Category Archives: running

Painted Lady Butterflies in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve

Painted Lady Butterflies in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve. May 12, 2019.

Back in March, a profusion of painted lady butterflies in Southern California made headlines. The colorful insects were said to be passing through the area on their way to Oregon and other points to the north.

Two months later millions of the black, orange and white butterflies continue to be seen in the West San Fernando Valley, Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (Ahmanson Ranch), and other areas. Recently there has been an uptick in their numbers and there have been some remarkable displays of the flyers along local trails.

Painted lady in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve with the characteristic four eyespots on the hindwing.
Painted lady in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve with the characteristic four eyespots on the hindwing. Click for a larger image.

There are three very similar species of “lady” butterflies in the genus Vanessa — the painted lady (Vanessa cardui), the American lady (Vanessa virginiensis) and the west coast lady (Vanessa annabella). The Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility web site has a side-by-side comparison of these species and this post on BugGuide.net compares the American lady to the painted lady.

The lady butterflies I’ve looked at closely in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve have the identifying characteristics of the painted lady (Vanessa cardui). Here are an open-wing photo and a closed-wing photo of painted lady butterflies in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve.

This three-minute slow-motion video of painted lady butterflies in upper Las Virgenes Canyon reveals their fluid, bird-like flight. The purple flowers in the video are winter vetch, an introduced plant which is also more abundant this year.

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Guardian Oaks

Young valley oaks and coast live oaks at the edge of the canopy of large valley oak in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve.

One day while running at Ahmanson Ranch, I was admiring the stately limbs of a large valley oak, and noticed that along the margin of the canopy were several sapling oaks. As I continued my run, I found that only a few other valley oaks hosted a brood of young trees.

That oaks would sprout on the margin of the canopy made sense. There is an abundance of acorns at the ends of the limbs. It is also where water drips from the oak’s leaves on foggy days or when there is light rain or drizzle. The mix of sun and shade on the edge of the canopy is the perfect place for a young oak to thrive.

The surprise came when I took a closer look at the young trees. Most were valley oaks — the same as the shepherding tree — but in some cases the young trees were coast live oaks! And sometimes there was no obvious parent coast live oak nearby.

Of course, there are plenty of coast live oaks at Ahmanson and several ways for their acorns to find their way under a valley oak. Birds and squirrels love to stash acorns, and gravity is good at moving round things downhill.

Time is at a different scale for a tree. In my mind’s eye I accelerated time and watched as the young oaks surrounding a guardian oak grew in stature. Fire sweeps through the frame on several occasions. During one fire the old brood tree collapses and in another fire, the collapsed tree disappears from the frame. Of the young oaks that have survived, one dominates, spreading its limbs and growing large and robust. Along the margins of its canopy, I can see several sapling oaks…

Note: The young oaks in the title photo are an older brood that survived the Woolsey Fire, but many younger sapling oaks were killed. Introduced grasses, black mustard, and other introduced plants produce higher fuel loads than native equivalents and increase fire mortality.

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Two Sides of Strawberry Peak

Strawberry Peak's Northwest Ridge
Northwest ridge of Strawberry Peak.

Where did the trail go? Rejuvenated by substantial Winter rains, the whitethorn on Strawberry Peak was not only impinging on the trail, but also my arms. I took my running sleeves out of a pocket of my pack and pulled them on. That helped, and I was able to push through some thorny limbs to the next clear section of the path.

Chaparral whitethorn blocking the use trail along Strawberry Peak's northwest ridge.
Chaparral whitethorn blocking the use trail along Strawberry Peak’s northwest ridge. Click for larger image.

When following an overgrown trail I’ve learned to trust the “sense” of the trail. Even if it doesn’t look like there is a route forward, if you just take a few steps a seemingly impassible trail often becomes passable. I sometimes look at the trail behind me to confirm I’ve really been following a trail, and am continuing its path. If it doesn’t open up, I backtrack to see where I went wrong.

Winding through the thick brush along Strawberry Peak’s northwest ridge, I was happy to see that all of the Poodle-dog bush along the route had finally withered and died. Poodle-dog bush is fire-follower that causes dermatitis in many people. It became very widespread in the San Gabriel Mountains following the 2009 Station Fire. Reported reactions varied from a very mild rash to a severe rash with blistering. The troublesome plant must serve some role in the fire recovery process, but I’m glad its cycle is near its end.

It seemed like it was going to be a quiet day on Strawberry. The loop I was doing began at the Colby Canyon trailhead and I’d been the first to park there. The few tracks on the trail were old and the only people I’d seen were a group of mountain bikers at Josephine Saddle. The view from the mountain was spectacular. A sea of low clouds lapped at the mountain slopes and washed into the canyons, bringing with it a feeling of wanderlust and vitality.

Colby Canyon from near the top of Strawberry Peak's northwest ridge.
Colby Canyon from near the top of Strawberry Peak’s northwest ridge. Click for larger image.

Finally reaching the steeper part of Strawberry’s fragmented northwest ridge I climbed up the initial sandy ledges to an area of somewhat better rock, taking care not to slip on the ball-bearing grains of decomposing granite. Generally, the rock improves somewhat with height. Higher on the ridge, I enjoyed doing a couple of optional boulder moves that were a little more technical. (I’d done these before and knew they were not a dead-end.)

Reaching the top of the ridge, I could hear conversation and laughter above me. From the summit ridge I could see there were people on and near the summit. I threaded my way to the summit, greeting the hikers along the way. On the summit, a small dog said hi, and I treated my new friend to an obligatory neck scratch.

In nearly five decades of doing the peak, I’d never seen so many people on the peak. I had forgotten that Angeles Crest Highway was closed at Red Box due to a rock slide. With snow in the high country and the great Spring weather, Strawberry Peak was a very popular place.

Running down to Red Box I’d encountered many more hikers, some smiling, some not, but most were enjoying being on the trail. That’s the thing about the outdoors, it just feels good to be out there.

Related post: Strawberry Peak, Switzer’s and the Old Colby Trail

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Weekday Wildflowers

Goldfields along a trail in Upper Las VIrgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve

Many of my weekday runs are on the trails of Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (formerly Ahmanson Ranch).

In the wake of the Woolsey Fire and our wet rain year, the hills of Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve have been covered with a dense carpet of green that has recently transitioned into a sea of mustard yellow. The grasses have now gone to seed and the hills will soon turn a summery-blond.

At first glance, just about all you see at Ahmanson Ranch is the green and yellow. But if you look closer, intermixed with the black mustard and other introduced plants are a variety of wildflowers.

In a few areas of the Preserve, there are large patches of native wildflowers, but it is more common for the native flowers to have to battle introduced plants for growing space. Some species are more successful than others.

Here is a slideshow of the wildflowers I’ve been seeing on my weekday runs, along with some comments and the date the photo was taken. Some of my weekday runs extend into Cheeseboro Canyon, so wildflowers from that area are also included. Additional photos may be added as the season progresses.

The yellow flowers along the trail on which Lynn is running are goldfields. As of April 10, there were still patches of goldfields blooming in the Lasky Mesa area.

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The First Snakes of Spring

Red-tailed hawk with gopher snake at Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (aka Ahmanson Ranch).

When I left the house to drive over to Ahmanson Ranch, the temperature in West Hills was 92 °F. It had been five months since it was that warm.

It’s been my experience that the first hot weather of Spring is often associated with an uptick of snake sightings. Over the past seven days or so, I’d seen a very young rattlesnake and a  couple of small gopher snakes, but so far, that was it. With the warm weather, I thought I might see a snake on my run today, I just didn’t expect it to be in this manner.

Lost in thought, I was just about to the entrance of Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (aka Ahmanson Ranch) when I was startled by a large red-tailed hawk flying from right to left directly in front of me. Something long was dangling from its talons.

I stopped and watched as the raptor, fumbling with a large snake, awkwardly flew onto the top of a street light. The snake was dangling precariously from the light, and the bird seemed to be having a little trouble holding it.

The snake looked relatively heavy-bodied, and at the time I thought it might be a rattlesnake. That brought to mind a story of a hawk somehow dropping a rattlesnake into a car. However improbable, I didn’t want to approach the hawk and frighten it. I have enough problems with rattlesnakes on the ground and don’t need them falling from the sky.

I got what photos I could with my phone and headed out for a run.

You know how it is when you’ve seen a snake — anything sinuous on the trail sets off the brain’s snake alert. During my run I saw a couple of stick snakes, but no real ones. Finishing my run, I pressed the Start/Stop button on my watch and started walking across the parking lot.

Red-tailed hawk waiting to retrieve a dropped gopher snake at Ahmanson Ranch.
Red-tailed hawk waiting to retrieve a dropped gopher snake.

What? I squinted my eyes… Was the hawk still perched on the street light? No way, more than an hour had passed!

Continuing across the parking lot, I could see the hawk was still there, but where was the snake?

Cautiously, I approached the light post. I didn’t want to agitate the hawk or stumble onto an upset rattlesnake.

Sometime during my run, the hawk had dropped the snake — a gopher snake — and was waiting to retrieve it. It lay upside down on the street — sans its head. Rattlesnake or not, the hawk had removed the dangerous bit first.

I’ll be curious to see if the snake is still in the street tomorrow.

Update April 11, 2019. The following day (Tuesday) no trace of the snake remained, but the red-tailed hawk was still there — perched on an adjacent street light. On Wednesday the bird was gone.

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Wildflowers, a Waterfall, and Recovering from the Woolsey Fire

The Chamberlain segment of the Backbone Trail in Pt. Mugu State Park.

The sun had not yet risen and the poppies along Danielson Road were still tightly furled against the morning’s chill. The purl of Upper Sycamore Creek resonated in the canyon below — a wonderful tone that in recent years has too often been squelched by drought.

I was running to the Old Boney Trail and the start of the ridge that follows along Boney Mountain’s western escarpment to the massif’s huge summit plateau. Several of the Santa Monica Mountains highest peaks are on this plateau, including the range’s highest peak, Sandstone Peak.

In December I’d climbed this route to check the impact of the Woolsey Fire on the area. From the top of the ridge I’d been disheartened by what I saw. Tri Peaks and Sandstone Peak and much of the top of the Boney Mountain massif were a blackened, barren mess.

Now, three months later, I was headed back to Boney Mountain and would continue to Sandstone Peak for the first time since the fire.

Here are a few photos taken along the way.

Related post: After the Woolsey Fire: Boney Mountain and Pt. Mugu State Park

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