Doug's Mountain Journal - Winter 2016

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:
Fall 2015
Summer 2015
Spring 2015


Something that was missing the past few winters has finally found its way home. After living with and frankly loving the mild days and nights, the return of really cold nights and mornings has been welcomed with open arms. Actually it has meant wearing gloves and a thermal shirt under my trusty 15-year old Alvarado Street Bakery hoodie that was given to me prior to my retirement from Safeway in 2001. Looking out the window at the thermometer on the fence to see temperatures of 34-44 degrees at 6:00 AM is bracing compared to temps in the mid- 50s the past few winters. Maybe our native perennials will actually experience dormancy.

Winter is the season of renewal, of rebirth on the West Coast. It’s my second favorite season after spring. But the one thing I miss during winter is the dearth of easily accessible, organic and gluten-free snacks: like wild blackberries, huckleberries, miner’s lettuce, and strawberries. As for the mild-peppery flowers and sweet-piquant pods of wild radish, if you can’t kill them—EAT THEM! I could include the bitter-sweet taste of ripe, black coffee berries if it weren’t for their cathartic properties when consuming too many. The genus of Rhamnus is used world-wide as a laxative.

And that brings up a gripe of mine, a head-scratcher in fact; just what was wrong with Rhamnus that it had to be changed to Frangula? What was wrong with Myrica (wax myrtle) that it had to become Morella and, for crying out loud, it was so much easier to say and remember Picris (prickly ox-tongue) than Helminthotheca? These taxonomists need to leave well enough alone!! I hadn’t even gotten familiar 25 years ago with the genus Orthocarpus (owl’s clovers) when it became necessary to learn not one but two new genera for it, Castilleja and Triphysaria. But probably my most memorable scrape with changing taxonomy began in October 2014 when I updated my San Bruno Mountain plant database to the Jepson 2 nomenclature, not a small feat to be sure. Scarlet pimpernel, Anagallis arvensis, changed families from the Primrose family to the Myrsine family. In February 2015 I got around to writing a plant description for scarlet pimpernel only to discover that in just the few months since October they had also changed the genus to Lysimachia! I am sure happy that I didn’t buy the hard copy of Jepson.

In the “Good news-bad news” department, we are experiencing a wetter January than last year’s January goose egg with more storms and far more snow where it counts, which is good news. The bad news is that locally we are still behind last year’s rainfall totals by 3.4 inches and the El Nino storms and pounding surf threaten to eat Pacifica’s coastline until it hits bedrock.

At the end of September I heard and saw a Swainsons Thrush hiding in a large patch of arroyo willows on the Bog Trail. This is highly unusual since they breed here and this guy should have headed south by August. Two weeks later, on consecutive days, I heard my first Varied Thrush and Hermit Thrush. Only once in the 34 years that I have traversed the trails have I seen these three thrushes on the same day. It’s extremely rare. It’s also rare to see two Black and Yellow Argiope spiders, a male and a female. These orb weavers are commonly called garden spiders and they rest on the middle of their large webs with adjacent legs together; making it appear as though they have 4 legs, in an X shape. They also make a white zigzag band vertically across the middle of the web.

One morning I was standing on the upper bridge of Colma Creek admiring the creek dogwood. In late fall and throughout the winter the red bark intensifies in color making this deciduous shrub even more noticeable. Add in the bluish-white berries and it’s quite the sight to see. There was a fog hanging in the air and all was quiet, very peaceful, and I was settling into this blissful moment when a flicker decided to announce its presence. My peace was shattered, but only briefly; after all, flickers are cool.

Where did the term “bird brain” come from? I think I have at least one answer to that question and I nominate the Black Phoebe as the perhaps the most exquisite example. So I’m walking along the Old Guadalupe Trail—actually it’s a road—one morning and 50 feet in front of me is this phoebe. As I get closer to him, he becomes afraid and flies 30 feet further down the road. As I approach him again the same thing happens. To be honest, I have observed this behavior in other birds before with the Mourning Dove being especially guilty of this, too. This phoebe kept flying and landing, flying and landing for at least 300 yards until it finally wised up and flew onto a bush at the side of the road and stayed there until I passed. It never ceases to amaze me why the birds haven’t figured out that all they have to do is to fly around and land behind me. Problem solved!

Those who follow my mountain moments know about my scrapes with skunks. The more I encounter them the less concerned I get, except for one particular encounter in December. The exception to the rule is when two skunks fight with each other. I got out of the house a wee bit earlier than usual and December mornings stay a wee bit darker a wee bit longer. I was barely able to see three skunks ahead of me when suddenly two of them began screaming at each other and engaging in nose-to-nose contact which transitioned into tumbling about. There was nothing anyone could threaten me with to make me take a step closer to the combatants; best to just let them figure it out. Eventually one of them turned tail and walked away and the three went their separate ways allowing me to resume to my destination.

But just a few dark mornings ago in late January, I heard a similar scream and began looking down to locate another skunk. Suddenly I saw movement about 15 feet up a eucalyptus tree and just as suddenly I saw a silhouette of about 4 feet of wings unfurl and fly away. I turned my flashlight on to no avail and wisely assumed it to be a juvenile Great-horned Owl. It probably was the same owl I heard last fall with its mother. Juvenile GHOs sound like a rusty gate hinge. There are two pairs of owls calling to each other, the Crocker Gate pair and a new pair near Colma Creek. It will be interesting to see if the newbies produce youngsters.

A couple of things are happening that point toward spring. I’ve been hearing Bewick’s and Winter Wrens singing and the woodland sanicle and footsteps-of-spring are popping out of the ground to keep the horseweed company along the trails. In the weeks to come more company should be arriving and the party will get started.

See you on the mountain…