Anxious to see how the area looked after the fire, I drove up to Stebbins once the highway was open again. I was waiting to receive research access to the closed Reserve, but thought it would be good to see what things looked like from the road.
It is a stark landscape but a beautiful one. Without being able to explore very far in space, I focused on details: the color palette, the specifics of curled leaves, the patches of remaining green leaves or needles on trees with foliage mostly heat-killed.
I did notice that the large oak that anchored my view into the canyon on each visit since the Wragg Fire had succumbed to this fire. Drawing its stump was poignant. The place was incredibly still and quiet. I didn’t hear or see any birds save one turkey vulture high above the ridge.
In February, I felt particularly lucky to be escorted the entirety of my hike by robins. They were busy stripping the stands of toyon of their berries, swooping here and there, calling to each other and scolding me. They would let me get close to them and stand under the bushes for a while, but then they would move away one by one down the trail to the next cluster of toyons.
I was struck on this hike by how much white pitcher sage I saw in clearings, soaking up the sun. The abundance of white pitcher sage and also chaparral currant seem to me to be a sign of the growing dominance of sub-shrubs in the Stebbins habitats, as the annuals start to be shaded out and we follow the ecological stages of plant succession after the fire.
I stopped for a captivating view with swaths of toyon, hairy-leaved ceanothus, and white pitcher sage. Below are some of the deposits left by mammals and a bird along that same stretch of trail.
I believe the galls I spotted on the interior live oak are made by the gouty oak gall wasp (Callirhytis sp.).
A clump of feathers in the grass at the side of the trail told the story of some kind of struggle, probably with a robin since they were so active and plentiful then. No sign of a body (or parts thereof), so either the bird escaped or the evidence was swallowed.
As I neared the end of my hike, I noticed the unmistakable red of a robin’s chest in the brush down the hill along the side of the trail. The still form looked so peaceful – no sign of predation or struggle. It was a moving end to the drama that the robins had provided all along my journey.
It was late fall, but still felt like summer when I visited Stebbins in September. Each season has its highlights, and I went to the canyon looking forward to flying insects, active birds, and the early hints of fall colors. I wasn’t disappointed! The Anna’s hummingbirds (Calypte anna) and the grasshoppers were quite lively, and it sometimes took me a minute to register which of the two large flyers had just whizzed past my head.
Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is always showy this time of year. I love to see it looking healthy and abundant: it is an important food source for birds, herps, insects and some mammals.
I spent a long time watching a gray hairstreak (Strymon melinus) on slender clover (Trifolium gracilentum). I hadn’t seen one in Stebbins yet – it is a pretty little butterfly!
It was great to be back in the canyon after nearly a yearlong absence, having just moved back from the East Coast. I was there on a short trip, but enjoyed the quiet autumn stillness in the morning before the full heat of the day.