Naturalist's Almanac

What to Look for This Spring

Liese Greensfelder

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.

Spring Tracks
One of 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.


Spring 2000

Vol. 53:2