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.
August, sometimes known as Fogust, should have been known this year as Foggyust, which bled into Fogtember. This year was a very foggy late summer. Would we ever see the sun again? But along came the Autumnal Equinox, when morning walks take on flavors of their own, like a cool September morning with an overcast sky and little or no wind. Suddenly misty fog droplets are hitting my face like organic moisturizer. It is reminiscent of a winter day I could imagine in Eugene, Oregon but I am on the Bog Trail at 700 feet above sea level with visibility of 300 feet. Suddenly it becomes mid-October and the sun has retreated into the southern sky and my walk begins in darkness, and it will only get worse.
Autumn begins the long courting of Great-horned Owls as the male and female exchange calls. This year it began on September 9 and is still going on in early November. I saw the pair in different eucalyptus trees at the Day Camp when the male flew to the branch the female was occupying. Ooooo I thought, perhaps they will mate! After a few minutes of nothing happening I moved on. I picked them up again when I reached the parking area about 200 feet away. By this time the low morning sun was shining off them and the male had moved closer to her. Well, he kept turning his head over his right shoulder and looking at me as if to say, “Dude, can’t a guy have a little privacy? What are you, a voyeur?” Then he flew away, leaving her alone on the branch. Kinda made me wonder, was it my fault?
In early September, a gorgeous semi-circular chicken-of-the-woods fungus (Laetiporas) burst out of a eucalyptus trunk. It was bright yellow and orange. A week later an old dead eucalyptus trunk in Colma Creek sprouted several Northern Tooth fungi (Climacodon). Both are polypore shelf-like mushrooms and attract attention.
During the spring and summer the wildflower show was better than past years and speculation was focused on the timing of rain, but only a few of us felt that a cold November 2015-January 2016 was even more important. I have never seen so many California asters as I did this year. It seemed like they were everywhere; lining the trails in the bog and the saddle. Some newcomers showed up. Several common sunflowers grew along the Old Guadalupe Trail. The genus Helianthus is from the Greek helio for ‘sun’ and anthos for ‘flower.’ The flowerhead tracks the sun during the budding stage, but faces east upon blooming. The reason for this is the flower warms more quickly in the morning allowing for easier pollination.
I discovered a different species of farewell-to-spring on a portion of trail shared by the Summit Trail and Eucalyptus Loop; Clarkia amoena is native to the coastal hills from the Bay Area to British Columbia. It is highly variable, brightly-colored and is a popular choice for wildflower seed mixes. The fact that I also discovered the popular European corn poppy (Papaver) and the Spanish globe candytuft (Iberis) about a hundred yards away confirms my suspicions that seeds were scattered.
You may have noticed these drops of water falling from the sky, and you may have noticed that they have appeared more frequently lately than last year. Except for September 2016, each month from July through October was wetter this year than the last three rain seasons. October gave us a whopping 3.53 inches and through November 1 we have received 4.14 inches. November has averaged 1.63 inches since 2013 and our first November storm this year gave us 0.43 inches with more on the way. It’s a good start but there is a long way to go. Still, it is encouraging.
The Cooper’s Hawk is an accipiter, a bird-eating hawk. One was hanging out around an area where there are a lot of Steller’s Jays. The hawk tries very hard to make a meal out of one of the jays but the black and blue corvids are a bit too tough for him. Raptors are often depicted as fierce birds, and they are. But none of them has a fierce-sounding call. Most are ethereal in nature but the mighty Cooper’s has this timid little peep. I heard the bird call out and was astounded how milquetoast it sounded. I enjoy walking on mornings after a wet fog during the night. The Steller’s Jays will hop around the branches of willows or cypresses and are just heavy enough to knock the dew loose. As I walk along a trail I can hear (and sometimes feel) the dew drops hit me or the ground. It’s a good way to keep track of their location. The Fox and Golden-crowned Sparrows are here and a huge flock of Hermit Thrushes showed up in late October.
This is the season for our lovely toyons. I was waiting to enter highway 101 one morning just after the sun rose. That warm golden morning sunlight was shining on the Preservation Parcel area of San Bruno Mountain in South San Francisco. The toyons are just beginning to turn red with berries so they have this slightly reddish hue to play against the green leaves. It is one of the few native plants from which honeybees make honey. Interestingly toyons that grow on the very north and northwest part of SBM do not produce berries, perhaps because of the cooler climate. They are spectacular in the fog-sheltered Brisbane canyons and along Bayshore Boulevard from Brisbane to South San Francisco. Long before the advent of planting pyracanthas and cotoneasters for floral trimmings at Christmas, toyon branches with berries were gathered commercially and sold. It is often called California holly because the plant is holly-like and showy, especially in winter with its berries. Toyon is so abundant in the Los Angeles Basin that the name Hollywood Hills came about and subsequent housing developments became Hollywood. It became the official native plant of Los Angeles by the City Council on April 17, 2012. It was the most common tree in our developing little town of Yerba Buena in 1835 according to Marianna Richardson, the daughter of the first white settler, after whom Richardson Bay is named.
The grasses are leaping from the ground; the soap plant is awakening and soon the winter leaves of the rein orchid will appear. The recent rains have scrubbed the scrub leaves clean of dust and they all seem back in focus. This is our native plants’ time of rebirth. Get out and take a walk, even in the rain...it’s only water after all.
See you on the mountain...