Doug's Mountain Journal - Spring 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.


After an encouraging start to a possible wet winter the great umbrella in the sky opened up and gave us a bone-dry January—as in not a single drop of rain. Worse yet was the realization that the rain clouds decided to barely visit the Sierra Nevada to shed some frozen tears. February and April helped by combining for just over 3 inches and March kicked in a half inch. Together they managed to nudge the precipitation over the 20-inch mark for the year; and doesn’t that make you want to rush to Mitchell’s on San Jose Avenue to celebrate by ordering a cone of the latest ice cream flavor? I thought not.

Well a few things really lifted my spirits. On February 11, I spotted 3 blue larkspurs blooming above Nine Fern Rock and it portended an early spring, or so I thought. A month later I returned and the place was awash in larkspur—a good 200-300 of them!! I have never seen so many in one place and, wouldn’t you know it; I began seeing those electric purple-blue beauties everywhere on the mountain. I can hear Frank Sinatra singing “And in the spring of ’15, it was a very good year, it was very good year for blue-blooded blooms to smother the fields.”

A special trip was made to Bitter Cherry Ridge to look for meadow white, Cerastium arvense, and they appeared for the first time in several years as they really a need a good amount of rain to bloom. Owl Canyon was bursting with yellow carpets of blennosperma after not seeing any last year. There are disjunct populations of hillside morning glory all over the Owl/Buckeye Ridge along with a bumper crop of mule ears in those grasslands as well as along the East power line in Brisbane Acres. Owl Canyon also yielded meconella and two new discoveries, clematis and few-flowered clover, Trifolium oliganthum. We found skullcap in Firth Canyon along with fiesta flower, dwarf brodiaea and 4 centimeter-high infant plants of clarkia. So yes, things are looking up.

The morning of February 6 broke with a lightly overcast sky as a storm was brewing off the coast, and the added sunlight created a glowing golden-pink hue which intensified the greens of the grasses and foliage. It reminded me, as a young boy in Ohio, of a similar phenomenon following late-afternoon thunderstorms when the dark sky was replaced by sunlight and the robins began to sing; most likely rejoicing surviving the ordeal.

In the spring a young man’s thoughts turn to love and none more so than thoughts of birds. I found myself above Colma Creek one morning listening to woodpeckers pecking in the eucalyptus trees announcing their presence. One was right above me, one was far off to the left and one was high to the right. I thought, my gosh, I’ve got stereophonic woodpeckers and as the concert went on I realized it sounded like the opening of a Manheim Steamroller instrumental. (Note: If by a slim chance you’ve never heard of Mannheim Steamroller, I highly recommend you remedy that.)

Looking straight up over me I spied a pair of flickers on a limb, both facing upward with one above the other. I put my binoculars on them to see what would transpire. The one above would spread its tail feathers several times every ten or fifteen seconds. The one on the bottom did absolutely nothing but observe the display. After a minute or more of flashing tail feathers, the flasher flew away. At first I assumed that the flasher was a male and that his noble efforts failed to arouse the female into mating so, dejected, he flew away. Then the other side of my brain fought back and surmised that maybe the female was trying to entice the clueless male into mating and, due to his disinterest, she left the scene to look for her true love of 2015. It’s amazing how a flicker’s fancy mirrors a human’s dilemma. This is a great planet.

California Thrashers broke into song just below the summit on the west side of the mountain and a few White-throated Sparrows are still hanging out with some local sparrows, towhees and juncos as of mid-April. Throw in a couple of wood rats and that’s quite a menagerie.

Red Mound Ants (Formica) always fascinate field trip participants with their nest consisting of a pile of small pieces of dead twig ends generally from the surrounding coyote brush shrubs. These mounds can reach a foot or more high and two to three feet wide. On active days there are hundreds of workers swarming the top of the mound and other workers carrying more material across a trail and up a rocky face to the mound. Many times these sticks are 4-5 times longer than the ant, yet they struggle with the ascending terrain and finally make it home with their prize. The Yellow-spotted Millipede is a gorgeous specimen about 3 centimeters long with a shiny bluish-black back and each segment (about 18) has a yellow spot near each leg. I mention them because they will be roaming the trails very soon and you just might see one or more.

The vagaries of climate change have played out in many forms in many minds for many years. Living on the San Bruno Mountains for 38 years has given me a perspective of what has been occurring the past several years. The four-year drought has steeled our thinking about conservation, but what about the health of our native plants and the creatures, specifically the three endangered butterflies, that they feed and nurture? The marine influence and particularly fog are crucial to the presence and survival of many plants here. Fog cools and moisturizes much of the mountain in the summer months and its presence has not fluctuated much in the years since I moved here. What has changed dramatically in the past three winters is the stubborn high pressure cell that refuses to move south thereby blocking the door to Pacific storms. What has not been acknowledged is the effect of the warm winter days and nights. Will this condition cause earlier blooming and will our host-specific endangered butterflies adjust to this condition? Spring 2014 was an early year for stonecrop blooms but the San Bruno Elfin adults also emerged earlier and their larvae feasted on the flowers before they dried and died. Was this coincidence, luck or part of the plan? Time will tell.

See you on the mountain…….

Doug