Alder and Owl

On a whim, and only after the sky seemed to be clearing, I set out on Saturday (January 16th), the last day before a two-week rain stretch. The exploration was along Happy Canyon Road and then Sunset Valley Road. While looking for plants, I eyed the many bare roadcuts and thought of the projected rain of 20 inches, rock/mud slides and lengthy road closures.

(Alder – male catkins on leafless trees)

It was an interesting trip. The flowering of the many Alder trees was quite impressive, and a first for me. The Alder tree is one of the catkin trees, monoecious (meaning one home) where the male and female catkins are on the same tree. The longer male catkins were numerous and abundant, and covered the many upward curving leafless branches. Only after flowering do the new leaves appear, probably to allow more effective wind-based pollen dispersal.

(Alder – male and female catkins)

The female catkins are shorter and rounder, and in a few months open to release small ripened, winged fruit much like conifer cones. Thereafter, the scaly bracts of the female catkin harden to form small cones that remain on the tree.

(Peony – Sunset Valley Road)

Judging from the many large patches of Fiesta Flower leaves, it is going to be a Fiesta spring. Other observations: many new leaves, some recognized some not; a few poppies here and there, one Bigelow Coreopsis, many Currant, some Solanum, more Bigberry Manzanita, a couple Peony and quite a few Prickly Phlox.

(Western Screech Owl – Sunset Valley Road – Click image for larger version)

Driving back from Nira campground, while passing a stand of leafless trees I noticed a hole in one of the trees, and then after a few yards, another with what appeared to be an owl. Sometimes, from a distance, certain leaf and branch shapes remind one of animals. So, I stopped the car keeping it running, hauled out the long lens to check and indeed it was an owl. I took a few photos, and then noticed that the ISO level was a bit high. I pulled the lens back into the car, and after changing the settings, tried again – but the owl had disappeared. All over in a couple minutes, but since it was a Western Screech Owl, it was worth stopping. Click on the arrow below for the sound of a Western Screech Owl recorded from the back of my house some months ago.

A plant with wintery, woollen attire

Silktassel, a dioecious shrub has two  kinds  of plant – male and female, each with its own kind of catkin – i.e this species has two “homes”, where di=two and oeci=home, creating the term dioecious.

The catkins start growing in late summer and consist of tightly packed fluffy bracts. During winter, the male staminate catkins elongate with “flowers” emerging from the sequence of fluffy bracts, before producing pollen. If one brushes against the catkins, powdery pollen spills out. Some of this pollen is seen in photos of the catkins. Bees and predatory ladybugs harvest the pollen.

(Silktassel – male staminate catkins)

(Silktassel – pollen on male catkins)

The much shorter female catkins, on the other hand, maintain the tightly packed bracts, from which the styles protrude.

(Silktassel – female catkins)

To help identify this plant, Garrya veatchii, the leaves had to be examined. According to Jepson, veatchii and elliptica have leaves covered in woolly hairs. The characteristics separating these two species are not very definitive, but having looked at photos of the two plants, the leaf shapes are different.

(Silktassel – underside of  leaves of Garrya veatchii)

The catkins on this winter-flowering plant are very intriguing. While observing the fluffy bracts, one wonders if the bracts duplicate the function of a woolly winter cap. When the male catkins elongate, the flowers are very airy with small vents that probably allow air movement to disperse the pollen. A curtain of catkins could also provide a porous wind break for pollen-seeking insects. Photographing the insects was frustrating because they kept disappearing behind the lacy drapes of staminate catkins.

(Silktassel – Ladybug)

Otherwise, autumn leaves have mostly fallen, leaving blue-gray skeletons of Blue Oak and white trunks of Sycamore. Newly flowering plants include more numerous Milkmaids, a scattering of Buttercups, one or two Fiddlenecks, and very few Bigberry Manzanita.

(Bigberry Manzanita)

Some notable birds were a pair of seemingly young Red-tailed Hawks along Figueroa Road (I keep hoping to see a Golden Eagle). One of the Red-tailed Hawks was seen flying with legs extended, something I had only seen with paired White-tailed Kites – maybe many hawks do this? One can hardly fail to notice the Band-tailed Pigeons and Acorn Woodpeckers along Alisal Road, even while driving.

(Band-tailed Pigeon)

From the “meadow” on Figueroa Mountain, the views toward the ocean (always into the sun) are spectacular.

Cachuma Lake
(Santa Cruz Island, Santa Ynez Mountains and Valley,
Cachuma Lake & H154 – Click picture for larger image)

Learning by doing: having delved into the world of local botany for the first time in 2002 at a late age, when the only local plant I knew was California Poppy, photographing and writing about them helps to slowly assimilate the vast world of botany terminology — even if I don’t always get it right.