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Inyo NF to Reopen

Lake Sabrina, M Fork Bishop Creek (10/7/19) Anirudh Natekar

The USDA Forest Service reports that the Inyo National Forest will reopen on Thurs., Sept. 16. The forest had been scheduled to remain closed until Sept. 18 for public and firefighter safety and to concentrate USFS staff on fighting wildfires.

So, what does this mean for fall color viewing? Considering that Patchy color was reported at Virginia Lakes (9,819′) this past week and that Lake Sabrina is at 9,150′, it’s likely that Patchy color is appearing at the highest locations in Bishop Creek Canyon.

Stage II fire restrictions are still in place on the Inyo, meaning that no campfires are permitted, even in developed recreation sites. Visitors with a valid California Campfire permit may use a portable stove or lantern using gas, jellied petroleum, or pressurized liquid fuel. 

Additionally, wilderness permits will not be issued for areas where closures are in effect. Travelers are cautioned by the USDA Forest Service to know before they go where forests are closed, have un-contained or active fires or unhealthy air quality.

Some Forest Service lands will remain closed under local closure orders, such as areas of the Eldorado National Forest. As previously reported, the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest (northern Mono County) remains open.

In Southern California, Los Padres, Angeles, San Bernardino and Cleveland National Forests remain closed until Sept. 22, due to local weather and fire factors and the strain that opening them would place on firefighting resources.

At this point, more than 7,404 wildfires have burned over 2.25 million acres across California. The USDA Forest Service reports that its forests in Northern California are at Preparedness Level 5 and those in Southern California are at PL-4.

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What Burned?

Vermilion Grove, East Shore, Caples Lake (10/5/20) Philip Reedy

With 1,179,480 acres consumed by the Caldor and Dixie fires and all national forests closed in California through Sept. 17, you might conclude that lots of fall color was damaged. Yes and no.

El Dorado County’s Caldor fire (southwest of Lake Tahoe) burned through Grizzly Flats, along Mormon Emigrant Trail and toward Lake Tahoe, but it stopped short of the Hope Valley, sparing it. Fire maps indicate it came close to scorching Vermilion Grove (seen above) on the east shore of Caples Lake (Hwy 88), but no on-scene assessment has been received.

In Plumas County (Northern Sierra) the Dixie fire destroyed much of the forest, particularly the trees edging Hwy 89 north to Lake Almanor, along the Indian Valley and it incinerated Greenville.

The prime fall color viewing locations of Spanish Creek and Oakland Camp lie within the Dixie fire’s burn area, though no report has been received as to whether they were scorched or not, as the forest there remains closed. Indian rhubarb are a perennial riparian plant that should recover quickly.

Plumas County color spotter Jeff Luke Titcomb writes encouragingly, “As you travel to Lake Almanor you are subjected to the horrific images of fire but once there it isn’t visible anymore.Lake Almanor will continue to be a hub of tourism in the area, as Chester made it through pretty unscathed.The Eastern parts of Plumas are in pretty good condition considering all that we’ve been through.”

Black oak, CA-89, Crescent Mills (10/27/18) Jeff Luke Titcomb

Plumas County color spotter Michael Beatley reports that scenes like that above are gone. He says it’s, “Heartbreaking and heart wrenching to see so many of my favorite places gone. Rich Bar and the historic graveyard, gone. Indian Falls by the ancient maple tree I shot last year, gone. Indian Valley mountain sides blackened. Blessings are that Bucks Lake, Meadow Valley and Quincy were saved.”

While the Caldor and Dixie fires consumed vast areas of forest including several beautiful areas, numerous prime fall color viewing locations were not singed and there’s lots remaining to be enjoyed at Lake Almanor, one of California’s hidden gems.

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Forest Closures

To better provide public and firefighter safety, due to extreme fire conditions throughout California and strained firefighting resources throughout the country, the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region is announcing a TEMPORARY CLOSURE of all National Forests in the Region.

This closure will be effective at August 31, 2021 at 11:59 p.m. through September 17, 2021 at 11:59 p.m.

North of Conway Summit, the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest is open. Just Starting color (yellow and lime) is seen at the Virginia Lakes in Mono County. Air quality is rated at 38 as of today.

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Why Don’t Evergreens Lose Their Leaves?

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Coastal Redwood, El Dorado Hills (9/7/17) John Poimiroo

Actually, they do.  It just doesn’t happen all at once, with few exceptions.

Evergreen trees have both broad leafs and needles. Madrone, magnolia and photinia are examples of broadleaved evergreens, while pine, fir, cedar, spruce, and redwood have needled leaves.

Evergreen needles can last anywhere from a year to 20 years, but eventually they are replaced by new leaves. When that happens, the old needles turn color and drop, but not all together and not as dramatically as deciduous trees (e.g., maple, oak, dogwood, alder, birch).

The reason needles are green is that they are full of chlorophyll which photosynthesizes sunlight into food for the tree. It also reflects green light waves, making the needles look green.

Needles, just like deciduous leaves, contain carotenoid and anthocyanin pigments. You just don’t see them until the green chlorophyll stops being produced. Once that happens, hidden carotenoids (yellow, orange and brown) emerge, as is seen in the above photograph.

Additionally, red, blue and purple Anthocyanins – produced in autumn from the combination of bright light and and excess sugars in the leaf cells – also emerge once the chlorophyll subsides.

Yes, even evergreen leaves change color… eventually.

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Fremont cottonwood and coastal redwood, Davis (9/16/20) Phillip Reedy

Evergreens that drop leaves at one time include the: Conifers Larch, Bald Cyprus and Dawn Redwood.

In snowy regions, evergreen trees are able to carry snow because the waxy coating on needles, along with their narrow shape, allows them to retain water better by keeping it from freezing inside (which would otherwise destroy the leaf).

Needles also prevent snow from weighing down and breaking branches. Finally, needles allow an evergreen tree to sustain the production (though slowed) of chlorophyll through winter. Whereas, broadleaved deciduous trees would be damaged if they kept producing chlorophyll and didn’t drop their leaves.

Evergreen trees do lose their leaves and the leaves do change color. It just isn’t as spectacular. 

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Why do Deciduous Trees Lose Their Leaves?

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Snowcreek (11/2/15) Alicia Vennos

It’s survival not just of the fittest, but of the wisest.

Deciduous trees drop their leaves in order to survive.  As days grow shorter and colder, deciduous trees shut down veins and capillaries (that carry water and nutrients) with a barrier of cells that form at the leaf’s stem.

Called “abscission” cells, the barrier prevents the leaf from being nourished. Eventually, like scissors, the abscission cells close the connection between leaf and branch and the leaf falls.

Had the leaves remained on branches, the leaves would have continued to drink and, once temperatures drop to freezing, the water in the tree’s veins would freeze, killing the tree.

Further, with leaves fallen, bare branches are able to carry what little snow collects on them, protecting them from being broken under the weight of the snow. So, by cutting off their food supply (leaves), deciduous trees survive winter.

The fallen leaves continue to benefit the tree through winter, spring and summer by creating a humus on the forest floor that insulates roots from winter cold and summer heat, collect dew and rainfall, and decompose to enrich the soil and nurture life.

It’s a cycle of survival, planned wisely. 

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The Science of Changing Leaves

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Is red a defensive color? (11/22/18 – El Dorado Hills) John Poimiroo

A couple of years ago, Smithsonian.com posted a time-lapse video of leaves transforming from chlorophyll-filled green to tones of yellow, red and brown. The video was accompanied by an article explaining how leaves change color and some misconceptions about the process.

The video was created by Owen Reiser, a mathematics and biology student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Reiser, Smithsonian.com reports, took 6,000 photos of leaves to weave the video together.

Leaves that change due to the loss of chlorophyl as a result of shorter days and fewer nutrients tend to turn orange or yellow. Though David Lee, Professor Emeritus of biological sciences at Florida International University and author of Nature’s Palette, The Science of Plant Color, says that many yellow and orange leaves do not change the same way as red leaves.

Lee states in a Smithsonian.com article that the breakdown of chlorophyll in leaves does reveal yellow and orange (carotenoids) hidden beneath, but that red (anthocyanin) pigments are produced within the leaves as they die.

There are two thoughts as to why this happens. One is that the red color is a defensive measure to make the plants appear unhealthy as the leaf dies, protecting the tree from plant-eating bugs and animals which are conditioned not to eat red foliage.

The other thought is that red is a form of photo protection. Horticulturist Bill Hoch, Smithsonian.com reports, believes red’s wavelength helps shield the leaf by absorbing excess light allowing the plant to more efficiently remove nitrogen from the proteins that are breaking down and send that nutrient back to tree limbs and roots, saving as much of it as possible before winter.

Whatever the cause, the result is spectacular and less than a month away from being seen in California.

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Why do Leaves Change Color?

Chlorophyll Molecule (Wikipedia)

Leaves on deciduous trees change color in autumn from green to various hues of lime, yellow, gold, orange, red and brown because of a combination of shorter days and colder temperatures.

Throughout spring and summer, green chlorophyll (which allows trees to absorb sunlight and produce nutrients) is made and replaced constantly.

However, as days grow shorter, “cells near the juncture of the leaf and stem divide rapidly but do not expand,” reports Accuweather.com. “This action of the cells form a layer called the abscission layer.

“The abscission layer blocks the transportation of materials from the leaf to the branch and from the roots to the leaves. As Chlorophyll is blocked from the leaves, it disappears completely from them.”

That’s when vivid yellow xanthophylls, orange carotenoids and, due to a different process, red and purple anthocyanins emerge.

Orange is found in leaves with lots of beta-carotene, a compound that absorbs blue and green light and reflects yellow and red light, giving the leaves their orange color.

Yellow comes from Xanthophylls and Flavonols that reflect yellow light. Xanthophylls are compounds and Flavonols are proteins.  They’re what give egg yolks their color.

Though always present in the leaves, Carotenoids and Xanthophylls are not visible until Chlorophyll production slows.

Red comes from the Anthocyanin compound. It protects the leaf in autumn, prolonging its life. Anthocyanins are pigments manufactured from the sugars trapped in the leaf, giving term to the vernacular expression, “the leaves are sugaring up.”

The best fall color occurs when days are warm and nights are clear and cold. California’s cloudless skies and extreme range of elevations (sea level to 14,000′) provide ideal conditions for the development of consistently vivid fall color, as seen in these reports. 

Peak fall color will begin appearing in the Eastern Sierra above 9,000 feet (you can drive right to it) some time during the last two weeks of September.

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Monarch Listing Is Warranted

Monarch Butterfly, Lighthouse Field, Santa Cruz (1/16/06) John Poimiroo

Listing the Monarch butterfly as a threatened or endangered specie is warranted but precluded due to other priorities, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) announced today.

The announcement follows reports of plummeting Monarch butterfly counts in California, the specie’s western wintering grounds. Once numbering over one million butterflies, the western population of Monarch butterflies dropped in the last year from over 27,000 to just 2,000 butterflies.

Monarch butterflies are one of numerous remarkable species that migrate to and through California in autumn. The Monarchs spend winter along the California coast from San Diego north to Marin County. Prime winter roosts have included Pismo Beach, Pacific Grove and Santa Cruz. Though, scenes like this are disappearing.

Monarch Butterflies, Santa Cruz (1/16/2006) John Poimiroo

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman attributed private conservation efforts, supported by the USF&WS, state and local governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as resulting in “stunning and unprecedented” accomplishments in recent years, such as planting 500 million milkweed plants and improving 5.3 million acres of Monarch habitat.

Despite these accomplishments, at least in the west, Monarch butterflies are heading toward extinction.

Bay Nature reported Sarina Jepsen, Director of Endangered Species at the Xerces Society as saying that the decision to declare the Monarchs as warranted to be listed as threatened or endangered, “does not yet provide the protection that Monarchs, and especially the western population, so desperately need to recover.”

The butterfly population is declining because of a lack of available milkweed (the only food they eat), less overwintering habitat, insecticides (sometimes related to mosquito control efforts) and climate change, said Lori Nordstrom of the USF&WS.

In response, efforts to encourage planting milkweed and creating quality butterfly habitat, led by conservation groups and the USF&WS, are assisting private land owners, developers, farmers and ranchers and communities. Under the Conservation Reserve Program, “They do the work, we provide the seed,” explained USF&WS Regional Director Charley Wooley.

USF&WS officials admit that while other conservation efforts can be successfully led by federal and international agencies and NGOs, successes in preserving Monarchs have occurred mostly due to the efforts of private individuals and land owners who plant milkweed.

“The public has become galvanized,” Wooley said, “they’re planting milkweed in gardens and fields, pastures and along rights of way.” Organizations like the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation assist in calling the public to action and sourcing suppliers of native milkweed seed.

In concluding today, the USF&WS announced it will work until 2024 on a plan intended to propose listing the Monarch butterfly as threatened or endangered, if warranted. For now, the protection of western Monarch butterflies is in the public’s hands. Here’s a list of types of milkweed California Monarchs need to survive and where to find them. Caution: do not plant tropical (Mexican) milkweed, as it is harmful to the survival of Monarchs. Plant only varieties of milkweed native to California or they will not migrate.

HOLIDAY GIFT IDEA: Give native native milkweed seeds or seedballs as holiday gifts. Email bobby@milkweed.com or visit butterflyencounters.com to order the right type of California seeds Monarch butterflies need to survive.

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The Bronx

Van Courtlandt Park, The Bronx, NYC (11/9/20) Gene Obermuller

Coming from the third-most densely populated county in the United States and a place not known for foliage, these images of The Bronx may be surprising.

East Coast color spotter Eugene Obermuller took them while out on a bike ride through Van Courtlandt Park in northwest New York City.

Today, the Bronx is mostly concrete, but at one time, of course, it was open, forested land. The Bronx gets its name from Swedish-born Jonas Bronck who established the first European settlement in the area, as part of the New Netherland colony in 1639.

Previously inhabited by the native Siwanoy band of Lenape Indians (known as the Delawares), it was called Keskeskeck. Dutch settlers bought tracts of land from local tribes and Bronck accumulated 500 acres between the Harlem River and Aquahung (later the Bronx River) to establish Bronck’s Land.

On Bronck’s Land, farms spread and manses were raised. One, built by mercatilist Fredrick Van Courtlandt in 1748 remains as a historical museum and as one of the nation’s finest best examples of Georgian architecture.

If the metaphorical tree that grows in Brooklyn flourishes even in the midst of the inner city, then Van Courtlandt Park is The Bronx equivalent. Only, it’s real.

Score Peak color for one of the boroughs of New York City on an unusual visit to a forested corner of the home of the Yankees.

  • The Bronx, NY (169′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Goin’ to Carolina

Carolina Country (10/30/20) Alena Nicholas

Like California, Alena Nicholas reports, color in the Carolinas changes by elevation. Since relocating there from Southern California, Alena has watched fall color descend, as it does here. Only, she found that as it does, it passes sights not common here.

In her search for fall color, Alena has explored the Tar Heel state’s (so called, because of its pine forest that produced pitch-based products) inlets, hills, swamps, and lighthouses, discovering bright spots of autumn near wild horses, verdant marshes, alligators and lighthouses.

Carolina Courser (10/31/20) Alena Nicholas

While touring the Outer Banks near Virginia, Alena found wild horses roaming the beaches, sand dunes, forests and homesites.

The Carolina lighthouses she toured were surrounded by autumn grasses. They’re now mostly maintained just as scenic landmarks, she explained, irrelevant in an age of GPS navigation, but increasingly relevant at a time when inspirational places have never been more necessary.

Like the west coast, Carolina autumn sunrises and sunsets are colorful, but unlike California, there are plenty of alligators lurking around the coastal “Low Country”. 

Carolina Color (11/3/20) Alena Nicholas