Having been on the other side of the country, I missed a spring trailhead view of Stebbins this year. It was great to draw another fall view this October, just over three years since the fire.
Here is the view from September 2017:
And the previous four (March 2017, September 2016, March 2016 and September 2015):
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.
My interpretive sign showing how plants and animals use Cold Creek in both wet and dry seasons is up at the reserve!
It is posted at a small creek overlook along the Homestead Trail. I developed the sign to highlight how plants and animals make use of a seasonal stream in both wet and dry times of year. To illustrate the concept, I selected a set of organisms that represent a wide variety of strategies for coping with fluctuations in water availability in different seasons. Given a two-color design constraint, I used the colors to help emphasize the species and the changes in their environment.
Here is the sign alone:
On an overcast day that was comfortably cool, I tried to see as many different areas in the reserve as I could. I headed up the trail towards Blue Ridge first and watched an oak titmouse (Baelophus inornatus) poking around in the dirt at the edge of the trail. There were still bunches of nearly dry California cudweed (Pseudognaphalium californicum), along with the last blooms of coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis).
Tuleyome and the Friends of Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve have been continuing to stabilize the trail, shoring up the steep sections while the shrubs that ordinarily hold the hillsides in place are regrowing.
The sky was filled with dramatic swaths of clouds, so I took a moment to capture the view back along Highway 128.
Many of the toyons (Heteromeles arbutifolia) that started regrowing immediately after the fire did not produce flowers and berries until this year.
In the overall grey of the day, the fall colors at the reserve stood out sharply:
Because there had been a small amount of rainfall already this fall, the creekbed was damp and there were a few pools in places; enough moisture for mosses to have begun to rehydrate. The view through the culverts that are now the official access route into the canyon is striking and I finally stopped to capture it on this visit.
Here are a few shots of the sketches in progress:
Just over two years after the fire, here is the view from the old trailhead. Trees and hillsides are looking considerably greener, even at the end of summer. Some of this is due to the wetter winter last year, but shrub and tree regrowth is also responsible. Vines of wild cucumber and wild grape are taking advantage of the shrub skeletons that remain bare – many vines are visible in the middle distance in this painting – but shrub resprouting and reseeding is also widely in evidence throughout the reserve.
The view in April 2017:
The view in September 2016:
The view in March 2016:
The view in September 2015:
Early September brought strong winds, which proved too much for some of the oaks in the reserve that had been weakened by fire. The one below was on the trail just before the actual entrance to the reserve, very near where the new trail access meets the original trailhead at Highway 128.
Although weakened, this oak had been alive before it fell. This is post-fire regrowth:
In the morning when the temperature was approaching 90 degrees F, a fairly short walk through the reserve revealed a number of plants I had not seen in previous visits, including green cudweed (Gnaphalium californicum) and narrow-leaved milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis), below. I also observed galls on poison oak, which are made by a gall mite, Aculops rhois.
California fuschia (Epilobium canum) is abundant in the reserve in the summer, but I saw a new Epilobium in the creekbed this visit, denseflower willowherb (Epilobium densiflorum). The puffy, plume-like fruits of pipestem clematis (Clematis lasiantha) were abundant in several places along the creek trail.
Thanks to the wetter winter, there was still water in the creekbed this July, and plenty of plants and animals taking advantage. Red rock skimmers (Paltothemis lineatipes) buzzed me as I stood on rocks above the water, peering into the creek to see freshwater snails that are harder to spot when the water is higher. I fished the head of a Jerusalem cricket (Stenopelmatus sp.) out of the water; I’m sure the rest of its body had been a juicy treat for something.
Near the beginning of what is likely to be an intense fire season, the area north of Cold Canyon that has burned twice before over the past four years was in flames again. A total of 2,269 acres burned north of Highway 128 near Winters over three days in early July:
This map shows all of the fires in the area between 2014 and 2016:
While fire is a necessary component of a healthy ecosystem, when the same area burns repeatedly with only short intervals between fires, seed banks are destroyed and trees that might have survived a single fire are unable to recover enough to withstand the next fire. We still have a couple of months or more of hot dry weather, and plenty of extra fuel this year as a result of the wet winter. I will be surprised if there are not more fires in this area this year.
Approximately a year and six months after the fire, it is apparent that the crowns of many of the trees near the trailhead have filled in considerably. There is also a lot more vegetation on the ground than there was in March a year ago. Chaparral shrubs are resprouting from their bases, but I have noticed this winter and spring that vines (wild cucumber, wild grape) are responsible for a lot of the newest greenery on the hillsides, growing up the trunks of the burned shrubs.
The view September 2016: