Monday, January 20, 2014

Of Fire & FAT

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After getting turned back on Saturday by the Bolinas Fire, I wasn't sure I'd get back up to Mt. Tam this week. I had a dentist appointment at 2 o'clock today in the Financial District (no, I did not know six months ago that my appointment was on a holiday!), and I'd made a plan last week to take in a movie before heading down there, with a little downtown shopping to follow. I even stayed in bed a little longer than usual this morning. But resistance was futile. The mountain beckoned.

I didn't know if I'd be able to find the one-acre fire area, and if I'd waited until next week I probably would have driven right past it. All I had to do today was follow the yellow-tint hose. Fire crews will probably take the hose back out in a day or two, once they're confident the fire is completely out. As I hiked up to the small stand of scorched redwoods I was surprised how close I had to get before I could smell where the fire had been.

I hadn't been out around the north side of Mt. Tam in quite a while, and I wanted to drop by Lily Lake to see how the drought was going down there. I was surprised to see the pond's still there.

In addition to checking up on the pond itself, I figured the Fetid Adder's Tongues might be in bloom. As I descended the trail toward the pond, I sniffed the air for the telltale aroma of these little blossoms. It's not a sweet smell. Although FATs are members of the lily family, their scent is rather more pugnacious than the dainty pedigree might imply. The smell is most reminiscent to me of . . . a dirty aquarium. You know that smell of walking into a pet store that sells fish? Yeah, that smell.

What they lack in olfactory delight, they make up for in visual beauty.

Still plenty of water, with an encroaching layer of duckweed.

Along with fetid adder's tongue, another early-season plant is cleavers, also known as bedstraw. Other diminutive edibles in the neighborhood included chickweed and miner's lettuce.

The main reason I wanted to check out the north side of the mountain along Fairfax-Bolinas Road was to get a closer look at Alpine Lake. I'd read that the water district is pumping water out of Phoenix Lake because of the drought and was curious to see how much the water level has dropped at Alpine Lake.

It's down quite a bit, but it didn't appear especially freaky until. . .

. . .until I saw where Cataract Creek empties into Alpine Lake. Even in summer, the lake usually disappears from view in the background. I don't have photos to back up my memory, but this has got to be about as low a lake level as I've seen here. With any luck, the next time I'm out on the north side it will be impossible to stand where I am in this frame.

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Fire on the Mountain

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I headed out to the north side of Mt. Tam this morning to check out a couple of places, only to find the road closed at the Azalea Hill parking area across from Pine Mountain Road. It wasn't closed for the red flag fire danger, but for an actual fire that had burned a small area the night before. 

I found a couple of news reports about the fire online at Marin IJ and KTVU. It was around 8:20 when I arrived, and it seemed like there was a chance they'd re-open the road at 9 a.m., so I hiked up Azalea Hill and kept my eyes peeled for bobcats while I waited. 

No such luck, though. No bobcats, no open road. I finally hiked back down and headed home with the photo above being my only shot of the day.

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Monday, January 13, 2014

Winter Sunrise

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I got out of bed sort of lazily around 6 a.m., thinking I had plenty of time. I even fried up an egg for breakfast before I hit the road. I really didn't know what kind of sunrise to expect, but by the time I reached Panoramic Highway I could tell it was going to be a good 'un.

I stepped on the gas a little more heavily to make better time, all the while telling myself not to worry about it. Que sera, sera. There wasn't much traffic, but there was one other car in front of me. "If you catch up to some slowpoke, don't worry," I told myself. "Just take it as it comes." I was glad when I caught up to the car to see that it was a Mustang, and the driver was making good time. 

The sunrise was developing into a Holy Cow blaze of color, and on the way up to Rock Spring the Mustang turned out in the first parking area, the one near the upper right side of the frame in the first picture above. I swooped past him to continue to my favorite spot where I tried to play it cool as I fired off a few frames on one of the hottest sunrises I've been lucky enough to see up there.

I had kind of a crazy schedule planned for the day: catch the sunrise from high on Mt. Tam, then head down the mountain to reacquaint myself with the Muir Beach Overlook (at a surreal angle) on the way still farther down to Redwood Creek to pick up the trail camera. From there I was even thinking about doubling back and going to the other side of the mountain to photograph Alpine Lake, which must be very low right now (and the half-hearted "rain" we just had isn't going to help a bit).

Unless you climb past the fence (and the signs which prohibit you from doing so), you can't really see Muir Beach from the Muir Beach Overlook. Viewing the beach from on high doesn't seem to be the point anyway, as the general vista both up and down the coast is excellent.

After continuing down the mountain from the overlook I parked next to Redwood Creek under my favorite California buckeye whose every branch was draped with "old man's beard" lichen.

After picking up the trail camera down by the deer carcass I made a determined effort to climb the north-facing hill above the creek to get in among the giant, prehistoric-looking ferns. I also wanted to have a closer look at the mysterious pink ribbons that had been tied off on branches. They appeared to mark a route through the forest. Maybe a new trail is being planned.

The thin bright line in the bottom third of the frame is Redwood Creek.

Most of the creek is quite shallow, the sandy bottom just inches below the surface. But every now and then there's a deeper pool. In one misplaced step near one such pool I soaked my left leg up to my knee.  

I used to see crayfish, a non-native species, in this creek, but I haven't seen any since it flooded in a very big way 10 years ago or so.

Which sort of reminds me of a threat to species and the places they call home. An email group I subscribe to that shares information on wildflower, fall color, bird migration and similar kinds of locations has gone through a lot of soul-searching in the wake of having some of those locations trampled after being shared with the internet group. Another local photographer I know stopped blogging for fear of sharing information that could lead to stressed animals. 

But what really surprised me was reading an article in the Jan. 6, 2014 issue of The New Yorker that foreshadowed these problems of the internet age. The article was about the now-extinct passenger pigeon, a bird that once numbered in the billions: 

"As long as America was rural and untraversed by railroads, the killing did not seem to do much more than dent the vast pigeon populations. After the Civil War, however, things began to change rapidly. You could find out by telegraph where pigeons were nesting, get there quickly by train, and sell what you killed to a city hundreds of miles away."

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Coyote Party

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I put the trail camera next to the deer carcass I recently discovered in Redwood Creek, wondering if the animals were still checking out the bones. On this set I propped a log vertically against a horizontal fallen log so I could fasten the camera in the proper orientation. Those are the buck's antlers in the foreground, still attached to its skull. You can also make out its rib cage. Coyotes visited the carcass on Sunday and Monday.

A raccoon passed by on Wednesday without a glance toward the carcass.

A coyote dropped by again on Thursday morning to gnaw on some skinny rib bones.

Later in the day, a turkey vulture dropped down through the dense tree canopy to have a look, but it didn't stay long. The camera only fired three frames, meaning the vulture was already gone before the 5-second delay ran out.

'Round about midnight, a couple more coyotes showed up. The one on the right had its attention drawn up-creek by...

...two more coyotes! 'Tis the season for pairing up. These guys and gals were all over that carcass for quite a while. I would guess they all took part in the initial devouring of the buck. Makes me wonder if coyotes killed the buck in the first place. On the other hand, its final resting place isn't far from the road, so maybe it was injured by a car and wandered over to the creek to expire.

This coyote scratched in the dirt a couple of times. In this frame it appears to be vocalizing....

...and wondering what that weird thing attached to the log could be. 

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Saturday, January 4, 2014

Muir Woods

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In keeping with my efforts along Redwood Creek, I'd planned to photograph Muir Beach at sunrise this morning. Muir Beach is where Redwood Creek meets the Pacific Ocean. The beach just opened again after a long closure for reconstruction of this relatively tiny parcel of national parkland. Anyway, as I was descending toward Green Gulch Zen Center and the beach beyond it, I saw that a dense fog had moved into the area to squelch my sunrise plans. 

I drove back up the hill and turned toward Muir Woods, through which Redwood Creek flows from its headwaters. I stopped along the way to check out the sun rising on yet another Spare the Air Day. Isn't smog pretty. I shot a panorama that would print 130 inches wide, for no particular reason. Photoshop takes a very long time to stitch a panorama like this with D800E files on my aging 32-bit computer with 4GB of RAM. That's okay. I did laundry while I waited.

Muir Woods was free this morning, so I saved seven bucks. I remember when the fee was two bucks, and it doesn't seem like it was all that long ago.

I entered the park with no ideas about what I would photograph, but I never feel like I'm going to do the place justice. I mean, it's a national park. With redwoods. It seems like there would be grandeur for the taking. And I guess it is pretty grand.

But I still believe that if I really want to dive deep into photographing redwoods, I need to go elsewhere. I need a place where I can get off the paths. As a part of the Tam Blog, though, it can't be beat. There are redwoods on other parts of the mountain, but nothing that compares to Muir Woods.

The last time I drove past Muir Woods it was total chaos, with cars parked everywhere, citations on dozens of windshields, pedestrians walking to the entrance from a mile away. I can only imagine what it was like along the boardwalk among the big trees. Did the teeming hordes "enter quietly" when they reached the Cathedral Grove? I pity any rangers who were tasked with persuading the crowds that reverence is a quiet form of revelry. (I googled those words to see if they have a common etymology and learned that a rock band called Fallen Martyr actually recorded a song called Revelry and Reverence. Do you suppose anyone has listened to that song on headphones while strolling through Muir Woods?)

Most of the tanoak in Muir Woods is infected with Sudden Oak Death fungus, which makes the already dry conditions seem even more pronounced. Not only is Redwood Creek barely moving (although it was even drier when I was here in January 2009), but all the green ferns and tree limbs seem to be coated with a thin layer of dust, and half-dead tanoaks speckled with brown leaves contribute to the gloom.

Despite all that, I had a fine walk out to Bridge 4, where I looped back via the Hillside Trail.

Just as I got back to the parking lot, a pair of pileated woodpeckers flew into the woods along Redwood Creek, calling out with their distinctive voices. Unfortunately, they stayed high in the trees and I never got a clear view up close, but I did snag this image while the woodpecker tried to snag a meal from a small hole in this tall alder tree.

I left Muir Woods to gather up the trail camera and move it to a new location along Redwood Creek. I decided to put it near the deer carcass I recently found, and while I was setting it up this young red-tail who'd been cruising down the creek stopped to land on this branch. An adult red-tail would have flown away as soon as it saw me, but this young fellow gave me just enough time to fire off a frame.

The fog had burned off the coast by this time, so I decided to check out Muir Beach and get the lay of the land. It's quite different now, with a larger parking lot and fancy restrooms. Much of the former parking lot has been turned into willow habitat, although the willows right now are just sticks in the ground. A long bridge, which is what you see behind the trees above, takes visitors directly from the parking lot to a trail out to the beach. The whole thing is much more "tamed" than it used to be. Dogs are still allowed, and you need to watch your step because there's quite a bit of poop underfoot.

I really hadn't planned to do any photography under the mid-day light, but I brought my camera along, just in case. I enjoyed seeing the strong offshore winds giving the shorebreak some shape as well as some nice rooster tails.

From the southern end of the beach I looked back and noticed rainbows in the spindrift. I guess the sun is so low this time of year that you can still see this kind of thing even in the middle of the day.

Redwood Creek, by the way, flows across the north end of the beach. Right now it's basically an inland freshwater bay since it lacks the oomph to flow all the way to the ocean. Coho salmon must be patient fish.

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Redwood Creekbed Cam 2

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I left the trail camera in the same place for another week and learned that the party spot is also a potty spot. I found several telltale paper napkins left behind when I picked up the camera this morning -- around the bend and out of camera range, thankfully -- and found one set of humans on the SD card when I got home. The humans did not appear to notice the camera despite walking very close to it! I always feel just a little apprehension when I arrive to pick up the camera, half-expecting it to be gone.

So it was mostly the usual suspects again -- humans, squirrels, raccoons and a coyote....

And a bobcat! Nice way to start the new year. Funny that it was still too dark for a normal image at almost 8 a.m. There's a high ridge just south of the creek, so I'm sure there are sections that don't get direct sunlight for weeks this time of year.

Unfortunately, the camera caught the cat's approach and exit, but not the point where it went over the downed tree. Too bad the cat didn't stop to use the tree as a scratching post. Check out how cold it's been in that creekbed -- 20 degrees. In a wet year there would be running water where the cat is walking. What's left of the creek right now is off-camera, stage left.

Speaking of catching a bobcat using a scratching post, I've learned that another camera manufacturer (Bushnell) has a model that shoots both stills and video simultaneously. I've put it on my wish list....

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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Cataract Trail Loop

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Today's route should have been about waterfalls and mushrooms. Instead we found little sign that it was actually the first day of January. It was sunny and warm when we started hiking from Rock Spring at around 9:30, but still a little chilly in the forest shade along Cataract Creek, making me glad we'd started the hike a little later than usual.

There were lots of cars at Rock Spring, even more than you usually find at that hour on a weekend. On our way down to Laurel Dell we even ran into a couple small groups of hikers already heading back to Rock Spring. The weather is weird for the time of year, but it was spectacular for hiking.

In a normal year, this ford would not be possible to make with dry feet.

We passed a few people hanging out at one of Laurel Dell's picnic tables as we continued down to Cataract Falls. I wouldn't have been surprised to find the falls completely dry, but there actually was a tiny bit of water running in the stream -- enough to make a gentle purling sound like one of those Zen waterfalls you can buy. Almost all of the light-colored stuff in the background of this shot is bare serpentine rock, not running water.

I'd brought along a picture I shot in late December 2012 so I could show the difference between then and now.

A large group of hikers began to arrive near Laurel Dell just as we were leaving. Instead of just hiking back up the Cataract Trail, we picked up the Mickey O'Brien, which took us right back to...

...Barth's Retreat, which was a stop along our last hike a few days ago. We were quietly munching on almonds and sunflower seeds, getting hydrated, enjoying the peace, the light, and the slightly bay-scented air, when the big group of hikers showed up. It seemed like they might have been planning to take a longer break there, but we were occupying the picnic table. Many of the hikers took advantage of the rustic pit toilet. One of the two dogs hiking with them was having a ball, obviously a lover of the woods.

As the big group continued to Potrero Camp, we headed back up the Simmons Trail for the return trip.

Enjoying a break in the sun among the Sargent cypress trees at the top....

I was surprised to find a bay laurel in bloom. We'd just been finding bay nuts, or peppernuts -- the seeds of last season's flowers -- on the trails down below.

Hiking through the chaparral on the way back into the forest....

It was about noon when we got back to Rock Spring, and there were cars parked everywhere. It was a great day for a New Year's hike, and it was good to see that so many people were taking advantage of it.

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