Was running down the Chamberlain segment of the Backbone Trail Saturday, when a flash of bright red on a manzanita bush caught my eye.
Very bizarre, as nature often is. At first glance I thought the bulbous red objects on the manzanita were some kind of larvae, but on closer inspection could see it was a swelling of the leaf. My first thought was some kind of viral infection.
What they turned out to be are aphid induced leaf galls. Galls generally provide a protective habitat and enhanced food source for the inducing species and their tenants.
I was on the way back from Mugu Peak and about four hours into my run. I’d stopped at an exposure of Miocene age shale along the Upper Sycamore Trail. The gray-brown rubble is home to an intensely blue-purple wildflower called spreading larkspur (Delphinium patens ssp. hepaticoideum).
I’d just snapped a series of bracketed exposures of one patch of the flowers when suddenly there was the bumblebee-on-steroids buzzing of a hummingbird in front of me.
At least I thought it was a hummingbird. It sounded like a hummingbird and was about the right size. Its blurred wings were shaped like a hummingbird’s. It flew with the precision of a hummingbird, darting from flower to flower, deftly feeding on each blossom’s nectar using its oddly shaped beak.
But it wasn’t a hummingbird — it was a hummingbird moth — a white-lined sphinx (Hyles lineata). I’d read about hummingbird moths, but to have one suddenly appear and start feeding on a larkspur plant I happened to be photographing was extraordinary.
Apparently the problem of feeding on the high-energy nectar in certain types of flowers is sufficiently definitive as to have produced a very similar evolutionary solution in wildly different organisms.
The sphinx moth is described as flying like a hummingbird, but which lineage produced this elegant solution first? It may have been the moth! A trace fossil of a sphinx moth found in Early Eocene Asencio Formation of Uruguay appears to predate the earliest known Oligocene fossils of hummingbird-like birds! In any case it appears that both hovering moths and birds co-evolved with the flowering plants on which they feed and pollinate.
I had to stop running and take it all in. Soaked by recent rains, La Jolla Valley was renewed and green. To my right a meadowlark warbled its silvery call, and in the distance at first one and then another bird followed in song.
Isolated for weeks by the closure of Pacific Coast Highway and Pt. Mugu State Park, the La Jolla Loop Trail was trackless and in places overgrown. Wet with dew, the mustard choking the trail had soaked my shoes and socks.
Sprinkled among the greens were whites, purples, pinks, reds and yellows of the first stage of a wildflower explosion. A sweet scent drifted on the breeze. Running in the valley was like running in a remote and seldom-visited wilderness.
There had been much to see on the run from Wendy Drive. Before the Park closed in December I had surveyed the aftermath of the December 12 flash floods in Sycamore Canyon, Blue Canyon and Upper Sycamore Canyon. One of the reasons for today’s run was to see what had happened in this part of the Park.
Wood Canyon parallels Sycamore Canyon and is probably its largest tributary. Based on the height of the debris piled against the trees, the flash flood that roared down Wood Canyon must have been astounding! Looking down the stream course reminded me of flash floods I’d seen on creeks and streams during the El Nino’s of 1997-98 and 2004-2005.
Bowl-shaped La Jolla Valley is an independent drainage, separate from Sycamore and Wood Canyons and their tributaries. It acts like a huge rain collector and funnels all the runoff down deeply cut La Jolla Canyon to the ocean. In La Jolla Valley all the creeks were scoured by the flash flooding and the small footbridge west of the group campground was washed out. The vernal stock pool on the Loop Trail above La Jolla Canyon was once again full.
In recent years the drought has dramatically reduced the number and variety of wildflowers blooming in the Santa Monica Mountains. Not so this year. Since October 1 Camarillo Airport has recorded 7.0 inches of rain, which is about 92% of normal. Last year over the same period only 0.84 inch had been recorded.
La Jolla Valley and Mugu Peak can be busy places, but today it was just me and the meadowlarks.
Update February 3, 2015. According to the Ventura Star six miles of Pacific Coast Highway from Las Posas Road to the Sycamore Cove Day-use Area reopened today providing access to Pt. Mugu State Park from the south. Note that the La Jolla Canyon Trail is still closed and likely to be for some time.
More often than not when you run down a mountain, you’ve also had to climb up it. Not so today. Today our Mt. Diablo run started on the summit of Mt. Diablo (3849′), worked over to North Peak (3557′), and then descended the Bald Ridge, Eagle Peak and Mitchell Rock Trails to the trailhead at the Mitchell Canyon Interpretive Center and Ranger Station.
I was more than happy to save the ascent of Mt. Diablo for another day. With the AC100 just a couple months away my mileage has been on the increase. Yesterday, after driving up to San Francisco, Brett had taken me on a run on Mt. Tamalpais. Earlier today I’d done a run to Fort Point and this afternoon would be doing another run when we returned to the city.
Except for an astoundingly steep and slippery section of service road between Prospector’s Gap and North Peak, today’s run was nearly all single track trail. Not the “cruise downhill, don’t have to think about it” kind of single track, but technically interesting single track that tries hard to find a way to trip you up and knock you down.
One of the reasons for doing Diablo was to see if we could find the rare and endangered Mount Diablo fairy lantern (Calochortus pulchellus). There were a surprising number (50-100) of the yellow flowers along the North Peak and Bald Ridge Trails. It might be assumed that this was due to the area being burned in the September 2013 Morgan Fire, however there appeared to be as many instances of the plant outside the burn area as inside. I think there is another explanation.
The unusual pattern of rainfall that we experienced this rain season in Southern California was replicated across much of the state, including the Bay Area. As of February 1 San Francisco Airport (KSFO) had recorded only 1.5 inches of rain since July 1 and storms in February and early March accounted for a large part of this season’s rainfall.
This pattern of rainfall, sun and temperature appears to have favored wild lilies, particularly mariposa lilies of the genus Calochortus, such as the Mt. Diablo fairy lantern. The butterfly mariposa (Calochortus venustus) was very widespread on Mt. Diablo, numbering in the thousands. It appears to fill a similar ecological niche as the Catalina mariposa (Calochortus catalinae) in the Santa Monica Mountains. The Catalina mariposa was also very abundant this year, along with some other members of the Lily family.
For most of the Winter it looked like there would be very few wildflowers this Spring in the Santa Monica Mountains. The drought had taken its toll, and many chaparral plants were in survival mode. Most were desiccated, some were diseased and a few were dying. Winter-bloomers such as wishbone bush, prickly phlox, shooting star, big berry manzanita and big pod Ceanothus were practically nonexistent.
Then it rained. From February 26 to March 2 many areas of Southern California recorded more than four inches of rain. Los Angeles had the most rain over five days since 2010. Although the rain didn’t end the drought, it did end one of the driest periods in 100 years, and brought crucial relief to the plants and animals.
The response to the rain was virtually immediate and has continued throughout the Spring. The rain resuscitated the vegetation and wildlife and revived habitats. Now, when you run, hike or ride a trail in the Santa Monica Mountains, if you don’t look too closely, the growth and flowering of plants in the chaparral appears to be almost normal.
Rainfall in the area has been only about 40% of normal, but in a few cases plants have responded as if the rain season had been much wetter. Plants fill more than geographical niches in an ecosystem. They fill sub-seasonal niches of rainfall, temperature, sunlight and other parameters. If rainfall occurs at an optimum time or in an optimum pattern for a plant, its benefits can be amplified. The large number of Catalina mariposa lily and wild hyacinth blooming this Spring demonstrate this effect. The growth of non-native black mustard is also more robust and widespread than might have been expected.
Here’s a slideshow of some of the wildflowers currently blooming in the Topanga State Park area of the Santa Monica Mountains. All of the photographs are from this morning’s 12-something mile loop to Trippet Ranch from the “end of Reseda” at Marvin Braude Mulholland Gateway Park.