter. When full grown, these can be as large as about 30 or 36 inches in diameter, with much wider leaves than the babies have. I don’t know much about the yuccas, especially about their growth rate — I’m curious, though, if this “baby” stage is a springtime thing (i.e., they’ll grow up to adulthood within the year) or if it takes them several years to mature…

Lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia) is a common chaparral plant; a kind of sumac that is most notable for its absolutely consistently leathery dark green foliage, even through severe drought. They typically grow in a very dense shrub; some in our area are as much as 10' high and 15' in diameter (one in my yard is nearly that big). Most of the year, the lemonade berry isn’t much to look at from close up — but when it is in bud (deep red), in bloom (white), and with berries (pink and white) it can be quite attractive (though very variable from year-to-year). From a distance, however, it’s one of the few consistently attractive greens in the summertime chaparral. A couple of summers ago, at the peak of a multi-year drought here, if you looked at our hillside you’d have seen a sea of brown, gray, and weak greens — except for the lemonade berry, which was still a beautiful dark green color.

Our evergreen (so-called “live") oaks are blooming more heavily this year than any other year I can remember (right hand photo). The distinctive coppery color is visible on the big trees from miles away; if you didn’t know they were in bloom you might think the tree was suffering from some strange disease that had discolored its leaves. Last year, even though we had above-average rainfall, the oak bloom wasn’t particularly intense. This year’s rainfall is slightly below average (though much higher than our drought years), but it’s the second “good” year in a row — perhaps that is a trigger for the oak. Virtually every oak tree that isn’t half dead from drought or disease is in bloom like this right now; this bodes well for a bountiful acorn harvest, and that bodes well for the many wildlife species that depend on those acorns. The left-hand photo is some new growth on an oak tree that is growing from an intermitten marsh at the base of the hill. I thought the red color was quite attractive…

This plant is my enemy. Until recently I was calling it “kudzu” (after the Florida invader that is causing huge amounts of damage back there). This thing grows amazingly fast; it’s a vine that creeps and crawls all over any plant that can get it into the air. It has shaded out and killed two manzanitas in my yard — and I love manzanita, so I hate this thing. At Quail Gardens a few weeks ago, the head gardener there identified this for me as Wild Cucumber (Marah macrocarpus), and it’s a native. Its fruit is a bizarre ovoid, roughly the size of a clenched adult fist, covered with sharp spikes. When the vine dies and the fruit turns from green to brown, those spikes hurt if you run into them. This plant is sometimes called “manroot” because of the enormous (up to 100 pounds) water-storing tuberous root. This root stores enough food and water to make this thing just about indestructible — I’ve pulled off all the shoots from a single plant dozens of times in a single year, and it just keeps on shooting them up until the season is all over. It’s the Eveready plant! And just like everything else this year, the wild cucumbers are growing like crazy. And driving me crazy!

From the flower, I believe this plant is some kind of a wild onion. They occur sporadically throughout our hills, and (unlike most onions) they don’t seem to be associated with wet places at all. Their beautiful deep blue flowers are like tiny jewels when you find them (this one was growing beside a very old, overgrown jeep road that now forms the trail up the hill). On the stem of this flower was the odd little white spider at right — I don’t recall ever seeing one of these before. When I first spotted it, the spider was inside the flower — I wonder if it’s associated specifically with this onion?

This plant — which I’m all but certain is a white ceanothus — is in prime bloom right now on our hillsides. The flowers have a similar form and scent to our blue ceanothus, but the leaves look almost like those of a live oak with dwarfed leaves (hence my slight uncertainty). The intensity of the scent on these white ceanothus is several times that of any of the blue species — and every white ceanothus plant is alive with honeybees (see below). I love to see their blooms against our lovely blue sky. And I love to stick my nose into the blooms and inhale deeply — being careful, of course, not to inhale when there’s a bee anywhere nearby!

For whatever reason, it’s common with these white ceanothus (and not so common with the blue species) to have a dense thicket of a few to several dozen individual plants. Within a half-mile of my home there are 20 or so such thickets. Generally all the plants within a given thicket bloom in synchrony, though other thickets do not — this makes me wonder if perhaps the plants are propagating by suckers, so that all the members of a thicket are actually genetically the same plant.

One of the nicest memories of our walk this morning was at a place where the trail leads straight through such a thicket, with plants on both sides of the trail almost closing in a canopy overhead (perhaps 8 or 9 feet high). In the middle of this thicket the sweet ceanothus scent was overwhelmingly powerful; it almost made me dizzy to inhale great lungfuls of it. The bright light filtered down through the white blooms and dark leaves to make a kind of soft greenish glow on the trail, and it was cool in this shade. The collective sound of thousands of bees was very loud; Lea was constantly turning her head, tilting it, trying to figure out where this strange noise was coming from. We spent a very pleasant few minutes just soaking all this in…

Near the top of the hill there is an expanse of exposed rock that happens to face toward our home, east of the hill. We often make this our objective on the hill, for it’s a pleasant place to sit and contemplate our valley. After any rainfall, our hills have many seeps, and often the water they dribble out will form a sheet over exposed rock like this. Just such a seep — a small one — is presently sending a small sheet of water over the rock. Right at the intersection of the seep (soil that is very slowly emitting water) and the exposed rock, there is a set of plant life that appears only when and where there is lots of water. Since open water is quite a rarity in the chaparral, these are plants that you don’t often see here at all, such as the lush green moss in the right hand photo. Isn’t it amazing how the seeds or spores for these plants manage to end up when and where the water is? Every such seep is abundantly covered with these unique plants, so whatever the seed or spore distribution mechanism is, it clearly works very efficiently!

The left hand two photos are of a very specialized plant. I believe it’s a grass, but I’m not entirely sure about that. I’ve only ever seen it growing in small rock crevices — never in open soil. It’s more abundant on this hilltop than anywhere else I’ve been, though I’ve spotted it growing on my property, on Lawson Peak, and on Sycuan Peak. I’m not sure if it actually favors hilltops, or if it’s just that there are more rock crevices in such places. Close up I think it’s rather pretty stuff, though from any distance at all it is completely non-descript.

One of my favorite local wildflowers is this plant, which I’ve never been able to identify. It’s another rock specialist; I only find it crawling over rocks. The plant’s roots could be anywhere adjacent to a rock surface, but they’re often in a crevice. The plant sends long runners out over the rock’s surface, with hairy leaves and stems giving it a pale green color. The flowers are pea-like, and (as you can see) a brilliant and very saturated, slightly orangey yellow. A lovely color against our local granite.

I’ve found these plants in lots of local spots, wherever rocky surfaces are fully exposed to the sun. It seems to be more common on south-facing hillsides, though this could just be the lesser competition on those hot hillsides. It also seems to prefer rock surfaces that are at least a couple of feet in extent (though the plant doesn’t always grow that large). The lushest growth I’ve ever found of this plant was on Cuyamaca Mountain, on a rocky ridge above and to the south of Airplane Monument. This area was devastated by the Cedar Fire, and is still closed for hikers, so I don’t know how that area or these plants fared.

Look at the bottom right hand photo — notice the hairs on the flower cluster’s base? You can also see them on the leaves, especially the vertical leaf in the back of the view. Without all those hairs, the leaves would be a nice, dark green color. Without a microscope or a closeup photo like this, you’d never know those hairs were there…

These photos show a flower field that I wasn’t expecting at all. The top right hand photo shows a view to the south of the hill that we climbed. If you look closely (or at the larger view), you’ll see a splash of yellow at the three o’clock to four o’clock direction from the center of the picture, a short way off of the center. At a distance I couldn’t see what those flowers were at all, but I wondered if they might be the same species that forms dense mats in the hill just northeast of Lake Cuyamaca. So Lea and I headed off through the brush to find out.

The exposed rock shown in that photo is easy to get too from the trail, with a minimum of bushwhacking. Even before I got there I knew that they were the same flowers as up near Lake Cuyamaca — their scent wafting downwind gave them away. If you pick one of these flowers and sniff it, you really can’t smell a thing — but get a whole bunch of them together and then you’ve got yourself a perfume factory!

I find these flowers very interesting, visually. The random pattern made by thousands of blossoms is itself interesting, and then each individual blooms subtle two-toning is also interesting. Then there are interesting reflected light effects; a yellow glowing light that you can see in the bottom right hand photo (taken looking toward the sun).

These things are only an inch or so high, but if you’re willing to get yourself into an undignified posture you get get your nose right in a bunch of them. Oh, what a delight that is! Their scent isn’t heavy and overpowering, like ceanothus; it is instead a light and delicate scent, and most attractive.

While I was in this undigified position, Lea came over to see what I was so curious about. This nose-to-the-ground sniffing was something she understood! She stuck her nose right in the same bunch of flowers I was sniffing, and inhaled deeply. Eyes closed. Then put her head back up and looked at me as if to say “What the hell is wrong with you? There’s absolutely nothing in there! Not a ground squirrel, a rabbit, or even a mouse!"

Here are a couple of other plants that I don’t know. The right hand photo is of a common native, which I keep thinking is some kind of sage — but its crushed leaves don’t smell like a sage at all. Overall this plant is very odd looking, almost like something Dr. Suess might have drawn — scraggly branches that jut off at wierd angles for no reason at all, and leaves that are typically 10” or more apart. Every spring it has this blossoms, surprisingly hard to see until you’re almost on them. The left hand photo is of the blooms on a tree that is planted along one of our fence lines (there are about 10 of them). I don’t know what they are, and I don’t know if they’re native or not. They stay nicely green in all by the worst droughts, so I have kind thoughts about them…

In the white ceanothus thicket I mentioned earlier, I took these two pictures of a honeybee at work. Note the pollen that it has gathered on its rear legs — that little bee has been very busy! Some bees that I spotted had collected about double the amount of pollen that this one had collected. This little fellow got annoyed at my camera being a couple of inches away from him, and he zoomed around the lens and headed straight for my face — I took the hint and backed off…

I tried following a couple of the bees to see where they were coming from, but I had to give up after they took off on a path that would require me to go through some very dense chaparral. I’m very curious about where our local bees build their hives — in all my walking in the area, I’ve never spotted one. But we’ve got plenty of bees about!

This delightful little wildflower is quite mysterious. I have a nice little patch of them just outside the gate to my home — but that’s the only such patch I’ve ever found. I have come across a few individual plants in other places, at random, but never a patch like the one near my gate. The patch is on a north facing slope, mostly bare dirt (what you see that looks like wood chips is actually litter from a brush cutter), on a little bump alongside a drainage ditch. For all I know, this is a non-native that someone planted here, and all the others that I’ve found are escaped from this patch. But somehow this “looks” like a native to me. I’d love to identify it — if you know what it is, please let me know!

Right near our home, a sturdy steel gate blocks the private road I mentioned earlier. The photo shows the chain securing the gate, with two locks arranged so that opening either lock lets you remove the chain and open the gate. This is a very common arrangement in the backcountry; it’s a very simple way to allow multiple people to have access to something without requiring that they all have the same key. In this case, the red lock is a California Department of Forestry (CDF) lock, there to give CDF access in case of fire. The other lock was placed there by the owner of the property, who has kindly given us a key.

Recently a 35 acre parcel was sold to a fellow I’ll just call Mike, who currently lives in Tijuana (because it’s cheap) but is planning to build a house out here. The only way that Mike can get to his property is through a driveway that he had bulldozed; this driveway starts about a quarter mile up this private road — so Mike has to go through this gate to get to his place. Initially the property owner arranged this by allowing Mike to place his own lock in “series” with the other two, thus allowing him to have access with his own key.

Well, Mike wasn’t too clear on the concept. On his first attempt to re-lock the gate, he managed to get things arranged so that only his lock would open the chain. Oops. Then he managed to leave it unlocked accidentally, and someone stole his lock. Oops. So now the land owner has simply given Mike a key to his lock (just as we have), and poor Mike (still unclear on the concept) has twice managed to mess that up. Mike’s got some learning to do if he’s going to change his city-boy ways…

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