Sunday, December 22, 2013

Winter, Redwood Creek

* * *

I made a detour on the way to Redwood Creek to photograph the sunrise from the tourist turn-out, just downhill from where the guy who sells nuts out of the back of his pick-up truck can be found on many weekends. There are usually numerous cars pulled out in the vicinity because the view is so nice, and it's where you first get a high viewpoint after driving up from Tam Junction. Anyway, I shot numerous frames at various f-stops, both vertically and horizontally, and the lens flare problem seems to be adequately resolved. Looks like I just needed to clean a bit of schmutz off my lens. Let that be a lesson to me: it's not always about sensor dust.

I've been wanting to photograph Redwood Creek from Muir Beach to Muir Woods, sort of following along the winter-run salmon route, but there isn't enough water for a salmon run, and Muir Beach has been closed for months (and the re-opening date, currently December 28, keeps getting bumped further out). I made my first stop just downstream of Muir Woods, at this bridge where the graffiti has been carved out of the mossy abutment.

The scenery along Redwood Creek is so different from anywhere else on Mt. Tam. Down here it's almost flat. What little water remains in the creek is barely moving. In a normal rain year, the creek moves along briskly, and the salmon really do swim upstream to spawn. One year I watched salmon leaping from the creek up and into a metal culvert, out the other end, and onward to the redds at the far end of Muir Woods.

It was fun to quietly amble around in the creek bed to look for compositions in the chaotic tangle of woodland.

I almost forgot to mention, the main reason I came back up to the mountain so soon was to set the camera trap in a new location. After I got the SD card home yesterday and saw what I'd gotten, I didn't want to leave the camera in that spot for another week. I found what I hope will be a much more interesting spot.

It was chilly down there in the bottomland.

The tree species of the day: Red Alder.

I've always loved the alders along Redwood Creek, but I haven't photographed them more than a couple of times.

This morning I made up for lost time.

Alders are able to fix atmospheric nitrogen, enriching the soil.

I was impressed by all the lichens covering many of their trunks.

As the sun rose over the southern ridges, gusts of warm air blew away some of the cold.

A little bit fall color was still in evidence, thanks to creek dogwood.

I wish I'd spent more time photographing around the north-side reservoirs this fall, and also down here along the creek. There's lots more color to be had than I recalled.

I sort of bunny-hopped my way down the creek. I'd drive to a turn-out, investigate the creek, then head back to the Jeep and move downstream to the next spot.

I'm sure alders aren't for everyone, but I think they're a fine-looking tree, even without their leaves.

Here's a bay laurel with lots of old man's beard lichen hanging from its branches.

Back down to the creek, with more alder along the banks, and nothing but alder leaves floating downstream.

Would you believe it?! I saw these tiny white things down by my feet and thought they were litter, then maybe some kind of moth, then, after squinting real hard, I finally saw they were wildflowers. I'd never photographed spiderwort on Mt. Tam before. I was familiar with the genus from learning it in Florida when I was staying with my parents out near the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge for a few months many years ago. Anyway, this species is native to South America and is an escaped ornamental here. Its other common name is "Wandering Jew," a name with an interesting history. I liked this writer's take on it:

"Any botanist will tell you that the 'Wandering Jew' is a unique species of plant which - when given minimal sustenance - will nevertheless spread and grow. Similarly, if you cut out its roots and plant it in other soil, it will regenerate itself and start anew.

"This plant's nomenclature is, of course, a comment on the Jewish People's ability to adapt to varied environments and conditions. 'Wandering' is what Jewish history has been all about. The Patriarchs and Matriarchs were nomads. The Jewish nation itself was forged in Egypt and while wandering through the Sinai desert - the only nation ever to establish its identity while wandering outside its homeland. And for the past 2000 years we have been wandering the world."

I wanted to hike up into that fern-filled hillside, but there was no immediately apparent way to get there -- no deer trail or gently sloping section of embankment. I know I've been up in there before, many years ago, but I didn't have the will to do the scrambling this morning. I was interested in some blue ribbon markers dangling from branches up in there. There are lots of ribbon markers along the creek because it's a rare salmon stream that runs through a state park and connects two national park units. I've seen biologists wading through the stream to count salmon in other years and I figure there are various studies going on all the time. But as to what those ribbons higher up the slope are about, I have only curiosity.

I walked right by this buck deer carcass, first noticing that the area was quite trampled and apparently rooted up. As I reached around for my eyeglasses to see if the tracks in the sand belonged to feral pigs, I spotted the buck's remains. I wouldn't be surprised if it's been there no more than a week. A windfall feast like that gets devoured quickly. Not only were all the meat and flesh gone, but the legs as well. It's always a powerful and contemplative moment to discover an animal's remains, even more so when the animal is a full-grown buck.

* * *

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Solstice Sunrise

* * *

I went back to East Peak to re-shoot the sunrise that I had problems with last week and ended up with the same lens flare problems all over again. I'd blamed the graduated neutral density filters, but the flare occurred even when I didn't use them. Curious. It only happened with the 16-35mm. The photo above was made with a 50mm. 

After another lucky morning of the ranger opening the Pantoll gate a few minutes early, I drove up to the empty parking lot at the end of the road and once again hiked up to the base of the fire look-out where I was surprised to find a group of young photographers who'd hiked up from Mountain Home Inn.

I guess a couple other photographers drove up, but I never saw them. Only one of the two cars was still in the lot when I got back to the Jeep. I caught up to the second car a short ways down the mountain. It was upside-down along the side of the road. No one was hurt, and the same ranger who'd opened the gate earlier was already on the scene. That's only the second auto accident I've seen on Mt. Tam, and the other one was also a rollover. In neither accident was it immediately apparent how they could have lost it so badly.

As I continued down the hill I was passed by a fire engine heading up toward the accident, and then below Rock Spring I encountered a group of dancing turkeys.

A couple of Sheriff's patrol cars also passed by, and finally a CHP cruiser. I kept expecting a tow truck but got all the way down the hill without seeing one. The fire engine didn't stay long, and they startled the turkeys as they came back down and around a bend. The females fluttered down the hill, and the males in this photo are calling to them to come back up to the dancing grounds.

Despite the poor showing of rainfall this year, the hills are starting to green up, and I saw another coyote while I was scanning the terrain for bobcats. When I saw the turkeys doing their mating display -- another sign of the season -- I felt like things might not be great on the mountain, but life is going on.

In addition to fanning their tail feathers, the toms' displays also include brushing the ground with their wings as they strut forward, and sometimes they utter a deep thumping sound, or boom, at the end of the strut. Meanwhile, the hens move about and forage, pretending to disdain the toms, but you know they're taking note of who the cutest gobblers are.

* * *

Redwood Creek Cam

* * *

Being close to Redwood Creek, I figured this would be a promising location for a new set, but I once again had the camera too close to the trail to catch a passing coyote. Even after all these weeks, I still don't have a very good feel for what kind of coverage I'm going to get with the camera. I'd thought it was pointing more toward the left side of the frame with an angle right up the game trail.

The animals who passed by the camera were all quite taken with it and did lots of selfies.

This young buck almost turned around rather than risk walking past the camera. I'll have to take a picture of the set when I go back for it next time. It probably looks a little like a small animal.

Another day, another coyote (I presume). Actually I think it's a fox since it's so small. I put a new SD card in the camera but left it in the same spot. I did alter the angle a little bit, but I'll bet it's still pointing too high and too far to the right. I might go back tomorrow and make some adjustments. I was again very surprised to catch a hiker, a guy with no pack of any kind who went up but didn't come back down.

* * *

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Are We Parched Yet?

* * *

We've had less rain this year than in any other year since we started keeping records back during the Gold Rush. I'm bothered by this for selfish reasons. Without rain to refresh all that expectant mycelia out there, the mushroom season is off to a poor start. Without a good crop of fungi (or "winter wildflowers"), I can't imagine where the Circumannuation of Mt. Tam will go from here. Walking around the mountain as the winter solstice approaches looks much the same as when I walked around the mountain back at the fall equinox.

Maybe worse. Back in the fall, the hillsides of recently dried grass still had a kind of life to them. Now, the same hillsides look increasingly hammered, and without the hopeful intimations of green beginning to tint the hills with signs of renewal. If the mushroom season passes without a flush of fungi, I worry that spring will arrive without bouquets of wildflowers.

It seemed like we didn't have much rain last year either, but the green hills still bloomed with beautiful patches of sky lupine in late March. That gave me some hope until I saw that we had more rain last December than we've had so far in all of 2013.

As we continue to pump heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere in ever-increasing amounts, I can't help wondering if this year is the "tipping point" that some scientists talk about -- the point where climate changes accelerate beyond of any hope of control. I'm hopeful, however, that it isn't! I'm hopeful that we're just having a dry year not terribly unlike other dry years to which Natural California in general, and Mt. Tam in particular, are well-adapted.

One of the things that keeps me hopeful about adaptation is the comeback of the Pacific chorus frogs at the Lily Pond. Back around 2006 or so we had three relatively dry years in a row, and the Lily Pond dried up. I remember being surprised to walk down there expecting to hear the alarm squeaks of bullfrogs before they dove for cover in the pond, only to find the pond dry and hearing no squeaks at all. 

It wasn't until I returned the following year, and still heard no bullfrog squeaks, that I learned an interesting thing about drought. Although the non-native bullfrogs had been wiped out, the native chorus frogs were out in greater numbers than I'd seen them before. Bullfrogs eat chorus frogs. The native frogs' best defense was the home-field advantage of being adapted to an environment that experiences occasional drought.

So as I contemplate the hammered hillsides of non-native grasses on Bolinas Ridge, I wonder if there's going to be any home-field advantage for native bunchgrasses like purple needlegrass (the official state grass). Maybe even the non-native brooms will also be swept away by a native climate, and the original California gold -- Eschscholzia californica -- will dazzle us with the fabulous abundance that greeted Sir Francis Drake more than 400 years ago.

Hey, I can dream, can't I? I just hope that if a time like that does appear again, it doesn't happen on the way to a future that's too dry even for the natives. 

* * *

Saturday, December 14, 2013

East Peak

* * *

Until today I had never hiked around East Peak. I've always considered East Peak to be more of a tourist destination than an interesting hiking location, and it costs $8 to park there. It seemed like it would be a good place to catch the sunrise, though, so in the interest of exploration I drove on up. The ranger who opened the gate down at Pantoll was gracious enough to be early and to let me head on up before she even had both sides of the gate open. I was the first to arrive at the peak, but I was soon joined by another sunrise photographer who asked me if we were on the right trail (which wound clockwise around the peak, so we had to take it on faith). I said, "I don't know. I've never been here before!" Having been a fan of Mt. Tam for around 20 years, I could hardly believe it myself.

Here's an example of how not to take a good sunrise picture. It was kind of a precarious spot, so I paid more attention to the tripod's footing as well as my own than to thinking things through. I knew the graduated neutral density filters were going to flare out, but I used them anyway, hoping that luck would overcome physics. As usual, it did not.

I was surprised to hear some other people nearby, and was quickly able to spot them on a promontory below me. They must have hiked up from below, well before sunrise.

It's the seventh Spare the Air Day in a row, which I believe one of the weather guys said is a record (and we're not done yet). We've also had record cold temperatures this month and might experience record high temperatures before the month is out. More ominously, we are also wrapping up the driest calendar year since rainfall record-keeping began in 1849.

The Fire Lookout is perched on the very peak, elevation 2,571 feet.

The Gravity Car Barn is open on weekends beginning at noon. 

The Verna Dunshee Trail circumnavigates the peak and offers tremendous views north. Even on a Spare the Air Day I could see Tomales Bay, Black Mountain, Nicasio Reservoir and, of course, 4,342-foot-high Mt. Saint Helena. 

I'm pretty sure you could catch the sunrise and be out of there without getting cited, but I wasn't taking any chances on my first visit. Besides, it's worth eight bucks to be up there.

From East Peak I headed down the hill to pick up the trail camera and was surprised to see a blanket of fog coming down over Bolinas instead of moving in from the ocean.

At the very bottom of the Steep Ravine Trail where it meets Highway 1, I found my first waterfall of the season.... Yes, it's only about a foot tall, but it was refreshing to hear moving water for a change. Maybe it'll start raining next month....

* * *

Upper Mountain Blues

* * *

Once again I had the camera pointing too high. Drat! I'd have to guess this is the same fox I was catching in the other nearby trap. He was looking right at the camera in the first frame, which I  could only deduce from the position of the tips of his ears in the frame. Another sort-of bummer is I caught hikers again! I was truly surprised to see them -- three of them on Sunday afternoon, and it was 28 degrees in the forest shade. Were they mushroom-hunting? They walked right past the camera but did not appear to spot it.

This big buck was the only deer I caught all week.

When I arrived, I noticed that the camera had been knocked askew. Whatever brushed up against it made the camera think it was nighttime, despite it being Thursday afternoon, by completely covering the lens.

Four minutes later, the culprit stuck his fanny in the frame.

I could have left the camera in this location another week, but it seemed pretty dead up there. All the grass on the hillsides is still the color of late summer, with hardly a hint of green. So I decided to pull the camera and take it to a new location much farther down the mountain, down along Redwood Creek.

* * *

Monday, December 9, 2013

Gravity's Sunrise

* * *

With apologies to Thomas Pynchon, I couldn't resist the title for this post. (Coincidentally, I just picked up Bleeding Edge from the library on Saturday.) Despite a weird weekend sleep schedule, I managed to roll out of bed just after 5 a.m. to make the trip up to Mt. Tam in time for sunrise. I brought my mountain bike (a Gary Fisher Hoo-Koo-Ee-Koo, named for a trail very near my morning destination) so I could ride out along the Gravity Car Grade (beginning in 1896 a train took tourists and hikers from Mill Valley to a tavern on Tam's summit, where you could have a filet mignon dinner for $1.35, then spend the night; more on the Gravity Car).

The temperature was a bracing 29 degrees as I biked out in the dark, the path lit only by my small hiker's headlamp (which needs new batteries!). I wasn't exactly sure where I would find a vista point, and I chose to move on after checking out a couple of possibilities, finally ending up at what turned out to be the best spot along the route. Once I was done shooting I continued riding down the trail just to check it out and soon came to the Double Bowknot where the grade began to descend.

Although I'd barely noticed that the trail out was uphill, I enjoyed coasting most of the way back. I'd thought about trying to get up to East Peak, but I aborted before I got there since the sun had gotten so high already. The detour wasn't a total loss: I was happy to see little patches of snow along the road.

I parked at Rock Spring and mosied down the Cataract Trail to look for ice. I'd seen an icy puddle in the Mountain Theater parking lot, and now I wanted to find a more natural patch of ice to photograph.

Cataract Creek was finally running. Hopefully the rain we had the other day will be the first of more to come. There was no ice in the moving water, though, so I explored a frosty area where the Giant Chain Ferns grow.

I checked my thermometer and was excited to see that it was really as cold as it felt, just under 28 degrees. As I was poking around in all the frosty goodness I managed to brush some stinging nettle along the inside of my right wrist, and the affected area remains tingly even now, hours later.

Speaking of the thermometer, I recently added an "Information Kiosk" to the sidebar of the blog where you can waste some time checking out my camera bag and a minor bloviation about why I'm doing this blog.

Not all the giant chain fern fronds were dead. Note the "chains" of reproductive structures along the leaves.

I met up with a coyote once again this morning but didn't try to photograph him. He was coming up the trail just as I was going down, and we met near the big water tank where he detoured into the woods. I continued down the trail, only to turn around at one point and see the coyote following behind me. Once spotted, he veered off the trail again and that was the last I saw of him.

I finally found some actual ice, a patch no bigger than the palm of my hand, but interesting nevertheless.

I eventually circled back to the Jeep and drove out along Bolinas Ridge after placing the trail camera in a new location. I saw very little wildlife other than a pair of kestrels that were hunting on the east side of the ridge since the wind was blowing offshore. I parked where the grassland abruptly becomes forest and hiked a ways along the no-name trail that runs west from there. Is that part of the Coastal/Bay Ridge Trail? I'll have to follow it farther one of these days.

This time I got as far as a manzanita patch, where a hummingbird tipped me off to the surprising fact that one of the two manzanita species in the area was already in flower (the one with relatively smaller leaves and tiny flowers). I'd brought my camera bag along in the hope of finding fungi, but the fungi weren't fruiting yet, so I was glad to find some interesting lichen-adorned manzanita branches.

* * *