Hiking among the Pinnacles

The last stop on our recent CA adventure was the Pinnacles National Park, just southeast of San Jose. Aside from its natural beauty, two interesting things about this park are the massive and eroded spires of an extinct volcano (i.e., the pinnacles) and the California Condors that can often be seen on the High Ridge trail of the park in the winter. On this day, however, I had to settle for views of just the volcanic spires because the Condors had already left the park to breed elsewhere.

We were greeted on the trail by a Beechey’s Ground Squirrel
A Stellar’s Jay rested in the bushes along the trail

The Pinnacles are the eroded remnants of an extinct volcano that has been sheared in half by the movement of the San Andreas fault.  Its other half is located 150 miles to the south, in the desert of southern California, while the part we hiked in now resides within the coast range bordering the Salinas Valley.  The area is composed primarily of  exposed lava flows, paler volcanic rocks called rhyolite, and a type of conglomerate rock that looks like you threw rock chunks into cement and then stood the mass up on end to weather.

We chose the trail that climbed to the peaks through a series of caves along a stream, ducking our heads around rocks and squirming through narrow slits in rocks (in the dark).
This was the easy part of the trail.
Emerging from one cavern and about to enter another on our way up.

The caves here provide roosting and nesting spots for at least 13 different species of bats. In addition, the 26,000 acres of the park are home not only to the Condors, but attract the largest density of breeding Prairie Falcons in the U.S. A study done in 1990 found that the Pinnacles have the highest density of bees (per unit area) of anywhere in the world (for which there is similar data). Quite a unique and interesting place!

At last we completed the cave path and headed up the steep stairway up to a very nice lake.
A delightful sunny afternoon and a beautiful lake view was the reward for our climb.
The trail back to the parking lot was an easy walk with incredible views.
Lava outcrops along the trail were sometimes covered over with vegetation.
Silver Bush Lupine lined the side of the trail.
Sticky Monkeyflower can apparently grow right out of the rock.
A good example of the volcanic spires that loom over the trail.
Looking back at the parking lot (center white spot in the far distance) from the trail
Purple Chinese Houses — great name for a flower.
A striking yellow lily — member of the Triteleia genus
Indian Paintbrush and sunflowers were common along the trail
And so were Beechey’s ground squirrels.

Wildflower bonanza in San Luis Obispo county

We left the verdant green of the outer coast range to drive inland toward Santa Margarita to a place we had heard was a hotspot for wildflowers.

Sure enough about 20 miles east of Santa Margarita on highway 58 and right at the intersection of Shell Creek Road, there were more than 50 cars parked on the roadside, and several dozens of walkers spread out over an enormous field of wildflowers. This was a veritable carpet of intense color — so vibrant the camera didn’t really capture it as well as my eyes saw it. So, here’s a look at what the rain produced in the central coastal mountains this year.

The panorama view doesn’t do the scene justice — the grass has grown up and over a lot of the flowers, dimming their brilliant color. Walking paths through the field made it easy to see the flowers without stepping on them.
This part of the field was dominated by a yellow and white daisy called Tidy Tips.
Looking in a different direction, there were more poppies and fewer daisies and a lot more grass.
Big, healthy clumps of poppies were everywhere in the middle of this field and ranging up to the hills beyond.
Looking back toward Shell Creek Road where the cars were parked, the field was dominated by poppies and lupine. Here there was also a solid ground cover of a small flower called California goldfields that formed a solid mat along what would have been bare ground.
The mat of Goldfields flowers surround the Lupines and daisies. No grasses here.
Looking toward the west was a beautiful field of poppies and lupines stretching over to the shady oak trees at the base of the hills.
Just like a huge bouquet…
More flowers along Shell Creek, where the Goldfields flowers again form a mat of yellow color.
Owl’s clover and lupines among the Goldfields flowers.
Further up Shell Creek road, the hills were covered with drying grasses, and a stand of Larkspur.
The brilliant purple of one of the western Larkspur species really stand out in the reddish tinge of the grasses.

What a treat to walk around this place that some kind rancher has managed so well and generously allowed passersby to explore.

Birding on Point Buchon

There is more to see along the coast of Montaña de Oro state park than just the park’s generous 8000 acres. The utility company (PG&E) maintains land on Point Buchon that abuts the park to the south. It is open to only a limited number of hikers daily, but has some of the most dramatic scenery and abundant wildflowers in this area.

Rocky crags line the coast here, and they make perfect roosting/resting spots for Cormorants and pelicans.
A few Brandt’s Cormorants (distinguished by their brilliant blue throats) gathered on this particular rock top.
Brown Pelicans were interspersed with the Brandt’s Cormorants on one end of this rock. The birds must have been feeding earlier because most of them were busily preening their feathers.
Wave action on these rock faces creates indentations that widen into caves and eventually break through into arches in the rock slabs. Look above the peak of the arch at the white streak running down the rock face. This is a sign that some seabirds have sat here long enough to decorate the rock with their excreta. A closer look at the rock face reveals what made the white “stain”.
There are at least three nests in this crack in the rock. These are Pelagic Cormorants (white spot on their flanks), which unlike what their name would suggest, actually do most of their foraging close to the shore. So these rocky crags offshore are the perfect place to nest. These birds hunt fish and invertebrates in deep water near the rocky shore, while the Brandt’s Cormorants hunt for prey in the water above the rocky bottom. Ecologists call that niche partitioning.
A better view of the rocky coastline habitat, with its isolated rocky crags, tide pools, sea caves and arches. Brown Pelicans are flying overhead.
Pelicans can “coast” over the water gaining lift from the air pressure changes in the wave surge.
Another inhabitant of the rocky shores here are Pigeon Guillemots, a member of the auk family. They are medium-sized seabirds with sharp bills for catching fish, short, stubby wings that help them “fly” through the water when diving for fish, and brilliant red feet that they show off to females when courting them.
I’m not sure who is who of this pair of birds, but this individual was perched perfectly to show off its feet. Guillemots forage for fish in the same areas as the Pelagic Cormorants, but as you might expect, they pursue smaller individuals than the cormorants. Another example of niche partitioning!
And back on land, some of the frequently encountered birds that wander through the grassy “heath” (scrubland) are small coveys of California Quail (male in front, female behind).
Probably the most common bird in this area — a sub-adult White-crowned Sparrow singing with great enthusiasm to stake out a territory and attract a mate.

California’s color explosion

The last time I visited the central California coast in the spring flower season was more than 50 years ago when I was a college student. But I never witnessed a mega-bloom spring flower season like the one going on here this past month. A dozen or more “atmospheric rivers” of rainfall this past winter have apparently promoted the germination of seeds accumulated over many years. The result is a vibrant carpet of color in grassy fields, roadsides, deserts, seasides, and foothills everywhere in California. Here are some highlights of our hike last weekend in Montaña de Oro state park, located just south of Morro Bay on the central California coast.

Even ordinary mustard and wild radish flowers create a colorful scene along the rocky coast in the park.
It truly is a colorful carpet with fiddleneck flowers so dense you can’t see bare ground between them.
The carpet of flowers is almost overgrown with grasses now, but there is still plenty of color in the mat of California Poppies.
The diversity of wildflowers was amazing. Looking closely at one square meter, you could see at least a dozen species, packed closely together, growing over each other.
And just as many clumps of flowers in the fields stretching away from the coast toward the hills.
Tall spikes of hedgenettle grew in clumps in some of the depressions. It doesn’t form a hedge, and it doesn’t sting like true nettles, so the name is a mystery. But it does have very attractive purple and white spotted petals, making it quite distinctive.
Some kind of milkvetch (white stalks) among the poppies
Orange-colored bush monkey flower, so named for their resemblance to simian faces, were common on the drier hillsides.
But the overall dominant plant here, in color and in profusion, was the Poppy. And it must be the namesake of this Mountain of Gold park.

Birding on the beach, part ii

Here are a few more photos at the local beach in Cayucos CA of some of the shorebirds darting in and out of the waves. The birds seem to be used to the people walking the beach, but not the dogs running in and out of the waves. However, dogs chasing birds gave me a chance to get some good flight shots.

Willets are medium-sized shorebirds with stubby black beaks, and striking black and white wing patterns. They joined the Marbled Godwits (previous post) in the receding water to probe into the sand for invertebrates.
I usually see Willets in the winter, when they are dressed in their “blah” plumage of drab gray, but at this time of year, the birds are transforming into their much more attractive speckled gray, like the bird on the left.
Willets really are very attractive birds at this time of year.
This is a composite image of one Willet in flight, as it shows off it’s black and white wings.

A third and regular visitor to this particular beach in Cayucos was the Whimbrel, easily recognized by its bold striped head and long, down-turned beak.

Unlike the Godwits that foraged in small flocks together, the Whimbrels were often solitary and probed both the wet sand as well as the seaweed higher on the beach, looking for something to eat.

The series of images below shows one Whimbrel’s successful capture and ingestion of a small crab it found in the seaweed. Use the arrows on either side of the image to advance (or reverse) the slideshow. (Note: if you’re reading this post in your email, the slide show may not be accessible, so click on the title of the post in your email, to go to the blog website.)

After swallowing the crab, I think I see a lump and ruffled feathers along the side of the bird’s neck. I always wonder how birds manage to avoid punctures in their gut after swallowing creatures with spines or pincers.
Whimbrels in flight — thanks to an adventurous canine.

Birding on the beach

We’re on a short excursion to CA to celebrate a birthday and hopefully experience the amazing super-mega-wildflower bloom that is taking place there this spring. But first, a trip to the beach where we found some shorebirds probing the sand for invertebrates.

Marbled Godwits assembled in twos, three, and small groups vigorously probing the wet sand after each wave receded. It was a gray, foggy morning at Cayucos beach on the central coast of California.
Whatever they found was too small to see.
One pair in their breeding plumage finery went everywhere together.
Another trio flittered from wet patch to wet patch looking for breakfast.
A graceful exit in the tiny glimmer of light through the morning fog.

Sunset in the Superstition mountains

The final campsite of the trip was at Lost Dutchman State Park in the easternmost suburbs of Phoenix and a very popular spot for both locals and visitors in the Phoenix area. We didn’t really have time to hike very far into the Superstition Mountains, although there are a myriad of hiking trails right from the campsite. But we did get to enjoy an incredible sunset — something Arizona is famous for.

An hour before sunset, on the trail that leads to notch between the two sets of cliffs. Hikers coming down the trail told us it was an amazing view.
A short while later, as the sun dipped past the horizon — “golden hour” threw gorgeous light on the peaks of the mountains and lit up the yellow flowers of the bitterbrush bushes.

How did these mountains get the name Superstition?

Apache Indians living in this area believed that a prominent hole between the tall spires in these mountains led directly to hell, because hot, dusty winds were known to emerge from the gap in the rocks. Their name for the mountains led early settlers to refer to the mountainous area as “superstitious”, and later the whole wilderness area of 250 square miles was then given the same name.

Looking the other direction toward the campground and the town of Apache Junction.
The final glow of the sunset —farewell Arizona, we’re headed back to Las Vegas and the flight home.

Spring beauties

We made brief visits to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds in Patagonia and the Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson while camping at Catalina State Park to enjoy some of the spring delights of southern Arizona.

Granddaughter got a chance to photograph hummingbirds and other birds coming to the feeders at the Paton Hummingbird Center in Patagonia.
She got a very nice photo of a Broad-billed Hummer and a bee friend at one of the feeders.
A Green-tailed Towhee perked up his crest while singing to us.
Tiny Inca Doves were easy to photograph at the stream.

Desert wildfowers were plentiful, especially along the roadside where we saw dense swaths of orange Globe Mallow, yellow Bitterbush, pink Parry’s penstemon, and short purple lupines.

The penstemon was by far my favorite flower in the roadside displays.
At the Sonora Desert Museum, we had a brief encounter with a Pipevine Swallowtail on one of the penstemons.
The desert museum’s wildflower gardens were in full bloom.
Dry arid desert scenes are greatly enhanced by the brilliant colors of the wildflowers.

At our spacious campsite in Catalina State Park, we had room to spread out and time to take a walk before sunset. Quite a few birds were singing and displaying right at our campsite.

Sunset in Catalina State Park featured a giant saguaro surrounded by leafless mesquite shrub/trees.
A most cooperative male Vermillion Flycatcher posed on a few of the mesquite trees around camp.
I’ve never seen this species before — A Rufous-winged Sparrow. Several of them were flitting around camp, and some were singing. This is primarily a Mexican species and its range barely extends into southern Arizona.
A pair of Phainopepla, mistletoe berry specialists, hung out around the campsite also.
The diggings and burrows of the Round-tailed Ground Squirrel ran through our campsite, but only one individual showed up to check us out.

Return to the Valley of Fire

We made a quick trip over spring break to Nevada and Arizona to introduce elder daughter and her daughter to some of the marvelous sights of the southwestern U.S. But this time we were camping, hoping for more intimate looks at the scenery during all times of the day.

Starting off with the dramatic rocks, cliffs, and colors of the Valley of Fire northeast of Las Vegas, we explored some new areas of the park, hiked further into the canyons at sunset, and saw ever more dramatic scenery than on our last visit two months ago. Plus, there were wildflowers blooming to decorate the desert scene.

A campsite in the rocks — actually all of the campsites at this park are tucked into nooks in the rock.
Our morning hike straight out into the desert from a roadside parking spot revealed a vast expanse of candy-cane striped red and white rock!
Where does this candy-cane striped road lead?
Strange domes and formations in the rocks along the hike…
Evening primrose was flowering at several sites in the sandy soil.
Granddaughter thought this rock looked like the Sphinx, or a sphinx ram head.

After three hours of hiking in the hot sun, we were ready for lunch and a rest before venturing out for an evening hike in the slot canyons.

Granddaughter found a hole above the campsite that fit just perfectly for an afternoon rest in the rocks.
Changing light in the early evening lights up the rocks of the pastel canyon.
Light during the golden hour just before and after sunset makes the pinks, purples, and yellow colors of these rocks really stand out.
More candy-cane striping…
In the slot canyons, the walls show the various effects of erosion over time.
The last twilight of the day turns the scene a pinkish purple hue as we hike out of the slot canyons and back to our car.

Spring is in the air

Snow or not, the birds are “springing” into action. Decked out in their newly refurbished plumage, males are returning from “down south” to establish territories and are advertising their stuff to potential mates.

Let the pairing begin — although these spectacular looking male males will only briefly copulate with a given female and then move on to find other mates.
Hen mallard checking out this fine-looking specimen.
Mallards are so common we take them for granted, but the males can dazzle with their iridescent blue-green heads and tawny feathers. How about that nice streak of blue down his back?

And if this attractive male does everything right, with appropriate attention and head bobbing, etc., he may be acceptable to the female.

Head bobbing in both partners is a signal that the female may be receptive to this male.
Elsewhere on this stretch of open water, Wood Duck males were courting a few females.
Males outnumbered the females here, so the lucky males (with interested females) usually stick very close to their potential mates to ward off challengers.