Observations of Flowering Plants and the Main Vernal Pools on the Mesa de Colorado, November 2002 - January 2003

Chronological Observations

Introduction to this page

2002 November 16
2002 December 7
2002 December 14
2002 December 21
2003 January 4
2003 January 17
2003 January 26
2003 January 30
later observations

2002 November 16: Vernal Pool Trail, Ranch Road and S. Trans Preserve Trail. Sunny and warm conditions with a high temperature of 81° F., with only a few wispy clouds and no wind.

We finally got a decent rain! Last weekend we received 2.4 inches of rain. For comparison, during the entire rainy season last year, we never received more than 1.0 inch from any storm. You have to go back to 2/23/01 through 3/1/01, almost two years ago when we got 4 inches, for the last time we received more than 1.0 inch from a storm.

Today, seven days after that wonderful rain, green is appearing everywhere. It is such a relief to see new growth nearly everywhere I looked, even if a lot of it is due to non-native weeds.

I had been quite worried about whether a lot of plants would die from the extended drought. Those worries were mostly put to rest today after seeing at least four baby Engelmann trees, from one to three feet high, that still had their leaves, and thus had survived the drought. If these baby oaks, with their yet undeveloped root system, could survive the drought, I'm betting that nearly every other species has survived as well.

Nearly everywhere, the bare surfaces of the ground were almost filled by filaree or non-native annual grasses, as usual. But best of all, the blue-eyed grass, one-sided bluegrass, the needlegrass, and California aster were all showing robust new growth. One of the biggest surprises was to see a single California poppy plant with two open flowers and two buds.

Leaves have come back to life on the bush lupine, bush monkeyflower and black sage. On the latter two species, the top ~6 leaves on each stem have revived, with leaves below those remaining dried-up. New growth has appeared on the white-flowering currant, climbing bedstraw, and on a single potentilla plant. And one wild cucumber stem is now 3 feet long on the Trans Preserve Trail.

However, the rain did reveal at least some of the damage done to the oaks. In one short section of the Trans Preserve Trail, I counted four major tree limbs or entire trees that had fallen. Rob Hicks told me that this occurred during the rain all over the Reserve. Those limbs or trees had been weakened enough by the drought that the extra weight caused by the moisture from the rain was enough to topple them. The wind was not a factor, since the rain fell gently over two days.

It is either ironic or fitting, depending on your point of view, that the rain which gave a new beginning to some plant life also marked the end for others.

2002 December 7: Granite Loop. Cool conditions with a high temperature of 62° F., with only a few clouds and no wind.

A day for animals and a day for plants.

First, the animals. On the way back from a docent program at the Adobes, another docent, Pat, and I saw a "different-looking" coyote. We studied it for a short time. It was just slightly smaller than a normal coyote, and looked like a coyote for the most part, very un-fox like overall in its body shape. But the striking difference was how red/orange it was. There were patches of orange/red in many places in its body.

When I got back to the visitor center, Rob Hicks gave me the Peterson Field Guide to Mammals, with pictures and the features that distinguish gray foxes from coyotes. I had no idea that foxes could look so similar to a coyote! The best distinguishing feature is apparently the tail. Foxes have a bushier tail that has a black stripe down its middle that gives the tail a black tip. Also, coyotes run with their tail held down between their legs, whereas a fox runs with its tail horizontal. Color and size are not of as much help in distinguishing the two species. Gray foxes should have some salt and pepper color, and are often redder. Gray foxes are smaller than coyotes, with a head and body 22-30 inches long while coyotes are 32-40 inches long. So a small fox and a large coyote can be distinguished, but a large fox and a small coyote would require a tape measure to distinguish them.

Naturally, I didn't note anything about the tail, so I can't be sure what species we saw. However, I'll be ready the next time, and no longer quite so skeptical when visitors tell me they have seen a fox. (The skepticism comes from the fact that an average hiker sees a few coyotes each hike, and that sightings of foxes are extremely rare. For example, Rob Hicks, the park interpreter, has never seen a fox there.)

I then learned of TWO mountain lion encounters in the last week! The first was a single hiker on the Vista Grande Trail, who saw the lion cross the trail in front of him. The second, believe it or not, was with a school tour group of 18 children on the Granite Loop Trail. They saw a young mountain lion in a tree, and every one of the children remained calm and silent. The lion calmly stretched and climbed down from the tree away from them within a minute.

Now the plants. The Engelmann trees look wonderful with their new crop of leaves! And baby annuals have appeared on the Granite Loop Trail, for the first time in two years. Ain't it great? (;-)

Since Engelmanns normally produce new leaves in March and April, we now have two distinct populations of trees this year. About half the trees did not lose their leaves from the drought, and will probably wait until March to drop their old leaves and sprout new ones, per business as usual. The other half dropped their leaves this summer and fall, and they are producing their new leaves now. Presumably, they won't go through this process again in March, but you never know.

It was so much fun seeing the annuals on the Granite Loop Trail that I spent several hours on this short trail trying to recognize each species. The two varieties of cryptantha (popcorn flower) seedlings were obvious, with long prickly hairs even on the baby leaves. The navarettia (skunkweed) seedlings confused me at first, looking like little green twigs stacked on top of each other, with a twist of 90° between each short twig.

Several perennials were up as well. All the ferns had greened up or leafed out. Blue dicks were almost omnipresent in one section of trail, with some leaves as long as 6 inches, after skipping their appearance last year there. While checking their leaf characteristics to make sure of the identification, I learned that they can reproduce by stolons. This accounts for why one section of the trail is an agglomeration of a hundred or so plants.

The single leaf of hundreds of jepsonia plants made their appearance. Surprisingly, 5-6 plants had also produced late flower stems, and two of them had leaves at the same time as the flowers, which they are not "supposed" to do!

Jepsonia is an interesting plant that produces a single inch-long leaf in winter which vanishes by spring. It then produces a single flower stalk a few inches high in October and November, which is usually gone by December. The rain must have been just early enough to convince a few percent of the plants to go ahead and bloom, even though most of them had already made the decision not to bloom this year on this trail.

Although the new growth on the vast majority of plants has now shown that they survived last year's drought, a few species show damage. Most of the deerweeds along the trail are clearly dead, with only a few showing the new growth that should have been evident on all of them by now. A few bush monkeyflower plants also are dead, although they are outnumbered by the ones that survived. The branching phacelia lost all its above-ground stems, but has resprouted from its roots. The perennial stems of sweet peas are clearly dead; it remains to be seen whether new growth will come from their base. A number of redberry plants still look dead, sans any new growth, but perhaps new leaves will come in spring. Time will tell for all.

The remarkable thing is not the plants that have died; it is that almost every plant was able to survive the worst drought humans have recorded in this area. Not only was the rainfall the lowest total in 100 years in most of Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego and Riverside counties, but the weather was such that every rainfall was followed immediately by heat or drying winds that essentially removed the rainfall from the soil. Every rainfall, except for a single rainfall of 1.0 inch, was only 0.25 - 0.50 inch, so the soil never got moist below a few inches. Worse, this was the fourth year in a row of below-average rainfall, so conditions were dry to begin with.

Our native plants are amazing creatures; what a shame that we are dooming many of them to extinction by paving over their habitat...

2002 December 14: Vernal Pool Trail, Ranch Road, S. Los Santos Trail. Cool conditions with a high temperature of 65° F., cloudy and breezy.

This year's bloom has begun! A single wild cucumber on the S. Los Santos Trail is in full bloom, with over ten separate flower clusters in bloom. A single white-flowered currant on the Vernal Pool Trail had at least one bud that will open tomorrow, and a single specimen on the Los Santos Trail had its first two flowers. A single Eastwood manzanita on the Vernal Pool Trail was able to set buds this summer, and has two flower clusters with a respectable bloom now. A single two-tone everlasting on the Vernal Pool Trail is in full bloom. Mule fat is in bloom in several areas.

Due to the drought, some species are in bloom now that normally are finished with their bloom by this time of year. At the drainage on Hidden Valley Road just west of the Trans-Preserve Trail, three species are blooming. Siskiyou aster is in pretty-much full bloom, while bull thistle and bristly ox-tongue are ending their bloom. A single elk thistle has its last bloom farther along the road. At least one climbing bedstraw has buds about to open.

The damage from the drought is now evident for two more species. Unlike on the Granite Loop Trail, most of the deerweeds survived on the Vernal Pool Trail, although a few are clearly dead. About 60% of the bush lupines survived on both the Vernal Pool and S. Los Santos Trails.

Overall, though, the drought effects are minimal in this land that is now green everywhere I look. It is wonderful to see all the annuals that are growing. On the Vernal Pool Trail where it drops off the Mesa, annuals cover the sides of the trail in all areas not occupied by perennials. The abundance of common phacelia is stunning.

I was shocked to see what looked like field bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis growing in several places there, but then soon realized that the first leaves from new shoots emerging from the ground were very different from the leaves produced later.

Now that I can recognize baby blue dicks from their leaves alone, I am stunned by the large number that exist almost everywhere. It will be interesting to estimate the percentage that produce blooms. The percentage surely must be way under 100% or else one would see nothing but blue dicks flowers everywhere when they bloom!

If the rains continue, this should be an excellent year for wildflowers.

2002 December 21 (Day 2): Vernal Pool Trail. Cold, cloudy, almost-rainy conditions with a high temperature of 50° F.

My simple model for the amount of rainfall needed to form the Pool said we were very close to forming a pool from the rains of early 12/20/02. I called the Visitor Center, and was ecstatic to hear that the small pools had formed. So I changed my plans and went to check out the Main Pool, despite the risk of being rained on.

After almost two years without any pools, it was wonderful to see the small pools again. They look to be quite full, but it is hard to be sure without measuring them. I hurried to the Main Pool, and was delighted to see that a shallow pool had formed. The water was 0-2 inches deep at the boardwalk, and a small central portion of the Pool contained a contiguous pool 2-3.25 inches deep.

Once again, the Western Spadefoot Toads had wasted no time laying eggs in their favorite spot by the boardwalk. There were three clusters of eggs in that location, their Honeymoon Hotel, on the far side of the boardwalk, about 80% of the way along its length, in the deepest water just to the east of the boardwalk. Young clover ferns were also visible there.

When I was at the Pool, the forecast was for about an inch of rain to come within hours, and more storms in the near future. Therefore, I had no concern at all about the possibility of the Pool drying up before it got more rain. Unfortunately, as I write this eight hours later, it looks like the storm stayed offshore, and the potential rainfall from near-future storms is decreasing.

The Pool usually loses about an inch of depth per week. So the current lifetime of this Pool is only about two weeks. This short lifetime would kill all the fairy shrimp and other creatures which had hatched with this wetting, before they even became very visible. But even if this happens, it seems highly likely that a full Pool will still form this year.

At best, only perhaps 50% of the Pool area contains standing water now. So if the current water dries up before it rains again, there should still be plenty of eggs that can hatch with the next wetting.

I hiked a bit farther along the Vernal Pool Trail before I decided that the trail was too muddy to continue. The trail on the Mesa was very wet, but still firm enough to not give much trouble if one hikes slowly, but below the Mesa the trail contained mud pits.

I met a group of Team Stream volunteers there who were coming back up the trail. I was delighted to find that the group included Charlie, the volunteer who has pulled most of the curly dock from the pools and elsewhere nearby. We each are very grateful that there are two people working to remove the curly dock! On the way out, we discussed the pleasures and pains of noxious weed removal at the SRP. (;-)

2003 January 4: Vernal Pool Trail, Ranch Road, S. Lomas Trail, Monument Hill Road, N. Trans Preserve Trail, Coyote Trail. Hot, sunny conditions, a high of 86°, the warmest high in a long time.

There were more people at the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve today than we had seen for a very long time. There were ~ten cars at the Vernal Pool Trailhead alone. I met ~20 groups of people during my hiking today. Nearly all of them were headed for, or coming back from, Monument Hill, to enjoy the great views of today. This was quite unusual - I think I encountered more people going to Monument Hill today than I have in total over eight years. I asked several groups if a newspaper article inspired their quest for Monument Hill, but they all said no.

As expected from the lack of rain, the Main Pool has dried up entirely. All the fairy shrimp, the other pool creatures that hatched in the shallow pool, and (probably) the eggs laid by the frogs and toads, are dead. Although sad, this is not a catastrophic event, and every species living in the Pool expects this to happen every so often. If the Pool forms again this year, to its normal full depth, the abundance of fairy shrimp et al will be normal; i.e., the loss of the first hatching will go unnoticed due to the large area that wasn't wetted in the first filling.

The small pools are still nearly full of water, although their shoreline has retreated a bit from two weeks ago.

I took advantage of the dry Main Pool and weeded out about 15 curly docks near the boardwalk. I was a bit dismayed to see so many of the perennial plants had survived the drought. I had thought only a much smaller number had done so; clearly, these plants were just conserving their water underground, with no parts visible above-ground.

I had the good fortune to run into a biologist working on the western Riverside County plant community assessment, and learned from her more about that project. Also, she had studied the vernal pools of San Diego County a decade ago, and told me that the ostracods in those pools were bioluminescent and flashed when mating, near dusk! I'd been out at dusk several times without seeing this phenomenon in our pools. I'll look for this in the future.

I was stunned when I saw that nine blennosperma plants were blooming just past the far end of the boardwalk, and even more surprised when I saw four patches of blue-eyed grass blooming on the Vernal Pool Trail below the chaparral area. Both of these species don't normally bloom until late February or early March. They must be trying to make up for the lack of bloom last year.

I started a plant list for the S. Lomas Trail, then headed over to the Trans Preserve Trail to look for milkmaids. They were not even close to bloom, which was surprising, since they normally bloom before the blennosperma and blue-eyed grass. Since milkmaids live in the shade, perhaps they felt no urgency to bloom before the soil dries up.

2003 January 17: Tenaja Truck Trail, Ranch Road, Monument Hill Road, Waterline Road, Faultline Road, Vernal Pool Trail. Warm, sunny conditions, a high of 80°.

Earlier in the week, I had put together an updated SRP plant list with all the additions to the original Lathrop and Thorne list. I sent Zach Principe, the reserve biologist, a list of all the species I knew he had added, including ones for which a positive id had not yet been obtained. As a result, Zach, Jane Strong and I went on a new plant species expedition today, to positively identify some suspected new species found by Zach, as well as observe some of Zach's finds that already had positive identification. We were so successful that we even found a new species not on Zach's list!

The new species, Malva parviflora, cheeseweed, was one on Lathrop and Thorne's not found, but expected here list. As soon as I mentioned it to Zach, he immediately pointed one out in the weed field next to the Adobes and thereby picked up an easy credit for another new species for the plant list. It's hardly ever that easy to find a new species! (To be sure, we need to wait for blooms before we can make this a 100% positive identification.)

We were shocked to see chocolate lily buds near the Faultline / Waterline Road intersection, as well as shooting stars, common lomatium, and Pomona locoweed blooms. These species normally bloom 1-2 months from now, and thus are blooming very early. It is clear that the early rains followed by warm temperatures have moved up the bloom time for these species.

Two years ago, with normal rainfall, almost nothing bloomed until middle March, due to a very cold winter then. These two winters demonstrate clearly that a number of species respond primarily to temperature to time their blooms.

I hiked the Vernal Pool Trail with Kay Madore afterward. We saw shining peppergrass blooming in many places, along with the very first ground pink and the first four blooms of California buttercup.

2003 January 26: Vernal Pool Trail, Ranch Road, S. Trans Preserve Trail, S. Lomas Trail, Waterline Road, N. Vista Grande Trail. Warm, sunny conditions again, a high of 81°.

I hiked with Kay Madore again, this time with her husband Paul, and Kay showed me all the many blooms she had found on the previous day. I was simply stunned to tally up later that there were 44 species in bloom in January. Typically, there are only a few species in bloom in January. In 2001, that number of species did not bloom until mid-March! It will be fun to make a plot sometime of the bloom time in 2003 vs the bloom time in 2001 to see in detail how many species moved up their bloom by how much time.

Kay had previously told me about an Engelmann oak on the Vernal Pool Trail that was golden yellow all over its crown. I couldn't think of what had happened to cause this, so I rushed to see it. I was very surprised that it was "fall color" that was producing the gold!

Normally, the leaves of Engelmanns turn brown as they are shed and replaced by new leaves. But this one particular tree for some reason produced a lovely gold/yellow show for the upper half of its leaves, as part of the same normal process of replacing its leaves. (Pix to be linked later.)

We came across several California buttercups with 12 petals. This may be normal for California buttercups elsewhere, but it ain't normal here. The typical flower at the Santa Rosa Plateau has only 5 petals, and sometimes 6.

I weeded about 20 curly docks from the Main Pool, which dismayed me even more than it did on 4 January. After all, I had removed all the plants I had seen then, so all of these had become apparently in less than a month. About half of these were plants that had begun growth this year, so the curly dock seed bank is unfortunately still healthy, despite the drought and lack of seed production last year there.

Afterward, I hiked Waterline Road to Vista Grande Trail to the Cole Creek crossing, in order to observe the chaparral current found by Kay. I was very surprised at the difference between that part of the Reserve and the Mesa de Colorado area. The drought was still apparent here. Many fewer annuals had sprouted from the November rains, and the growth of the wild oats et al was much less. Instead of the green of the Mesa de Colorado, the dominant color here is still brown. Even the bed of Cole Creek is depressing to look at, bone-dry, barren of most plant growth.

I hiked back on the N. Granite Loop Trail, and checked on the unknown nightshade that I have been waiting to identify for over a year. (It didn't bloom last year due to the drought.) Much to my surprise, it was blooming! I identified it later as probably being Parish's nightshade, Solanum parishii, which was a new species to the SRP plant list.

The woolly-fruited lomatium was blooming at the trailhead, which lived up to its name. Its flowers had much "white wool" surrounding them.

2003 January 30: Granite Loop Trail, Waterline Road, Vista Grande Trail. Warm, sunny conditions yet again, a high of 82°.

Excited to get a positive id for the Parish's nightshade, I returned to update the plant list for the Granite Loop Trail. Zach was fortunately free, and we spent hours on the Trail identifying all the many annuals that were up. We found some probable Filago californica, another of the species on the Lathrop and Thorne's not found, but expected here list.

All together, we increased the number of species on my plant guide to that trail from 117 to 135. Virtually all of the new species to the guide were annuals that didn't germinate last year.

The most stunning thing to me, however, was the discovery of about ten Parish's nightshade specimens all along the trail. All of them were confirmed as this species. I was excited to get to the single purple nightshade I had found last year on this trail, and compare it to this species. Imagine my surprise when I found that it, too, was a Parish's nightshade!

In the first year I was learning new species, I didn't know how to key out plants myself, and relied on the Lathrop and Thorne plant list and pictures to identify plants. Hence when I saw a purple nightshade flower on this trail last year, I assumed it was the only purple nightshade species on the SRP plant list. However, after I learned to key out plants, I spent the next year learning here, and in other places, that it was not always true that species on plant lists were correctly identified, or that the plant lists were complete.

Now I'll have to see if I can find a true purple nightshade, Solanum xanti, anyplace on the Preserve!

After recovering from the heat a bit, I started a plant guide to the Vista Grande Trail. In only the first 0.21 mile of the trail, I found 74 species, about the same number as I have in the same distance on the Granite Loop Trail. But it only took a single trip, at the right time of year, to find these 74 species, whereas I had to wait over a year for conditions to be right to observe that number of the Granite Loop Trail.

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Copyright © 2002-2003 by Tom Chester.
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Updated 15 February 2003.