THIS WEEK IN
What to Look for This Spring
When trees and bushes burst into new growth during the warming
days of spring, the cambium (a layer of cells just beneath the bark)
also begins to grow rapidly. As the cells divide and expand, they loosen
the bark's grip on underlying wood, a condition known as bark slip.
Native California basketweavers, orchardists, and loggers take advantage
of this phenomenon. Basketweavers collect young twigs
and shoots of willow, redbud, hazel, gray pine, sumac, and bigleaf maple
during barkslip. After peeling away the bark, the weavers use the smooth,
white, and supple sticks for the foundation (warp) of their baskets.
The slipping period can be brief-a week or ten days for hazel, for example.
Basketweavers who miss the harvest in one area can find good material
further north or at higher elevations where spring arrives later. Fruit
tree growers have to wait for bark slip to use two of the most common
grafting techniques: budding and bark grafting. And builders who work
with pole construction like to harvest Douglas-fir and incense cedar
in the spring when they can practically peel the bark from logs with
their bare hands.
In California, March showers bring April flowers.
To find those carpets of poppies, owl's clover, lupines, and goldfields
visit the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve near Lancaster (661)
724-1180. Other great viewing areas for wildflowers are the Carrizo
Plain Natural Area in eastern San Luis Obispo County, the Point Reyes
headlands in Marin County, and the spectacular vernal pool habitats
along the east edge of the Central Valley in Tehama and Merced counties.
Harbor seals in California give birth in March
and April, usually not far from their own place of birth. Pups nurse
for up to six weeks, fattening quickly from 20 to about 50 pounds. Pups
are born dark, but in the womb they shed a coat of white fur, probably
an evolutionary adaptation to the seals' ancient move south away from
glacial ice fields where a pup's white coat would have helped it escape
the attention of predators. There are good places to watch the engaging
interplay between mothers and young all along California's coast, from
Lake Earl Wildlife Area north of Crescent City to Crystal Cove State
Park in Orange County. Santa Cruz residents need only visit the Boardwalk
at low tide to view a dozen or more seals lounging on the rocks beside
the San Lorenzo River a couple hundred yards upstream from its mouth.
The seals' mottled coats provide such great camouflage that even in
this busy spot the animals usually go unseen.
Though they spend most of their lives on the ground, roadrunners
nest in the lower branches of bushes and trees in April and May. After
courting females with a drooped-wing dance and sighing coo call, male
roadrunners do most of the incubating of the pair's two to six eggs.
A good time to spot the birds is after eggs hatch, when both parents
keep extra busy chasing down grasshoppers and other insects to feed
their brood. Later in the season roadrunners hunt lizards and snakes,
dispatching them by repeated swings against the ground. Joshua Tree
National Park is a particularly good place to spot roadrunners. Try
the Fortynine Palms Trail, or just look around park headquarters, where
rangers report that a bird visits almost daily. (760) 367-7511.
A rich mix of east and west slope butterfly species and subspecies
can be found at most Sierra Nevada passes that bridge the mountain range's
two flanks. One of the best places to find early summer, high-altitude
butterflies is on south-facing slopes near Carson Pass on Highway 88.
About 70 alpine and subalpine species have been recorded in the area.
Particularly striking are the many blues (subfamily Plebejinae), often
found congregating at the edges of mud puddles. Also look for two species
here that fly only above timberline: Behr's parnassian, a white butterfly
with black and red spots, and the tan-colored Ivallda arctic, which
appears only in odd-numbered years.
Three-quarters of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada
melts between April and the end of June. When enough sunlight penetrates
the thinning layer of snow, alpine plants that have lain buried
and dormant for months awaken. In these regions, summer is so short
that some plants draw on their roots' carbohydrate reserves to blossom,
sometimes sending flower stalks right up through the snow. In higher
elevations of Kings Canyon National Park look for steer's head, bleeding
hearts, marsh marigolds, and purple mountain parsley blooming at the
edge of receding snowfields.
June is flowering time for California fan palms,
the only native palm in the West. Yard-long clusters of bean-sized,
white flowers emerge from the tufts of leaves atop the trees. When the
small, black fruits mature, their seeds and thin, sweet pulp are edible.
Groves of wild fan palms are widely scattered throughout southern California's
deserts, always growing near springs, seeps, or streams. Fine stands
ring each of the five oases in Joshua Tree National Park.
the best places in the country to study animal tracks is in the
water-saturated sands and clays that erode off the cliffs of Malakoff
Diggins State Historic Park in Nevada County. Miners created Malakoff's
sunset-colored cliffs in the 1800s when they used immense water
cannons to wash away hillsides in a search for gold. Seeps and springs
trickling from the cliffs have created unusual and accessible wetlands
frequented by deer, jackrabbits, foxes, raccoons, coyotes, bobcats,
bears, and the occasional mountain lion. Even novice trackers have
little trouble following long trails of prints here. Some of the
damp clays make crisp details stand out, like the hairs between
a rabbit's toes and the creases on a bear's footpad. The best time
to look is a few days after a spring rain when old tracks (including
human) have been washed away and new tracks have had time to accumulate.
Because the area stays wet year-round, there's good tracking even
during the dry days of summer. Pay particular attention to the brushy
areas along the south edge of the wetlands. Another creature of
interest in the park is the foothill yellow-legged frog.
Look for frogs sunning themselves on rocks in Humbug Creek between
the waterfall and the South Yuba River. (530) 265-2740.