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Tijuana River Estuary

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), Tijuana River EstuaryBurrowing Owl


I have to confess that I get tips on bird locations from the San Diego Birding Yahoo group. It was one of these tips that sent us down to the Tijuana River Estuary. I’ve seen burrowing owls in captivity, but never in the wild. So, when someone on the list mentioned an owl close to the fence near the River Mouth Trail near the TJ River Estuary visitor center, we decided to try our luck.

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)


The trail runs straight south from a small parking area. There are several trails in this part of the nature preserve. They are shadeless, but fortunately it wasn’t too hot. On the left is a Naval Airfield. The funny thing is, even though we were in the preserve, many birds prefer the airfield. We spotted several small groups of killdeers who seemed to be very content. On our side of the fence, there was a harrier hawk, some yellow throats, and lots of red-winged blackbirds. We scanned the airfield for burrowing owls, but all we could see were lots of ground squirrels. Even though this wasn’t what we were looking for, it was a good sign because the owls like taking over old squirrel burrows. As we reached the edge of the airfield and the helicopter landing pad, we noticed a yellow sign with a picture of an owl warning people not to fill in the burrow or dump gas or pesticides there. We’d found the owl’s house, but we didn’t see any owl. On the other side of the grassy patch of land was another yellow sign, but we didn’t see an owl there either. Undaunted, we scanned the area. After all, there could be other owl burrows that just hadn’t been marked. But all we saw were squirrels. We decided to walk a bit more, then check for the owl on our way back.
Light-Footed Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris levipes)

Light-Footed Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris levipes)

We headed west and got to a little patch of brackish water. R spotted a kingfisher sitting on a post. In the distance, in the more open area of the estuary, there were a lot of shorebirds, waterfowl, and pelicans. That section was inaccessible which was probably why all the birds were there. I watched a pelican and a grebe drifting about in one of the estuary inlets. The kingfisher flew off and R joined me by the water. Then he noticed the light-footed clapper rail swimming across the small stretch of water to the shore across from us. These are endangered and are found only in 5 counties in Southern California and some parts of Baja, Mexico. According to SeaWorld (http://seaworld.org/animalinfo/animal-info/animal-bytes/birds/light-footed-clapper-rail/) there are only 600 individuals in CA. We know for certain that two of those are living in the San Diego River Estuary (where a bird photographer pointed out the first one we saw to us and soon we saw its mate) and the Tijuana River Estuary, where after spotting the first one, a second one appeared. They gave a loud call (called “clappering) and then one mounted the other and they disappeared beneath mud covered grasses. We hope that this means in a month or so we will be able to see our first baby light-footed clapper rails as well.

"Clappering" Rail

“Clappering” Rail


We walked back to the airfield and the owl was standing about a foot away from the sign. These have got to be the cutest of birds. Since some of its body was hidden by the burrow, it looked like a feathery tennis ball with big eyes and a beak. The owl slowly moved its head to face us, then off to the side, then around to the back. Happy, we observed for a while and then walked back up the path.

Useful Information

  • http://trnerr.org/
    The Tijuana River Estuarine Research Preserve web site contains information about the preserve including volunteer opportunities, education, research, visiting the preserve and visitor center, and activities. There is a great pdf map with all the trails in the area here.

Directions

To get to the Tijuana River Estuary Visitor Center and the River Mouth Trail, take I-5 S to Coronado Avenue and go West. To get to the trail head, turn left on whichever street is easier after Connecticut or East Lane (but 5th is your last chance). They all end on Iris. Go right on Iris and park at the end. If you want to go to the visitor center, stay on Coronado (which turns to Imperial Beach Blvd). Turn left on 3rd Street and then left on Caspian Way. There is a free parking lot.

Make a Day of It

I really like this area. Take a look at the trail map. There are several places to visit. Here are some of my suggestions. Sorry I haven’t written much about them:

  • Border Field State Park Beach: Possibly one of my favorite beaches (for walking) in San Diego because the water is so polluted that no one goes there.
  • Dairy Mart Ponds: These ponds are nice for bird watching (though the blinds they put up seem kind of silly). There are some pleasant trails around the area. The trail head is South on Dairy Mart Road, on the right after the first stop sign after you exit the highway.
  • The Bird and Butterfly Garden: Continue on South on Dairy Mart Road. Follow the road West past horse stables. Turn right when you hit Hollister, which if I remember correctly is the first reasonably sized road going N.The first time we went there we missed it. It might not have a sign, or maybe the sign says something else. The garden is on the left and would make a nice place for a picnic.
Engelmann Oak (Quercus engelmanni)

Engelmann Oak (Quercus engelmanni)

Since the Kanaka Loop was so beautiful, we thought we’d try the West Vista Loop on the other side of the Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve. The parking area is just a gravel space along side the road. It felt a lot more exposed than the other side. We started up the trail with open pasture land on either side. Soon the trail ran up an oak covered slope. There were Engelmann oaks and coast live oaks. I wouldn’t have known the difference except they were labeled. If I had looked at the leaves of the Engelmann oak, perhaps I would have seen a difference since they are lighter, not smooth, and rounder. In my plant book, they look completely different from one another. Signs also pointed out some poison oak. R suggested programming an app where you could take a photo of a plant and it would tell you if it was poisonous. I thought identifying through photo only would be difficult. “Like poison oak. It is called that because its leaves look like oak leaves.”

Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia)

Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia)

Jays called as they slowly flew from tree to tree. Although we were consistently going up hill and expending a bit of energy in the process, I felt more relaxed than I’d been all week. It is funny how hiking will do that.
There were a lot of butterflies out: California Sisters fluttered among the oaks while sulphurs and whites bobbed along the grass. There were lots of Painted Ladies as well.

Buckwheat

Buckwheat

The hillside was covered with buckwheat turning autumn red. Another sign pointed out a patch of Rhus trilobata (Basketbush or Skunkbush) and noted its tendency to grow near poison oak and how it looked like poison oak. This would have presented a challenge for our hypothetical poison plant ID app. Unlike its poisonous cousin, it has quite a few medicinal and other uses: basketry, food, cold and digestive issue medicine, erosion control, deodorant (ironic with a name like skunkbush), and smoking.

Basketbush or Skunkbush (Rhus trilobata) looks like poison oak

Basketbush or Skunkbush (Rhus trilobata) looks like poison oak

I have probably been mistaking it for poison oak for a while, but it is better to be safe than sorry. The bushes were looking a bit shabby, mostly just dry branches with a few leaves hanging onto the ends. So, how do you tell them apart? The differences I’ve found online are poison oak’s middle terminal leaflet has a stalk when that of skunkbush doesn’t. Poison oak has white berries while sSkunkbush has red, sticky, hairy berries. Poison oak has white or greenish flowers while skunk bush has yellow flowers. And skunkbush supposedly smells like a skunk.

Mountain Mahogany (Cerocarpus betuloides) is beautiful when it goes to seed.

Mountain Mahogany (Cerocarpus betuloides) is beautiful when it goes to seed.

Beyond the Rhus trilobata was a beautiful grove of mountain mahogany. The feathery seeds filled the trees and sparkled in the sunlight, making the trees glow with light. A little ways from the top of a hill the loop part of the trail began. This was more shaded than the other part of the trail and had larger trees. At the point where the West Vista Loop Trail met the Coast to Crest trail, there was a nice shaded picnic area. Unfortunately, our picnic was still in the trunk of the car.

View of Santa Ysabel from the trail

View of Santa Ysabel from the trail

At 3.3 miles the West Vista Loop is a bit shorter than the Kanaka trail. It also isn’t endowed with apples and berries. However, there were pretty views of the Santa Ysabel valleys, mountains and pastures. It was an easy, restful, meandering trail which with its crooked oak trees gave a much needed break from the boxes of modern life: computer screens, cubicles, and walled rooms.

Useful Information

Directions

To get to the West Vista Loop trailhead Take 78/79 N through Julian. Take a left to continue on 78/79 through Wynola. Once you reach Santa Ysabel, take a right turn to stay on 79. Look for the gravel parking area and the preserve sign on the right side of the road. There are no toilets or water at the trailhead.

California Patch (Chlosyne californica)

California Patch (Chlosyne californica)

Baad blogger! Baad! Bad! I haven’t posted anything all summer! This doesn’t mean I didn’t hike. I just didn’t feel like writing about it… or sometimes I did write, but never got around to finding the photos and posting it. Anyway, not much I can do about it now, so…

The hiking season has begun! The touch of autumn coolness is a welcome respite from the intense heat of summer. At last we don’t have to eliminate hikes because they are too hot or have no shade. All trails are fair game. In San Diego, autumn is marked by slightly cooler temperatures and a significant reduction of tourists (and locals) lying on the beach. But to really experience autumn in the more traditional changing-leaves sense of the word, one must head up to the mountains. Autumn is in full swing in Julian, as the traffic jam through the center of town reminded us. There are 2 weekends of Octoberfest, it is the height of the apple harvest, and the leaves are beginning to turn.

Cows under oak tree

Cows under an oak tree

We have wanted to hike in the Santa Ysabel Preserve for a few months, but since the terrain looked fairly open we thought it would fall into the too hot and shadeless category. There are 2 entrances: one for the Kanaka loop and one for the West loop. The Coast-to-Crest trail connects them, but you need to have a second car. It turns out that the first couple miles go through shady old growth oak groves and would have been fine in the summer.

Beautiful hills

Beautiful hills

The trail ran between hills. After passing some pastures dotted with grazing cattle and large boulders the path became shaded by large live oak and black oak trees. The occasional sycamore with its mottled white bark looked ghostly against the dark oak trunks.

Sycamore Trunk

Sycamore Trunk

 

Rosehips

Rosehips

The undergrowth was dotted with ripe red rosehips and white snowberries (not sure if common or mountain variants (Symphoricarpos albus var. laevigatus or S. mollis). It was tempting to start madly gathering the rosehips, but past experience has shown me that they are dry, tiny and seedy and I wasn’t even able to squeeze enough juice out of them for a couple spoonfuls of jam. Later, I read that you are supposed to wait until after the first frost. Perhaps I’ll give them a try then.

Rosehips and Snowberries (Symphoricarpos albus var. laevigatus)

Rosehips and Snowberries (Symphoricarpos albus var. laevigatus)

As for the snowberries, the word on the internet is that they are either toxic or just taste really bad. Anyway, I guess not an ideal food source, which would explain why they are so plentiful. Plants for a Futures (http://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Symphoricarpos+albus) says the fruit contains saponins which are “toxic but poorly absorbed by the body” and can be “broken down by cooking”. However they don’t recommend eating large quantities. They go on to say they were used by native Americans because saponins have medicinal properties (cleaning, killing parasites) which make sense because saponins can be used as soap.

Sea of Rosehips

Sea of Rosehips

Farther along the trail was a meadow with a sea of rosehip laden plants. Beyond was a big brambly mound of blackberry bushes, but we didn’t really notice this until we returned.

Plant I thought was chamise but am not sure

Plant I thought was chamise but am not sure

After about 1.5 miles, the trail started up a hill. It was still shady and tree-lined, but had the added advantage of views into the valley. Small plants with tiny pink flowers made the ground look red. At the top of the hill, the trail flattened and arrived at the Kanaka loop. We went right which brought us up a small hill with a grove of young Coulter or Big Cone Pines (Pinus coulteri).

View through a Coulter Pine

View through a Coulter Pine

Coulter Pine  (Pinus coulteri) Cone

Coulter Pine (Pinus coulteri) Cone

Flock of Crows

Flock of Crows

The hike made me feel happy and relaxed. Some of the trees, perhaps black oaks and sycamores, had leaves that were beginning to turn yellow. A black cloud of crows twisted and morphed as they flew above the trees and meadows. An occasional raptor hovered and dived to the ground. The hills were gentle and the high pastures were golden and open. The sky was a clear and open expanse with the sun shining like a cold diamond. I thought of the romanticism of the Wild West. It wasn’t about cowboys and outlaws. It was about the open spaces and the possibilities of starting a new life, finding solitude, and following dreams. The restless west wind blew across the meadow and rustled the leaves and pine needles.

Fallen apples

Look at all those wasted apples.

At one point the trail ran along a barbed wire fence marked with no trespassing signs and threats of fines. Beyond this was the tragic site of trees with ripe red apples, fallen and scattered beneath them like dots of blood. Another couple of hikers looked longingly beyond the fence at the wasted apples, but continued on. Fortunately, there was a tree close to the fence (which, consequently, did not have bushels of wasted apples lying beneath it) which could be encouraged to drop its apples on the right side of the fence. The apples were sweet, cool, and delicious: the perfect hiking snack.

Unripe blackberries

You have to search for the ripe ones.

We finished the loop and went back down the hill. Then we discovered the blackberry bush. Most of the outside berries were dried and shriveled on the vine, but deeper inside there were some that were ripe and others still red. I couldn’t reach many, but R was able to get a few. We found another thicket and R suggested we could gather some to make jam. “I don’t think we can get enough for jam,” I said thinking about the effort it had taken to get the few we had gotten. But, I love blackberries. I used to live in the Pacific Northwest. Blackberries are much maligned, and viewed as pesky weeds. However, I used to love gathering the berries and making a pie. They were plentiful and obvious. And I love the smell of blackberries in the rain. The CA blackberries don’t have the large soft leaves like the ones in Washington. And since we were late in the season, the easy to get ones had all dried up (not been gathered, mind you, but just left in the summer sun).

Picking Blackberries

Picking Blackberries

I was up for the challenge and using sticks and R’s tripod, we managed to access the ripe, juicy berries. The more we worked, the better we got at finding them. We returned to the first patch. I began to appreciate the art of gathering blackberries: balancing on one foot to reach through holes in the thorny brambles and pick only ripe berries. Both of us got fairly scratched and had to pull tiny prickles from our skin. Eventually we had gathered enough to make a pie. I would normally be a bit hesitant to disclose the location of such a great food source, but I can’t imagine that there are a lot of people who would have the patience and drive to battle the prickles and gather a lot of blackberries. And, as we walked back to the parking lot, we passed even more bushes. It had taken us quite a while to get enough blackberries for pie, but it was worth it.

Blackberry Pie (not baked yet)

Blackberry Pie (not baked yet)

At home, I washed the berries, mixed them with some sugar, flour, and lemon juice (warning: do not hand squeeze lemons after picking blackberries, all those tiny little cuts burn with the application of lemon juice). I made a crust from whole wheat and white flour and since I didn’t have a rolling pin (or a clean bottle), poked and squished the pastry until it was flat enough to line the pie plate. It was not a pretty pie, but it tasted delicious and was intense as if the summer had been condensed into a few cups of berries.

Blackberry Pie and Ice Cream

It’s not pretty, but it tastes good.

Useful Information

Directions

To get to the Kanaka loop (East Trails) Take 78/79 N through Julian. Main Street becomes Farmer’s Road. When it intersects Wynola Road (at the Meghrini winery), turn right and then take the first left. A little more than a mile up the road, on the left side is the parking area for the trails. There are picnic tables and a port-a-potty. Bring water because there is no drinkable water at the trail head.

Shell in the waves

Shell in the waves

The border fence at Border Field State Park looks like tall jail bars half-heartedly jutting out into the Pacific as if someone had wanted to divide the ocean, but gave up. It seems pathetic next to the vast ocean and open sky.

We first visited the beach at Border Field State Park a few months ago and immediately noticed a different border fence. The bluffs were all roped off and had signs asking visitors to stay on the hard sand so as not to disturb nesting least terns and western snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus nivosus). The plovers didn’t care about the signs or roped off areas. They gathered in an area right next to where the path opened out onto the beach. Some sat in the sand. Others scampered from soft sand to the water. They are ridiculously cute birds with round bodies and skinny legs that move in a blur as they race across the beach while their bodies seem simultaneously still.

Least tern and western snowy plover protective barrier

Least tern and western snowy plover protective barrier

Western snowy plover (Charadrius nivosus nivosus)

Western snowy plover (Charadrius nivosus nivosus)

Now it is the season for baby Western snowy plovers. At the entrance we ran into a park ranger who confirmed this. “They are nesting in the northern part of the beach. We’ve put up little wooden shade structures for them.”  Then she went back to picking up trash. There have been so many cuts to the park system, a ranger is a rare site. I guess she probably has to spend her day driving to different points of the park (and perhaps others) to pick up trash, check a few things, then drive on. As we started walking towards the road, she mentioned the park might open next week since there wasn’t a flooding risk, but in the meantime there was a walk of about a mile and a half. I said we didn’t mind walking.

Tijuana from the beach

Tijuana from the beach

The trail to the beach was flat and exposed, though on the right side there were a lot of elder trees. A harrier hawk soared over the flat sparse vegetation on the left side of the path. Beyond that Tijuana rose in a hillside of blocky buildings. Next to the beach, the bullfighting ring seemed to proclaim that it was not the U.S. A lark and a few sparrows hopped about the dried, salt-coated mudflats.

We arrived at the beach, looked to our right and didn’t see a single plover where we’d seen so many before. The triangular shade shelters made from 2 small pieces of wood attached together at the top were scattered throughout the bluffs. Sand had blown up against them. I could only see darkness inside  when I looked with my binoculars.

We walked along the wet sand as the signs requested so as not to disturb any birds. We spotted only a few plovers on the bluff and beach. Occasionally a least tern would appear and fly around screeching, perhaps trying to scare us away from its non-visible nest.  Apparently, the birds didn’t like to hang out on the beach at noon (not my ideal time either).

I decided to examine the tide line, so I could at least have one post in Sage and Seaweed that is actually about seaweed.

Giant Kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera)

Giant Kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera)

There were three types of kelp washed up into the tide line, all of which were in the brown algae family of seaweed. The two I see most frequently on San Diego beaches are giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) and bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana).

Giant kelp tangle of pneumatocysts, stipe, and blades

Giant kelp tangle of pneumatocysts, stipe, and blades

Giant kelp has lots of small gas bladders (pneumatocysts) and large leaves (blades). It tends to pile up on the beaches in a tangle of stem (stipe) and blades and is very popular with flies.[i] Instead of roots, kelp has holdfasts which secure it to rocks on the seafloor. Giant kelp forms the forests of the ocean. It provides a habitat for a variety of creatures including fish, crustaceans, echinoderms (creatures like sea urchins, star fish, and sea cucumbers), mollusks, and bryozoans (tiny filter feeder organisms). [ii] The range of life extends from the holdfasts where various invertebrates live, to the blades which serve as a habitat for fish, up to the canopy where you can find sea otters and birds feeding[iii].

Bull kelp attaches itself to rocks with its holdfast which is like a land plant's roots.

Bull kelp attaches itself to rocks with its holdfast which is like a land plant’s roots.

Humans also benefit from giant kelp. Nutritionally it is a good source of iodine, potassium, and other minerals and vitamins. Due to this, it is often used as a dietary supplement.[iv] Algin is derived from kelp and is a popular emulsifier and thickener for foods, cosmetics, and other substances. [v]

During World War I, giant kelp was harvested in San Diego (and other places along the Southern Californian coast for potash and acetone. The potash was used for gunpowder and fertilizer. The acetone was also used for explosives. [vi] After WWI was over, algin became the dominant use for kelp. Kelp continued to be harvested in San Diego until 2005 when the firm Kelco closed their kelp harvesting operations. Kelp is currently being investigated as a source of biofuels and livestock feed. [vii]

Bull kelp

Bull kelp

Bull kelp consists of a long whip-like stipe and a large gas bladder at the top with blades attached like hair on a head. It is mostly used as a nutritional supplement and an herbal remedy for a variety of treatments ranging from blood purifying to weight loss. [viii]

Feather boa kelp (Egregia menziesii)

Feather boa kelp (Egregia menziesii)

A third type of kelp I saw looks like a tangle of shredded giant kelp. Since it resembles a (rather slimy) feather boa, it is called feather boa kelp (Egregia menziesii). Though it doesn’t make a very attractive sight lying in a tangle on the beach, I’ve seen several beautiful underwater pictures where the waves form it into graceful columns and arches. In Southern California the flat stipe is generally thinner than the northern species. Feather boa kelp is higher in nitrogen than other kelp, so it makes good fertilizer.[ix] It is a source of alginates and has antibiotic and anticoagulant properties. It has also been used as a “bath herb” since its nutrients are good for the skin. All you have to do is dry the “boa”  and throw it in your bath. It can be used up to 3 times.[x] A fun fact about feather boa kelp is that it is used in zoos as an enrichment toy for animals. According to Rising Tide Sea Vegetables, “bears, fish and otters flip, nibble or bat [it] around for hours.”[xi]

I’m a big fan of nori and couldn’t help but wonder if I could eat the seaweed I find. However, seaweed found on the beach is dead (and usually full of flies) so it isn’t fit for consumption (even if it were in a clean location). Edible seaweeds are best cut fresh from a living plant in areas far from urban water pollution. For an interesting description (with photos) of harvesting seaweed, check out http://www.loveseaweed.com/harvest.html.

Ocean waves breaking on the beach

Ocean waves breaking on the beach

There were not many people on the beach besides us: a few horseback riders, some pedestrians, and a border patrol officer in his vehicle. As I looked at the sparsely populated beach it occurred to me that we had actually managed to find an almost empty beach in San Diego on MEMORIAL DAY! Unfortunately, the main reason for this is that it is right next to one of the 10 most polluted beaches in California according to Heal the Bay’s 2013 report: http://www.healthebay.org/our-work/2013-beach-report-card (Tijuana River Mouth). Due to its proximity to the polluted Tijuana River mouth, the water is often closed, especially after heavy rains. It is still pretty and since we just wanted to walk and didn’t want to swim, it was fine.

The Border Patrol drives by

The Border Patrol drives by.

Useful Information

To reach Border Field Park, take I-5 South. Exit at Dairy Mart Road and follow it south. It will curve west and become Monument Road. Keep going west on Monument Road until you reach a parking lot. If the area is closed due to flooding, park in the first lot and walk about a mile to the beach. If the area is open, you can drive into the park and you won’t have to walk as far, but you will have to pay a parking fee.

Resources

Notes

[i] Kelp. (2013, May 28). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:49, May 29, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Kelp&oldid=557246204

[ii]  Macrocystis pyrifera. (2011). Seaweed Industry Association. Retrieved, June 1, 2013, from https://seaweedindustry.com/seaweed/type/macrocystis-pyrifera

[iii] ibid

[iv] Giant Bladder Kelp. Dr. William W. Bushing. Retrieved, June 1, 2013 from http://www.starthrower.org/research/kelpmisc/kelp_mp.htm

[v] ibid

[vi] ibid

[vii] Macrocystis pyrifera. (2011). Seaweed Industry Association. Retrieved, June 1, 2013, from https://seaweedindustry.com/seaweed/type/macrocystis-pyrifera

[viii] Nereocystis luetkeana. (2011). Seaweed Industry Association. Retrieved, June 1, 2013, fromhttps://seaweedindustry.com/seaweed/type/nereocystis-luetkeana

[ix] Egregia menziesii. (2011). Seaweed Industry Association. Retrieved, June 1, 2013, from https://seaweedindustry.com/seaweed/type/egregia-menziesii

[x] Outer Coast Seaweeds to Eat, Use and Color. (2006) The Aromatic News. Retrieved, June 1, 2013, from http://www.encognitive.com/files/OUTER%20COAST%20SEAWEEDS%20To%20Eat,%20To%20Use,%20TO%20COLOR_0.pdf

[xi] Zoo Sea Vegetables. Rising Tide Sea Vegetables. Retrieved, June 1, 2013, from http://www.loveseaweed.com/zooseavegetables.pdf

Cast-off cicada skin

Cicadas crawl out of the ground and leave their larval shells on branches and posts.

Even though the East Coast cicadas get all the press, we have cicadas here on the West Coast as well. They aren’t as dramatic and definitely aren’t as loud as the ones I used to hear  in Massachusetts, but they are around if you look (and listen) for them. Our first clue that they were out were their eerie cast-off larva skins still clasping a post by the East Mesa fire road trail head in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.

The heat of the city is sending us to the mountains for our weekend hikes. Even though Cuyamaca is relatively close, we  haven’t done a lot of hiking there. Part of this was because I had marked it off my hiking list because it was so damaged by the Cedar Fire in 2003. But that was 10 years ago and nature heals surprisingly fast. Last week we patched a loop together from the East Mesa fire road trail head using the South Boundary Fire Road, Blue Ribbon Trail, Merigan Fire Road,  and the Sweetwater Trail. We liked it so much, we decided to do it again this weekend.

Western king bird (Tyrannus verticalis)

Western king bird (Tyrannus verticalis)

We started climbing a small hill which took us away from the highway. A couple of phainopeplas harassed a jay. Phainopeplas, with their round red eyes, always look a little crazed to me. We spotted a Western kingbird or two as well. The trail wound around to the west side of the mountain revealing a view into a green valley. I told Rowshan it was my favorite part of the trail. “I was just going to say that,” he replied. Various hairstreak and blue butterflies fluttered around the buckwheat, which was in bloom. Black-crowned sparrows perched at the top of trees, singing to each other from across the valley. I felt like I was in the sky.

View into the valley

View into the valley

Square-spotted blue (Euphilotes battoides)

Square-spotted blue (Euphilotes battoides)

Spring azure (Celastrina ladon)

Spring azure (Celastrina ladon)

Lupine blue (Plebejus lupinus)

Lupine blue (Plebejus lupinus)

Hedgerow hairstreak (Satyrium saepium)

Hedgerow hairstreak (Satyrium saepium)

Western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana)

Western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana)

Even in just a week, the environment had changed. Last week saw several Western Tanagers with their bright orange and yellow plumage. This week we didn’t see a single one. Last week we didn’t hear any cicadas, or if we did, they weren’t loud enough to draw our attention to them. Now they were out in force.

Ceanothus berries

Ceanothus berries

The Blue Ribbon Trail is hot and exposed. It is in a chaparral area with lots of chamise, buckwheat, ceanothus, and low growing live oak trees. A couple months ago, the ceanothus would have been full of flowers, but now they were full of berries.

Cicada (Platypedia barbata)

Cicada (Platypedia barbata)

There is a certain cicada out now that rather than humming, makes a clicking noise, like the popping of wood in a fire. The first time I heard it, I thought it was the wood cracking, due to something like the hot sun on wood still cold from the night, but it was too pervasive. As we hiked the Blue Ribbon Falls trail, the chamise and oak shrubs were full of the clicking. A closer look revealed nothing. The sound would stop. Finally, I caught a glimpse of one of the perpetrators who flew across the trail to another bush in a clatter of wings. It was a cicada, dark brown with a little red on its wings. It made a couple clicking noises before noticing me and reverting to silence. I showed the cicada to Rowshan and he switched his camera to video hoping to film the cicada chirping. However, the cicada didn’t care for a human audience and was silent.

Cicada identification is rather overwhelming (at least for a novice), however after wading through vast amounts of online cicada information, I think it is Platypedia barbata whose identifying features include being small (for a cicada), making clicking noises, and having a hairy face. All around us in other bushes, the clicking continued, but the insects themselves were hard to find. It seemed like the branches should have been swarming with them. I managed to spot a few more, mostly because they were flying between branches, as well as some of their cast-off skins.

We followed the Blue Ribbon Trail down the hillside until it met with a muddy stream area. Blues, swallowtails and a skipper fluttered around the stream alighting on the dark mud, dotting it with color. The trail met up with the Merigan Fire Road which once again climbed up a hill. The soil here was soft and dusty. Clouds of the fine gray soil colored my socks, pants, and legs brown. “It’s like ash!” I told Rowshan, only then realizing it probably was ash from the Cedar Fire.

Burnt oak with new growth sprouting from its burnt trunk and branches

Burnt oak with new growth sprouting from its burnt trunk and branches

Aside from the ashy soil, there were plenty of other signs of the fire. In the chaparral area, twisted branches rose from otherwise healthy-looking shrubs. New branches and leaves sprouted from burnt old growth oak trunks, a poster child for nature’s resilience. The fire road arrived at a crossroads.

View from the Sweetwater Trail

View from the Sweetwater Trail

We took the Sweetwater Trail, looking forward to the part that progressed along the Sweetwater “river” in the shade of the valley. First the trail climbed to overlook a rocky area where there is supposedly a waterfall (though we couldn’t see anything.) Rowshan was walking ahead of me and suddenly jumped back. I heard the rushing whir of a rattlesnake and saw it slide into the bushes a few feet from the path. It threatened us for a bit with its rattle, but ceased as soon as we walked by and it saw we weren’t going to come after it. We looked for a path to the waterfall, but couldn’t find one. We could hear a rush of water, though not one that suggested a waterfall of any size. The trail moved back down into the canyon becoming a narrow trail with small flowers, mugwort and lupine growing along it. Patches of wild roses were beginning to show their delicate pink flowers.

Indian pink (Silene laciniata)

Indian pink (Silene laciniata)

Summer snow (Leptosiphon floribundus ssp. glaber)

Summer snow (Leptosiphon floribundus ssp. glaber)

Wine-cup clarkia (Clarkia purpurea ssp quadrivulnera)

Wine-cup clarkia (Clarkia purpurea ssp quadrivulnera)

Coast baby star (Leptosiphon parviflorus)

Coast baby star (Leptosiphon parviflorus)

Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi)

Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi)

Soon we were at another crossroads. One part led to a place where the stream crossed it creating a muddy area favored by bees. The other passed under a large Jeffrey pine which looked strangely out of place among the oaks. This part of the trail crossed through a shady oak grove. The calls of birds created a collage of sound. We glimpsed some jays, woodpeckers and hummingbirds, but none of the tanagers.

Back up another hill, we crossed the Blue Ribbon trail turnoff. There was a loud rattling sound in the bushes. “Rattlesnake!?” Rowshan asked. “No, it’s another cicada,” There are some cicadas that sounds like rattlesnakes. I suppose it would have been hard for me to tell the difference if we hadn’t just heard a rattler.  As we reached my favorite part of the path, we checked the buckwheat bushes for butterflies and watched a falcon swoop across the canyon. We took a last look at the valley before turning the corner and heading downhill back to the car.

While driving back to I-8, Rowshan spotted a nest with 3 hawks. He pulled over and we walked back up the road to get a better look at a red-tailed hawk and her 2 chicks. They warily watched Rowshan from above, 3 heads following his movements as one.

Red-tailed hawk family

Red-tailed hawk family

Useful Information
To get to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, take I-8. Exit at Japatul Valley Road/79 and go north. Look for the trail head turn out for East Mesa which is the 2nd turn out on the right. You can park for free in the turnouts, but need to pay a day use fee if you want to park in a picnic area/campground. Cross the street to get to the South Boundary Fire Road.

Ticks! Yuck!

Ticks freak me out. They make me act like one of those prissy female characters in movies who have never walked on dirt but are forced out into a jungle wearing white and high heels. I jump up and down and scream “Help!!! Help!!! Get it off me!!!!” Rowshan and I both got ticks on us in Nepal. Mine swelled up and turned blue to camouflage itself on my tattoo. Rowshan still has an irritating scar on his shoulder because we ripped a piece of flesh out because we were worried the tick’s head would stay in. Fortunately the ticks in Chitwan, Nepal don’t carry diseases. At least, that’s what everyone told us. Please do not inform me if you know otherwise. I really don’t want to think about it. Ticks in other places do carry diseases—amazing, terrifying, and sometimes incurable diseases that can make your brain swell, cause paralysis, and do bunches of other nasty things. The reason I’m writing this is that if you like the outdoors, it is important to know your enemy. Outside magazine has an excellent article about ticks, The Rise of the Tick  by Carl Zimmer. It has a lot of interesting information about ticks and it gave me another reason to like opossums.

Their immune systems kill off the pathogens that carry Lyme far more effectively than other species’ do, and they carefully groom their skin and devour any ticks they come across. A single opossum may kill 5,000 ticks every week.1

Opossums are awesome little tick destroyers.

Opossums are awesome little tick destroyers.


Notes

1. Zimmer, Carl. “The Rise of the Tick” Outside 30 Apr. 2013.

Fabulous Fabaceae

Wild pea (Lathyrus vestitus)

Wild pea (Lathyrus vestitus)

Spring in San Diego is the time for fabulous fabaceae flowers. I was looking forward to writing about the pea family because there are so many pretty flowers to illustrate it with. They are blooming like crazy. The banks of Lake Hodges are covered with white and yellow sweet clover. Purple spears of lupines have shot up along the highway and hot pink wild pea flowers dangle from chaparral trees.

Pea flowers are very easy to identify. They have 5 petals: one big one at the top that makes a sail (called a banner), 2 to the side that  are called the wings, and 2 that are fused together to make the keel.[1] Basically, the pea flower looks like a magic flying boat. The flower sizes range from large wild pea (Lathyrus vestitus var. alefeldii) flowers to the many tiny flowers that make the clover head’s “petals.” Their leaves are often pinnate which means they are made up of 2 opposing rows of leaves, though lupine leaves have a very recognizable palmate form where the leaves radiate from a central point. Another notable feature is their pea pods.

Coast locoweed - Astragalus trichopodus Var. lonchus

Many plants in the pea family including this coast locoweed (Astragalus trichopodus var. lonchus) have pinate leaves.

leaves of what is probably of a silver bush lupine (Lupinus albifrons)

Lupines are pretty even when they aren’t in bloom. These palmate leaves are probably of a silver bush lupine (Lupinus albifrons)

Bajada lupine (Lupinus concinnus) pea pods

Bajada lupine (Lupinus concinnus) pea pods radiate from a central stem.

Fabaceae makes up the 3rd largest land plant family behind Orchidaceae and Asteracea. The name comes from the Latin Faba which means beans[2] (think of the redundant fava beans).

Coast locoweed (Astragalus trichopodus Var. lonchus)

Coast locoweed (Astragalus trichopodus Var. lonchus)

The first local pea I noticed last year was Astragalus trichopodus var. lonchus. It has funny bulbous pea pods. I was really excited when I looked it up because I had just learned that Astragalus is an excellent immune system builder in Asian medicine. In a perfect example of knowing just enough knowledge to be dangerous, I didn’t realize at the time that there were about 3000 different species of astragalus plants[3]. A bit of research quickly revealed that many of the American astragalus plants contain toxins. Astragalus trichopodus has the common name of coast locoweed. Some locoweeds produce a toxin called swainsonine which poisons livestock. Others are poisonous because they accumulate selenium.[4] Another astragulus plant in San Diego is the Parish milkvetch (Astragalus douglasii).

Parish milkvetch (Astragalus douglasii)

Parish milkvetch (Astragalus douglasii)

When I think of lupines, I think of gorgeous photos of snow-capped Mt. Ranier, a bright blue sky, and meadows of purple lupines. (Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of it.). Lupines can be recognized even when they are not in bloom by their palmate leaves. There are several lupines in San Diego. We found miniature lupines (Lupinus bicolor), Bajada lupines  (Lupinus concinnus) and stinging lupines (Lupinus hirsutissimus).

Miniature lupines (Lupinus bicolor) are suitably named.

Miniature lupines (Lupinus bicolor) are suitably named.

Bajada lupine (Lupinus concinnus)

Bajada lupine (Lupinus concinnus)

Bajada lupine (Lupinus concinnus)

Bajada lupine (Lupinus concinnus)

Stinging lupine (Lupinus hirsutissimus)

Stinging lupine (Lupinus hirsutissimus)

Certain types of lupines have edible beans (or rather edible after processing). They were eaten in ancient Rome, but they seem to be making a comeback. One web site that called them “miracle beans” and listed various conditions they purportedly helped with.[5] According to www.lupini.us, they are second to only soy beans as a great source of protein for vegetarians and contain “the full range of amino acids.”[6] However, since the beans contain toxic amounts of alkaloids they need to be specially processed.

Of course, there are peas, beans, and peanuts in the Fabaceae family, but I didn’t find any growing in the wild, or in my garden since I didn’t plant them this year.

There are fabaceae trees as well. I couldn’t help but notice an Acacia saligna—Willow Acacia next to the World Beat Center ethnobotanical garden. I’ve seen them from a distance in other places as well. I glanced at it without realizing it was a fabaceae since its pom-pom flowers didn’t look pea-like at all. It is an invasive plant, as is the cyclops acacia which I found in the Tijuana River area. Both came from Australia. There is also the western cowboy BBQ evoking mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa var. torreyana) The beautiful smoke tree (Psorothamnus spinosus)  and indigo bush (Psorothamnus schotti) are both found in the desert and have beautiful purple flowers.

Cyclops acacia (Acacia cyclops) is from Australia

The cyclops acacia (Acacia cyclops) is from Australia

A mesquite tree planted in the Salton Sea area. I think it is Prosopis glandulosa var. torreyana.

A mesquite tree planted in the Salton Sea area. I think it is Prosopis glandulosa var. torreyana.

The indigo bush (Psorothamnus schottii) grows in the desert.

The indigo bush (Psorothamnus schottii) grows in the desert.

Clovers are secret Fabaceae plants. Their clover flowers are not actual flowers but rather bunches of tiny flowers. Sometimes they are so small it is hard to tell they are individual flowers rather than petals. Red clover has been used for a variety of health purposes including as an expectorant, for skin problems, as an anti-inflamatory and even as a cancer treatment. In other places I’ve lived there was red clover all over the place. Here I could only find some sad white clover in park lawns.

The main native clover species here is the sweet clover. Instead of round heads of tiny clover flowers, the flowers grow on a stalk. This flower has been used by Native Americans for colds, a bed bug repellant, for pimples,  and for sunburn. [7] White sweetclover (Meliltus alba), Indian sweetclover (M. indicus), and yellow sweet clover (M.officinalis) can all be found in the San Diego area. Caution must be taken with clovers because they contain coumarins which are the natural compound that the blood thinner coumadin was based on. If the clover becomes moldy, the coumarin can convert to dicoumaraol which can lead to internal bleeding.[8]

White sweetclover (Melilotus alba) near the Santa Margarita River, Temecula, CA

White sweetclover (Melilotus alba) near the Santa Margarita River, Temecula, CA

Indian sweet clover (Melilotus indicus) has very tiny flowers.

Indian sweetclover (Melilotus indicus) has very tiny flowers.

White and yellow sweet clover (Melilotus alba and officinalis) next to Lake Hodges.

White and yellow sweetclover (Melilotus alba and officinalis) next to Lake Hodges.

Pea plants play an important role in the ecosystem. They are nitrogen fixers. This means they have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria that live in nodules on their rots systems and create nitrogen compounds which are used by the plant. When the plant dies this nitrogen is released into the soil and other plants can use it.[9] This mad rush of pea plant blooms which makes the landscape a rainbow, fades and dies and then helps other plants grow. So, even though many of these plants are toxic to humans and animals, they still are important for the world. Perhaps their toxicity keeps them in the ground so they can flower and then go back to the soil and help the other plants.

Winter vetch (Vicia villosa)

Winter vetch (Vicia villosa) grows like crazy.

Winter vetch (Vicia villosa)

Winter vetch (Vicia villosa) covers areas of Los Penasquitos canyon.

Fabaceaes seem to range from important food staple to important medicine to poisonous. It seems that even though they are plentiful, I probably won’t be harvesting any for personal use or casually nibbling any on the trail. I’ll leave that to the experts. However, enjoying the flowers is always safe.

Desert lotus (Acmispon rigidus)

Desert lotus (Acmispon rigidus)


References

[1] Elpel, T. J. Botany in a day, the patterns method of plant identification. Hops Press, LLC, 2004. Print.

[2] Wikipedia contributors. “Fabaceae.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 10 Mar. 2013. Web. 3 Apr. 2013.

[3] Wikipedia contributors. “Astragalus.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 26 Mar. 2013. Web. 3 Apr. 2013.

[4] Wikipedia contributors. “Locoweed.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 7 Mar. 2013. Web. 3 Apr. 2013.

[8] Wikipedia contributors. “Melilotus officinalis.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 21 Feb. 2013. Web. 3 Apr. 2013.

[9] Wikipedia contributors. “Nitrogen fixation.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 27 Mar. 2013. Web. 3 Apr. 2013.

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