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Bay Area Ramblings

Arnel Guanlao, despite having a full-time job, spends his weekends wandering around the Bay Area checking out the trees, birds, wildflowers, critters, and whatever else crosses his path. Luckily for us, he enjoys sharing his findings with others. Here's his report dated May 27, 1998.

Hi Carol:

Despite the profusion of incredibly tall, choking grass, the wildflower bloom persists tenaciously at Ring Mountain Preserve, a unit of the Nature Conservancy on the outskirts of Corte Madera in Marin County. An interesting mix of late spring and early summer wildflowers abound, although they frequently can be found peeking between blades of grass or hugging the trailsides, where they can receive more light. What follows is a summary of my Memorial Day visit to this preserve.

I arrived at Ring Mountain shortly after dawn. A persistent breeze had already arisen by the time I reached the main trailhead. It had pestered me all weekend long, sometimes hurling showers my way as I was about to take "the" shot of the season, and it was not about to leave me alone just because the sun was now shining. Undeterred, I proceeded up the main trail, stopping for just a minute. Before me was a sea of grass, rippling with each breath of wind. It wasn't as green as it was even a week ago - bits of yellow and brown had crept into the overall color mix - but it must have been on average about three and a half feet tall. The little rivulets of the early spring were gone; where water once bounded over rocks in narrow watercourses down the "mountain," there was only dry earth. (I have no idea why this large hill is called a "mountain", but I will use the term here anyway, just to avoid confusion.)

The main trail began climbing up the northern flank of Ring Mountain, passing wave after undulating wave of grass. Floating about in the grass was a sprinkling of blossoms, the remnants of a much more impressive display just a few weeks ago. Here and there, I saw a few California blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum), false lupine (Thermopsis macrophylla var. macrophylla), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), fewflower clover (Trifolium olignanthum), ciliate clover (Trifolium ciliolatum), Ithuriel's spear (Triteleia laxa), bird's-foot lotus (Lotus corniculatus), California buttercup (Ranunculus californicus), checkerbloom (Sidalcea malvaeflora), and narrowleaf flax (Linum bienne). These blooms generally appeared in unimpressive one's or two's, so I passed them by.

A little further up the trail, maybe a third of the way up the mountain, I began to see a flourescent yellow explosion of common madia (Madia elegans). This very bright, daisy-like flower began to appear in dozens, then hundreds, and finally thousands, sometimes crowding themselves right along the trail, sometimes forming huge masses that sparkled through the grass. They were so bright that I almost needed sunglasses to look at them.

It might have been interesting to photograph the madias through the grass on an overcast day, but under these sunny conditions, there would have been too much contrast. Instead, I chose to focus on a single bloom, using extensions tubes and closeup filters to fill the frame with its intricate structure. And what a structure it was! With 50 mm of extension tubes and a +4 filter, I could discern the bumpy patterns on the flower head's main disk, each bump actually a tiny, unopened flowerette. Along the edge of the disk, a few of these flowerettes had opened like tiny, velvet stars. And arrayed all along the edge of the disk were the flowers many "petals" (actually also specialized flowerettes), magnified so much that they resembled butterfly wings. The wind persisted through the madia shot, but I wasn't about to let it defeat me. As I needed only a fairly shallow depth of field for the picture, I was able to maintain a high enough shutter speed to freeze the flower's motion. I simply waited for the lull between wind gusts when the flower wasn't flopping in and out of my frame, and then I took my shot. It took a bit of patience, but I was able to burn about a dozen shots this way, wind or no wind.

Approximately halfway up Ring Mountain, the trail began to pass through sizable serpentine outcroppings. Serpentine is a gray-green rock that appears in small patches throughout the Coast Range; normally poisonous to most plants, a number of species have adapted themselves to its presence, including a large number of California endemics. Where serpentine forms sizable outcroppings, as it did here, there is yet another advantage: the grasses in serpentine outcroppings tend to be stunted and sparse, as serpentine in large concentrations tends to be noxious to them, as well. Such was the case here. Instead of grass, there was a dense display of common wild onion (Allium lacunosum var. lacunosum), a species that only occurs on serpentine. It flourished in the pockets of dirt all over the outcroppings, in full bloom. Another species that flourished on these outcroppings was the cespitose stonecrop (Dudleya caespitosa), which clung tenaciously to cracks in the serpentine rocks themselves. In a way, the stonecrop resembled a candelabra: its basal rosette of leaves formed the candelabra's base, its thick red stems formed the individual candles, and its delicate yellow flowers tipped each stem like flames. The reds and yellows contrasted nicely with the gray-green of the rock, so I found a plant that was somewhat sheltered from the wind and worked on it for a while. A dozen shots later, I collected my equipment and pressed on.

The trail continued through more serpentine outcroppings, each outcropping covered with common wild onion, cespitose stonecrop, Ithuriel's spear, California poppy (Escscholzia californica), and tidy tips (Layia platyglossa). Lapping around the edges of the stonecroppings, the common madia flourished in abundance, often intermingling with the wild onion for an interesting mix of flowers. They also created an interesting mix of scents: the scent of the wild onion and the garlic-like scent of the madias was quite intense and carried a long distance on the wind. Sometimes the smell was so strong I thought I was in an Italian restaurant!

Three-quarters of the way up the mountain, I encountered a shallow saddle area between two summits, one to the west and one to the east. The serpentine here wasn't quite as pronounced, and I saw a different mix of flowers: Douglas' lupine (Lupinus nanus), chick lupine (Lupinus microcarpus var. microcarpus), purple owl's clover (Castilleja exserta ssp. exserta), smooth owl's clover (Triphysaria versicolor ssp. faucibarbata), Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla), narrowleaf mule's ears (Wyethia angustifolia), sour clover (Trifolium fucatum), broadleaf filaree (Erodium botrys), and sticky rosinweed (Calycadenia multiglandulosa). At first glance, the sticky rosinweed resembled a linanthus, but on closer inspection of a spent flower head, I discovered that it had the same seeds as daisies or other composites. The flower heads were also quite sticky from an oil the plant secretes to survive the hot, dry days of summer.

The saddle area was also a great place to look for turkey vultures, barn swallows, and horned larks. Found in grasslands throughout the state, the horned larks are attractive birds, with two black tufts of feathers on their crowns that form their distinctive "horns." I frequently saw the males swoop up out of the grass, land on a rock, and begin singing their tinkling, metallic song. However, I couldn't get very close to them. When I was maybe 50 feet away, they would dart away to a safer location. From the saddle area, I also saw some incredible views of Tiburon and the San Francisco waterfront. The views were so nice that I decided to climb the eastern summit to see if the views got better.

As I made the short but steep climb to the summit, I saw many of the same flowers that I had seen earlier; the common madia was especially abundant here. In addition, I also saw blow-wives (Achyrachaena mollis), redstem filaree (Erodium circutarium), summer mustard (Hirschfeldia incana), windmill pinks (Silene gallica), sourclover (Melilotus indica), climbing morning glory (Calystegia purpurata ssp. purpurata), bellardia (Bellardia trixago), pineapple weed (Chamomile suaveolens), scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), Douglas' sandwort (Minuartia douglasii), and Italian thistle (Carduus pycnocephalus). Unfortunately, there was no sign yet of the rare Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis), which blooms only at the top of Ring Mountain and nowhere else in the world. It's been a bit too wet for it lately; perhaps in a few weeks, as things dry out a bit more, it shall grace the mountaintop with its presence.

At last, I made it to the summit. Immediately in front of me, the southern flank of Ring Mountain made a steep descent. The city of Tiburon lay at its foot, and the San Francisco Bay lay just a bit further off. From there, I could see Alcatraz and the Oakland Bay Bridge, and the entire San Francisco waterfront. The view was incredible, and I stood there for maybe a good ten minutes, just soaking it in. By now, the light was too bright and contrasty for a good picture, but I must certainly return to this spot in the future for a few good cityscapes.

The sun was now high in the sky, and the wind was blowing fiercely, and opportunities for good photographs were now much diminished, so I began my descent back down the mountain. The wind was so fierce that the turkey vultures were now hugging the slopes, trying to conserve energy by staying out of the wind as much as possible. Within half an hour, I was back at the main trailhead and on my way home.

TO GET THERE: In the San Francisco Bay Area, take Highway 101 to the Paradise Drive exit in Corte Madera, approximately 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Go east on Paradise Drive about a mile and a half. When you pass Westward Drive, slow down; the trailhead will be a few hundred feet on your right.

1998 Arnel Guanlao