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.
There is an old saying, “The more things change, the more they remain the same”. During the summer our plants were blessed with the usual cool moistening fog and as we anticipated our warm and sunny Indian summer, September and October gave us more cool foggy days, and a slight sprinkle of an autumn rain shower. The season changed, but the weather remained the same, and what a dichotomy from last year’s sizzling temperatures.
Autumn brings us shorter days by a few hours, perhaps to prepare us for the fleeting daylight ahead in the dead of winter. Walking through Fog Forest around 6:45 AM during morning twilight is a somber experience and to spy a waning moon framed by the silhouette of tree branches just adds a bit of excitement to the morning chill. Then as sunrise approaches just 15 minutes later the sun fires up the clouds to give us a wildly-different sensation with shades of peach and blue.
Fall is also the beginning of Nature’s berry bonanza, much to the delight of migrating birds. Coffee berry flashes berries in various stages of development from immature green and pale yellow to deliciously-ripe black. Although they are edible, caution must be exercised not to eat too many because the tribe worldwide is used for their laxative effect. The common name is derived from the seeds that, when dried, look like green coffee beans. There is loose evidence that Native Americans roasted them and made a coffee-like beverage from them. If so, I wonder if the practice was learned before the diaspora of humans from Africa, specifically those from Ethiopia.
I have an admitted soft spot for creek dogwood. Along with poison oak, dogwood is one of the most photogenic species on the Mountain. It literally disappeared when Guadalupe Canyon Parkway was built, and Colma Creek was decimated and buried in spots. Today it flourishes along the creek and in many wet spots along the Bog Trail. The deeply-veined leaves, flowers and bluish-white berries never cease to draw not only my attention, but my camera’s lens as well. As we get closer to winter the bark of creek dogwood turns a brighter red becoming the super-star attraction after the leaves have fallen.
Our two blackberry vines are also good candidates for autumn photography. Both sprout from perennial roots and produce a biennial cane. The primal cane grows rapidly, producing a leaf with 3 leaflets on the native and 5 leaflets on the non-native. Toward the end of the first year both species’ primal canes begin to produce floricanes, or flowering canes, with leaves having 3-leaflets. Our native California blackberry is monecious, having floricanes that are either female or male, with the female floricanes producing the fruits. The non-native Himalaya blackberry (originally from Armenia) is dioecious with each floricane having male and female flowers so each cane produces fruits.
Autumn is spider time and the Labyrinth Spider (Metepeira arizonica) spins one of the most fascinating webs in the Arachnid world. It’s basically a medium-sized orb web hidden inside a tangle of spider silk that attaches to shrubbery at many points. Inside this tangled mess is an egg sac made of rolled leaves that also serves as a retreat for mom. It’s quite a sight to see numerous webs of other Labyrinth Spiders suspended in coffee berry bushes (they seem to have an affinity for them) forming neighborhoods. They are especially dazzling with dew drops from the overnight fog dandling from the silk.
Lichens are weird but enchanting organisms. The visible part is a fungus and we all know that fungi cannot produce their own food, so they must steal it from something. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi called mycorrhizae living underground. They form vast networks that supply tree roots with water and minerals. In exchange they steal sugars from the roots. Lichens team up with algae or cyanobacteria that photosynthesize photons into sugars. A symbiotic relationship forms whereby the fungus supplies a place for the algae to live and the fungus consumes bits of the algae as food. We now know that a third organism must be present for this relationship to form, the wingman is a yeast. This tidbit was just uncovered recently by an amateur lichenologist.
The fall migration is underway with warblers and hawks passing through. I start looking for our birds that overwinter here around the end of September. I heard my last Swainson’s Thrush on September 16 and on October 4, I heard my first Fox Sparrow and Hermit Thrush. We mostly have Sooty Fox Sparrows that are a darker race. The Hermits can skulk in the bushes, but they become more emboldened as winter comes along, so they’re not as secretive as the Swainson’s tends to be. They have a rustier-brown head and back than the Swainson’s Thrush. Six days later, on the 10th, I heard my first Varied Thrush and have heard a few more each day. I’m still waiting on the Kinglets and the Townsend’s and Yellow-rumped Warblers as well as a White-throated Sparrow or two to round out the roster. I had a huge surprise this year with a pair of Western Bluebirds that hung around my hill. I would expect them around Woodside in central San Mateo County where there are nesting boxes, horse farms, horse manure, and lots of flies to eat but not around here.
And lastly, a pair of coyotes were hunting on the hill behind my house starting around March or April. I noticed that the male had a blue tag in his right ear and a radio collar around his neck. There was a smaller female with him. I contacted Jonathan Young, Wildlife Ecologist at the Presidio and right away he knew about this dog. In Jonathan’s words: “We had a young male we tagged in 2016 who ended up at Coit Tower only to be captured by Animal Care and Control, brought back and released in the Presidio only to return back to Coit Tower. Unfortunately, during ACC’s capturing his collar was damaged and malfunctioned soon after release. He went “off-line” almost a year ago. He was hanging around Coit Tower with another pack, including pups that we believe he did not father. Neighbors in the area were keeping us posted on his presence. He was originally tagged with a right blue and left yellow ear tag. Based on a few pictures that were sent to me from Coit Tower, it looked like he lost his left yellow tag. He has not been seen in the city in at least 6 months and I assumed he was killed by a car and died in some bushes somewhere… there are no other coyote collaring programs in the bay area. This must be him. Perhaps with a mate? Please keep me posted on any observations you make of him.”
Sadly, he was killed on Guadalupe Canyon Parkway on June 20. The female has been hunting on the hill and hangs out around the northern part of Village-in-the-Park near the intersection of South Hill Blvd and my street, Alta Vista Way.
See you on the Mountain...