As I take a late spring, early morning walk at the edge of the woods not far from the creek in southern Middletown, it feels like a luxury to drink in the sounds of these surroundings. I note the scolding squawks of several blue jays in the oaks. They appear to be distressed at the sight of a pair of crows as they near the jay’s nests. In contrast to the cacophony above, the mellifluous sounds of the creek invite me to come closer. As I arrive at a clearing, a Forest Alligator Lizard is sitting as still as a stone in the sunlight. This is the second one I have seen this month! Wanting to watch this elusive and long-bodied creature I step ever closer.
You have, no doubt seen some of the many tremendous osprey nests throughout the county. There are fine examples of osprey architecture near the roundabout at Hartman Road in Middletown, both Rodman Park and Rodman Slough, Clear Lake State Park, and more. These impressive birds build magnificent structures in which to lay eggs and raise their young. With an unmistakable cry the osprey calls out, then the 26 inches-in-length bird can be viewed at its nest as high as 60 feet above the Earth, where it constructed its nest near a fishing hole.
Since our state enjoys a temperate climate we play host to a variety of plant species, both invasive and native, who also thrive here. Paul Aigner explained, “Most of the state’s grasslands are dominated by non-natives.” He went on with some questions for us that also interest farmers, State Park’s Departments and many others, “How realistic is it to get rid of a particular invasive? How does it reduce biodiversity here?” What helps ranchers may hinder places like parks and preserves. The study of invasives brings up the question of just what defines a weed or a problem plant?
What’s not to love about these charming little beetles? Birds love them, gardeners are devoted to the creatures; and children love to get up close and personal with the crimson cuties. While walking with friends at Anderson Marsh on the McVicar trail we began to note a small swarm of what we called ‘ladybugs’ flitting and flying along the trail with us. Later, we learned that insect geeks or entomologists are using the name ‘ladybird beetle’ or ‘lady beetle’ since they are not true bugs. A bug, which is a type of insect, has a three-part body and belongs to the order of insect called Hemiptera. It’s amazing to know that these creatures belong to the almost 6,000-species ladybird beetle family, or Coccinellidae. I neglected to bring my hand-lens on the hike, but these may have been convergent ladybugs, the most common species in North America. In 2019 a cluster of ladybugs, known as a bloom or a loveliness, was so large it was spotted on the National Weather Service radar in southern California. This bloom was noted at 5,000 to 9,000 feet in the air.
The western, or California redbud, or Cercis orbiculata, is in the legume family and reaches a height of about 20 feet where it grows in pine forests, riparian and oak woodlands, and in poor soils. Since it is a drought-tolerant plant, it is well adapted for California. The redbud has been, and still is, a key plant for Indigenous culture for centuries. It has been utilized by dozens of Native groups, or tribes as a plant of significance in basket weaving. Tribal elders speak of redbud’s use over its lifespan when the trees are maintained, cared for, and pruned regularly in order that they produce long, fresh sprouts for switches in basket making. This practice also assures that the plants grow and thrive with fewer scars.
A late winter walk along some of Lake County’s creeks, ponds wetlands, and lakes may reward you with sightings of the only native freshwater turtle along the west coast region of the United States on down to Baja California. This once-prolific reptile is a slow-mo treat to watch as it s-l-o-w-l-y emerges from Cache Creek to sun itself upon a long, warm log. There it will sit, striking a pose until- kerplunk! It takes a turtle leap into the water until the perceived threat has passed.
The formation of Lake County’s obsidian gave the Indigenous people here material for innumerable tools and trade items. Anthropologists called the villages which once lined lakes, streams, and valleys here for thousands of years in what is now Lake County ‘city states’. Then, the Pomo, Wappo, Miwok, Yuki, and Patwin peoples thrived here. Famed anthropologist A. L. Kroeber described this area as one of the most diverse cultural areas in all of the United States.
Blue Lakes, are actually two lakes along Highway 20 in beautiful Upper Lake. Tiny in proportion to Clear Lake, Upper Blue Lake and its sister, Lower Blue Lake add another dimension to Lake County’s natural beauty. As you pull off of the highway along Cold Creek Canyon the beauty of this steep and wooded mountain landscape shows off its 2 miles of lakes that attain a width of 650 feet. The twin lakes differ from Clear Lake in more than size. Since they are not nutrient-rich, they do not contain the varied plant life that thrives in shallow, eutrophic Clear Lake. Here is where quiet prevails in the unspoiled environment since no motorboats are allowed. You may, instead, opt for paddle boats, kayaks or electric pontoon boats.
I inhaled the scent of the rich riparian setting which always enlivens me with its vegetal and true terrestrial perfume. I did not wait long, when an ever-growing string of bubbles erupted from beneath the water, then, as if by magic a river otter poked its head above the water’s rim with a fish in its mouth! It sidled aboard a large branch protruding from the center of the water-way and gnawed on its catch. Next, it proceeded with its catch under the waters as I watched its bubble-trail once again, which led to the shore this time. The midmorning sun shone on its silky fur and dripped to the muddy shore, as it continued consuming its prey. Next, to my delight, a Great blue heron that had been standing just ‘off stage’, began to slowly sidle up to the river otter as though to say, “Don’t mind me, I’ll just help myself to some of what you’re having!” But the river otter wanted no part of that scenario, and promptly took his now half-devoured fish back to the watery depths, choosing to dine on the privacy of the big branch.
A weekend walk in the woods along the Boggs Ridge Nature Trail is always a treat. Not to be confused with the nearby, but much larger Boggs Mountain Demonstration State Forest, this little park is situated behind Cobb Elementary School in a quiet woodland of around 50 acres. It is located within the Putah and Cache Creek Watersheds, and is a living outdoor classroom to the fortunate school children up here. Pine perfumes the air creating a sort of live incense, while underfoot a cushion of pine needles absorbs sound to render this walk hushed and cathedral-like in its ambiance.
Exceedingly beautiful today, with its patchwork quilt of varying hues of green, the valley views as seen from the top of the Meadow Overlook trail once proclaimed a lush native oak habitat. Before settlers cleared the valley for orchards with their many acres of prolific pears and grapevines the valley was home for thousands of years for the peoples of ancient times called the Xa-Ben-Na-Po Pomo Indians.
Snowfall is such a rarity in Lake County, that when it arrives silently as Sandburg’s fog on little cat feet, it evokes elation in many of us. Wintry haikus are created on each bough, and cap the ordinary with glitter, giving one pause at the little miracles falling from above. More times than not, snow falls but once or twice a year in Lake County, with the exception of Cobb Mountain, elevation 4,721 feet and other high points in the county such as Mt. Konocti at 4,304 feet, and of course, resplendent Snow Mountain with its 7,043 foot elevation.
After a break in the recent and glorious rains, I went out to ‘read the mud’ on a few hiking trails, and view the sand-scape of a creek’s sandbar that has been wiped clean as an old-fashioned chalkboard. I was also hoping to do some snow-reading, but the recent snowfall in our county didn’t quite drop enough of the wet, white stuff to create a literary animal-scape for tracking critters in the snow. I don’t always know whose tracks I’m seeing, but frequenting the same spots, again and again, gives me a pretty good idea, since I know which creatures I’ve seen there in the past.
Bald eagles, seen across much of North America, are expert at constructing huge nests around wetland habitats, that are five to nine feet in diameter and around three feet deep. The grand birds use the nests year after year Expert at fishing, bald eagles feed on various species of fish using their specialized hooked beak, along with their powerful orange talons.
When minuscule ice crystals appear as though by magic on ground, grass and windows, an artist’s palette of wonder can be found in our own backyards in the form of frost. Then, the delicate and fleeting structures created by frost leave their fanciful sculptures and swirls all across the landscape. But the star-shaped crystals seem to melt away with such speed, you are left wondering if they ever existed in the first place. Frost begins during wet, winter conditions when moisture freezes up, clinging to branches, leaves and your car’s windshield. Patterns which frost deposits can range from symmetrical and mathematical, like fractals, to an even layer of sugar-like crystals.
Now, the layers of texture in newly-fallen leaves near the gnarly bark of an oak tree provide a texture treat for all of our senses. Pungent leaf-litter decay- nature’s perfume in fall, along with the kaleidoscopic color of said leaf-litter when the green-machine of chlorophyll stops or slows down allowing other pigments in leaves to become show-offs all vie for our attention. As you slide your hand over the rough surface of tree bark feel the total contrast of the moss cloak it is wearing. The perky green plant feels feathery, creating a wild and natural juxtaposition, the abrasive quality contrasting with wispy and soft moss. Glide your eyes farther up the tree to the beard lichen that is sometimes called Spanish moss. It hangs in web-like and is a faded-green hue, a unique texture in itself.
Recent rain showers have created conditions that are perfect for mushrooms and fungi in which to thrive. Now, a fantasyland of decomposers in all shapes and sizes is appearing as though by magic, on rotted tree limbs, under leaf litter, and along creek sides. A wide variety of mushrooms abound in Lake County, visible in many alien-appearing forms from lowly slime to fan-like showy bracket fungi. According to the Bay area Mycological Society where the art and science of mushrooms is studied there is even such a thing as a glow-in-the-dark Jack-O-Lantern mushroom which thrive in Northern California. Known as Omphalotus olivascens, the Jack-O-Lantern mushroom’s bioluminescent properties provides its own light!
Do you know anyone who isn’t invigorated by the recent rainfall? Gutters are gurgling, creeks are rushing, and the kids are breaking out their galoshes to stomp puddles in style! Critters and plants alike are busy soaking in the blessed moisture. This marvelous weather brings to mind some rain-related items to consider, for example, just what do woodland creatures do when it rains? For that matter, how do trees respond? Read the full article at lakecountybloom.com.
As the architecture of Lake County’s woods reveals its seasonal color palette, our much-anticipated rains divulge newts, fabulous fungi, and nature’s spent foliage. Along with our county’s breathtaking vistas, bird watching opportunities, fine wines, and gastronomic delights, you can add Soundscape Ecology to our list of local wonders. Soundscape Ecology is a relatively new field of biology that studies the sounds of the landscape. Past studies tended to focus on single species sounds to learn about the health of a particular habitat. Newer studies in Soundscape Ecology have determined that it’s the ‘concert’ of nature’s sounds, rather than a ‘soloist’, that can reveal the true picture of any given landscape’s wellbeing.
Accounts of black bear sightings around Lake County are on the rise. Many of my neighbors in South County have seen evidence of bears on their property. Bear scat, as you can imagine is quite large! Other evidence of the brown-to-black mammal is appearing on private game cameras from Loch Lomond, to Jago Bay, to the Oaks and more. These hungry critters, omnivores, are helping themselves to chickens, ducks and other fresh ‘snacks’. They are leaving behind broken branches on fruit trees, copiously consuming grapes in vineyards and, just like a cartoon-bear, but not a bit funny, they have helped themselves to privately owned bee hives and bins of pet food which has carelessly been left out.