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Are You Ready?

Chinese Tallow Tree, Davis (8/16/21) Philip Reedy

“Fall is just around the corner,” writes color spotter Phillip Reedy. He was out for a walk in Davis when he spied this bit of exotic color lying amidst the debris of spent seed pods.

Early color is not unusual, particularly during a drought. The normal triggers of color change are upset by lack of water and other factors.

Typically, it is less light from days shortening and colder temperatures that triggers the process of leaves changing color. Lots of sun and heat are the opposite of that, but when plants lack water they become stressed and when they do, anything goes, including their leaves.

The Duluth News Tribune reported Val Cervenka, forest health program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as saying. “Trees that are under stress usually show it first in their leaves. Since so much of a tree’s energy goes into producing leaves, the tree can conserve energy by simply dropping the leaves, like it does before it goes dormant in the winter,”

CaliforniaFallColor.com has been monitoring what’s happening across the country. California isn’t the only location where drought is a factor. Minnesota and Colorado have been experiencing a dryer than normal summer with naturalists predicting early fall color.

In Western Massachusetts, it’s the opposite. It’s been a wetter year than normal. So, you’d think they’d be predicting delayed color. Not so. Weakened maples were showing signs of change in early August and color spotters across Western Mass are gearing up for an early show.

In our experience, lots of water means the color appears as normally, but stays longer. Little water means some of the color begins to show sooner than normal and doesn’t last long. It’ll still be beautiful, but when we post “Go Now!”, we mean it. As soon as you see it Near Peak, go. Are you ready?

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Orange Friday

It’s Orange Friday, the day following Thanksgiving Day when California overcomes tryptophan-induced lethargy and goes outdoors to enjoy fall color before it’s gone.

On the San Francisco Peninsula, tall gingko biloba are littering city streets with gold.

Elsewhere in the Bay Area, American beautyberries (Callicarpa americana) provide holiday ornamentation at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden and fallen leaves are now strewn across Berkeley.

Down south, the place for peak color is the LA County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens in Arcadia. Orange-toned crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia) now dominate and more color is revealed each day to mid December.

Along the American River, cyclists, skaters and walkers on the 32-mile American River Parkway are enjoying one of the most colorful autumns in memory.

In the Gold Country, “Maple Lane,” a boulevard of maples leading to the Empire Cottage at Empire Mine SHP is at peak and will remain good through this weekend. So, spend your Orange Friday weekend being filled with the beauty of this lovely and historic place.

Maple Lane, Empire Mine SHP (11/25/20) Steve Arita

Or at old Monterey where gingko biloba, Asian maple and sycamore dress city streets with gold, yellow and chartreuse-colored leaves.

But, don’t plan to go swimming in Davis where backyard pools are covered with leaves.

Backyard pool, Davis (11/26/20) Philip Reedy

Unless you’re a duck. This pintail drake just enjoyed his morning bath at the Colusa NWR.

Morning bath, Pintail duck drake, Colusa NWR (11/25/20) Philip Reedy

Today is just another Orange Friday. It’s a day best spent outdoors enjoying fleeting moments of California Fall Color.

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Side by Side

When two similarly experienced photographers accompany one another on the same shoot, to the same locations, at the same moments and with exactly the same equipment. You might expect sameness.

There is similarity between these side-by-side images, because Philip Reedy and I convoyed north Friday morning to photograph fall color and migratory birds at the same locations at the same time. We each carried the same bodies and lenses: Nikon D850 cameras with Nikkor 200-500mm, f. 5.6 lenses. The similarity ended there.

Driving separately, out of shared pandemic precaution, we arrived soon after dawn at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area. Phil voiced what I’d been thinking, “There were several times when we were driving through Live Oak that I wanted to stop, because the light was so good.”

He was right, we should have stopped. We’d just passed huge blocks of walnut trees, heavy with golden leaves, and I’d similarly wanted to pull over. Phil noted an orchard that had been carpeted with gold.

Lesson learned: When the light is perfect, stop and take pictures right then. Great light is what’s important, not what you plan to be the subject.

Upon arriving at Gray Lodge, thousands of birds lifted off in one massive, morning-light, mass ascension as they sought rice fields elsewhere. We’d missed it by a moment.

Filled with regret not stopping first in Live Oak, we circled Gray Lodge realizing the birds that remained weren’t leaving, a good scene for birders but not for us. So we headed back beside a long line of trees fronting Rutherford Rd, then north 20 miles to our second objective, Agua Frias Rd. Robert Kermen had drawn a map indicating where he’d seen Sandhill Cranes foraging. They chose to be elsewhere that day, but where?

Just when we’d struck out, we made new luck, stopping at a backlit Walnut Orchard. Phil saw it as filled with golden light; I saw it as darkly shaded with fluorescent- banded trunks.

“We’ve gone a good ways north,” Phil observed, “Almost to Chico.” I responded, “There’s a good place near here, juse south of Chico. It’s an archway of trees overhanging Midway Rd.” And, we were off.

I told the story. Phil showed the beauty.

Encouraged, we decided to head back toward Live Oak. Maybe those walnut orchards we’d seen would still be good. The experience in the orchard on Agua Frias Rd. taught us light can be soft, not harsh, beneath the canopy.

I found a time-worn orchard shed . Phil found an orchard layered with leaves.

It was after noon, but there was still one more place to visit on the return home, the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge near I-5. We’d visited it last year at the same time, but were there soon after daybreak, not this late. I set the Nav which cut us cross-country along backroads around the Sutter Buttes toward Colusa. Then on E. Butte Rd. it happened. I saw Sandhill Crane in a rice field.

Sandhill Cranes, Sutter Buttes (11/20/20) John Poimiroo

They were wary. A car or truck passing on E. Butte Rd. didn’t bother them, but stop and they moved away. This image was taken at 500mm, a hundred yards from the cranes and standing behind my SUV. Any closer and they’d walk elsewhere.

Phil shot using his car as a blind, but was hoping for more action. We got it soon after when we stopped a few rice paddies south. There, the geese we’d seen ascending that morning from Gray Lodge were spread out across the paddy. No sooner had we stopped and set up, than …

Mass Ascension, Snow geese, Sutter Buttes (11/20/20) John Poimiroo
Mass Ascension, Snow geese, Sutter Buttes (11/20/20) Philip Reedy

We eventually got to the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, where photographers said there hadn’t been much action. So, we joined them in shooting pictures of a few ducks on logs by the birder’s platform. A brrr of motor drives would whine occasionally when a duck flew in to land. We were told the Snow Geese hadn’t shown up. They were elsewhere.

Note: Following our return, Phil was disappointed in the sharpness of his photos. He thought it was the lens, but when he discovered a UV filter on the lens (which he hadn’t noticed previously), took it off and took side-by-side comparison shots, the reason for blurriness was evident.

Lesson learned: If you use protective filters on your long lenses, remove them before taking photographs!

  • Walnut Orchards, Gridley, Live Oak (95′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
  • Sacramento Valley National Wildlife Refuges (49′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!

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Hometown Color

Elk Grove Regional Park (11/21/20) Steve Arita

Californians no longer need to travel long distances to see peak color. It’s now peaking in most California hometowns.

Steve Arita found it and a First Report near home at dawn in Elk Grove Regional Park.

  • Elk Grove (46′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Wind Wolves Preserve

Poison oak, Wind Wolves Preserve (11/11/20) Gary Skipper II

Every so often an unreported place surfaces. Today, it is Wind Wolves Preserve.

Located 32 miles southwest of Bakersfield, Wind Wolves is an ecologically distinctive place where the Transverse Ranges, Coast Ranges, Sierra Nevada, western Mojave Desert and San Joaquin Valley converge.

Ranging from 640 to 6,005′, it has a wide array of landforms and habitats. And, at 93,000 acres it’s the west coast’s largest non-profit preserve.

Most interesting to fall color spotters is its mix of deciduous foliage. Now, it takes a true connoisseur of fall color to appreciate this blend of blue and valley oak, Frémont cottonwood, red and sandbar willow, poison oak and California grape in the preserve.

Bobcat, Wind Wolves Preserve (11/11/20) Gary Skipper II

Many species of wildlife, including Tule elk, bobcats, coyotes, American black bear, rabbits, northern Pacific rattlesnakes, and mountain lions live within the preserve.

Gary Skipper II noted correctly that CaliforniaFallColor.com had overlooked Wind Wolves previously and said it gets “decent fall color in mid November.” Gary noted the bright red color of one plant. Let’s hope he didn’t touch it, as otherwise he earned both a First Report and a case of poison oak.

  • Wind Wolves Preserve (640′) – Peak (75-10%) GO NOW!
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Davis Dessert

Davis (11/14/20) Philip Reedy

A great meal finishes best with a delicious dessert, be it savory or sweet. Such is happening in Davis, where autumn’s feast of gorgeous color is ending with a dessert of savory and sweet color.

Philip Reedy found it on a walk today in his hometown.

  • Davis (52′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Sacramento Valley

Sandhill Cranes, Nelson (11/8/20) Robert Kermen

It’s time for the Sacramento Valley to shout, “I’m next!”

Migratory birds are filling the rice fields and cluttering the skies with cacophonous squawking from Lodi north to Chico.

On a Sunday morning drive, Robert Kermen found Sandhill Cranes feasting along Agua Fritas Rd, west of Nelson.

South near Richvale, Snow Geese were milling about, trying to avoid predators and competing with the swans.

English Walnut, Sacramento Valley (11/8/20) Robert Kermen

Even the orchards are becoming active with English walnuts and persimmons brightening the autumn landscape.

  • Sacramento Valley (197′) – Near Peak (50-75%) Go Now.
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Lackluster

Fremont cottonwood and pepper berries, Davis (9/16/20) Philip Reedy

This week, Philip Reedy, Michelle Pontoni and I separately explored the noxious outdoors before the thermal inversion lifted. At the time, an oppressively dense haze from numerous California wildfires hung over California, keeping the Sun’s rays from brightening the landscape.

Instead, it draped a lackluster pall across the scene.

In Davis, Reedy found fallen Fremont cottonwood leaves resting among pepper berries and upon redwood branches, quiet beauty in an otherwise moribund atmosphere.

Pontoni found a more encouraging scene as she biked south a quarter mile on the Lake Tahoe Boulevard Bike Path from the corner of Lake Tahoe Blvd and Viking Road in South Lake Tahoe. Tiny Quaking Aspen, pushing up from the forest floor, were beginning to change color. Bikers, walkers, and strollers along the path were bombarded by Sugar Pine cones as afternoon winds picked up. She warned, “Wear a helmet!”

At Fallen Leaf lake, Pontoni reported seeing only one aspen full of yellow – all others were still “fully green.” Elsewhere, meadow brush were showing signs of change, painting the landscape with blended tones of lime-green, yellow, orange and russet.

In Tahoe City, red maple lifted their desiccated branches as if pleading for the subalpine lake’s normally clear skies to dissipate the gasses. As I passed Agate Bay, one could see only a hundred yards out into the brown-grey haze. Beyond it, there was only mystery and memories of Tahoe’s beauty.

I drove past Martis Creek’s derelict cabin on CA-267, its aspen enveloped in a foul air that both dulled and warmed their color, a mix of green, to lime, to pastel yellow, to sickly orange. Should it be photographed? Yes, but the scene was then too depressing to stop, unsaddle, gear up and take a photograph that would only leave me saddened.

This morning, I replied to a comment from travelgal485 which opined that perhaps this wasn’t the year to see California’s fall color. Having just experienced the suffocating, disheartening search for something bright and colorful, I was of a mind to agree, but recalled the lessons many years observing autumn have taught.

I answered, “Right now, it’s not the best time, but give it a day and it could be one of the most unbelievably beautiful years, ever. The reason it’s so disappointing, for the moment, are: forest closures (due to smoke and to allow USFS staff to focus on firefighting) and haze. However, both those conditions will change. Yesterday was the first clear day in a month in the Sacramento Valley, with an actual sunset seen along the Coast Range. If I’ve learned anything in more than 40 years writing about California’s fall color it’s what Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote 2,520 years ago, “the only constant is change.”

  • Davis – Just Starting (0 – 10%)
  • South Lake Tahoe / Fallen Leaf Lake – Just Starting (0 – 10%)
  • Tahoe City / Agate Bay / Martis Creek / Truckee – Just Starting (0 – 10%)
Flowering Pear and ornamental debris, Davis (9/16/20) Philip Reedy
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Davis Pears and Peppers Up

Flowering pear, Davis (12/8/19) Philip Reedy

Just like Healdsburg, Davis’ pears are up. So are its peppers.

Philip Reedy was surprised by the bright color to be found in his neighborhood on a weekend walk, exclaiming, “There’s still color!”

He found Flowering pear and American pepper carrying magenta and gold color.

  • Davis – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW, YOU ALMOST MISSED IT.
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Capitol Color

Capitol Park, Sacramento (12/3/19) Steve Arita

Today was the Christmas Tree lighting ceremony at the State Capitol in Sacramento, though it wasn’t the only tree at Capitol Park that was lit up with color.

Steve Arita was there this week and sends these images of late peak color. Sacramento’s neighborhoods are now past peak, though spots of bright color – as seen in Capitol Park – can still be found in this city of trees.

  • Capitol Park, Sacramento – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW, YOU ALMOST MISSED IT.