Toad in the Hole

April 29, 2006

Stroll Through the Devil's Backside

We went for a birds-n-bugs-n-posies stroll yesterday with our buds John and Mary, on bits of the Mitchell Canyon and White Canyon trails on Mount Diablo. Know how I've been bitching about the rain and cold and gray weather? Well, serves me right. Broiled ourselves, worked up a serious sweat just walking. Damn it was nice to have a different problem.

First thing was a rattlesnake on the road into the park. I had to do a panic swerve -- fortunately RAV4s don't flip over that easily -- to avoid squishing it, and then had to pull over and run back to be sure I hadn't hit it. I didn't know it was a rattler till I got close enough to see its four cute little rattles, and I was too rattled myself to remember to grab the camera. We all stood guard over it, from a safe distance, till it slithered off the nice warm asphalt and into a burrow beside the road. Pretty snake, though; you'll just have to take my word for it. Oddly greenish, though we're way out of range for Mojave rattler.

Joe and I have never been boarded by a tick out there before, but evidently they were raining from the trees yesterday; we kept finding them on each others' shirts, necks, ears. None of them got a bite out of us, which was a relief since there were both normal big and suspiciously little ones.

Deer ticks, which carry Lyme disease, are smaller than yer basic dog tick, which merely carries Rocky Mountain spotted fever. OK, not often, but it does occur here as well. We do have a modicum of protection from Lyme here thanks to the western fence lizard -- we saw several of those, as usual there -- who has some blood element that cures the juvenile ticks that commonly bite it of the Lyme spirochete. Really. I think that's just incredibly cool.

The occasion for the walk, aside from just wanting to go bird together in decent weather, was to see what's in, what's migrating through, and what's blooming. Major target was the Mount Diablo globe lily, Mount Diablo fairy lantern, Calochortus pulchellus. This is sort of a pilgrimage we make annually.

Hooray for us, they were there in good numbers, and it looks as if the bloom season is under way with more to come.

Two calochortus

I've never met a Calochortus I didn't like, even those Martian jobs from San Luis and Ring Mountain. They come in two forms, basically: upright -- sego lilies, mariposa tulips -- and dangling -- fairy lanterns, globe lilies. Their habit of growing on slopes and the banks beside trail cuts lets them catch slanting light and glow; the name makes sense when you see that. Except for there being no native fairies here, I guess.

Four calortus

They're bulb plants. The people here used to roast and eat the bulbs. Now that seems as horribly extravagant as dining on hummingbirds' tongues. Sometimes I suspect, in spite of the fact that I wouldn't be alive without a dose of industrial medicine, that we're in some important ways poorer than people who had this sort of sensual plenty. Of course, I also don't think that the only way we could arrive where we are technologically is to be as sloppy and dumb as we've been.

We saw golden eagles; redtailed hawks; a big Cooper's; Audubon's and myrtle and Wilson's warblers; black-headed grosbeaks; blue-gray gnatcatchers and bushtits; both hermit and Swainson's thrushes (an odd pairing and we all looked really hard at both, definitely a transition thing; Swainson's come here to breed and hermits come to winter); white-throated swifts; violet-green, barn, and who-knows swallows; California and spotted towhees; western bluebirds and robins; black phoebes and ash-throated flycatchers; a laggard ruby-crowned kinglet; house and lesser goldfinches (and saw goldfinches mating); white-crowned and golden-crowned sparrows, still in fair numbers; acorn, downy, and Nuttall's woodpeckers and red-shafted flicker; and heard wrentits and warbling vireos and (I'm pretty sure) a western tanager. I'm sure I left a few out, and I hope John and/or Mary will add them in comments. In short: The gang's all here.

The first buttterflies were out: Sara's orange-tip, anise (ahem, yampah!) swallowtail, common ringlet, some white whose tag I didn't get, California sister, California tortoiseshell, and a gorgeous verdigris-and-copper bramble hairstreak. (Try Google images for those.)

Odd and gratifying flower mix. I've always liked blue-eyed grass or grass iris, Sisirhynchium bellum, for its habit of looking like, yeah, grass and then Surprise! popping out those gorgeous little flowers. It's fairly easy to grow in the garden too, and if you pick your locality/variety well, you can have it at heights from an inch or two to a foot.

Blue-eyed grass

The California poppies have been cheering us up for a month or two now, but really they look most happy themselves in big sun.

California poppies

And there were still a couple of laggard shooting stars:

Shooting star

This season has been oddly out of step as well as annoyingly compressed. I'd like a few days of Spring between Winter and Summer, please.

But damn, it was a good day. And good company. E.g. a couple of California's best little-known hotshot naturalists:

Rare birds

Posted at April 29, 2006 05:19 AM


Oh what fun. I'm going out on a birdathon later this morning: the only regular I haven't seen/heard yet this year is ash-throated flycatcher. (A blue grosbeak flew right in front of me as I biked home on Thursday, though.)

Posted by: Pica at April 29, 2006 02:20 PM

Blue grosbeak! I'm green with envy!

Joe reminds me we had olive-sided flycatcher by ear too.

Posted by: Ron at April 29, 2006 03:25 PM

We also had a visible California thrasher, singing from a twisted stump at the top of a ridge in White Canyon, and at least one house wren. Add to butterflies California tortoiseshell and a small blue, either a silvery or a Boisduval's.

Posted by: Joe at April 29, 2006 03:35 PM

Thank you for the lovely flower pictures. Neat to see the calochortuses (calochorti?), but the poppies and the iris were unexpected bonuses which brought a flood of memories. As I think I've mentioned elsewhere, I'm a refugee from California fairly happily transplanted here on the east coast, but I have to say I do miss those poppies, especially mixed with lupine. I also miss springtime mountain hikes liberally sprinkled with tiny lizards doing push-ups on big beige boulders in the sun, not to mention the odd baby rattler making me jump out of my skin.

Never saw a live, full-grown one close up, just heard them in the brush -- or so I thought every time a seed head caught a breeze.


Posted by: Sara at April 29, 2006 10:13 PM

I've seen only a couple of rattlers in California myself, in spite of spending lots of time in their living rooms.

This trail has been good for herps over the years. We've seen a black racer, alligator lizards, and a horny toad as well as the usual suspects. A woman and her kid we encountered Thursday said they'd seen a garter snake. And on the other side of the same mountain, we once saw a whiptail lizard.

The season is odd this year. Normally we're mugged by dozens of patrolling checkerspot butterflies along with more of what was there this time. Maybe we were just early for them.

Posted by: Ron at April 30, 2006 05:09 PM

I, too, am getting a bout of California nostalgia. Hawaii, where I live now, has no snakes. And I do miss the poppies and lupines. I saw lots of rattlesnakes in the Berkeley Hills when I was growing up, and garter snakes were very common everywhere. There was a variety native only to the area around the Sharp Park Golf course that I used to see slithering through the grass there. Here's a thang about the San Francisco Garter Snake:

Posted by: Hattie at May 1, 2006 09:50 AM

Gorgeous pictures, thanks so much for sharing them. I'm looking forward to hiking up a few trails myself this year even more so, because I have a dog now. She's gonna love it. It's just starting to warm up in Virginia, the foilage is filling in nicely, maybe this upcoming weekend is a good time for a first hike!

Posted by: Amber at May 1, 2006 02:56 PM

Hattie, you've seen SF garters in the wild? Oh, I am so envious. I've seen them only in, get this, the Fresno Zoo, which has a breeding program. They're gorgeous.

Funny thing: The "Eaton" that Roberson indirectly quotes in the part about comouflage vs. warning colors is my Joe, who's sitting behind me right now in his Aloha shirt. (Which Joe wears only in camouflage colors. Has something to do with modest butchness.) The piece he quotes appeared in the now-extinct Faultline magazine, of which this blog is a fossil, hence that URL.

We're having a bit of Hawai'i nostalgia ourselves, having been there only twice (Oahu and Big Island) but being madly in love with it. Probably the nostalgia this time was induced by the kalua pig plate lunch we had yesterday.

Heh, maybe we should consider a week-or-two house swap. Aloha Airlines is still pitching cheap fares...

Amber, we didn't exactly have Spring here this year. Went straight from 50-degree-mud-and-rain to sunny summer (and one morning of August-style fog) like flipping a switch. Enjoy it back East for us, hey.

Posted by: Ron at May 1, 2006 03:30 PM

Yeah, I grew up in South Georgia where there's only two seasons: hot & humid (50 weeks of the year) and cold (2 weeks). So I can relate. Four seasons are nice, but somehow the predictability of that extreme weather was kinda nice.

Posted by: Amber at May 2, 2006 02:33 PM