Normally tours of Finch Frolic Garden are held by appointment for groups of 5 – 15 people, Thursdays – Mondays. Cost is $10 per person and the tour lasts about two hours. By popular demand, for those who don’t have a group of five or more, we will be hosting Open Tour days for the first 15 people to sign up in August and September. They will be Sunday, August 10 and 24, Sept. 7 and 21, and Thursdays August 7 and 28, and Sept. 11 and 25. Tours begin promptly at 10 am. The tours last about two hours and are classes on basic permaculture while we tour the food forest. I ask $10 per person. Please reserve and receive directions through firstname.lastname@example.org. Children under 10 are free; please, no pets. Photos but no video are allowed. Thank you for coming to visit! Diane and Miranda
Thanks to my daughter Miranda, our permaculture food forest habitat Finch Frolic Garden has a Facebook page. Miranda steadily feeds information onto the site, mostly about the creatures she’s discovering that have recently been attracted to our property. Lizards, chickens, web spinners and much more. If you are a Facebook aficionado, consider giving us a visit and ‘liking’ our page. Thanks!
Salton Sea is a terminal sea, created by accident in 1905 by a break in an irrigation canal from the Colorado River.
Salty and as it evaporates, becoming saltier, the sea hosts water sports, camping, and in the summer black flies by the millions, temperatures well over 100F, and the smell of rotting fish. However it is also one of the birding hotspots of the United States, as it is located along the Pacific Flyway in the Imperial Valley.
My daughter and I took advantage of the cooler post-Christmas weather and drove there last week. Winter is the best time to see birds and we weren’t disappointed.
The drive was a little over two and a half hours from our home, skirting the mountains and into the desert communities.The Sea is about 35 miles long, and is about 227 feet below sea level. The north-west part of Salton Sea hosts the visitor’s center and some good birding areas, but the best areas for us were about thirty miles south (it isn’t called a sea for nothing!) at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, Unit #1.
Fish die-off is a sad part of the life cycle of the mineral-heavy sea, and the sand is layered with the decomposing bones of millions of fish.
Thousands of birds in enormous flocks can be seen all around the Sea. It is a grand thing to witness; it had been a common sight until fairly recently in US history to have flocks of birds so dense they blacken the sky.
There weren’t that many there, but the numbers were amazing. In the southern part are agricultural fields where we saw hundreds of curlews and ibises feeding between the crops.
We were looking in particular for burrowing owls, and the advice we were puzzled to receive was to look in irrigation ditches and pipes along the road. Then, sure enough, as we were driving my daughter suddenly caught sight of one sitting alongside the road at the top of an irrigation ditch! He obligingly posed for many photographs. Later I saw two sitting at the opening of a pipe that protruded from an irrigation ditch! Amazing.
One of the highlights for me was seeing sandhill cranes. These beautiful and majestic birds were feeding in ponds adjacent to flocks of pelicans. I didn’t happen to get any photos of them although my daughter did, because I was busy crawling under the car trying to find the source of the intense squealing sound that suddenly developed (only gravel in the wheel, thank goodness!) There were also hundreds of snow geese, and long strings of hundreds of red-winged blackbirds filled the sky as the sun set.
We left, entranced, at sunset, and took the route home through the Anza-Borrego desert, up to 4,000 feet above sea level through the mountain town of Julian and back to Fallbrook in just over 2 1/2 hours. We covered about 275 miles that day, but it was well worth it for birding. The visitor’s center has many pamphlets on other birding areas in the vicinity, but they’d have to be done on other trips because there are just too many birds to see in one day!
Other birds we saw included Bonaparte’s gull, American Avocets, Stilt Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Gambel’s Quail, to name a few. An excellent birding site with Salton Sea bird list and locations is htttp://southwestbirders.com. Search for Salton Sea.
One of my planned, “this shouldn’t be too long” hikes turned into a 9.5 mile hike today at the beautiful Santa Rosa plateau. My daughter and our hiking friend Alex and I enjoyed the day a bit longer than we had planned. However the chaparral and the oak grasslands are spectacular in any season. We saw a tarantula, many tarantula hawks, a three foot and very fat old Pacific rattlesnake who crossed our path. Also red tailed hawks, kites, bush tits, Bewick’s wren, meadowlarks, scrub jays, chickadee, sparrows and goldfinches. We set out at 1:30 and took a lot of time while photos were being taken, then stopped at the beautiful visitor’s center to look at their new outdoor displays of rocks and the art show that is still being held inside. Then we began the way back taking a trail across the street on which we’ve never been. We arrived back at the car at about 6:45. Although I hike fairly frequently, a hike of this length was a little more than I expected. I also had been wheelbarrowing and spreading mulch this morning before breakfast (14 loads). Good thing I didn’t go to Zumba! I’ve fed animals, made three meals including baking scones this morning, and now I’m moving like a crab with a rash. My hip and legs seem to be receiving signals different from what my brain is sending. I’m making the ‘old man sound’ as I struggle to stand. So please forgive the lack of photos and more creative post. My body isn’t going to forgive me today’s exercise (especially that last half mile uphill to the car!) in the near future. Neither, I think, is my daughter!
Today my daughter and my hiking buddy Alex spent almost five hours hiking a seven-mile trail in the stunning Santa Ysabel Preserve. Alex and I hiked the Kanaka Loop trail before, taking less time, but today we stopped often for photographs of the abundant birds, insects, plants and incredible views.
Managed by the County of San Diego Parks Dept., this open space preserve has two entrances. The West Loop Trail, which is short and mostly easy, is off of Highway 79, and the main entrance and staging area is off of Farmer Road past Julian (http://www.sdcounty.ca.gov/parks/openspace/Santa_Ysabel.html ) . Each entrance offers loop trails, and are connected by a portion of the Coast to Crest Trail.
This preserve is the home of ancient oak riparian woodlands,
200-year-old sycamore groves,
stunning views of the mountains and hills west, with a glimpse of Palomar Observatory in the far distance
and equally serene pastoral landscapes of mountain homes, apple orchards and rolling hills in the southeast.
At this time of year the grasslands are pale gold, and ripples travel for acres in the very welcome warm breeze that kept this July day from being overwhelmingly hot.
A new experience for us was to walk miles of trail while disturbing thousands of grasshoppers that flung themselves out of the way or took wing to avoid us. It was like setting popcorn off as we walked, trying to not tread on any but also being hit by some misdirected fellows. One took a ride on my pants for awhile until he began to investigate my pants pocket and I had to give him a boost to freedom.
It was a glorious day for birding; some of the birds we saw were flocks of Western bluebirds, kingbirds, a lark sparrow, a Lazuli bunting, ravens, chipping sparrows, goldfinches, bushtits, both spotted and California towhees, acorn and Nuttall’s woodpeckers, a Northern flicker, a Cooper’s hawk, an American kestrel, Western meadowlarks, brown-headed cowbirds, cliff swallows, Steller and scrub jays, Mountain chickadees, and many turkey families, their brood half-grown and comically awkward. We saw bright red Large Milkweed Beetles on blooming Indian milkweed, a late blooming Summer lupine, and did I mention grasshoppers? Thousands of grasshoppers. Almost the entire hike. A pair of ravens sat in the tall grass to the side of the trail with their beaks open, catching them as they leaped, as did Western bluebirds and others.
The Preserve is also home to cattle, and groups of the little ladies and their offspring dotted the landscape. Many bad cow jokes ensued (they’re in a bad MOOd; you can’t HIDE from them, they are UTTERLY charming, we’ve got to HOOF it past them, let’s MOOve it along… well, you get the picture), and although they watched us warily, they gave us no problem and we spoke to them soothingly as we passed by.
The Kanaka Loop Trail is easy up to the streambed crossing,
then it goes uphill in areas which are bare due to elevation and past fires, so there is little cover. Many pines have sprouted up and their fragrance in the heat is intoxicating. However twice during the trail up through the trees we smelled greasy french-fries, and have no idea what plant or combination of flowers created that scent. It is an exceptionally beautiful trail and not difficult for the average hiker, but be sure to take a hat and lots of water, and a good attitude towards cows!
Weeds are plants that grow where you don’t want them to. It is a label given with purely human whim that often interferes with nature taking care of its animals and soil. Unless you are removing invasive species, weeds have a purpose and can not only be useful medicinally, but also are indicator plants of how healthy your soil is.
In the February 1989 issue of Organic Gardening, I wrote an article called Selective Weeding. In it I described how weeds with deep tap roots not only break up the soil, but are nutrient ‘miners’; they take up minerals from down deep in the earth, send them up to their leaves, and then leave them on the soil surface when the leaves die, which improves the quality of the topsoil for other plants to thrive. Around here, wild radish is the most notable weed that does this although it is invasive, but it isn’t the only one.
Other weeds make good groundcover, such as purslane. Purslane needs fertile soil to thrive, so when you see it, you know there is good soil. It is also edible and a good source of calcium, iron and Omega-3 fatty acids…. a real plus for we vegetarians who don’t eat fish. Lamb’s quarters also grows in highly fertile ground and is very edible. Red clover also loves fertile soil and it’s importance to the pollinator insects is vital. Clover roots set nitrogen in the soil and is often used as a cover crop.
Plantain (Plantago major and not the banana) is naturalized throughout North America and I guarantee that everyone has seen it whether they know it or not. The variety with rounded leaves in a rosette is a common lawn weed, and the variety with long, lanceolet leaves with long veins that grows by waterways is much larger. Why streams and lawns? It thrives in soil that has low fertility and high ratio of water. Plantain makes an excellent salve for stinging nettle rash, insect stings and some say poison oak rash. If you brush against nettle while hiking you’ll know right away because it releases chemicals into your skin that burns for awhile and then dissipates. Look around for plantain, break a leaf and roll it between your fingers till it releases the juice and apply to the site.
Nettle is another great plant even though it stings in self-defense. The chemicals that sting are water-soluable, so if you pick young nettle and soak it or cook it like spinach, you have a green that is very high in Vitamin K, protein, calcium, maganese and potassium. Nettle soup is commonly served in other countries. Nettle is an indicator plant of soil that is high in nitrogen and phosphate, which explains why it often grows around abandoned buildings and farms where there has been animal and human waste. Nettle is the host plant for many butterfly species as well.
Poison oak has a place in our native forests as well. It is a plant which happens to give off a chemical that humans find irritating. It produces berries that birds rely on, it provides shade in the understory to hold in moisture and give safe harbor to many animals, it is beautiful with its bright green spring growth and dark red autumn shades. The entire plant produces an oil that gives most people a rash, which doesn’t begin to irritate the skin for several days. Thinking about the substance being an oil will help you consider how to deal with it. If you or your dog brush it, the oil will transfer to your clothes, skin or your dog’s fur (another great reason why you shouldn’t let your dog run off-leash in natural areas!), and transfer again when it is touched. If burned, the toxicity is increased and you can inhale the fumes and become critically ill. If you think that you’ve brushed against poison oak, wash your clothes separately from the rest of the laundry and wash your skin well. There are many products on the market which help dissolve the oil, such as Technu, which is a wash for just after you’ve touched the plant. On hot days the plant’s oils carry in the air so people who are very sensitive should avoid poison oak habitat in the summer.
Weeds that indicate compacted soil, which is low in oxygen, are bindweed (looks like a small white or pink morning glory), quackgrass and chicory with its tall blue flower. Chicory’s deep taproot mines the minerals and breaks up the soil, and bindweed covers the soil providing some shade and protection against more compaction and dropping leaves over an extended area for mulch. Quackgrass secretes a chemical that supresses other plant growth as it travels via rhizome, breaking up the soil surface and carpeting it for protection.
Dandelions, a weed of childhood fantasy, of back-country wine, of spring tonic greens, are happy little plants that lawn owners ruthlessly kill. They grow in many soils, but are indicators of acidic soil. Henbane is a sign of alkaline soil.
Whether you keep your weeds, selectively weed, or eradicate them all, you should at least learn what they have to tell you. A good list of California weeds is at http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/weeds_intro.html .. An extremely valuable book that I have used so often when conducting hikes (and there is always a little girl that asks what every little plant is along the way), is Roadside Plants of Southern California by Thomas Belzer. It has photographs, descriptions and whether the plant is native or not. Another book is the Natural History of Vacant Lots by Matthew Vessel et al. These are wonderful guides for all the plants that fall between the cracks of most plant ID guides.
Just remember that plants communicate to you, and each have a purpose to fulfill. Whether it be as a mineral miner, a canopy or shade plant, a pollinator and food source, a nitrogen-fixer, a soil breaker, a mulch plant, each is doing something to help build earth fertility. Plants that are non-native take the place of the ones that are native and important to an area and its habitat, supplanting perhaps a plant that is the host for a particular butterfly. Be enlightened when doing yardwork. Feel free, though, to eradicate any Bermuda grass that you see, because it is a weed against which I have a personal vendetta! Happy gardening.
This last weekend’s retreat to Idyllwild became extra special with the advent of April snow. I started out from Fallbrook at two o’clock, following my GPS through our granite-studded hills and golden-flowered valleys. As I drove through the Anza plateau in the beautiful afternoon sunshine, I started seeing glimpses of my destination, which the forecasters indicated would be snowy.
Listening to my audiobook, occasionally holding up my camera to take photos through the windows (thank goodness for digital photos! All those random shots I can delete instead of pay to print and then throw out!) I reached the turn-off for Idyllwild and tall pines. I passed red gambrel barns, peaceful horse ranches, and then the first downy flakes started swirling around. I gave out a hoot to myself. Although I was born in New Jersey, my dear mother told my dear father that she never wanted to shovel snow again in her life, and they moved our family of five children West when I was five. I’ve visited snow a handful of times at Palomar when growing up, or with my children. Up until I drove through snow and ice in Ashland a couple of weekends ago on my trip to Oregon, I had little experience with it. Or did my Prius. On approaching town there was snow on the sides of the road, and it was swirling in large flakes.
Traffic wisely crept along the icy road. Then suddenly, I was there.
I’d only been to Idyllwild once with my parents, some forty-some years ago. The only thing I remember was a large totem in the main square. I was startled to see it again as I arrived. It brought back good memories of my parents.
The snow had turned into round pellets, like those Styrafoam balls in Christmas scenes. I sat in my car outside the lodge for a few minutes absorbing the sight.
Oh, and it was cold. My spoiled San Diego self had to make some adjustments. Over the weekend I ended up wearing all the clothes I brought, mostly at the same time in various combinations starting with thermals. I thought I had mittens in my car but I didn’t, and I shouldn’t have had my haircut the day before, or thought to have brought a knit cap. But it was all okay. The lodge was comfortable, our hostesses treated us like royalty, I shared a room with a wonderful woman and we had a wall between us for privacy. The rooms were themed, and mine was, appropriately, The Library, and was decorated in old books and red plaid, which I love. It was perfect.
After checking in and seeing my delightful room, I took my camera out onto the street and walked a circle around to town and back. I had to keep the camera nestled under my jacket to keep it from freezing. I wrapped my blue knit scarf that I bought when Miranda and I were freezing in the Orkney Islands when touring Pictish ruins around my head and neck like a babushka. I’m mature enough to sacrifice looks for warmth. ( At least, most of the time. I guess it depends on who is looking. Hmm, I’m still a girl at heart after all! ) The landscape was beautiful, like a picture postcard sprayed with glitter.
The silence was so profound I could hear the snow fall. There was wildlife looking for food for their young. A mother Gray Squirrel was eating at a squirrel feeder. The bare spots on her tummy show that she is nursing young. I also saw Steller jays, robins, pine siskins, a flicker, crows, quail, goldfinches and acorn woodpeckers. There were bunny tracks in the snow.
W e took a walk in the morning, ate macadamia nut pancakes, performed Tai-Chi, Zumba, aerobics, work at a barre, more walking, yoga and Pilates, then another walk into town for dinner. During dinner, it began to snow again, big, slushy wet snow that we hadn’t expected.
A group of us took a silent walk through the snow and trees, not speaking, but pausing to perform simple yoga breathing and awakening stretches, welcoming the peace and freshness into ourselves and sending our thanks for the moment out to the universe.
This exercise enervated me more than any other during the weekend; I only regret that not all of the women shared it with us. (After little sleep on the first night and a series of vigorous workouts through the day, along with all the energy spent shivering, several slept in.) One of the phenomenas of the morning was the rising sun catchingthe snow as it melted from the trees, highlighting the drops as if it were handfuls of glitter. I took many photos of it, trying to capture the spectacular sight, but none of them do it justice. If you look carefully at the photo, you can kind of see what I’m talking about.
After our wonderful breakfast (pecan maple pancakes!) we headed off down the mountain in glorious weather. I took a last explore through the town, finding a shop that made its own candles, some scented Idyllwild Cabin, and Campfire Smoke, and Citrus Champagne… and they really smelled like their names! I bought some Christmas gifts (beat the crowd! It was snowy outside after all!) and drove out of the snow to home.
I’m posting more photos on my Facebook page if anyone is interested. The Spring Retreat turned out to be a Winter Wonderland, but I’m sure that it won’t throw the Easter Bunny off at all.
If you enjoy a hike along a flat trail with lots of nature to admire, you really should go to San Elijo Lagoon. Multiple times. That is because it has many different trails, most of which can be linked together for a long hike.
San Elijo Lagoon is protected by the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, the County of San Diego Parks Dept., and California Fish and Game ( http://www.sanelijo.org/welcome-san-elijo-lagoon-ecological-reserve). It is one of the largest wetlands in San Diego County, and the estuary is a wonderland for birders. The lagoon lies between Encinitas and Solana Beach, and occupies about 1,000 acres.
The Nature Center is run by the County and staffed by two rangers. In the photo at left it is the lowest building to the right of the cliffs. It is an fine example of a ‘green’ building, using solar, reclaimed water, a green roof and much more. Inside are very cool interactive computers and displays demonstrating how tides effect the estuary, the history of the area, and much more. Outside of the Nature Center is a boardwalk trail loop with benches and interpretive displays. During the change of tide there is a great opportunity to watch any number of seabirds fishing right next to the walkway. Watching the glorious sunset with the Coaster zooming past and cormorants fanning their wings on the telephone pole makes it easy to feel very, very happy about living in San Diego.
The Nature Center has a parking lot, and it is accessed from Manchester Ave. Visit the website for exact directions. The parking lot does have hours of closure, and this loop trail is independent from the other trails.
If you continue along Manchester you’ll see a sign for the Lagoon’s Dike Trail on the right. You have to park along Manchester Ave. Walking along the dike is one of the best ways to see dozens of seabirds, some in flocks of hundreds, very close-up. If it has been raining, you may want to check the condition of the dike because, as we found out, it can overflow.
Once across you have the option of hiking West or East. If you opt for West, you eventually walk under I-5, which is an interesting experience in itself, then around through old Eucalyptus trees under the eroded cliffs overlooking the estuary. You have a choice of two trails which connect later, one takes the high road, and one takes the low road, so to speak.
The lower one skirts the water and the higher one leads you through tall native plants. There are lots of flowers, birds, lizards, and interesting plants on either hike. At the end of the lower trail there are interpretive signs. The trail leads up to a trailhead off of North Rios Avenue, where there is street parking. You can continue West from there down to another walkway out into the wetlands for good bird viewing, and even further around the water and close to the train tracks past the water treatment plant (which is a little smelly) and out to where there are interpretive signs describing huge sewage tanks that had been at the site. That is as far as you can go, and you have to turn around and hike back.
Southeast of the Dike Trail are several miles of hiking that extend almost all the way to El Camino Real. There are several more trailheads to drive to and park.
There are lots of joggers and hikers. The pathways are well maintained and I’ve rarely had to pick up any trash along the way. Along with many seabirds, songbirds and raptors you may see mule deer and find the tracks of nighttime visitors such as coyote and racoon.
Although the hiking is along a flat area, there is a lot of it and the coastal sun is deceptively hot in that cooling breeze. Take lots of water, comfortable shoes, a hat and sunscreen, and a jacket in case the famous low clouds and fog come blowing in.
This is a wonderful area for good exercise through several different plant communities with lots of good birding opportunities. You can’t do it all in one go, so plan for several trips, keeping an eye on the tide tables. Plan it around a good dinner at a coastal restaurant (such as Siamese Basil Thai restaurant in Encinitas… my favorite!) and an even beach stroll… sounds like a wonderful day to me!
Meanwhile, today was hiking day, and a gorgeous day it was. My hiking buddy Alex came up with an old magazine article about the Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail, which neither of us had heard about. You drive up to the gate that leads into the Palomar Observatory parking lot and look right… and there is the trailhead.
The Observatory closes this season at 3, and the parking lot at 3:45, so we parked on the street past the ‘no parking’ signs. (Disclaimer: These photos were taken with a lightweight cheapy digital camera which I use now when hiking instead of the big heavy camera, so the resolution isn’t superb.) To our surprise on this warm Spring day, there was still snow along the roadsides.
Alex made a Snow Flower instead of a Snow Angel. So artistic.
If you decide to hike this trail, at the sign there is a well-worn path to the left and a not-so-well-worn path to the right. We, of course, not taking Robert Frost’s advice, took the well-worn path, which led us into a maze of cut brush piles, fallen logs and criss-crossed paths. We laughed about survival skills just to get through the first five minutes of the trail. On our return we clearly saw the real pathway that was beautifully laid out, skirted the brush pile maze, and came around to the other side of the entrance sign. Of course. This trail is supposed to be 2.2 miles one way, and it travels downhill through mixed pine and oak forest, paralleling the roadway a lot of the time, until you reach the Observatory Campground. Then you have to hike uphill on the return. During the time of year that the campground is open (it isn’t now), you can park there and hike uphill first to the Observatory, take a tour and hike back down. Not all of the pathway is shaded, and it wasn’t a hard trail at all (if you didn’t get stuck in the brush piles!).
If you are a birder, this is a wonderful area. I saw red shouldered hawks, nuthatch, spotted towhee, banded pidgeons and of course plenty of acorn woodpeckers. Woodpecker families ‘own’ trees. In the Fall when oak acorns drop, they compete with many other animals who eat the nuts for their high protein value. The acorn woodpeckers grab an acorn with their beak, fly up to the family tree, then nod and shake their heads slowly measuring the acorn up and down. Then clasping it in their feet they drill a hole exactly the size of the acorn. They jam that acorn in so that no one can get it out. They fill trees (and the sides of houses, too!) with acorns, and this is their pantry. Since acorns fall only once a year, this storehouse has to help feed the family for a year, with the addition of insects to their diet. During the year the woodpeckers will check on the acorns buried in the bark, and if the nuts have shrunk, they redrill a smaller hole for it. At this time of year and on into early summer you should be able to spot activity in tree cavities. What a wonderful thing it is to see later in the season little red and black heads peering out of their nest!
This area had been burned in the past, and the trees still show the burn marks.
- Along the pathways were boulders ranging from gigantic, mossy troll-like beasts, to well-constructed stone retaining walls.
From the path you can see the smaller of the two observatories glinting in the sun. How fortunate we are to live so close to such a famous research facility! You of course know that there are two roads up to the observatory because the first one switched back and forth too much for the truck to navigate that was hauling up the huge lens, so the second one is more straightforward. When traveling back down the mountain there are many scenic pull-outs. Take advantage of them, even if you’ve stopped many times before! The view down into Pauma Valley, and across the shapely mountains and hills that roll right out to the Pacific, is a reminder of how beautiful the land is and how lucky we are to live here.
I apologize for the random craziness of the photos. I’m trying to insert them where I want after uploading them one at a time (whew!), and the program doesn’t agree with my placement. In fact, I just posted this and about four of the photos had disappeared, so I had to readjust. A work in progress!