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 the San Bruno Mountains", a long-needed and detailed natural history of the Mountain. The book will be published by the California Native Plant Society.
Holy Jesus, what is going on with this bipolar weather? Late August was acting like its usual steady self; cold and foggy. Then September comes along, throws an outrageous temper tantrum with a blistering heat wave and San Francisco sets an all-time high of 106 degrees!! On September 11, we were treated to a good old-fashioned Ohio Valley summer thunderstorm. It brought back memories of my childhood in Youngstown, Ohio. In true bipolar character, September turns cold and foggy again, hands off the dreariness to October which eventually decides to give us another hot spell. For good measure, we get a hellacious, but quick, windy autumn storm on the 20th that makes a bit of a mess of things locally, but helps tamp down the dreadful wildfires up north that started October 8th with 50 mph winds.
September 21st was one of those cold, overcast mornings and, as I was approaching the willows just past the upper Colma Creek bridge, I was greeted by two Selasphorus hummingbirds. Selasphorus is the genus of the Allen’s and Rufous Hummingbird, which are rather cinnamon-colored as adults. These two were quite greenish which hints at them being first-year birds. One was particularly friendly, hovering about three feet from me. Positive identification can only be done by examining the tips of the tail feathers, so using the word selaphorus covers your butt. I heard our first Fox Sparrows on September 24th in the willows west of the lower Colma Creek bridge.
The 29th brought the first iNaturalist Bio-Blitz to the mountain. David Nelson and I took the Bog Trail and Katherine Wright of San Mateo County Parks joined us. We were mostly doing botany and birding, but one of the Sequoia Audubon members had her smartphone aimed at the clump of willows at the head of the lower Bog Trail. I asked her what she was observing, and she was recording some familiar “chups” coming from deep in the willows. “Hermit Thrush, the first of the season,” I said, and went on to catch up with my trail mates.
On the first Saturday of October, the Three Musketeers (David Nelson, Mark Sustarich and me) decided to check out Fire Road 1, the PG&E access road from the Ridge Trail to Tank Ravine. Around the towers down the road were tons of California fuchsia, a late summer-early fall bloomer with bright red tubular flowers. Overall, the plant is inconspicuous, but with those fiery blossoms it is hard to miss. The patches were around a couple of pods of towers and ironically, the first patch of fuchsias we discovered two years ago were also around towers almost a mile away. It’s an interesting correlation: electrical towers and fuchsias...hmmmm.
One of the harbingers of the arrival of autumn is California polypody, an easily-recognizable fern with an affinity for rocky outcrops. The genus Polypodium is Greek for many feet, alluding to the fuzzy knob-like places on the rhizomes. This fern is one of the first ‘winter’ plants to sprout from the ground, usually by early October. It generally grows in the cracks and crevices of rocky outcrops, forming a waterfall of foliage and is equally at home along streambanks, coastal bluffs, or north-facing slopes. Polypody stays green if its feet are wet, then begins to turn brown when the ground dries, and as summer approaches the leaves wither and fall off.
The Bog Trail is a very interesting walk, but it entails two trails with very different habitats. The original trail begins at the junction of the Old Guadalupe Trail and the Day Camp Road adjacent to the parking lot. It basically parallels the Old Guadalupe Trail and crosses Colma Creek at the upper bridge. A couple of years later a second trail was created that intersects the original trail in two spots, creating a loop. It explores a large area closer to Guadalupe Canyon Parkway. Because it is lower in elevation than the original trail it is more mesic and supports water-loving plants like rushes, sedges, water parsnip, tinker’s penny, and speedwell. Winter rains soften the ground and runoff fills a couple of shallow ponds with up to a foot of water, which eventually flows down to Colma Creek. The super-soaking we received this past winter and spring turned much of the lower trail into running streams and soggy, muddy footing.
The rangers built a short section of elevated trail with redwood and I dubbed it “The Redwood Highway.” They have widened parts of the trail and have begun to pave it with gravel. It is not complete and there are sections that really need a lot of help and engineering, but it would be great if the work could make this a navigable trail in the winter and early spring. One section near the lower bridge did not dry out until August, but an innovative walker found two short boards to place over the wet spot. The upper bridge was completely rebuilt. There is so much to see in the bog during the rainy season but the impossible condition of the trails literally rain on the parade. Hopefully, the work being done will remedy that.
Autumn is undoubtedly the slow time of year, botanically speaking, but come December things will begin to get interesting. The fall grasses are springing up, the toyons are turning red with berries, so the show will start soon. It will be time to search for rein orchid leaves, watch for the bluish-white dogwood berries and white snow berries, and the black coffee berries. The wallflower will break ground, and the huckleberry and manzanitas will begin to bloom.
Things will be looking good PDQ—Pretty Damn Quick.
See you on the mountain,