Coastal Color

California poppies, Central Coast, Coastal Highway (4/27/19) Mark Harding

Wildflowers are blooming along the Pacific Coast Highway (CA-1) between Cambria, north to Big Sur.

Color spotter Mark Harding drove Hwy 1 over the weekend, returning with these images of wildflowers and wildlife.


Making Mushroom Merry

Stereum hirsutum, Anderson River Park, Anderson (12/21/18) Gabriel Leete

As the last days of 2018 are waning, mushroom hunters are making merry where winter rains have fallen.

Shasta Cascade color spotter Gabriel Leete found these fungi while foraging along the Sacramento River in Redding at the McConnell Arboretum and Gardens and in Anderson at the Anderson River Park.


Winter Happens Here Too

Red Lake Creek, Hope Valley (11/30/18) Philip Reedy

Autumn ended yesterday.

Weeks ago, on the last day of November, Philip Reedy was traveling through the Hope Valley when he stopped to capture these wintry images of “everyone’s favorite cabin in the snow.”

We delayed posting his pictures until today, as they embody the transition from warm fall to cold winter colors, showing aspen bereft of their autumn gold, now encased in white.

Dude, winter happens here too. 

Red Lake Creek, Hope Valley (11/30/18) Philip Reedy
  • California Fall Color – Past Peak, You Missed It.
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Stocking Stuffer

Plants of Northern California, Falcon Guides

Earlier this autumn, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Eva Begley, author of Falcon Guides’ Plants of Northern California about California Fall Color. That interview follows.

On this the final day of autumn in 2018, what better gifts to recommend to fans of fall color, than guides that help identify plants?

Several are available on, most of which can be delivered within a day or two … plenty of time to stuff a stocking with one.

Here’s a short list of recommendations:

  • Plants of Northern California, Dr. Eva Begley, Falcon Guides
  • National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees, Western Edition, Elbert L. Little, Knopf
  • Sierra Nevada Tree Identifier, Jim Paruk, Yosemite Conservancy
  • Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada, John Muir Laws, California Academy of Sciences
  • The Sibley Guide to Trees, David Allen Sibley, Flexibound
  • National Audubon Society Field Guide to California, Peter Alden & Fred Heath, Knopf
  • National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mushrooms, Chanticleer Press
  • Southern California Nature Guide, Erin McCloskey, Lone Pine Press (Kids)
  • Northern California Nature Guide, Erin McCloskey, Lone Pine Press (Kids)
  • Sierra Nevada Wildflowers, Karen Wiese, Falcon Guides

Dr. Eva Begley: California Fall Color

Q. “What makes California’s native plants unique in the world?

A. While I can’t speak to the world as a whole, California’s vast variety of geologies, topographies and climate encourage the growth of diverse species. Similar diversity is seen in India where zones vary from tropical to the Himalaya, and in South America, from sea level to the Andes. Quite exceptional geological substrates have developed in these places where soil derived from varied rocks combine with climate and topography to encourage a variety of growth. As an undergraduate student, I planned to do a study in Illinois, pairing north and south slopes, but was told, “Don’t bother. You won’t find  much variation.” Here, on the other hand, there’s endless variety. Our mountains and  canyons show completely different vegetation even though they may be near one another. Chapparral can grow to the south, redwoods to the north.

Q. Autumn is often overlooked by Californians. Why do you believe we’ve ignored autumn?

A. I moved here from Southern Illinois in 1976 to attend graduate school. For the first couple of years, I didn’t think California had noticeable seasons, because I didn’t have car. I was stuck in Davis, which is planted mostly with evergreens. So, I saw only green during autumn.

It took a couple of years, before I got out into the mountains and realized California does have a Fall and it can be very beautiful. It’s overlooked, because it’s more nuanced and remote.

California’s calendar images of autumn aren’t even remotely like those in New England. Aspen in the Eastern Sierra are more subtle and hidden in subalpine valleys that relatively few Californians visit in autumn.

Q. What should Californians know about our autumn?

A. There is so much happening during autumn throughout California that is overlooked. Autumn happens not just in the mountains. California has beautiful urban forests full of fall color.

People tend to focus on the trees, but in doing so miss the understory plants, where much of our color is layered with beauty. It presents a really nice show. You won’t see Sugar Maple here, with its flamboyant display, but equally alluring are plants like poison oak that, despite its notoriety, has really pretty colors: soft yellow, pink to a pretty ripe red.

Our bracken fern are gorgeous in autumn … big, massive, abundant, carpeting conifer forests with bright yellow leaves that literally fill the forest with a golden glow.

Bitter Dogbane is very common in the High Sierra above 7,000 feet at Tahoe in the Desolation Wilderness; it’s seen north to Southern Oregon. It exhibits a bright, clear yellow in Fall and spreads across big patches that put on a really nice show. I’ve found it in the Carson pass area, south toward Winnemucca Lake, along trails and at Red Top Lake. My advice is to get off the beaten path and discover autumn wonders in unexpected places.

Corn Lily is one of my favorites. In some years, when the summer is dry they wither, but in wet years their leaves turn bright yellow. You’ll find subtle shadows in their leaves. They’re just gorgeous. Patches of corn lilies are just spectacular and are at peak from late August to September.

Q. How can Californians broaden their autumn experience?

A. Look down, not just up. You’ll discover mushrooms, fruit and berries. Sometimes you’ll find conspicuous, fascinating fruit, brown, not gaudy, but with amazing shapes.

Know when and where to find remarkable plants. Common madia is a California native that blooms well into Fall through early October, but to see it, you need to be out early. By 10 a.m. its delicate fringed petals start curling up. It’s really pretty and  truly intriguing.

Q. What impacts are affecting California native species?

A. There are so many impacts: habitat loss, introduction of new species, hybridization. And, sadly, it’s all bad news.

Highway construction and maintenance has been the biggest concern. Caltrans, has had a policy of actually refusing to stockpile native soil when doing widening. The Department of Water Resources uses the exact opposite policy, conserving the top 6 inches and stockpiling it.

It’s important to save and reuse native soils rather than bring in sterile ones, because native soil is full of native seeds, rhyzomes and herbaceous perennials.

California’s objective should be to save as many native plants as possible. In some areas, Caltrans has contributed to the extinction of native plant groups. They completely covered a patch of wild irises near Foresthill with a highway project that scalped the hillside. Today, there are no more irises there.

Along highway 70 between Sacramento and Marysville, a big area along the road, near a drainage canal, was once solid blue with Brodiaea laxa. No longer.

What is happening is that environmental reviews are being done with categorical exemptions/exclusions that don’t go out for public review. That’s because project geologists are under time pressure to inspect the sites, but they’re not doing the inspections during the right season to see what native plants are there. They’re rushed, do cursory review and projects get written and approved. No one was there the previous spring to see that the area was full of rare native plants.

In one case, native plants grew so densely that the site might have been a Native-American garden where native people once cultivated plants used for food. The bulbs produced solid masses of flowers. Caltrans went through one of the bogs and wiped out what was left.

Years ago at the Spenceville Wildlife Area in the Yuba Highlands, a rancher who looked at an Environmental Impact Report was horrified by a huge development planned in several phases including highways. Consultants who did the plant surveys visited in October and November and didn’t find anything of interest. Once a project is that far along there’s not much anyone can do other than notify the Native Plant Society.

Complicating this is that we need to pay greater attention to which species are the most obnoxious and invasive and avoid them. French broom is horribly invasive. Above Auburn, there’s way too much French and Spanish broom. That’s because little attention was given to what types of weeds might be in generic wildflower seed mixes used by the highway department.

Highway planners and developers think they’re doing something nice by choosing bright colors to be seeded along our highways, disregarding what might be native or invasive to an area. Further, they’ll claim to use native seed, when they’re not. There are some good, some well intentions, but also some lazy and incompetent ones. We need more informed and caring practices when grading and replanting wild lands.

In Placerville, a riparian landscape project, specified coastal red alder, instead of  native white alder (Alnus rhombifolia). I was horrified. Highway and city landscape departments need to be aware of the differences between native and non-native plants so that they don’t plant invasive ones that wipe out native trees, flowers and shrubs.

California is so isolated by mountains and deserts and our climate is so inviting to growth, that native plants are at risk of easily being overwhelmed by invasive exotic species. Government agencies and developments should give preference to native plants for restoration projects.

There are many things Californians can do in their own lives to protect native plants, too. When hiking: stay on established trails; don’t trample vegetation; do not pick plants unless you have a need for them and never pick more than you need. Learn more about identifying native plants and trees. Stay on top of private and governmental development in your area, participate in review processes and encourage protection and cultivation of native species. 

Eva Begley holds a Ph.D. in botany from the University of California at Davis. She has had a long career in research, teaching, landscape architecture and environmental planning and lives in Sacramento, California.

See you next autumn, dude.
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Big Tujunga is the Big Kahuna

Cottonwood, Big Tujunga Creek, Sunland-Tujunga (12/15/18) Ken Lock

The Big Kahuna for fall color in Southern California’s mountains this past weekend was Big Tujunga Creek near Sunland-Tujunga where Ken Lock captured cottonwood still carrying gold.

Yes Gidget, it’s past peak. Though, spots of peak color can still be found here and there in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Mountains. 

Cottonwood, Big Tujunga Creek, Sunland-Tujunga (12/15/18) Ken Lock
  • Big Tujunga Creek, Sunland-Tujunga, Los Angeles – Past Peak, You Missed It.
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Spoiler Alert

A colorful ending, LA County Arboretum (12/18/18) Frank McDonough

LA is the last place to give away an ending. As residents of the world capital of movie making, Angelenos will tell you to go see it, but will never say how it turns out.

That’s why we were a little surprised when Frank McDonough of the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia sent these scenes from the closing moments of autumn at The Arboretum.

As colorful endings go, the finale at the LA County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens is as memorable as any we’ve seen, but please don’t say we gave away the ending. 

  • LA County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, Arcadia – Peak to Past Peak, You Almost Missed It.
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The Great Migration

Great egret, Ardea Alba, Colusa NWR, Williams (12/18/18) John Poimiroo

Waterfowl have taken up residence, late this autumn, in the rice fields and wetlands of California’s great central valley.

Televised images of a mass ascension of snow and Ross’s geese lifting off from flooded rice fields north of Sacramento, seen on last night’s news, compelled me and a fellow photographer to drive north to the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge today, where we stood with local photographers to await their arrival.

One of the regulars said, “It was magical yesterday, the best I’ve seen. Tens of thousands of geese arrived at 10 and stayed until one.”


Migratory waterfowl fly high over Colusa NWR (12/18/18) John Poimiroo

It looked promising. Spread across a pond at the entrance to the refuge,  hundreds of pintails, mallards, shovelers, coots, stints and wigeons bobbed, preened, courted, demonstrated, strutted and napped.

Then, great flocks of the “white birds,” as the locals called the geese, approached from the west in mile-wide Vs that undulated across a gray sky. They flew thousands of feet above us, then continued eastward, but their departure didn’t discourage the locals.

“That’s a good sign,” they encouraged, “The wind is perfect. They like to land into it (meaning they’d be facing our cameras when they touched down). Yesterday was so good. It’s sure to be as good, today.”

Mass Ascension of ducks, Colusa NWR, Williams (12/18/18) John Poimiroo

Again and again, the photographers would say hopefully, “Here they come,” only to have them fly too high over or too far north or south of the refuge. Swirling cyclones of white geese appeared to be circling areas just a mile away.

Massive formations of the white birds continued to fly east in successive, long, flapping, gliding ribbons. 

In the end, they stood us up. We didn’t see the mass ascension we’d driven north to experience, unless you call the above image of ducks spooked by a passing Winnebago, as one.

Instead, we settled for images of wigeons, egrets, coots, stilts and pintails enjoying their sanctuary, and later returned south through Yuba City along CA-99 past tundra swans that bent their long necks to forage the flooded shallows of rice fields.

Though we missed seeing a mass ascension, California’s great migration of waterfowl occurs in northern Sacramento Valley rice fields and wildlife refuges, from mid autumn into winter. So, many more opportunities exist to witness one.

On refuge auto tour routes, the best viewing is from inside your car (which acts as a blind) and when parked on levee roads beside rice fields. Precautions: stay in the center of levee roads – as their shoulders are soft- and getting out of a car will spook the birds (it’s also prohibited).

When wildlife viewing, approach only so close that the animals are not agitated. If they move away, you’re too close. Instead, bring them closer to you by watching them through binoculars (8 x 42 is a good choice – monoculars for kids, $13 on Amazon) or photographing them using a telephoto lens (300 mm and up). With long lenses, a gimbal tripod mount balances the heavy lens and helps keep the image sharp when following a bird’s flight. 

At a few locations in refuges, photo platforms allow photographers to get out of their cars, close to the action. The birds get used to people standing on the platforms, but unusual or unexpected events – like a Winnebago driving past – will spook them into the air and away for minutes on end.

Four photo blinds are available by advance reservation. CLICK HERE for more information. In springtime, nesting wood ducks are often photographed from these blinds.

The Sacramento NWR ($6 entrance fee – all others are free entry) is located beside I-5, immediately south of Willows. Its visitor center helps orient you to the refuges and guides you in identifying the birds. Sac NWR has an auto tour loop, trails and naturalist-guided programs. The refuge is open between an hour before sunrise and an hour after sunset.

Other wildlife refuges in the Sac NWR complex include Colusa, Delevan, Sacramento River, Sutter, Llano Seco (best before 10 a.m.), Butte Sink, North Central Valley and Willow Creek – Lurline. 

Mass ascensions are most dependably seen at the Colusa NWR entrance photo platform (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) in late autumn and early winter. CLICK HERE for a map of birding hotspots in the Northern Sacramento Valley.

Though, as we experienced, wildlife viewing is never dependable. 

  • Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Four Shopping Days Left

California Wild Grape, Vitis californica, LA County Arboretum (12/14/18) Frank McDonough

If you plan to shop for fall color, there are just four shopping days left, until the winter solstice.

One of the few places to find that last-minute gift of fall color is Los Angeles County, where a few trees are still carrying autumn leaves.

LA County Arboretum color spotter Frank McDonough sends these gifts of the season, complete with a bad pun. 

In fairness, Frank asked the question and we put a bow onto it by providing an answer. Happy holidays. 

Gingko biloba and bamboo, LA County Arboretum, Arcadia (12/14/18) Frank McDonough
  •   LA County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens, Arcadia – Peak to Past Peak, You Almost Missed it.

25° x 36° x 118°

Alabama Hills, Inyo County (12/15/18) Bruce Wendler

Alabama Hills, Inyo County (12/15/18) Bruce Wendler

It was 25° when Bruce Wendler passed the Alabama Hills at 36° 35′ 41.141″ N by 118° 6′ 11.232″ W, yesterday.

Cold enough for a winter day, yet it was still autumn. The proof? These pictures. 

  • Alabama Hills (4,534′) – Past Peak, You Missed It.
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Walking Right Past Them

Amanita Muscaria, Patrick’s Point State Park, Trinidad (12/9/18) Gabriel Leete

If you’re not attentive, it’s easy to walk right past mushrooms.

However, as Gabriel Leete shows in this collection, when you do, you’re missing a beautiful aspect of late fall color, as their color and form are endlessly fascinating. 

Gabriel works at the California Welcome Center in Anderson (I-5, south of Redding). Just north of the Welcome Center is Anderson River Park where Gabriel often looks down to find mushrooms, though Gabriel also treks to the North Coast to discover them pushing up through the detritus.

Mushrooms appear on forest floors, soon after it rains. They grow quickly because rather than use cell division, as animals and most plants do, they employ cell enlargement, allowing mushrooms to grow as rapidly as they can take in water.

Within hours, a mushroom can grow from something the size of a pinhead to the Cortinarius that Gabriel is holding below.

Gabriel Leete admires a variety of Cortinarius, Patrick Point State Park, Trinidad (12/9/18) Self-portrait

Gabriel has been hunting mushrooms for nearly two decades and knows his fungi. He’s the first to say, that one person’s edible chanterelle might, upon closer inspection, be a poisonous variety of Cortinarius. So, expertise and caution are required when adding wild mushrooms to your diet.

However, he also believes mushrooms have gotten a bad rap. They’re full of B vitamins, writes, “especially niacin and riboflavin, and rank the highest among vegetables for protein content. But because they are low in fat and calories, Western nutritionists mistakenly considered them of no food value (a fresh pound has only about 125 calories). Yet in dried form, mushrooms have almost as much protein as veal and a significant amount of complex carbohydrates called polysaccharides. Shiitake mushrooms are among the most delicious & very nutritious.”

Because they grow from decaying matter, they’re all somewhat disgusting, but also things of beauty. And, of course, they can be deadly.

In 2012, The London Telegraph reported that 18 Italian mushroom hunters, “died in just a 10-day period. Many of them had forgone proper footwear, clothing and equipment and died after steep falls down Alpine slopes.” One of them was a 65-year-old woman who fell 40 feet to her death near the Swiss border.

My sordid attempt at humor aside, while there is the hazard of hunting them on wet, slippery slopes, there is also the possibility of eating a poisonous variety. Of one thing is certain, there’s no sitting on a fence when judging a mushroom, even though they often do. 

Here are some of the beauties and beasts, Gabriel has found on recent walks through the woods.