First week after Winter Solstice

On December 21st, the shortening of the day length reached a minimum at Winter Solstice. Until June 21, 2010, sunshine hours will increase daily. During this last week since the Winter Solstice, while visiting along Alisal Road to Figueroa Mountain Road, green shoots and young plants were seen in abundance, even as many “fall” trees had not yet shed all of their leaves.

(Cottonwood along Alisal Road)

Cottonwood leaves have turned from yellow to orange, and provide a gorgeous color whether back-lit or not — similarly for Arroyo (?) Willow and Bigleaf Maple trees. Sycamore leaves are bland when facing the sun, but display vivid colors when back-lit. I read that the bland color is the result of tannin, a “waste product from the tree’s natural processes” (Billy Goodnick on Edhat). To better get an idea of the variances of leaf sizes (Sycamore leaves can be very large) and colors, I photographed groups of leaf circles. What was striking was the uniformity of color of the Sycamore fall leaves.

Sycamore LeavesMaple Leaves
(Sycamore leaves on left, Maple leaves on the right – Click for larger image)

Blue Oak LeavesMaple Leaves
(Blue Oak leaves on left and the right – Click for larger image)

Willow LeavesCottonwood Leaves
(Willow leaves on left, Cottonwood leaves on the right – Click for larger image)

Just as birders have life lists, I have a list of plants I’d like to see. I came across one of these by accident on the 23rd — Silk Tassel Bush. I remember during the summer observing a medium shrub with leaves having a lighter color on the underside and wondering what it was. As I was walking in the same area on the 23rd, I suddenly noticed the tassels on the bush — mystery partially solved. I still have to figure out if it is Garrya veatchii or Garrya flavescens, that have minor differences.  Four Garrya bushes were observed in the area, with possibly two staminate and two pistillate versions of this dioecious bush. More investigation of this plant will be done, but for now here are a couple pictures.

Silk Tassel
(Silk Tassel, probably staminate tassel)

Silk Tassel
(Silk Tassel, either unopened staminate tassel or pistillate tassel)

No butterflies have been seen. About a dozen Milk Maids, one California Buttercup and one California Poppy were observed in bloom – the plants along Alisal and Figueroa Mountain Roads are not flowering as early as those on San Marcos Pass and San Marcos Foothills. It seems that San Marcos Pass receives the most rain (see, and with warmer temperatures, there are unusually early blooms in those areas this year as photographed by Marc Kummel and Yuji Kozaki — see links below.

Milk Maids
(Milk Maids near Alamo Pintado creek)

Over this holiday season, I am trying to get out as much as possible — thanks to too much work my fitness level is at an all time low.  I read with envy about Diane Soini’s recent hike where there was a 2000 foot gain – I would probably pass out after less than 300 feet. I am going to try to keep up with weekly excursions next year to not only enjoy the flowering but also longer and longer walks. These single day trips represent my yearly vacation spread over many months.

At this early time of the year, there are mostly new leaves to photograph – it is fun to figure out the plant before inflorescence confirms in spring.

Other Links

Old leaves, new leaves

I made it out to Happy Canyon and Sunset Valley Roads on Sunday to photograph fall color along the creeks by the sides of those roads. There were some wonderful displays here and there.

(Big-leaf Maple along Happy Canyon Road)

(California Sycamore along Sunset Valley Road)

Many of the fall leaves will probably be on the ground after this week’s rain. On Sunday, at the slightest breeze, dozens would float and meander to the ground, where they would often fall on the new leaves of plants preparing to bloom in the spring.

(New leaves of Fiesta Flower among fallen leaves)

Some of the new leaves photographed were of Fiesta Flower, Imbricate Phacelia, California Thistle and Larkspur.

(New leaves of Larkspur)

Flowering plants include continuers from this fall such as California Fuschia, Long-stemmed Buckwheat and Bush Groundsel, and some of the early leaders for the approaching spring, e.g.  Chaparral Currant, California Bay and White Alder.

(Chaparral Currant)

Dried flowers photographed were Golden Eardrops, Larkspur at the base of which new leaves were growing, and most impressive of all, the seeds and empty flowers of Scale Broom. (Sometimes I can only identify the dried flowers by remembering the plant locations from spring and summer.)

(Dried flowers of Scale Broom)

Having not had vacation in a few years, I hope to take advantage of the rain this season to get out into the back country as much as possible to hopefully photograph fantastic and abundant flower displays. Who knows if one will get the chance again.

 Sounds and sights of Fall

Goleta Birds, November 1

Because of a need for exercise and sun, I had considered shooting in the back country today. However, after yesterday’s sighting of the Sandhill Crane, I decided to photograph Goleta birds instead. Unfortunately, the Sandhill Crane was not at Devereux Slough this morning.

I then went to Lake Los Carneros, where I was fortunate to see a Lewis’ Woodpecker and possibly Red-naped Sapsuckers. The sapsuckers were flying between a pepper tree on the right-hand side of the main path and a willow tree on the left, just before the first large path to the right toward the dead trees where the Lewis’ Woodpecker was hanging out. I was unable to get a clear shot of the sapsuckers, and returned in the evening hoping to do so.

Lewis' Woodpecker
(Lewis’ Woodpecker at LLC)

In the evening, there was a surprise – bobcat appearance at Lake Los Carneros. Photographing the bobcats took too much time to allow any search for the sapsuckers, but was I able to shoot the very apparent Great-tailed Grackles – nice to see them back there again.

Lewis' Bobcat
(Bobcat at LLC)

Lewis' Bobcat
(Bobcat at LLC)

Lewis' Grackle
(Great-tailed Grackle at LLC)

Fall Color 2009 Trip

In southern California, many of the local native plants follow different activities in the four seasons. A few of them, generally in moister areas, provide displays of fall color. On Saturday, I was part of a SBBG field trip to find fall color in the back country along Highway33,  Lockwood Valley Road (a land of Rabbitbrush) ending up at Thorn Meadows. The shooting conditions had disadvantages and advantages – difficult shooting into the sun, but the fall color enhanced by back lighting.

Fall Color
(Sespe Gorge Viewpoint)

The photo above typifies the scarcity of fall color in this area. Vegetation, away from river beds, grows on soils that receive no moisture in the hotter months of the year. This vegetation has become adapted to summer drought. Many of the plants are evergreen, with small, tough leaves that lose a minimum of water in hot conditions. They also waste little energy growing in the summer, but do so in the cooler winter when rains replenish the soil with moisture. Hence, during fall, these plants are getting ready to start or are already developing and growing new leaves and flower buds. Some, such as Chaparral Currant are beginning to flower now, and a number of lower elevation Ceanothus species flower before the end of winter.

Fall Color
(Sespe Gorge Viewpoint)

Fall Color
(Sespe Gorge Viewpoint – Fremont Cottonwood )

In contrast, the trees along rivers and creeks follow the “normal” seasonal schedule – dropping leaves in fall or early winter, remaining mostly dormant in winter,  putting out buds in spring, and leafing  in summer. Some of these fall-color trees include Fremont Cottonwood, and in a few weeks, California Sycamore.

The oases of fall color are surrounded by large swaths of green from either evergreen chaparral,  sage scrub or conifer stands, and the color contrast is very attractive. (The evergreen vegetation, often chaparral, covering the slopes of mountains and hills, however, does provide efficient water catchment during winter, allowing rain to percolate down to streams and rivers. In their absence, it would just be mudslides and torrents of water.)

Fall Color
(Thorn Meadows – On the middle ridge to the right, there is a small splash of
red-orange color provided by Black Oak foliage, shown below.
The foreground consists of yellow willow shrubs.)

Fall Color
(Thorn Meadows – Black Oak foliage, growing behind Jeffrey Pines)

Fall color seen at Thorn Meadows, was of the brilliant red-orange of Black Oaks at a higher level, and in the moist meadow area, the bright yellow of deciduous willows. The bulk of the surrounding vegetation in this area consisted of  green conifers, many of them Jeffrey Pines.

Fall Color
(Reyes Creek Campground – Canyon Oak acorns )

We had lunch at Reyes Creek Campground, underneath a Canyon Oak, where the ground was littered with a large number of acorns.

Fall Color
(Spiny Tachina, about the size of a bumblebee, on Rubber Rabbitbrush )

While most herbaceous plants bloom in the moister months, there are many that bloom in summer and fall. This spread of nectar availability throughout the year provides food for insects and other fauna during most months of the year. An interesting fly, Spiny Tachina, is found from late summer to early fall  in foothills and mountains. It feeds on nectar from plants in the aster/daisy family, especially Rabbitbrush and Coyote Brush. Both of these plants bloom later in the year, as the seasons are changing and the winds are stronger. The photos of this fly were taken hurriedly in windy conditions as everyone was departing for the next stop.

Thanks to the leaders for a great trip, and the excellent notes are always appreciated. New plants for me on this trip were blooming Rabbitbrush, Pinyon Pine, Jeffrey Pine and Poodle Dog Bush, the latter reportedly as unpleasant as Poison Oak.


Terns over Devereux slough; terns at Sands; terns were quite a presence at Coal Oil Point Reserve yesterday. Despite low water levels at Devereux, until the rain of a week or so ago, fish must not be scarce.

One could hardly fail to notice the energetic wings beating in characteristic tern rhythm in the sky, swooping and swerving to shallow-dive or skim to scoop up fish from the water. All punctuated with short, sharp, high-pitched calls. Sands Beach is their outdoor accommodation, where any disturbance can fill the sky with white wings against a backdrop of surf and overcast sky.

Pelicans, egrets, cormorants, plovers, and other shorebirds were present in this bustling, full-of-life scene at Sands. What a mesmerizing afternoon. Kudos to all who have worked to preserve this wonderful place and its ever-growing number of different species.

(Coal Oil Point – Sands Beach – Terns with pelicans and cormorants)

(Coal Oil Point – Sands Beach – Terns disturbed)

(Coal Oil Point – Sands Beach – Elegant Terns bathing)

(Coal Oil Point – Devereux Slough – Snowy Egrets)