Doug's Mountain Journal - Fall 2015

Doug's Mountain Journal
A Chronicle of Natural History on San Bruno Mountain


Doug Allshouse has been writing his seasonal Mountain Journal for many years. It appears in the quarterly newsletters of the Yerba Buena Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS). We are very pleased to share his seasonal reflections on the natural history of the Mountain. Together with David Nelson, he is writing "The Natural History of San Bruno Mountain", a long-needed and detailed natural history of the Mountain. The book will be published by the California Native Plant Society.

Recent Mountain Journals:
Summer 2015
Spring 2015


As we head into the magical short season of Indian summer along with a shot of true autumn, I'm enjoying new discoveries of plants and their locations on San Bruno Mountain. In early October, after months of searching ambiguous locations, David (my book partner), Mark (our trusty sidekick) and I found ninebark on an old obscure trail at the base of Devil's Arroyo. These gorgeous little shrubs were occupying the trailside well past the overgrown section that discouraged further exploration. After ascending an adjacent trail to the north we looked back from our elevated perch to an astonishing 1-acre patch of ninebark mixed in with poison oak. The colorful yellow-rusty patch stood out from the surrounding scrub and oaks. Not more than 10 minutes after that we came upon two greywacke boulders with a couple of coffee ferns at their base. We had found our first coffee fern earlier this year in Firth Canyon on the southern edge of Brisbane. These two guys were a mile away with 4 canyons of scrub and oak-bay forest and 2 major quarries in between! This fern was not observed in the 1990 Flora and has become the mountain's 10th fern species.

Blue-gum eucalyptus seems bullet-proof, tall and statuesque even with English ivy draped all over them. Alas, the emperor has no clothes, at least to some extent. The trails are littered with leaves and the ground at the headwaters of Colma Creek is covered six inches deep with leaves. Some of these leaves have been chewed by insects or their larvae, even green ones that have recently fallen. This never happened before and I wonder if the drought is responsible. Looking up, I notice that the canopies of tall trees are thinner with entire branches devoid of leaves. Two outlier trees, whose fate is tied to the fact that they are beyond the fog drip of taller trees, dropped all their leaves last year. They sent out leaf-bearing epicormic shoots last spring and have now dropped 90% of those leaves. Has the mighty eucalyptus met its match? Even a leather fern in the bough of a eucalyptus tree on the Day Camp road is dying. As an epiphyte it grows on the tree but is not parasitic and derives its water and nutrients from the rain, air and dust.

The goldenrods are pretty much in seed now but a month ago I discovered a hidden population of west coast Canada goldenrod, Solidago elongata; formerly canadensis. This species has eluded me until this year and there is some serendipity involved here. There is a clump of pampas grass visible from the lower Bog Trail and I was on my way to introduce myself to it. I tramped over the prostrate variety of coyote brush, past the coffee berry and around the English holly and just before reaching the grass there was this lovely patch of goldenrod. But wait, the erect leaves running up the stem were green and smooth rather than gray-green and leathery like California goldenrod. So I found our third goldenrod species, and I had to thank a clump of pampas grass for it.

In 2014 some volunteers did major trail work on the Bog Trail. To cover a rather persistent seep by the upper bridge over Colma Creek some enterprising mind decided to build two “sand boxes” with 2 X 6 boards and fill them with gravel. It did succeed in fording the muddy seep but it didn’t bother the resident horsetails. Imagine my delightful surprise to see these “time of the dinosaurs” plants pushing up through six inches of gravel to kiss the sunlight. If the Chicxulub asteroid couldn’t kill it in the Cretaceous period 66 million years ago, what’s a little gravel?

In late August, just before the arrival of the winter sparrows, thrushes, warblers and kinglets, a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk made his debut by attempting to kill the local Stellar’s and Scrub Jays. The noise they all made was a horrible symphony of sounds with the hawk diving and screaming and the jays bellowing sounds of protest, but in the end no one got hurt. It appears that our juvenile bird-killing machine has one thing to learn; pick on something smaller to eat. Those jays were having nothing to do with that inexperienced little sharpie—who, by the way, I have not seen lately.

Within one week I had three encounters with Great-horned Owls. Near the junction of the upper Day Camp road and the Saddle there is a small eucalyptus forest. I heard a juvenile GHO squawking in a tree followed by the hooting of a female. It was apparent that the young one was distressed or hungry, probably the latter, and mom was trying to calm him/her. Then six days later I heard the resident mating pair in the eucalyptus forest near the Crocker gate, which is where I expect to find those two. A half-mile further near Colma Creek I heard a second pair of owls hooting back and forth. I knew they were a different pair because somewhere in between I could hear both pairs.

Five days later on a beautiful sunny morning I decided to photograph the last blooming California goldenrod in the saddle. I was interrupted by the incessant chirping of a Say’s Phoebe who was perched on top a coyote brush looking for insects. This was special since Say’s Phoebes are not common here except in the winter and even then it is rare to encounter one. I had just seen a couple of Fox Sparrows feeding by the gorse bushes, my first of this autumn, so I was in the mode of looking for more winter birds. I got a couple of Golden-crowned Sparrows, too. Just as I was coming down the western side of the saddle I saw a Flicker high in a cypress tree facing the sun and what made it a moment to remember was the blinding reflection of the s almon-colored underside of his tail feathers. Just when I think I’ve seen it all I encountered a Swainson’s thrush in some willows on the Bog Trail on September 28. These thrushes breed here in late spring and summer and this guy should have been gone long ago. I think he might have been migrating through, but he was doing the water-drop call, a single note that resembles a drip, that they do when they first arrive in spring before breaking into their haunting mating song.

It’s rare to see a female coyote with her kit nearby. This particular female forages for food in a development just outside the park. I often see her loping along the fence at Village-in-the-Park before crossing the intersection at South Hill and Crocker. She was on the Saddle Trail just inside the western boundary and took off into grass when she saw me at the top of the hill. I caught a glimpse of the pup that was farther down the trail. Mom was sitting by a pine as I passed by her and I stopped to see if I could find the pup with my binoculars. I looked for a few minutes with no luck and she was laying down in the grass when I decided to give up my search. I’ll bet the pup was hiding somewhere waiting for his mother to find him.

Regardless of the amount of rain we receive in the next few months the season of rebirth is nearly here. It’s actually my favorite season; the true Mediterranean spring is winter, when brown turns to green.

See you on the mountain…

Doug