Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

Pinnacles National Park: California Wildflowers and Condors

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Pinnacles National Park: California Wildflowers and Condors
April 29-May 2, 2019

After witnessing the splendor of Carrizo Plain National Monument’s superbloom in March, I was determined to get back to enjoy more flowers. But by the time I had a few days available to make the trip, the superbloom had passed. I will have to wait until the next one, which could be next year or in 10 years or ?

Fortunately, the regular spring wildflower season wasn’t over and I could go somewhere closer to home to find them, possibly Pinnacles National Park, Henry Coe State Park or Mercey Hot Springs. These are not places of superblooms but good choices for reliable yearly wildflowers. I decided on Pinnacles, only two hours away. I’d been there once before on an unpleasantly crowded weekend. This trip, I was arriving on a Monday. Pinnacles is also home to condors, a bird I’ve long wanted to see.

Arriving without a reservation, I was still able to find a good campsite, #59. It was spacious, shaded by oaks, with a small stream running through it. California quail, acorn woodpeckers, juncos, scrub jays, spotted towhees, gray squirrels and ground squirrels made frequent visits. After one hike, I sat quietly for a long time, watching the various animals come and go, sometimes photographing them. On the last night, raccoons decorated my car with muddy footprints. The only downside to this spot was that it was near group campsites where boisterous excitable teenagers had gathered for an outdoor adventure.

My first full day was cool and cloudy, perfect for hiking and photographing flowers. After getting a suggestion from a park ranger, I hiked five miles round-trip on the Old Pinnacles Trail. It was a leg punishing day, not because the trail was long or steep but because photographing flowers meant I was constantly doing deep knee bends while caring weights (cameras, telephoto lens, water, lunch). It was six hours of walk 15 feet, deep knee bend, walk 15 feet, deep knee bend, walk 15 feet, deep knee bend.

The next day I went on a shorter, steeper hike, the Condor Gulch Trail from the trailhead to the Overlook, only two miles round-trip. At the Overlook I met a couple from Walnut Creek and a young American woman living in Tel Aviv. We ate lunch together, sharing stories about nature and birds. (It turns out that Israel is a great birding destination.) The couple had seen condors the evening before from the campground and explained where to meet at sunset to see them again.

After lunch I meandered a little farther on the trail, admiring in silence the towering cliffs and volcanic rock formations. Turkey vultures flew in and out of view above the tallest pinnacles. Then I saw it. A soaring bird much larger than the vultures with white on its underside. A condor! It only appeared for a few seconds. I grabbed my bridge camera with its 600mm zoom (my good telephoto lens was still in my pack.) It appeared again for a few seconds and I took some quick, what I call, panic shots. It disappeared again. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. My good camera poised for action. Eventually I gave up and put the camera down to pack up for the hike home. At that moment two condors soared right overhead, like low-flying aircraft, darkening the sky with their nearly ten foot wingspan.

There are only 160 condors in all of California and about 27 are in Pinnacles. As you probably know, during the 20th century, their population was decimated by poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction. The few remaining condors were captured and became a part of a captive breeding project. In the 1990’s, they began to be introduced back into the wild.

Back at the campground that evening, I joined others at sunset to watch the arrival of condors taking advantage of the last updrafts from the sun’s dwindling heat. Above the hill behind the campground they soared acrobatically, being lit by the sun’s last rays.

This gallery contains 75 photos

Scenes from a Superbloom

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It rained a lot this winter. That’s what it’s supposed to do in the coastal redwood forest of Northern California near Santa Cruz. After seven years of drought, the last few years of close-to-normal precipitation have been a relief.

We don’t get superblooms here, just the expected spring flowers. Superblooms occur in arid areas that usually don’t have wet winters. I hadn’t been paying attention to the weather farther south so the news of a possible superbloom came to me late and I had to scramble to figure out how to fit in a trip. During the superbloom of 2017, Chris and I went to Carrizo Plain National Monument (CPNM). I was adamant about going again.

The deserts of Southern California, which have been in the news for their fabulous flower displays (and destructive crowds of people), are a 10-12 hour drive from here. But Carrizo Plain is a mere 4-5 hours.

We packed up the camper for a three night stay. The wildflower hotline said it was pre-peak at CPNM but I figured there would still be plenty to see. It was indeed stunning, a heavenly spectacle of color and verdancy. Yellows, followed by purples, dominated the hillsides and valley floor. Then came the oranges, blues, pinks and whites. Everything was held in a great embrace of green.

The first night we pulled off Soda Lake Road and bumped along a rough single lane dirt path into the hills where dispersed camping is allowed. We found a rise with an open view across the great plain to the Temblor Mountains to the east, with the Caliente Mountains lifting up behind us.

We saw little wildlife during this trip, only indirect evidence of it. The ground was pockmarked with the borrows of ground squirrels and other rodents with larger holes for foxes, coyotes and badgers. The holes were so numerous that walking became an obstacle course. The first evening, distracted by photography, I twisted an ankle in a dirt opening. I limped for a day or so and it is still a bit sore, two weeks later.

We saw only a few birds, mostly ravens and sage sparrows, and a couple jackrabbits. Walking with the midday sun, we kept an eye out for rattlesnakes, but none were spotted. The rodents remained invisible, even at dusk or dawn. At night I shone my flashlight across the ground, hoping to catch a busy nocturnal creature. But saw none.

We wanted to camp on the eastern side of the Monument which we had not done before, but several of the main roads across the valley plain were closed due to poor conditions. The CPNM Visitor Center directed us to cross over on Seven-Mile Road, just outside the park, to reach Elkhorn Rd. Seven-Mile Road turned out to be quite a treat on its own. The valley was covered with goldfields, hillside daisies, tidy tips and occasional phacelia.

Unbeknownst to me, this road also led to an iconic view (one I had only seen in photographs) where Highway 58 passes through the Tremblor Mountains. The hillsides glowed in gold with complementary patches of purple. Cars had pulled off the highway and lined the roads. Families trekked up a path to a fairyland of color. It was Sunday and it was crowded. After a few photographs we opted out on the hike and chose to continue south on Elkhorn to find a spot for the night.

We pulled off Elkhorn and had another vast view, this time facing west. Coyotes barked, yipped and howled at night and in the morning. Near us was a dry arroyo. I surmised this would be a good place to find flowers since it would have been wetter than the surrounding hillsides. It was indeed a wildflower haven. While the flowers in this part of the park were not so widespread to be seen from space (https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/california-super-bloom-space-trnd/index.html), they were abundant, delightful and diverse at close range. I saw varieties that were new to me such as desert candles, evening snow and blazing stars as well as familiar hillside daisies, phacelia, lupine, poppies, fiddlenecks, filaree, owl’s clover, cream cups, thistle sage and more.

The sky was sunny and cloudless the next two days. This sounds great, but it’s actually not ideal for photography. On the last morning I got up before sunrise so I could see the flowers and the terrain bathed in the subtle light of dawn.

Photographing wildflowers here also turned out to be grueling exercise for my legs. In addition to long walks, I was popping up and down constantly, doing deep knee bends, to reach the low to the ground treasures with my close-up macro lens. And I was always carrying weights, AKA two heavy cameras.

I longed to stay more days, go on more walks, find more and more unique flowers. But we had to leave. Before getting on the highway we stopped again at the pass through the Tremblor Mountains and this time I scaled the trail into the yellow rounded hills. I was alone and the view was breath-taking, pure magic.

I plan to go back but my schedule won’t allow it until the end of April. It will be post-peak then, but I imagine the late blooming varieties will still be showing off their fleeting, heart-breaking beauty.

Please do not reproduce any photographs or videos without permission. If you are interested in purchasing a photograph, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.

 

This gallery contains 72 photos

Mostly Moss Landing

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Mostly Moss Landing

Below is a combination of photos from two trips in the last couple months to Moss Landing, CA. I would go there everyday if I could! Well, once a week anyway. Even though it is a busy place for humans with Highway One (traffic!), fishing, whale-watching vessels, tourist stops, restaurants and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, it is also a busy place for wildlife. Sea otters, sea lions, harbor seals and shore, wading and other birds. On one trip, there was a large raft of sea otters with several coming close to shore but almost no sea lions. The next time there were plenty of sea lions but few otters. Both times had shore birds and pelicans.

LONG-BILLED CURLEW
I have a series of four photos showing a curlew with a small clam between its beak which it consumes. What is interesting about this, is the clam seems to be suspended between the upper and lower mandibles by mucus. Does anyone know anything about this?

SEA OTTERS
As I said, there was a large raft of otters bobbing in the harbor. They were conveniently located near one of the dune lookouts. The otters were either resting – floating still with front paws in prayer position – or grooming themselves, or playing. One otter came close to shore (and to me) wading on its back in a few inches of water to energetically groom itself. It was difficult to choose which photos to included here. I had hundreds.

OTTERS ON LAND
Occasionally, but not often, an otter will come ashore and walk on all four. You can then see how thick and luxurious their furs is (for which they were hunted to near extinction.) They look like a bear with a small strange head. One such photo is included.

WOUNDED OTTER
I first saw this otter lying lifeless on the sand. Deep raw red gashes on its head and back were visible. I assumed it was dead. But when I looked back it was gone! I periodically caught glimpses of it swimming with the otter raft as if nothing was wrong. I am guessing it had an encounter with either a boat propeller or a shark. I don’t know if it has survived but I hope so.

I have also added a few photographs from other places that haven’t been shared on this post yet.

SALMON SHARK
I stumbled on a small dead shark entangled in kelp, maybe 3 feet long from tip to tip; I thought it could be a young great white shark. Many juvenile sharks were sighted this summer in the Monterey Bay area. After internet searching, I identified it was a salmon shark. A species previously unknown to me. It is a close relative of the great white and looks very similar, but smaller with a few minor coloration distinctions. As its name implies, it likes salmon and therefore is less likely to mistake humans as prey.

WANDERING TATTLER
This lonely bird was wandering the shore at Scotts Creek in Davenport. A first I thought it was a willet, but its yellow legs indicated it was something else. Bird books, apps and internet searching led me to the wandering tattler, another new bird for my life list. They winter and migrate through California.

 

Please do not reproduce any photographs or videos without permission. If you are interested in purchasing a photograph, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com

This gallery contains 64 photos

Another Trip Up the Coast to Gualala, CA

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Another Trip Up the Coast to Gualala, CA
July 19-23, 2018

This was my first trip since my surgeries in May and June. I was eager to have time outdoors to sit under the big sky and breathe in wild air.

The first night we drove from Stanford, where I had an appointment, to Jenner along the ocean at the mouth of the Russian River. A friend had mentioned that there were a few good spots along Highway 1 where we could boondock (that is, stay for free.)

Sure enough, we found several small areas squeezed in between the road and the precipitous cliff edge. These pullouts are most often used by tourists to stop and gawk at the incredible views. But there wasn’t much of a view that night as the fog was too dense to see the beach below much less the vast ocean before us. There was only the 360° expanse of gray thick mist. We were still happy to be there for the night and settled into dinner and some reading. Before sunset the fog lifted just enough to tantalize us with a peek at the jagged rocks emerging from the ocean. Just minutes before they had been completely invisible.

In the morning the sky was still overcast and heavy but we could see the Russian River Estuary and beyond to Goat Rock. I will included a video of our view in Jenner from both our trip up and back in another post.

In Gualala, we stayed with Chris’s sister and brother-in-law, just relaxing and enjoying the perspective from their home on a high bluff above the Pacific. Turkey vultures, ravens and gulls soared at eye level with an occasional timid deer or California quail on the ground below. We drove to a few beaches looking for beachcombing or photographic treasures. Chris hoped to boogie board but the ocean was unusually flat with low lapping waves.

We headed for Jenner again on our way home, first stopping at Salt Point State Park and Fort Ross. Fort Ross is the remains of a 19th century Russian fort and settlement when this area was frequented by Russian hunters and trappers. To see more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Ross,_California

Below are a range of photos, including ocean views, a few persisting wildflowers, tafoni – the honeycomb sandstone erosion caused by sea and wind, languorous harbor seals, energetic pelicans and a few other discoveries. I will include several videos in another blog post.

Please do not reproduce any photographs or videos without permission.

 

This gallery contains 70 photos

Last of the Wildflowers 2018

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Because of health issues, I missed much of the June wildflower season. Still I was able to capture a few over the past six weeks on several short walks and have included some of those flowers here. To see many more flowers, at this point, I would have to go to higher elevations in the Sierras but I don’t think I will make it there this summer.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission.

This gallery contains 65 photos

More Wildflowers; Spring 2018

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Wildflowers Spring 2018

Here is this year’s photographic crop of wildflowers that I have not yet posted. Most of these flowers were seen in open space on Skyline Blvd., Quail Hollow County Park, along Alba Road where I live, Mt. Madonna Retreat Center, and various other locations I found myself wandering with my camera.

Please do not reproduce without permission. Thank you!

This gallery contains 89 photos

THE FLORA – The Gualala (Mendocino County) Trip

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THE FLORA
The Gualala (Mendocino County) Trip
April 29 – May 4, 2018

Last week we left for a few days to visit Chris’s sister in Gualala, California. On the way up we stayed at Wright’s Beach Campground in Sonoma Coast State Park, one of the few places in California you can camp on the beach. From there we spent two days in Gualala and then headed north for two nights at Russian Gulch State Park. We’d hoped to camp at Navarro Beach, another on-the-beach campground, but it was closed for the season.

I am dividing photographs into three installments: The Flora, The Fauna, The Sea. One photographic goal was, as always, to capture spring wildflowers. There are numerous flowers in this collection for which I have either forgotten their name or I didn’t know it to begin with. Over time I will return and correct this omission. If you know the name of a flower I have not labeled, please let me know. I played with macro shots, so some items were nothing special with the naked eye but appear impressive in an enlarged form. A few flowers were as small as 1/4 inch.

The flower I was most determined to see was the showy pink Pacific Rhododendron. It seemed elusive until leaving Mendocino when I saw a few shrubs near the highway. I insisted Chris pull over so I could run down the road with my camera. Supposedly there are wild rhododendrons in our part of the Santa Cruz Mountains. However, I have yet to see them here.

We endured some typical spring northern coastal California weather. A few days of sunny, bright, very windy and cold weather followed by a few days of cloudy, foggy, not so windy, cold weather.

We have a book to recommend to you: California Coastal Access Guide from the California Coastal Commission. Well organized, useful maps, plentiful photographs, good basic information about the many, many wonderful places you can get to the ocean from the Oregon border to Mexico.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission from Carla.

 

This gallery contains 58 photos