Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Nest; Our 2nd Visit

We were so pleased with our last visit; we decided to make a second trip to see the condor nest at Pinnacles. Over the years I have kept a keen eye on the various California condor recovery programs. Sometimes I feel as though there is an undiscovered wildlife biologist somewhere inside of me. Wildlife issues have always been a point of passion for me, but I find the whole condor story to be an especially interesting and compelling one. It speaks to me more about the state of contemporary humankind than of the condors themselves. It is important to understand that the condors are not being coddled away from so called “natural selection” like some flying dinosaur unable to cope with change. The truth is; every one of the challenges they face are man-made. This is why human intervention was necessary for the condors to have a chance. It is my opinion that our successful efforts in helping them regain their rightful place in the ecosystem, and to protect the wild spaces in which they live, represent the best examples of why humankind itself will ultimately overcome our own challenges, and thrive into the future.

We decided to park at the Chaparral parking lot on the west side and hike the Balconies section, Cliffs Trail, before heading up to the view point. It turned out to be a beautiful day, and we were not about to waste it. We were treated to an outstanding display of wild flowers while hiking around amongst the rocks and along the Chalone creek. Based on what we know about this condor family, we tried to time our arrival up at the viewpoint at about the time we expected at least 1 of the 2 parent condors would likely be leaving to search, or returning with food. There were 4 people at the viewpoint when we got there. Jess, the biologist we met last visit, was there with a young intern from the program named Laura, a volunteer ranger named Joe, and another volunteer who had climbed up onto some rocks, and was tracking the birds with a little receiver. I didn't ever get his name. We found out that the mother had already been on the wing that day earlier, and her signal was to the south. Some other hikers had also spotted condors on the wing earlier while on the High Peaks Trail. We spent some time talking to the Jess, Joe, and Laura while park visitors who happened to hike by were invited to look into one of two spotting scopes they had set up. We could see the little grey chick moving inside the nest while the father remained crouched close by. About an hour later, the mother returned to the nest by some route that was out of our vision. Using the spotting scopes, we watched and could see her feeding the chick, its little grey wings flapping away. We were then able to watch what appears to be the parent’s daily bonding ritual. The parent birds took to flight and soared in unison high above the nest, mimicking each others flight paths and movements like stunt planes in formation. They glided around banking into swooping arcs and lazy figure eights. They are a marvel to watch because they move their wings so little. Their wings are kept straight and level and they use the thermals and air currents for lift. Their wings have large flight feathers which they use to generate lift just like the flaps on an airplane. They are very good at saving energy during extended flight. Their instinctive skills would easily put a human hang glider to shame, and those guys can stay up for hours. This was all occurring at fairly great distance. We were using binoculars to follow them. When they finished their aerial bonding the father returned to the nest to watch the chick while the mother soared very high above as she glided off to the south, probably to search for more food. She flew right over our location maybe 200 feet above us, and I could read her tags with my binoculars. She did not come close like last time, but with binoculars it was still another awesome demonstration of flying skills. Later on we began hiking back to the Chaparral parking lot while enjoying some great wild flower displays on that side. Pinnacles really has an amazing diversity of wild flowers which changes throughout the season, and right now is really a great time. It was another great day.

Click here to see the pictures from this visit

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

SBM trip 2

Thanks to some help from some of my flickr contacts I finally did identify all of the flower pictures from our last hike at San Bruno Mountain. Sometimes I’m amazed by the depth of knowledge that can exist in a simple photo sharing group. So, having accomplished that, we decided we would go back for another look as we had vowed to do. We came away from our last visit thinking we were too early for the best displays, and we really wanted to see more. We had also run out of time and only hiked a short section of the Ridge Trail, and I wanted to take a look out there on that rolling ridgetop. We were hoping for a nice day with enough sunshine to bring out the bloom’ age, but weather in this area can be unpredictable. Lest we forget Candlestick Park with all of its weather lore is closeby, right across the causeway. It’s good to be prepared and we were geared up for possible unsettled conditions. What we got was windy and chilly conditions all day, and we were pelted with light rain a few times which came in at a about a 45 degree angle. The sun was out only briefly for about 10 minutes in the afternoon, and the visibility was poor, but the hike was plenty worthwhile anyway. Even these conditions couldn’t spoil our fun, and the flowers also seemed to brave the elements, displaying themselves for some seasonal frolicking. The views weren’t very good, but at least it didn’t rain enough to get the trails muddy. We hiked the summit loop in the opposite direction from the way we had gone a couple of weeks ago. Lots of species were out and overall this was a better trip than a couple of weeks ago, but I was especially impressed with the scattered displays of Iris on the lower summit loop, and by the varieties of Paintbrush showing in shades from yellow, to orangey, to deep red. And even some which seemed to have an identity crisis showing in multiple hues. I got some really interesting input on my pictures of paintbrush from our last trip. Out on the Ridge Trail I most enjoyed the nice clusters of Hummingbird Sage and Franciscan Wallflower, and the smell of all the blue colored Ceanothus was wafting everywhere. Even the blustery Candlestick wind could not dispatch the fragrance from the nostrils of ramblers. The delicate yellow Wallflower also has a really great smell if you get close to it. The Franciscan variety is classified as rare and endangered, but it seems to thrive here. I still think we haven’t seen the best yet, but considering the conditions, I was surprised we got the robust displays we saw on this trip. We might even come back again.

Click here to view the pictures on flickr

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Winter’s Last Hurrah

We’re having one of those strange years here in this part of California. Most often, we get an early spring here. Trees often start blossoming in mid-February while basking in sunshine, only to experience the return of winter-like conditions later. Most of our precipitation comes from the tropics, but if a weather system rolls in from the north we get a late season cold snap. Local peaks will get a dusting of snow, and the sierras get good fresh powder in April. Skiers and snowboarders relish this phenomenon, and the resort owners celebrate it as though it was some kind of high country economic stimulus program. But this provides possibilities for hikers too. So just when we were contemplating storing away the winter gear, suddenly there was opportunity for snowshoeing. When we were invited to take a day trip to visit the Eldorado National Forest we jumped at the chance. One last hurrah before winter fades into memory.

Sierra at Tahoe has some dedicated snowshoe trails, but with the new storm depositing plenty of new snow you wouldn’t be restricted to them. Actually the trails were a little hard to discern because most of the markers had not been placed properly. In the national parks, the cross country skiing and snowshoeing trails have markers placed in the trees which stay there all year. But at this privately owned resort, the trail markers are mounted on poles which have to be placed at the right time, set into the snow, and become anchored there. We found several groups of them in piles near the trail which had not been set in place, and with the new snow, had now been anchored where they were as though it were some kind of art sculpture. Without having any GPS tracks, we had found our way along one trail by using the occasional tree mounted markers, but we had been meandering all over the place looking for them. Later on one of the resort employees was using a snow machine to pack the trails with its track. That made things a lot easier. Until then we had been taking turns breaking trail, which blows away any kind of health club equipment for providing a good overall aerobic workout. We hiked a couple of loop trails and got some nice views of the nearby mountains and valleys. I really love the pine scented air, and beautiful stillness of the wintery forest resplendent in pure white.

Click here to see my photos on flickr
Click here to see Dave's photos on