This post, originally published on Dec. 31, 2010, has been moved to The Nature of Berkeley blog.
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Last Friday the rain gods were busy, so instead of tramping the mud on the fire trails, I decided to take a walk up Centennial Drive to the Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS) in the Berkeley Hills above UCB campus.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in the desert, but I love walking and hiking in the rain. The colors of the plants and earth seem more vivid, and the gray skies somehow make the green hills seem even more green. I’ve also noticed that I usually see more wildlife on a rainy day than a sunny one. Maybe it’s because there are fewer humans out, or maybe some animals like foraging in the rain.
So, I expected to see some animals on the hike, but was happily surprised to come upon this on Stadium Rim Way just above the California Memorial Stadium:
Wild Turkeys—not your typical Thanksgiving gobbler!
Wild turkeys! I am a huge fan of this native American bird. I consider it the American peacock:
But I didn’t always appreciate what amazing birds turkeys really are. Like a lot of people, my early impressions of turkeys were from the standpoint of Thanksgiving. I remember being told as a kid that turkeys were so dumb, they’d look up in the sky during rain and drown, and other nonsense. (See the debunking Snopes site: http://www.snopes.com/critters/wild/turkey.asp)
The problem is, as the Snopes article points out: “Domesticated turkeys are not necessarily ‘stupid,’ but because they have been bred in captivity for so many generations, they lack the survival skills of their wild cousins: They’re weak, they’re fat, they’re not agile, they can’t run very fast, and they can’t fly.”
[Update 2010-02-04 - There's a fascinating article on the domestication of wild turkeys at ScienceNOW called the Turkeys: So Good People Tamed Them Twice. It explains what molecular anthropologists have been able to figure out about who first domesticated turkeys and when it occured.]
The turkey—one remarkable bird
The wild turkey is the very antithesis of our domesticated Thanksgiving bird. It’s wicked smart (“cunning” is a term hunters often use), illusive, and agile. And it’s a big, powerful bird.
An adult wild tom turkey typically weighs between 10 and 25 lbs and can be over 4 feet tall. That’s one big bird! Females typically weigh half as much and can be up to three feet tall. The wingspan of turkeys range from four to nearly five feet. The record-sized adult male wild turkey, according to the National Wildlife Turkey Federation, was 38 lb!
Despite its size, a wild turkey can run over 20 mph and uses that five-foot wingspan to hits speeds of 55 mph in flight. The wild turkey can defend itself, too. The spurs on a 20 lb. tom turkey make it a formidable foe, as many a hapless dog has found out when cornering one.
The turkeys one encounters in the Berkeley Hills are fairly used to humans, and it’s amazing how close you can get to them. This rafter (flock) of turkeys seemed to be all the same size and age —they seemed to be from the same brood. They walked up Stadium Rim Way for several hundred feet and then nonchalantly moved up the hill away from the Stadium, feeding as they went.
Centennial Road—beautiful lichen and black-tailed deer
As you head up Centennial Road up Strawberry Canyon, you’ll see some wonderful examples of lichens on most of the trees. I plan on doing an in-depth post about lichens later. They are fascinating plants, but identifying lichens is much more difficult than identifying vascular plants. Each lichen is a complete microscopic world with unique characteristics, and they can be very hard to tell apart.
The rain made the vivid green and yellow of two species of lichen quite striking:
About a quarter of a mile from the Berkeley Botanical Garden, I spotted two black-tailed deer grazing on the new grass that’s been springing up with our late fall rains:
Late Fall storm from Lawrence Hall of Science
It’s a pretty steep hike up to the Lawrence Hall of Science, but the view is always worth it. Even on a stormy day, unless you’re fogged in, the vistas can be wonderful, especially if you’re a fan of dramatic clouds. In these shots, you can see Sather Tower just coming out of the low clouds, with the distant San Francisco Bay mostly hidden:
Compare these views to this one from midsummer:
And here’s a view looking over to Oakland:
That golden stream in the distance is Highway 24, the Grove Shafter Freeway, curving through Oakland. This picture doesn’t do it justice; It looked like a river of molten gold—magical!
Going home—caressing clouds and a talisman
On the way back down Centennial Drive from LHS, the rain lifted some, and there were beautiful views of Strawberry Canyon. I alway love to watch the interplay between low clouds, fogs, and the Berkeley Hills.
Finally, in the grass along the road, I found one this lone feather, a final reminder of the rafter of turkeys I’d seen earlier. For me, it was a talisman of a remarkable bird that makes the Berkeley Hills such a wonderful place to explore.
Just like last year, we had some powerful October rains, though nothing like record breaker on October 14th of 2009, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported:
“It was the worst October storm the Bay Area has experienced since 1962, when terrible weather famously disrupted the World Series between the Giants and the New York Yankees.
San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Livermore all set rainfall records for a single day in October. Nearly 4 inches fell in downtown Oakland, almost 20 percent of what the city usually gets during an entire year.
And just like last year, after the record storm, I found a number of very large ladybug masses in Strawberry Canyon along the fire trail: (Note, you can click on any of the images below to see a desktop-sized image.)
Compared to last year’s massing, however, this was a rather modest gathering, maybe several thousand. But in October of 2009, the gathering was monumental! The swarm thickly covered plants for at least 20 yards, compared to about 4 feet this time. As I wrote in that post:
I read that a gallon jar will hold from 72,000 to 80,000 ladybugs. If that’s the case, then the number alongside the fire trail had to be way, way over a hundred thousand, maybe two or three hundred thousand! It was astonishing, and somehow touching, to see so many little creatures in a brief moment of community.
Perhaps this gathering will grow in the days ahead. I’m very curious to see if the numbers build, and I still wonder, as with the 2009 storm, if the big rains had anything to do with the gathering, or whether the ladybugs always head up into the canyons in late October.
By the way, last year’s post includes a ton of fascinating information and folklore on ladybugs that I think you’ll really enjoy if you haven’t read it yet:
One of the best things about the rain, especially the first big rain after nearly half a year of typical summer drought, is how wonderful it smells in the Hills and how vibrant the colors are! The mosses and lichen, especially, almost seem to glow in deep greens and yellows:
Looking at the moss and lichen, I also found discovered I was being eye-balled by one of the many Fox Squirrels in the Canyon:
This orb spider web was especially beautiful in the sun:
Another beastie you will usually see after a good rain are the beautiful—and often, huge!—banana slugs:
A lot of people go, “Ugh, slimy slugs!” and I know that banana slugs can be a pest, but I you get down on the slugs level, and watch it move, it’s an incredibly graceful animal. It’s very responsive to its environment and is far from stupid, a term I’m reluctant to use looking at any marvel of nature, no matter how humble.
When I find slugs in the middle of the fire trail, I always move them to the side of the trial they were heading for, because, sadly, I’ve seen way too many smooshed slugs by runners and walkers who didn’t see these little wonders.
This particular day, after the rains, I noticed hundreds and hundreds of small, fluttering creatures in the air. Clearly, flying was not their forte, and yet, the air was filled with them. On closer examination, I discovered that they were some kind of termite. My camera doesn’t have a close-up lens, but they looked very much like this:
At first, I wondered if they might not be flying ants, but I did a little research and was able to confirm from their body shape and wing structure that they were in fact termites:
I also learned that in areas like ours, which have a distinct dry season, the winged (or “alate”) caste members of termite nests leave in large swarms after the first good soaking rain. The alates are the reproductive caste. They fly off to find a new nesting sight, shed their fragile wings, mate, and start a new colony. I noticed alates all through Strawberry Canyon and over into the Claremont Canyon as well. There must have been tens of thousands of them, fluttering precariously in the air.
I was not the only one noticing this mass exodus. When I came to the sunnier parts of the Canyon, I started seeing lots of Western Fence lizards, running from cover to snap up some hapless alate that landed too close:
There must have been a lot of stuffed Western Fence Lizards that evening, because the alates seemed endless in numbers—natures way of making sure that enough termites survived to carry forward the species.
On my way down Claremont Canyon, I came across this lovely, but rather faded and battered butterfly:
I believe this is a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), one of the many lovely butterflies you will often see in the Canyons. (Kudos to Kay Loughman’s wonderful Wild Life in the North Hills website, which has some great images and information to help nature lovers identify plants and animals of our area.)
Yes, the fire trails in the Berkeley Hills can be muddy after a big rain, but there are many rewards for braving the mud. As I said, the fresh smell of the wet earth and vegetation is simply wonderful. The washed and soaked plants and lichen are so vibrant. I’ve also noticed that, for some reason, one tends to see more wild animals out right after a rain than at other times.
I hope enjoyed this post and that you will take find time to explore for yourself the amazing and beautiful ecosystem, that is the Berkely Hills. Hope to see meet you on the trails some day!
Today’s post features some of my favorite summer things in Strawberry and Claremont Canyons:
Now that summer is finally here, after a very rainy winter and cool spring, you’re likely to see lots of these in the canyons and Hills in the months ahead.
Blackberries are not hard to find along almost any of the fire trails in either Strawberry or Claremont Canyons. So far, however, I’ve found the best picking and eating to be along Centennial Road and the fire trail that leads off of it into Strawberry Canyon.
In many places along the trail, and along Centennial Drive the blackberry bushes are really thick. You have to be careful, though, because most of these plant are growing right on the edge of very steep drop offs. Trying to reach ripe berries that are tantalizingly out of reach, you can easily step off a cliff. Be very careful!
Earlier this spring, you could see hundreds of blackberry flowers, foretelling the bounty to come:
The berries all start out a bright green and then get darker and darker purple as they ripen. Of course, the darkest colored berries, the ones that look black, are the sweetest and most delectable. This last hike I had all the berries I could eat, and it’s still early in the season.
In researching this post, I discovered, to my surprise, that I’m probably seeing two species of blackberry plants in the canyons: the California blackberry (Rubus ursinus) and the Himalayan or Armenian blackberry (Rubus armeniacus). The Himalayan blackberry is actually considered an invasive species.
Since its introduction in the 1880′s, the plant has spread widely and become naturalised. But because of its tasty fruit, it usually isn’t considered a pest. It seems to be the dominant blackberry in Strawberry Canyon.
There are two easy ways to tell the difference between the two species.
First: the flowers of the California blackberry (left) are much more slender than that of the Himalayan (right):
Second, as is explained at Kay Loughman’s most excellent Wild Life in the North Hills website, the Californian has a three leaves and the Himalayan typically has five leaves. (The stems of the Himalayan are red and very thorny.)
As I was walking up the lower Strawberry Canyon fire trail, I soon encountered hundreds and hundreds of flying ladybugs. They seemed to congregate in the warmest, sunniest parts of the of the trail, like this:
I found very few ladybugs on the plants along the trail; most seemed to be flying about. It was such a scene of intense activity, compared to the very quiet but huge swarms I found on the blackberry plants last fall after the record October rainstorm:
I tried to catch the beautiful insects on camera, but they moved too fast and my humble camera just wasn’t up to the task, even though the air was thick with them. Here’s a close-up image of a ladybug flying that I collected some years ago doing research. Like all beetles, to fly, the ladybug has to lift her beautiful wing covers in order to free her wings for flight:
If you want to learn a lot more about ladybugs and see beautiful images of other species, be sure to check out my earlier post They are the Lady(bugs)of the Canyon.
On my way out of Strawberry Canyon, I took this shot across the Canyon to UC Berkeley’s historic Cyclotron:
Once summer arrives, you can find the Western Fence lizard most places in the Berkeley Hills, but you rarely find them in the cooler, deeper parts of the canyons. They love the warmth and sun of the upper canyon, and you will often find them sunning themselves on canyon trails and roads.
The Western fence lizard enjoys a variety of habitats from grassland to broken chaparral to woodland and coniferous forests, although they avoid harsh deserts. I came across this one on the paved road near the top of Panoramic Way, above Claremont Canyon.
Western Fence lizards are also known as Blue-bellies, but unless you catch one or are in a vantage point where a displaying male shows off his underside, you might not know they have blue bellies. I’ve never been able to get close enough to a displaying male with my camera to catch his underside, but here’s a fine image from Wikimedia that shows it:
The Western fence lizard can be a long as 21 cm (8 inches), though I’ve only seen one that big to date. Here’s a juvenile I saw on my last hike. He had just squirmed around because an ant had tickled him:
And here is a larger Blue-belly with very unusual head markings. It looked like it had dipped its head into ink!
I hiked out of Strawberry Canyon and crossed over to the trails of Claremont Canyon. From there, I usually head down Panoramic Way or Dwight Way and back through the UC Berkeley campus. The vistas from the tops of the Hills are different every hike and always so wonderful:
May all beings be happy. May all beings find the supreme joy that is beyond all sorrow. And may we meet as friends, some day, in the Hills of Great Beauty!
This post, first published on Dec. 01, 2009, has been moved to my new site The Nature of Berkeley.
You can read the original post here:
The blog is a celebration of the natural beauty and wonders of the Berkeley Hills area. I hope you enjoy your visit here!
November 6, 2009
UPDATE August 2011:
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