Sunday, my wife, Caroline & I hiked in the 399-acre, Portuguese Bend Reserve, located on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, south of Los Angeles. The early morning weather was sunny with a temperature of 60 degrees and a gentle sea breeze. Leaving the car parked on a nearby residential street, we entered the preserve and followed an earthen trail south as it descended past a wall of exposed bedrock with well-defined layering. These sedimentary layers were formed millions of years ago as marine deposits before being uplifted and eroded. Next, we paused and faced west to gaze afar at the vast Pacific Ocean along with the islands of San Clemente and Catalina. Continuing our descent, I spotted a familiar Chipping Sparrow and an unfamiliar Sage Sparrow. Despite the barren winter landscape, I managed to find a few wildflowers including the tube-like yellow blossoms of Tree Tobacco. This invasive plant is native to South America while its leaves are still smoked and used for medicine by some Native American tribes. Also, I found a few small white blossoms of Hayfield Tarweed whose name comes from its foliage which has an odor reminiscent of tar. Moving off the main trail, we followed a narrow, rugged, hilly trail through what is described as Coastal Sage Scrub terrain where we came upon a Black Sage bush and paused to crush a few leaves to enjoy the herbal aroma. After turning around to retrace our steps, I noticed some pine branches covered with a strange lichen call Usnea or Old Man’s Beard. Continuing our ascent, the red berries of a Toyon bush caught my eye. While the berries are toxic to humans they can be a food source for birds. Nearing the trailhead, I spotted a fruiting Prickly Pear Cactus. This red fruit can be made into juice that tastes like a cross between bubble gum and watermelon. Finally, we reached the top, found the car and headed back to Redondo Beach.
Wednesday, my wife, Caroline & I hiked in the 45-acre, Madrona Marsh Preserve, located in the city of Torrance, California. The property, surrounded by busy streets is thought to contain one of the last remaining vernal freshwater marshes in Los Angeles County. The mid-morning temperature was sunny with a temperature of 60 degrees and no wind. We left the car and began following an earthen trail west around the perimeter where I came upon a plant called Santa Barbara Milk Vetch. This perennial herb is also referred to as Locoweed or Crazyweed which is a common name in North America for any plant that produces swainsonine, a phytotoxin harmful to livestock. Following the trail as it turned south, I began to notice the wetlands that had been replenished by heavy overnight rain. Upon closer examination, I spotted several Mallards feeding in the shallows. Mallards are classified as dabbling ducks which are a type of shallow water duck that feeds primarily by tipping headfirst into the water to graze on aquatic vegetation and insects. Nearby, I noticed another dabbling duck, called an American Widgeon. This duck is a temporary winter resident and will migrate north in the spring to breed in Canada or Alaska. Looking around, I also spotted some dabbling Canada Geese. Continuing on the perimeter trail as it turned east, we were pleased to observe a small group of monarch butterflies, including some paired together in their mating ritual. Further ahead as the trail turned north, it was easy to spot a perching male Goldfinch nearby but not so easy to see a Mourning Dove sitting on a large tree branch deep in the underbrush. As the trail looped back to the west, Caroline alerted me to a quick-moving, 3-inch Western Fence Lizard, barely visible in the leaf litter. Finally, we completed the circuit and found the car for a short trip back to our rental house.
Wednesday, my wife, Caroline & I hiked in the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve. In the heart of the Los Angeles coast, between a busy international airport, dense commercial corridors, tourist-packed beaches, marinas and residential communities, this 600-acre natural area is nestled in the middle of a concrete landscape. The early morning weather was mostly cloudy with a temperature of 60 degrees and no wind. From the parking lot, we followed an earthen trail west into the Freshwater Marsh area where I spotted some American Coots swimming in a large pond. Further ahead, I paused to observe a perching Wren of unknown species as well as to listen to a singing House Finch. Continuing west, I noticed the shrubbery lining the trail included Lemonade Berry and Brazilian Pepper. Also, a few wildflower blossoms caught my eye including: Coreopsis and Sunflower. Still heading west, we paused to observe and admire a Great Egret standing in the shallows. On the other hand, it was not easy to spot an immature Great Blue Heron nearby. Turning around, we began to retrace our steps when I caught a glimpse of a few male Northern Shovelers swimming in the marsh. Continuing east, some large fluffy plumes of Pampas Grass caught my eye. Native to South America, this invasive plant grows in large clumps called tussocks with stems that can reach a height of 10 feet. The plumes are panicle-like flowers that bloom in late fall and winter. The leaves are razor sharp and could cut you just by rubbing against them. Near the end of the trail, I spotted a plant common to this area called Castor Bean. Finally, we found the car and prepared to join the ever-heavy traffic back to our rental in Redondo Beach.
Tuesday, for my final “wandering” of 2017, I hiked the last section of the Heartland Trail between Edmore and Alma. Developed from an abandoned railroad line and purchased by grocery-store magnate Fred Meijer in 2000, the Heartland Trail rolls for 42 miles from Greenville to Alma through farmland and forests as it links a half-dozen rural towns. The mid morning weather was sunny with a temperature of 0 degrees and a light bone chilling wind from the west. Leaving the car in the parking lot of the former Episcopal Church on Luce Rd., I headed north a hundred yards and turned east on the trail where I noticed a meandering mound of snow made by a burrowing Meadow Vole. These small mouse-like mammals survive the winter by tunneling under the snow to escape subfreezing temperatures and predation. Nearby, I spotted a set of tracks of one that had recently surfaced and scampered over the snow. Continuing east over the crunchy snow, I noticed the long shadows across the trail created by the winter sun that was beginning to ascend from its recent solstice. At the half-mile mark, I crossed Charles St. and continued east where I was surprised to see a single Maple tree still holding on to many of its leaves even though they were dead. Still heading east, I crossed Iowa St and entered Alma College campus where I could see clusters of leaf buds on twigs of several maple trees. Hiking east along the railroad tracks, I turned around at Superior St. and retraced my steps on the path following my shadow along the edge of the campus. Continuing west, I paused to observe a Dark-eyed Junco and a male Goldfinch with its muted winter plumage. Further ahead, red sumac bobs and decaying apples caught my eye. Finally, I made it back to the car, turned on the heater and headed home.
Tuesday, I resumed my hike on the Heartland Trail, heading east toward Alma. The early morning weather was foggy with a temperature of 32 degrees and no wind. Leaving the car on the edge of Winans Rd., I headed east, surrounded by a thick layer of ground fog caused by warmer moist air cooling and condensing over the cold snow. Plodding ahead through 8-inches of fresh snow, I spotted a variety of deer tracks including those made by heavier adults that sunk down deep as well as those made by lighter immature ones that did not. Further along, I noticed some coyote tracks. Even though from a single track I could not make out the lobe arrangement on the footpad that distinguishes it from a dog, I could tell by its overstep gait which creates a straight and narrow track pattern. Proceeding eastward, the snow-white path provided a good background to spot the small seeds that recently fell from a Hophornbeam tree, a Red Oak leaf with its u-shaped lobes and bristle tips as well as a purple stain from wild grape juice. After turning around at Luce Rd, I headed west where I could barely make out a rafter of about two-dozen wild turkeys walking through a farm field to the north. Continuing west as the path cut through a woodland, I noticed a disturbed area where several deer had bedded down last night. Just ahead, I paused to watch a melanistic Gray Squirrel perching motionless in the crotch of a tree. Nearby, I spotted the last vestiges of chlorophyll in a few leaves of Autumn Olive. Also, I noticed the accumulated snow made it easier to spot bird nests like this one. Still moving west, I came upon a birch tree with unusual bark color and concluded it was a rarely seen Chinese Red Birch. Finally, I got back to the car and headed home