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:
I love my solitary morning walks particularly because no one is with me who would want to talk; thereby spoiling my enjoyment of a singing Pacific Wren or the ethereal song of a Swainson's Thrush. I don't understand why anyone would walk in the park with buds in their ears listening to "their music" or worse yet—talk radio. Life is so much clearer and cleaner when my feet are eating trail and my eyes see the moon disappear behind a cloud or spot some sky lupines on the trailside.
Much was anticipated of our El Nino as it strengthened in the Pacific but it was largely a bust although we have surpassed last year’s precipitation totals. The flowers of trees, shrubs and herbs have responded amazingly and much credit has been given to the rain. As I mentioned in the last Journal we experienced several months of really cold weather for the first time in quite a while and I attribute much of the beauty this spring to the chilly days and nights. At least one other person has made a similar observation in his neighborhood and his initials are JS. I’m in good company on this.
The San Bruno Mountains are about four square miles yet they are home to five species of manzanitas. The most common species, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi or Bearberry manzanita, has eight recognized forms world-wide. Five are in California, three are on San Bruno Mountain and two of those forms are endemic, which means we have four endemic manzanitas here. They were all in glorious bloom in January and February with the large and dense white clusters of Montara manzanita, the gentle pinks of San Bruno Mountain and Pacific manzanita and the hot pink blooms of leobreweri manzanita.
The second and third week of February brought a sight not ever seen by this keen observer. I’ll call it Robin Palooza. While walking the Bog Trail I heard a cacophony of robins singing in the eucalyptus trees up on the Old Guadalupe Trail. I got to the upper Colma Creek Bridge to see what the fuss was about. For a good five minutes I saw flock after flock of 100-200 robins flying into the eucs. Mostly they were flying in from the northwest and I can only surmise that maybe something really good to eat was drawing them in. There were a couple thousand birds in those trees, kind of like Woodstock for robins.
Fifteen years ago our chapter helped sponsor a restoration project at the headwaters of Colma Creek called Heart of the Mountain. What was once a native creek choked with Himalayan blackberry, hawthorn, cotoneaster, and English and Cape ivy and covered by eucalyptus is now teeming with lady fern, rushes, dogwood, wax myrtle, elderberry, willows and horsetails. Recently a twinberry and osoberry have moved into the neighborhood. I am constantly working to rid the creek bed of encroaching cotoneaster, hawthorn and cypress. What I fear is that our native arroyo willow will eventually swallow up the creek as it has done south of the bridge.
A couple days into March our first Orange-crowned Warblers arrived followed by Wilson’s Warblers about 3 weeks later. These two species signal the arrival of spring in the bog but our winter sparrows—Fox, White-crowned, Golden-crowned and White-throated—haven’t vacated the park. “Time’s a-wastin’ little ones; now go on, git.”
This has been an incredible spring with the afore-mentioned rainfall and cold weather. For the first time in a few years I have seen a rare owl’s clover, johnny tuck or butter and eggs - Triphysaria eriantha. We have a subspecies called rosea since it has flowers that are white with a slight pink tinge. The genus name Triphysaria is Greek for having three bladders because of the three lower lip pouches on the flowers. I have found four populations this year—three in the saddle and one at Bitter Cherry Ridge. One of the saddle populations shares space with some goldenrod and two plants were blooming! Goldenrods are mid-to-late summer bloomers, but that’s how things are on the mountain.
Last year our Natural Resources Manager, Ramona Arechiga, secured funds from Measure A in San Mateo County to fund a rare plant search on the mountain. I had the privilege of tagging along with the team of Lech Naumovich and Crystal Niederer from Dr. Stu Weiss’ company Creekside Science. We began looking for Diablo sunflower, Helianthella castanea, a low-growing perennial with basal clumps of leaves and naked-stemmed yellow daisy-like flowers that resemble mules’ ears. In fact the two plants often grow together. We found some in Firth Canyon and couple of places in Brisbane Acres but we were looking in June when the plants were desiccated. Fast-forward to this year when several of us volunteered to look in late February and March. What a difference to look for them when they are green and starting to bloom as opposed to crispy brown and dried. In mid-March we counted and GPS’d 118 plants in Firth Canyon and a few weeks later found a population of 7-8 plants surrounding a trailside toyon on the Brisbane Acres Trail. This population was quite far from Firth Canyon population.
The second rousing success story came on April 10 when we discovered the presence of San Francisco catchfly, Silene verecunda. We looked for this guy for a month last year in July and could not find it. We assumed that it was extirpated from the mountain and all we could find was the more common Scouler’s catchfly and the non-native windmill pink. The next week David Nelson, Mark Sustarich and I spent four hours at the site and photographed, measured and listed each plant that we found—82 in all! This was great news indeed, and an important lesson in discovering both the sunflower and the catchfly—it pays to look for it— when it’s blooming stupid! The interesting story with verecunda is that it was formerly listed as four subspecies and is currently lumped as one species. Its distribution around the state is quite large, from coastal Humboldt County to San Diego County and inland from San Bernardino County along the foothills of the eastern ranges to Modoc County. The subspecies verecunda, which is our local plant, is quite rare and found only in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties. We’ve got some conservation to do with this plant and for starters its location has been kept secret to minimize stress and damage to the population. It was originally found on Mount Davidson where it is hanging on by the skin of its teeth, but perhaps not for long.
So far it has been an exciting start to the year, with other exciting finds such as new locations for spotted coral root, skullcap, dune tansy, toad flax and sea pink. There is a lot going on here. Come see for yourself.
See you on the mountain…