Friday, December 30, 2011

Road trip- to The Land of Little Rain

For the last several years my family has migrated south to California for the Holidays to take advantage of the warmer weather and visit the more fecund family members who have difficulty traveling with small children.  Traditionally we all loaded into the “Odious Whaler,” Mom’s red minivan so named for our normal coastal route paralleling the Grey Whale migration and the repugnant odors that result when a van full of car camping siblings eats too many Odwalla bars.  Trips in the Odious Whaler where characterized by Rambo camping (discovering hidden and free places to camp) and screeching halts in Big Sur to identify shore birds, photograph elephant seals, race up coastal trails, and to answer the whaler’s cry with raised binoculars. 

This year, complex family schedules and Mom’s reluctance to allow the aged “Oddie” her former freedom, forced Katrina and to drive ourselves to our rendezvous in Ventura, CA.  Our independence allowed us to extend our trip considerably in order to take in the natural bounty of California.  My primary goal was to harvest as many types of acorns as possible, and Katrina—who has been more obsessed with salt lately—was keen to collect some salt from some of the region's many natural deposits.  We packed our camping gear, binoculars, collecting bags, a back roads atlas, and a few of our favorite ID books and planned a route that included the Salton Sea, Joshua Tree National Park, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, and Yosemite.

Blue Oak (Quercus douglasii) silhouette
We left Seattle on a frosty clear morning driving hard for the potentially snowy Siskiyous in Southern Oregon.  We hoped to cross the pass before dark and camp somewhere in Northern California.  I wanted to explore the north end of the Sacramento Valley for Valley Oaks (Quercus lobata) because I have seen pictures of Valley Oak acorns so large that it only took three to fill a hand.  We started seeing bare branched oak silhouettes in the fading light as we passed through Redding and by the time we got to the small town of Cottonwood, I couldn’t bear the thought of missing a collecting opportunity, so we pulled off the highway on a lonesome exit and drove down a quiet dirt road until we found a nice oak to sleep under.  The stars were twinkling brightly and the crescent moon had already set so we didn’t set up the tent in order to enjoy the stars.  The next morning we were up at first light eager to stomp around and warm up our cold bones (I thought we were in California!).  

Variations in Blue Oak (Quercus douglasii) leaves
Insect damaged Blue Oak Acorns
Yuck! There isn't much left to eat.
The oak we had slept under didn’t have any acorns, but it didn’t  take me long to find places with a heavy mast of acorns lying on the ground.  They were about the size and shape of Garry Oak (Quercus garryana) acorns with warty caps but the leaves were shallowly lobed or entire.  I think they may have been Blue Oak (Quercus douglasii).  Almost all of the acorns were damaged by weevils so I did not collect any.  One of the reasons that Native Americans burned oak savannahs was to kill the weevil larva, which spend 1-2 years buried in the leaf duff before pupating, and searching out an acorn crib.  Infected acorns fall early, so a burn after they have fallen would serve the dual purpose of limiting weevil reproduction, and clearing the vegetation below an oak so that good acorns were easier to collect.  Klamath River Jack summarized this practice in a 1916 letter to the California Fish and Wildlife Commission, “Fire burn up old acorn that fall on ground.  Old acorn on ground have lots worm; no burn old acorn, no burn old bark, old leaves, bug and worms come more every year…. Indian burn every year just same, so keep all ground clean, no bark, no dead leaf, no old wood on ground, no old wood on brush, so no bug can stay to eat leaf and no worm can stay to eat berry and acorn.  Not much on ground to make hot fire so never hurt big trees, where fire burn (In Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, 2005, p. 146).”

Continuing southward and downstream, we soon left the savannah and entered the immense central valley grassland. What John Muir once described as a “scene of peerless beauty” and an “ocean of flowers” confronted us in half flooded rectangles of brown dirt rimmed with patches of invasive Giant Reed Grass (Phragmites sp.)   Irrigation projects using Sacramento River water have made this region a large producer of wild rice (Zizania palustris), a grain native to the Great Lakes region.  While I am a fan of wild rice, it is sad to see native ecosystems destroyed to grow a crop that flourishes with minimal management in its own native habitat.  We pulled off the highway to investigate a paddy further and found ourselves on a road to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.

Northern Pintail

The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge hosts 40 percent of the Pacific Flyway’s fleet of winter waterfowl.  We followed the safari style automobile loop through a portion of the 35,000 acre refuge and got good views of Cinnamon Teal, Northern Pintail, Ruddy Ducks, White-fronted Geese, thousands of Snow Geese, a Coomon Moorehen, and about 40 other species.

That evening we arrived at Jeremy’s house and I met my new nephew who is still the size of a loaf of bread.  Everybody else showed up the next day and I spent the next few days on the beach teaching Christian how to build sand castles and play bocce rock.  The birding was pretty good and I saw a Long-billed Curlew, several Marbled Godwits, and learned to ID Black-bellied Plover in non-breading plumage and California Towhees.  We all went to the Griffith Observatory one evening and learned a lot about space.  I was really intrigued by a Foucault Pendulum replica that is on display near the main door.  It slowly turns clockwise relative to the floor as it swings back and forth and in 1851, it was the first direct proof that the earth is rotating on its axis (the earth rotates beneath the swinging pendulum).
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