Observations of Flowering Plants and the Main Vernal Pools on the Mesa de Colorado, 11/26/01 to 3/4/02

Chronological Observations

Introduction to this page

2001 November 26
2001 December 1
2001 December 8
2001 December 15
2001 December 23
2002 January 2
2002 January 10
2002 January 18
2002 January 26
2002 February 4
2002 February 11
2002 February 21
2002 March 4

2001 November 26: Granite Loop (short North Loop plus short section near south trailhead), Trans Preserve, Vernal Pool and Adobe Loop Trails. Cool conditions with a high temperature in the low 50s, with clouds.

Winter has definitely arrived! The ground is wet from the recent rains, and the Vernal Pool Trail is even muddy in a few spots. The temperature was only 50° at 11 am, and I needed a heavy jacket to hike the Granite Loop Trail.

The weather has abruptly put to an end the bloom for the alkali mallow at the Main Pool. Half the plants are suddenly withered, looking like they have been killed by low temperatures. The slender buckwheat is also abruptly finished.

But other plants have been revived by the moisture. The leaves of the monkeyflower and black sage look good for the first time in months. It is amazing how the same leaves could look so bad for so long, and then be revived to a healthy state. The nasty non-native redstem filaree has sprouted on the Mesa de Colorado, with the seed leaves already covering the ground in places, which crowds out some of the native plants. And the Jepsonia merrily continues its bloom a few inches above the ground, although only about 1/3 of the plants are still blooming.

The stems from last year's annual grasses and mustard still stand in most places, mostly unchanged from before the last storm, although some of the stems of the taller wild oats have been broken in ~half. I'm keeping an eye on them to try to determine what finally eliminates them before next year's bloom.

Jane Strong accompanied me today, and we had a delightful time examining the willows along the Adobe Loop Trail to separate the species. The shining willow in particular lived up to its name, glowing a warm yellow color in the afternoon's sun.

2001 December 1: Granite Loop, Waterline Road to Cole Creek, S. Los Santos and Vernal Pool Trails. Sunny and pleasant conditions with a high temperature in the low 60s.

Nathan Lopshire and I observed a coyote today along the Vernal Pool Trail, the first time I had seen a coyote at the SRP for months. Coyotes were extremely common in the late winter and spring last year during the daytime, when I would usually see 2-3 coyotes every couple of hours. But then I suddenly stopped seeing them at all during the daytime, although I would still frequently hear their hunting yips in the later afternoon.

This healthy-looking coyote took quite an interest in us. We were in the grassland portion of the lower Vernal Pool Trail, past the chaparral section. The coyote was below us, and stared at us as we stared at it. The coyote then sat down and watched us until we got some distance away!

Most coyotes I have met have only glanced at me, with only a few giving me long stares, before resuming their business. Also, most of the time, I have seen coyotes in groups of 2-3. I can only speculate why this coyote behaved so differently. Perhaps this was a female coyote, and her nearly-grown offspring had gotten caught on the other side of the Vernal Pool Trail, with us between them.

2001 December 8: Granite Loop and N. Vista Grande Trails, Waterline Road, and Vernal Pool Trail. Sunny and pleasant conditions with a high temperature of 72° and a nice breeze.

The Santa Ana winds made it beautifully clear today. In a stroke of especially good timing, the docent class had their van tour today of the Tenaja Corridor. The views from Avenaloca and Redonda Mesas were stunning! And the view from the Mesa de Colorado was so enchanting that I had to stop several times to see far-off mountains I don't usually get to see.

Fortunately, the wind itself was only bad in the Temecula / Rainbow Pass, as well as on top of Redonda Mesa. On my hike today, the wind was just a pleasant breeze.

The yellow leaves of the willows and the sycamores have become striking. The trees in the drainage along Clinton Keith road were picture-perfect as I drove up in the morning, but alas, I didn't have time to take a picture before the docent class.

As the Jepsonia continues to bloom on the Granite Loop Trail, the acorns have mostly fallen from the oaks, and new growth is apparent in many places. White-flowered currant has several leaves showing from each bud, some California asters have a burst of new growth at their base, and the redstem filaree is now on its first true leaves.

But last year's grass and mustard stalks are still mostly standing despite the Santa Ana winds. It must take a lot more moisture and wind to knock them down.

2001 December 15: Granite Loop, N. Vista Grande, and Vernal Pool Trails. Sunny and cold conditions, with a high temperature of 52° and a cold breeze. I hiked in long pants, with my heavy coat on much of the time.

The Jepsonia is nearly completely finished, with only three plants still blooming. The only other blooms are from the wand chicory and Mediterranean mustard. Six other plants provide fall color, notably the western sycamore yellow leaves and the toyon bright red berries.

Thus this was a good day to spend on grasses. The grasses still stand high in most places, and still have their inflorescences from last spring in most cases. I learned a few new grasses and got more familiar with a few more.

At the beginning of the Vernal Pool Trail, I met two people who said they had seen a bobcat at about 3 p.m. just past the Main Pool. I quizzed them a bit to see if they knew the difference between a coyote and a bobcat, and it sounded to me like they did. I told them how lucky they were to see a bobcat, since I hadn't ever seen one at the SRP, despite all the many miles I've hiked there.

I made my first attempt at the plant list for the Vernal Pool Trail, recording all the plants in order along the trail to the end of the chaparral.

2001 December 23: Granite Loop, S. Los Santos (only very southern end), and Vernal Pool Trails. Sunny and pleasant/cool conditions, with a high temperature of 61° with little wind.

It really is the beginning of the new season for the plants that will produce the flowers. The soil is now moist enough that native plants are showing themselves. The leaves of the shooting stars are up, showing rosettes of 3-6 small leaves. The leaves of the blue-eyed grass are 1" high. California buttercup has 1-8 basal leaves, as does the checkerbloom.

Unfortunately, the ground on the Mesa de Colorado is nearly completely filled with redstem filaree leaves, except in the gopher holes, where wild oats is already 1-2" high. It is amazing that any annuals can break through this intense cover of non-native plants.

The Plateau has received 2.5" of rain so far, which has begun the process of wetting the clay to seal the Pool bottom so that it can hold water. A total of ~3.7" more of rain is needed before the end of January for the Pool to begin to fill. (Due to evaporation, more total rain is needed if it takes longer to get another ~3.7").

The rain three days ago has broken more of last year's wild oat stems. Perhaps 10-20% of them have been broken approximately in half, but the rest still stand, along with the needlegrass and mustard stalks.

2002 January 2: Granite Loop (only short north loop) and Vernal Pool Trails. Cloudy and pleasant/cool conditions, with a high temperature of 62° with a cool wind.

I spent the first part of my hike gps'ing and identifying the trees to the north of the Vernal Pool Trail, and mapping the edge of the Mesa de Colorado. I picked up one tick while doing this, which I didn't find until I got home in the shower. These data will become part of a new map for the Vernal Pool Trail I'm preparing.

The 2002 bloom is about to start! I saw several plants of white-flowered currant with fat buds, that will probably open in a week or two, on both the Vernal Pool and Granite Loop Trails. More old friends are up: mountain dandelion or a close relative now has a couple of true leaves; the Southern California morning glory has produced a number of leaves along its stem; bedstraw has several whorls of four leaves; and one Jepsonia leaf has appeared. Near the Vernal Pool, what looks like brodiaea has 3-4 leaves. The shooting stars now have robust whorls of leaves, and a few sugar bush buds look like they might be thinking about opening.

2002 January 10: Granite Loop (only south loop) and the Vernal Pool (only the beginning) Trails. Sunny and pleasant conditions, with a high temperature of 72° with a gentle breeze.

Jane and I studied the grasses on the Granite Loop Trail, and tentatively identified 3-4 ones that were new to us. We also worked on the plant list for the trail as well. The white-flowering currant is not blooming yet, and the fat buds look unchanged from the previous week. A year ago, the first ones started blooming early in January, so they're a bit later this year.

I GPS'd the two small pools, and the former vernal pool, near the Vernal Pool Trailhead.

2002 January 18: Vernal Pool, Adobe Loop, Punta Mesa (only the beginning), and S. Los Santos Trails; Ranch Road. Cool, sunny and pleasant conditions, with a high temperature of 60° with a slight breeze.

I hiked with another docent, Dale, today, and we were surprised at the beginning by two separate gophers who stuck their heads out of their tunnels while we were no more than six feet away. I was changing into my hiking boots sitting on the back hatch of my car when I noticed the first gopher on the road side of the fenceline. He calmly popped out of his hole at least six times to nab vegetation immediately surrounding it, filling his pockets in his cheeks until they were bulging. The second gopher, just five minutes down the trail, popped up to push some dirt onto his gopher mound, but didn't return above ground for an encore. It has been over a decade since I last saw a gopher stick his head out, and then to see two in a single day is a very low-probability event.

The 2002 bloom has begun! Three white-flowered currant plants are blooming on each of the Vernal Pool and S. Los Santos Trails, and one has begun bloom on the Granite Loop Trail. A single wild cucumber is in full bloom on the Vernal Pool Trail, and the manzanita planted at the Adobes is in full bloom. Finally, the mission manzanitas on the Punta Mesa Trail are also in glorious full bloom, while still displaying the berries from last year. And at the Main Pool, the spike rush is up.

One of my observations from this year that has surprised me greatly is that the native berries go mostly uneaten. I always thought plants offered berries for consumption as a way of spreading their seeds. Yet all year, species after species has retained their berries until they dried up. The toyon berries are now doing the same. The berries on the large toyon on the Lomas Trail just south of the Adobe Loop Trail have now dried in place, uneaten.

Interestingly, I have also observed non-native foods in coyote scat, such as pomegranate seeds obtained from plantings just below the cliff. I wonder if the species that formerly ate the native berries are now finding agricultural foods more to their liking?

Zach was watering planting holes in the meadow just east of the windmill, which will be planted with black willow and another species soon. We saw several other new features today. There is a new weather station just east of the Torrey Pine at the Adobes, visible from the trailhead of the Punta Mesa Trail. And a new fence reinforces the Road Closed sign at the nearly-vanished old portion of the Hidden Valley Road.

2002 January 26: Vernal Pool and Granite Loop Trails. Sunny and pleasant conditions, with a high temperature of 64° with no breeze.

I hiked with Rick Halsey today, who is writing a book on the chaparral and wanted to see the grasses here. He came to the Santa Rosa Plateau because this is the best place in California to see our native grasses. (Most recent source: J. Travis Columbus, an expert on our native grasses, at a talk on 24 January 2002 to the San Gabriel Mountains chapter of the California Native Plant Society.)

The Vernal Pool Trail is one of the best places to see the native needlegrass, and it certainly is the easiest one to get to. But amazingly, the Granite Loop Trail has a much wider variety of native grasses, despite it being almost entirely chaparral. This is apparently due to the rich diverse environments along the Granite Loop Trail, which range from pure chaparral of many kinds to oak woodlands to grassland drainages. Jane Strong points out that there is a very rich variation in microhabitat on that trail. In comparison, the Vernal Pool Trail is much more uniform in habitat along its length.

The common lomatium is now beginning to show its leaves, a single bicolor everlasting is blooming in the prickly pear near the Vernal Pool, and the Eastwood manzanita is swelling its buds. Some California buttercups on the Vernal Pool Trail are now large robust rosettes of leaves.

But the water from the previous rainfall is now nearly all evaporated from the soil, resetting the clock on how much rain is needed to form the pool. One silver lining: if there is no pool this year, I get to study how the vernal pool plants respond to the lack of standing water. (It is way too early to conclude that the Pool won't fill, since the Pool only filled in mid-February in both of the last years.)

2002 February 4: Vernal Pool Trail, Ranch Road and S. Trans Preserve Trail. Sunny and pleasant conditions, with a high temperature of 72° with only a small breeze.

I met a couple who were running the Los Santos Trail with a measuring wheel. I asked them to send me a copy of their data to compare to the mileages from other sources. The other sources include Ranger Kevin Smith's wheel measurements of the trails some time ago and my GPS data.

I finished GPS'ing the old Pool along the Vernal Pool Trail, and GPS'd the boundaries of the Main Vernal Pool. That was quite a job, since that Pool is so large.

I did a second pass at the plant list for the Vernal Pool Trail, and spent some time identifying the needlegrasses. I was quite pleased they could be separated even without flowers, using only the leaf width and lengths of the dead glumes on the old seedhead.

Beyond the Main Pool, the first shooting star bud is emerging from the rosette of leaves. The wild cucumber and white-flowered currant are now in full bloom. The planted manzanita at the Adobes continues in its beautiful full bloom.

I was very surprised that part of the Trans Preserve Trail is fairly muddy in a few spots. That portion must have been sheltered from the winds that dried up the 0.3" of rain received on 28-29 January everyplace else.

2002 February 11: Granite Loop, Fenceline Trails. Sunny and warm conditions, with a high temperature of 77° with only a small breeze.

Jane Strong and I worked on the grasses for the Granite Loop plant list. We made careful observations of the characteristics and habitat of the single unknown perennial grass, and identified it later as blue wild rye, Elymus glaucous ssp. glaucous. This grass looks much like a wheatgrass, with large seeds on alternating sides of the stalk. It grows in a very interesting combination of places: the margins of streams, the margins of oak woodland and the margins of chaparral! We spent most of the rest of the hike repeating the names of the different perennial grasses as we came to them, in order to learn their names better. (;-)

Despite the very dry conditions, the johnny-jump-ups, blue larkspurs and snakeroots (yellow sanicles) are showing their first leaves. The winds have finally removed the last seeds on the California buckwheat, and on many of the San Diego mountain mahoganies. But the winds have still not knocked down most of last year's stems from the grasses, which still stand proudly. Perhaps they need to be softened by a fair amount of rain before they can get blown down.

Afterward, I GPS'd the new Fenceline Trail and its future extension to the south. This gives yet another interesting view of the Preserve. It has always amazed me how each trail has its own character, despite all of them being in close proximity, and this trail is no exception.

This trail passes one point where there are many seedling virgin's bower coming up. The only other location I've found virgin's bower on the east side of Clinton Keith is a single plant or two on one of the alternate pieces of the Vista Grande Trail. The current end of the Fenceline Trail is where it crosses Tenaja Road to meet the ends of the Sylvan Meadows trails. Just beyond that point, and not yet open to the public, the Fenceline Trail crosses a small drainage using a new bridge. On the other side of the bridge is an impressive stand of 5' tall and 3' wide grass clumps. This unfortunately is probably non-native Harding grass, Phalaris aquatica. But being non-native doesn't make it any less impressive!

2002 February 21: Vernal Pool Trail. Sunny and hot conditions, with a high temperature of 82° with a pleasant breeze.

Three days ago, I was hiking in long pants, two sweatshirts and a heavy jacket in the San Gabriel Mountains, at the same elevation as that of the SRP. Today, I delayed my hike at the SRP until it was later in the day, to avoid the heat.

In my yard in Fallbrook, 11 miles to the south, there is not a drop of moisture in the soil and the annual plants are nearly all dead. Imagine my surprise when I found four new species blooming at the SRP today, and the annuals somehow avoiding the appearance of being at Death's door!

I was absolutely shocked to see the first flower from ground pinks, beautiful as ever, appearing on top of the few short green threads that pass for the leaves of that plant. Ground pinks is a species that produces perhaps the largest flower out of minimal moisture and minimal photosynthesis area.

I thought ok, this is surprising, but one plant has somehow managed to flower. Perhaps it got extra water from someone's dumped water bottle or a coyote.

But then I came across ~20 blennosperma with their sunny little yellow heads, looking for all the world like it was a normal springtime bloom. And then another 10 at the Main Pool, and another 10 farther along the trail.

The topper were the shooting stars. I came across six in bloom past the Main Pool, and then another ten, and another 10, until there were a total of ~80 plants in full bloom.

Our native plants are simply amazing.

To be sure, there were even some moist patches in the basalt clay in shady spots of the trail below the Mesa. Unlike the soil in Fallbrook, the clay here has been able to retain a bit more of the 3.2" that has fallen this year. And these plants know how to make the most of it.

Other plant observations: the foliage of the chocolate lilies is about an inch high, and buds are on the potentillas.

On the way back, at dusk, I ran into a cloud of what were probably male mosquitoes. Fortunately, the males don't bite.

2002 March 4: Vernal Pool Trail, Ranch Road, Trans Preserve Trail. Sunny and pleasant conditions, with a high temperature of 78° with a slight breeze.

I was stunned to find that there were 25 new species in bloom since my last visit 11 days ago. This rate of 2.3 new species blooming per day far exceeds the rate of 1.2 new species blooming per day observed last year at this time.

However, the bloom this year is pathetic compared to last year. A single plant represents many of the new species in bloom. This is unlike the situation last year, where I would usually find at least a handful of representatives for each new species coming into bloom. Worse, a number of the plants in bloom look near death. For example, the flower stalks of some of the California buttercups are bent in half from wilting, and are unlikely to produce seed. Many more plants look like they will die without producing any bloom.

The severe drought is the most likely cause of both effects. Annual species strive mightily to bloom and produce seed, and the lack of moisture in the soil probably signals them to speed the process up, if they can. So a few plants in favorable places, where the soil received or retained more moisture than other places, have produced a small early bloom.

The duration of bloom for each species will likely be much shorter than last year. Already, the shooting stars are near the end of their display after only about two weeks of bloom. For comparison, last year they bloomed for seven weeks, from March 9 to April 28.

The bugs are early, too. Some annoying gnats were present today, but were not very bothersome. The little flying black beetles that don't annoy were out today, too.

The flora at the Main Pool, which is of course without water, is very different from normal as well. Usually at this time of year, the Pool is at full depth, and only a few plants like spike rush have begun growth. This year, the alkali mallow, a plant characteristic of summer and fall at the dry Pool, is already up. In a final insult, non-native filaree is blooming within the area of the Pool.

Nonetheless, it was very pleasant to see old friends blooming again. The bloom may be pathetic, but an individual plant in bloom is still a wonderful sight, and can produce as much pleasure as ever. And the bloom of some species is as good this year as it was last year. For example, the milk maids, which bloom in shady moist areas, have an excellent display.

I had a special triumph today. There was a single species last year that I couldn't identify, that grew only in the shadiest spot of the S. Trans Preserve Trail. I found it not only growing today, but blooming, although it took me quite a while to figure out that it was blooming. The bloom is a pathetic little flower about 1 mm in size that is hidden by the foliage, which accounts for why I never noticed a bloom last year.

I spent some time later trying to identify it. My attempt this year benefited from my learning about half of the plants on the SRP plant list in the course of the past year, leaving many fewer possible candidates to go through. I first tried to deduce likely families, and went through those possible candidates, but none of them fit. Finally, I just decided to go through every species I didn't know. Luckily, the plant turned out to be one of the first species I looked up, Bowlesia incana in the carrot family, Apiaceae, which surprised me greatly. The bloom of this species looks nothing like a typical Apiaceae bloom, which is an umbel, where an upright flower stalk branches into typically three or more flowers. This species has a drooping umbel with a single flower!

So even in a pathetic year for bloom, there are still many pleasures to be had!

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Copyright © 2001-2002 by Tom Chester.
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Comments and feedback: Tom Chester
Updated 25 December 2002.