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.
Even though spring is a season of joy, some springs bring more joy and fireworks than others. This was one of those springs. The necessary elements fell into place producing sporadic super blooms on the Mountain and elsewhere. A seemingly lackluster winter rainy season became the rainy season from hell when it seemed it would not ever stop. Admit it! There were times during those stretches of consecutive rainy days where there was a dichotomy of feelings bouncing around in various behavioral cavities in your brain. You were SO happy to see some much-needed precipitation falling from the sky but, damn it, will the sun ever shine again? The chilly winds blew, and you wondered if you could ever shed the rain coats or sweaters. And then it finally happened, a prolonged dry spell and gorgeous sunny days when you could take those therapeutic walks through Nature’s wonderful gardens and you felt whole again.
This joyous spring was largely made possible by a string of precipitous days spread over January (5.51”-11 days), February (8.60”-15 days), and March (5.23”-16 days) in my rain gauge. So far for the season we have 27.13” of precipitation which is above average for San Bruno Mountain.
Owl Canyon is loaded with many patches of star lily this year. Several years ago, I saw my first two clematis vines along the trail. If the amazing flowers are not blooming it is easy to miss them, but something got into these vines the past couple of years. They have tripled and quadrupled their size and one has climbed up and into a blue blossom bush on the trail. There are hundreds of gorgeous creamy-yellow flowers on each one. The paintbrushes are now beginning to appear. Boneyard Quarry in lower Colma Canyon is named for the many small animal bones found in Great-horned Owl pellets, has large patches of San Francisco collinsia (multicolor), stonecrop (Sedum), California larkspur (Delphinium) and meadow rue (Thalictrum) scattered in the scree of rocks and boulders.
Waiting to bloom in a month or so are thousands of farewell-to-spring (Clarkia). It’s quite a sight to stand on the Daly City dunes and look across the canyon to see huge pink carpets of clarkia, as well as on the lee side of the dune. The trail to the quarry is a bit overgrown so I’ll have to summon my amigos to help me open it soon. The Boneyard is amazing with large boulders piled up at the base and finer rocks further up. San Bruno Elfin butterflies have been photographed on the stonecrop, their larval host plant.
Serendipity plays a huge part in discovering new plants that were not in the 1990 flora. I spent a few hours with Ken Hickman and John Rawlings in early April. Ken planted animal cameras all over the Park to create an animal inventory. We were in a boggy area in the midst of a willow grove on the Bog Trail. Ken was picking up a camera when he noticed fragile fern (Cystopteris fragilis). At this point the fronds are 3-5 centimeters long and look disgustingly close to lady fern. The fronds are slightly different and the pinna (leaflets) do not sag or arch like lady fern does. The frond, 8-30 cm long is much shorter than typical lady fern frond. This discovery adds two new ferns, coffee fern being the other, giving us eleven ferns on the Mountain. The other discovery was mountain dandelion (Agoseris heterophylla), a much smaller version than the very common California dandelion. Mountain dandelion has long wispy lance-shaped leaves with a yellow flower about 10-12 mm wide.
A cold winter delayed blooming by a few weeks but the Great Meadow is bursting with thousands of goldfields, and four species of owl’s clover. It was an especially good year for dwarf owl’s clover (Triphysaria pusilla), a little guy usually less than 3 centimeters tall that catches your eye by forming burgundy-colored carpets the size of serving trays. Cable Ravine has its requisite share of goldfields but my-oh-my, the golden violets are bursting at the seams.
It's been two years since the discovery of Choris’ popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys chorisianus) a plant that was long considered extirpated from the Mountain. In late March I began a few weekly visits to the site to check the progress. Like so many other places, the popcorn flower was more than a few weeks behind schedule and the surprise was that there seemed to be fewer plants this year than last year despite higher rain totals. April Brook was running well and shooting star and popcorn flower rosettes were popping through the creekside mosses.
Following up the last paragraph with a visit to the Great Meadow in late April, I was presented with eye-popping populations of thousands of common owl’s clovers (Castilleja densiflora) and johnny tuck (Triphysaria eriantha). The gold fields were pretty much spent but the checkerbloom and some dwarf brodiaea made up for it. April Brook had dried up but hundreds of tiny white popcorn flowers, 5 mm across, were blooming creekside and even on isolated islands within the creek bed. My heart sang to see them again, knowing that they are holding strong in this location. The bonus this year was the presence of the owl’s clover down to the creek something that hadn’t happened before.
This is an area that is crying for a good burn to rid it of coyote brush. A few decades ago it was a massive meadow stretching from Radio Road to April Brook and up to Rabbit Ridge. I was imagining what it might have looked like 50 years ago. I remember seeing vast stretches of cow parsnip in the spring and pearly everlasting in August. It looked like snow in the meadow. A good burn would be a great start to reboot the ecosystem. Mixed in with the common owl’s clover is dwarf plantain, creating a virtual smorgasbord for the threatened Bay Checkerspot larvae. I was trying to imagine what that would feel like—thousands of checkerspots flying over the meadow, hill topping to meet mates adjacent to Radio Road and laying eggs on those two plants. The beginning of a new generation could be possible with some daring imagination and deeds.
See you on the Mountain.......