This is one of the noteworthy days of the year, the fall equinox and the first day of fall. Like the spring equinox six months from now, day and night are roughly equal in length. The Bewick’s Wren is singing a more joyous song and the Oak Titmouse sings a combination of their spring halleluiahs with their raspy call notes. Nothing will come of it, of course, and the days will continue to grow shorter by two minutes a day until we are jolted by darkness falling by 7 PM.
In Santa Barbara on the south coast, a 100 miles west northwest of Los Angeles, fall doesn’t really show up until October, when the California grapevine turns red on the fence and the winter birds show up in the coastal gardens.
Over the last few days, Bay Area birders are plucking my heart strings by reporting the first Golden-crowned Sparrows of the season. I remember those chilly mornings in the Berkeley Hills when I would walk up the street towards the pasture whistling their song. If they had arrived in the early morning hours after a long night’s flight, they answered me with one or two minor key notes. I would yelp with joy and dance a quick jig. When I returned home, I made an entry in my notebook, circling the date in red.
It would be a few more days before the little flocks worked their way into the neighborhood to settle into their winter territories. I wondered if these birds were the ones that had come last year and maybe several years before. The good news was that they remained until mid or late April, developing the bright yellow crown, before departing for the far north. During the winter you could count on them singing just before it started to rain.
As far as I know there are no golden crowns in this neighborhood or even in Oak Park. They are most often reported in weedy fields in open areas like the upper Elings Park.
A single mature male has spent the summer feeding with several Song Sparrows in a clearing near Los Carneros Lake. Apparently, it declined to join the others of its kind for the migration north in April. Was he damaged in some way or simply lacked the normal instinct, the irresistible urge to migrate?
Hearing the Western Tanagers on the move, I will start listening for our winter birds, though I know it’s probably too early. I arrived at Samarkand as a reluctant migrant from Northern California at this time nine years ago. It was during the lull between the seasons. I was disconsolate. I looked for one familiar bird. Finally, there it was — a California Towhee scratching in the leaves alongside the pathway.
Something did arrive early this year, a substantial rain but with hardly a sprinkle here. Elsewhere, it was enough to signal the annual nuptial flight of the termites when some of these subterranean creatures grow a pair of gossamer wings for a day’s fling above ground in the bright air. The queen ascends high in the sky pursued by ardent males eager to mate with her. Then as quickly as it began, it was all over and the termites resumed their lives in the dark with a pregnant queen, leaving behind a shimmering carpet of discarded wings.
I had assumed this early storm was like the ones to follow, moving down the coast from the north. But the cause was Hurricane Kay, an extensive, well-organized storm which had originated off the coast of Baja California, slowly weakening as it moved north to bring varying amounts of rain.
Nature sent us a consolation prize though — a double rainbow which felt more like a gateway to grander things.
For many of us August is the vacation month. It is the last summer month before school begins again. We always headed for the mountains toward the end of August when it was often the foggiest time in the Berkeley Hills. It was less than a half-day’s drive to reach our vacation lake in the high Sierra.
I hope this story about our vacation will prompt you to remember your summer vacation, and maybe even write about it. Your family will love it.
When I learned that the Caldor fire last August had veered south, sparing Angora Lake, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. Had it taken a near miss to remind me of my 70-year devotion to this high Sierra Lake? A day later, Judith Hildinger, who with her brother Eric, runs the Angora Lakes Resort took the photo from her paddle board of a beautiful male Wilson’s Warbler sheltering in the mountain alder. Even though it was still smoky, I asked her to take more pictures around the lake’s edges because I wanted to write a long-overdue love letter to Angora.
I’ll start the photographic journey at the alder thicket next to the beach. The thicket had always been a safe place for nesting warblers in the summer. Not being able to penetrate the thicket from the beach, the best I could do was to push my boat as close to the shore as possible before being warded off by the wiry branches. I dropped my oars and sat listening to the small bird voices.
Beyond the mountain alders, an even denser pygmy forest of huckleberry oak, flows down the steep slope to the water’s edge. The huckleberry oak is the only high elevation oak in the big family of oaks, the most populous tree family in California. The huckleberry oak’s thin, flexible branches allow the tree to sprawl prostate over granite boulders. In a region of short summers, the acorn takes two autumns to mature. Once ripe, the little acorn is a favorite food of chipmunks and other small rodents.
It’s been years since I struggled up that slope to the ledge with the dwarf conifers where we had buried Don’s ashes. There was no other place he would have wanted to be.
It was a late afternoon in October when we arrived at the lake. The cliff and lake were in shadow. The cabins were boarded up and the boats stored away. I was anxious to be ahead of the first snow. It would have been next spring before we would have access again.
After tucking the ashes beneath a dwarf conifer on the first ledge, the girls and I returned to the beach. Jim stayed back as he grieved for his lost father.
Around the corner from the oaks come the cliffs which distinguish upper Angora Lake from most other lakes. I always think this massive wall must be at least 10,000 feet high but in reality it reaches less than 9,000 feet, about 1,500 above the lake level. Sometimes even reality goes out the window when I think of Angora. Since I’m unable to travel any longer, Angora remains fixed in my mind and my heart and I want to get it right.
The cliff faces are streaked with chartreuse and dark brown lichens. By releasing an acid, the lichen slowly ingests the granite. Wherever there is a little soil in a crack, a seed or spore may take root producing delicate ferns or flowers. Further up on a face, a stout juniper with long ropy roots, has taken hold and found a home.
From the top at Echo Peak, the cliff descends to the lake interrupted only by occasional narrow ledges each with a miniature garden of quaking aspens, grasses and clumps of mountain ash with its vibrant red berries. Only in the driest years does water fail to trickle into the lake as miniature waterfalls. Often in late August a snow patch clings to the edge of the highest ridge.
One of the family rituals was to watch the rising sun first ignite Echo Peak with its golden light and then the sun slowly slides down the face to the lake level. I am always amazed how sunlight restores color, animating whatever it touches.
Just around the corner from where the cliffs end, a small grove of mountain hemlocks thrive in the cool shade. The hemlocks love the snow and winter. They often grow where the snow lasts the longest. John Muir wrote that if you were caught out in a blizzard, climb under the hemlock branches which reach down to the ground, and you will be sheltered.
I can’t remember the details of this north-facing shore of the lake. Of course there’s Frog Rock, the rock islet with its single tree. The steep slope of rocks and trees behind culminate in what we simply call The Ridge.
Ah, there’s something else about the ridge that allows me to stray off course. On a morning maybe sixty years ago when I was preparing breakfast on the wood stove with the door wide open, the roar of an engine startled me and I looked up to see a heavy-bodied two-engine plane skimming the ridge and dropping down over the lake, releasing a cloud of water filled with young trout. The plane pulled up abruptly and headed northeast toward Desolation Valley, delivering fish to other lakes.
Now, where was I? Oh, yes, near the cabins at the east end of the lake is a seasonal creek which links Upper and Lower Angora Lakes. When we were there in late August, the creek was usually dry, but I always enjoyed the sheltered ravine populated by some nice flowering shrubs like the Western Serviceberry and Western Spiraea. I liked to bring along a plant book for the satisfaction of giving a plant a name which always seemed to make it a friend.
One cabin, alone, occupied a space just south of the creek with a level place in front where you could pull up a boat. Though the cabin was too small for a family, I loved its separateness. It was one of the old-style cabins with a drop-down front which reminded me of my desk at home that concealed some of my treasures.
When the Forest Service revealed its plans to put in a campground on the site, the cabin was hoisted up on logs and eased across the creek to join the other cabins. Either the Forest Service came up short on money or the entreaties of people like us to leave the lake alone prevailed.
The other cabins were built side by side on a level area which may have been the glacial moraine formed during the time when glaciers scooped out the depressions which later filled with melting snow becoming the two lakes and the pond. When I think back to how this beautiful amphitheater, its cliffs, waterfalls, and peaks were formed, I wonder what the future holds. In a drier and hotter climate will the lakes become meadows or disappear altogether? And will the landscape, succumbing to fires, lose its conifers and become brush land or oak savannah? Will we have to ascend to 10,000 feet to find the Sierra we once loved?
I just looked at a random collection of photos taken by visitors of some of the handmade sign’s advertising: “The World-famous Lemonade;” “Angora Lakes Resort has been operating since 1917.” One photo showed a smiling Effie Hildinger, the original proprietress, who rode in on mule back in 1924. And a brown and yellow official Forest Service sign informed visitors that this is Angora Lakes Resort, National Forest Lands in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
My particular affection is for a cabin called The Lodge where we would have weekly slideshows in the summer. It was furnished with a well-used upright piano, chairs of various vintages and a loom. I spent many afternoons sitting on the small porch in the warm afternoon sun listening to various musicians — most often Gloria Hildinger on her flute, sometimes Jim Hildinger and his violin, and occasional visitors like Jan Popper on the piano and a cellist from Fallen Leaf on her cello.
And will I ever forget that early morning when Jim pulled his big speaker to the open doorway and filled the amphitheater with the glorious strains of Sibelius’ violin concerto.
Sibelius would have loved this place.
I sometimes walked the road down to Lower Angora Lake where occasional avalanches descending the steep slopes below Angora Peak would knock down a tree or two, blocking the road. I was always eager to visit one of the big red firs where the chartreuse, fragrant wolf lichen clinged to the ruddy bark. You can find the lichen mostly on the north side of the tree, just above the line where the trunk is free of snow. Lower Angora, with its scattering of cabins, lacks the dramatic setting of the upper lake.
Up the short hill is “Our House, ” the house where the Hildingers and their two young boys lived through winter in the 1930s. I remember one story where they would troop down to the ridge and holler down to the caretaker at Fallen Leaf Lodge and he would holler back. That was the social activity for the day.
“Our House” was distinguished by the aspen trees which grew close around the paned windows. The cabin was alive with dancing light when the leaves trembled in the slightest breeze. After lunch we would lie on the bed, listen to the voices of the kids below on the beach with the sparkling water reflected on the underside of the low eave.
I’m thinking of windy nights. The wind would come in gusts that sounding like an approaching freight train with spaces of eerie silence between. With our headboard against the single wall, we wondered if it would hold.
On this south-facing slope, the shrubs are very different from the mostly deciduous ones that grow in the protected swale along the creek. Just below the deck of “Our House” was a mountain chaparral garden composed as if by the most talented landscape designer. Several species shared the same slope – a low-growing silver-leafed plant called snow brush (Ceanothus cordulatus), a stunning bush Chinquapin with shiny yellowish leaves, more golden on the undersides with a spiny burr that encloses two or three seeds. One afternoon I discovered beneath the dense cover a hard-to-find bird I had never seen before: a Green-tailed Towhee.
It seems all paths led to the beach when our kids were little. The sand was a granular granite with sparkles of mica like that of the parent rock. The beach was narrow when the lake was high, usually in early summer, wide in the late summer when the lingering snow banks on the ridge had melted. I liked lying on my back and watching clouds moving over the peak toward the east. I speculated about whether a cloud would make it across my field of vision before dissolving. Fair weather clouds are generally short-lived.
It was at the beach that kids won a rite of passage – swimming across the lake and back. The reward was dad saying they no longer had to wear a life jacket when in a boat.
The other rite was to climb up the steep slope to the top of Echo Peak and then hollering “Echo” down to listeners below. As I recall, the reward for the climb was a cold glass of fresh lemonade.
We didn’t discover Angora by accident. It was a carefully engineered plan by my parents who once stayed at Angora when meals were served in the dining room by Jim and Effie. Once Jim went into the Army, the cabins were provided with modest cooking facilities, and the dining room was closed. My parents went elsewhere returning only for our inauguration.
We arrived in the afternoon, my parents greeting us at the doorway and my mother giving me instructions about how to be a good housekeeper, Angora style. “NEVER let any food particles go down the drain!” and with that, they departed down the hill in Jim’s truck as we would do for many years until our nest was empty.
Though our traditional week was the last week of August when the Berkeley Hills were the foggiest, we visited twice at other times for a day. Once was in June – spring in the Sierra when the meadows were wet and green and birds sang everywhere. Angora was transformed by robin song. By late summer, we were left with the harsh voices of Steller’s Jays and the chatter of squirrels and chipmunks. Toward the end of our stay, Clark’s Nutcrackers called as they began moving down from the higher mountains ahead of winter.
Probably the strangest visit to Angora was the first day of the new year before the arrival of the winter snows. The lake before us was frozen and the sun was about to set behind Echo Peak. Once the sun disappeared, we were cold. But what detained us was a deep growling sound coming from across the lake near the cliffs. What was that? Bear, mountain lion? Feeling unwelcome in this unfamiliar Angora, we hurried down the hill until near the Lookout ridge we regained the sun. Later, we learned we had heard the scrapping of the ice against the cliff. Maybe the sound was distorted and amplified by the ice itself or by the cold, deep water below.
Usually after a few days of being under the lee of the cliff, I was ready for some distant views. Walking down the hill to the pond and the big flat area open to the sky, I could see to the south the familiar shapes of the peaks around Carson Pass. The tall Jeffrey Pines are widely spaced. From the upper branches came the clear, three notes of the Mountain chickadee and the somnolent buzzy song of the Western pewee which always made me drowsy on warm Sierra afternoons.
Tom Ginn and his wife Sherry moved into Samarkand in July 2011 from Los Gatos, a leafy residential community south of San Francisco. Before retiring Tom had worked as a software engineer. He was already a serious amateur photographer using a top-of-the-line Canon.
Along with recording the life of the family, including a son and daughter, he was also adding landscapes to his collection. “I haven’t shot a roll of film since 2003; digital photography and the computer give me so much more versatility,” he says.
But those who know Tom appreciate his outstanding patience as he waits for just the right shot to produce a memorable portrait of an elusive insect, a butterfly with its erratic flight or a shy bird as it comes to the bird bath.
The first bird photos were taken over several months at the bird baths behind Ann and Bob Allen’s duplex, located over the fence at the southernmost end of the EastView apartments. The duplex, Oakcrest, has the ideal birding location, sheltered by oaks up the steep slope of Oak Park.
The birds are drawn to the area by Mission Creek and its forest of sycamores and Coast Live Oaks. Ann has arranged a welcoming collection of shallow pot bottoms filled with water, surrounded by mostly potted native plants. When it’s hard to find a good variety of birds elsewhere at the Samarkand, you can count on being rewarded at Ann’s bird baths.
When a large sandstone boulder (over the fence at the top of the Native Plant Garden) became a bubbling bird bath, the birds had a second choice for their drinks and baths. The first group of photos is in Ann’s garden, and the second larger group is at the “Bubbling Fountain.”
The birds are identified by species accompanied by a few comments. Some of the photographs have been made into greeting cards and can be purchased at the Samarkand gift shop.
(1) White-crowned Sparrow. A group of these sparrows spend the winter in the Native Plant Garden often singing.
(2) Immature White-rowned Sparrow. In April the group flies to Northern Alaska where they nest in the dwarf willows before returning to our garden in October.
(3)(4) Townsend’ s Warbler. Another winter bird with especially bright plumage.
(5) Orange-crowned Warbler. Year-round bird.
(6) Cedar Waxwing. This lovely bird is a nomad traveling in flocks from place to place in search of berries. They are sometimes in the company of Robins.
(7) Group of Cedar Waxwings. In the spring they will head north to conifer forests where they will briefly breed before heading back on the road again.
(8) Nashville Warbler. An uncommon visitor.
(9) Ruby-crowned Kinglet. A small, energetic bird who reveals his bright crown when agitated. He is another of our winter residents
(10) California Towhee. A big sparrow who is a year-round resident.
(11) Yellow-rumped Warbler. Developing its breeding plumage before heading north.
(12) Hermit Thrush Another winter resident who heads for the Sierra in the spring to sing its glorious song.
The sandstone fountain, we call “Bubbling Rock” in the foreground overlooks the Native Plant Garden.
(1) The Anna’s Hummingbird is a year-round resident and the largest of our local species.
(2) & (3) Adult, female, and immature Lesser Goldfinches.
(4) Orange-crowned Warbler. Several breeding pairs sing almost continuously above Oak Park at Samarkand in the spring.
(5) Male Dark-eyed Junco. Juncos, who nest on or near the ground, are one of our most abundant species.
(6) Male House finch(L) and Pine Siskin appear to be comparing stripes.
(7) Like the crows, jays are members of the Covid family with similar aggressive ways.
(8) A wet Orange-crowned Warbler revealing its orange crown feathers.
(9) A titmouse will occasionally build a nest in a bird box.
(10) Male Lesser Goldfinch, one of the most abundant year-round birds.
(11) Probably an Allen’s Hummingbird or possibly a migrating Rufous Hummingbird.
(12) Four Nutmeg Mannikins. They are escaped cage birds which have successfully naturalized.
Early November The resident hawk Repeats its urgent calls. Where is the rain? The temperature is above eighty. Night falls with red skies Color caught by the high cirrus clouds Too thin for rain.
With darkness comes The cricket stridulations, The final notes of the fading season
After midnight I step out on my porch, Looking high to the south. Orion waits, trailed by Sirius, The hunter’s faithful dog.
Venus will soon separate itself from the rising sun And before month’s end will shine alone In the eastern sky.
Once I’d imagined spending my final years In the town where I was born In a tiny house of my own design One room only With alcoves for bathing, sleeping, fixing tea A steep roof with a skylight or two A generous porch under a sheltering eave High in the Berkeley Hills,
But instead, my final years Will be spent in Santa Barbara in a spacious apartment One of many apartments For elders like myself, Close to family, a hedge against loneliness.
The geographer in me Wants to tell you That Santa Barbara is located At the southern end of central California. Maybe 50 miles below Pt Conception Where the coast bends inland Thanks to the San Andreas Fault Flexing its muscles. So now the coastal mountains run From east to west, and most confusing of all You look south if you want to see the ocean.
For me, the ocean has always been to the west, And the direction of the setting sun Where if you sail far enough You’ll bump into China.
The high Santa Ynez Mountains to the North shield the town from certain cold draughts. But in downpours, the mountains Shed all manner of debris From silt to sandstone boulders As big as cars.
Now as an amateur geologist, I’ll tell you that this knoll I call home, is surrounded By flatter land referred to As an alluvial fan, Crossed by creeks that Only show up when it rains.
Locals brag about the mild climate Forgetting about those vehement moments Of gale-force winds Called sundowners. Or what about the microbursts Which have been known to knock a plane Out of the sky?
And there’s nothing mild about my landscape. Never still — it twists, heaves and cracks. Worse, it is said that all the commotion Is bringing Los Angeles ever closer.
Once we were covered by a warm sea With dinosaurs wandering the shallows. Later mountains rose up, Full of seashells.
Now it seems that our future is drought.
I look out the east-facing windows Down into Oak Park with its Pale limbed-sycamores and faded foliage.
It’s a peoples’ park With mariachis on the weekend Shouting children, Birthdays with piñatas Quinceaneras, sometimes a funeral
Look up to the first ridge To St. Anthony’s towers And to the two rosy domes Of the old mission.
Higher yet is the bulk Of the Santa Ynez mountains and the conical shape Of my mountain – Montecito Peak See how the angled sun Deepens the canyons.
Slide your eyes sideways To where the mountains Slip into the blue line of the sea.
Now face south Over our native garden Bordered oaks from the park To the silent creek bed. I look for hummingbirds, bush rabbits and worry about coyotes
The east hills, called the Mesa Holds off the fog Until after dark, when the hills are breached.
Oh yes, my garden off the front door The narrow porch of a garden, Hung with red geraniums And softened by pots of ferns
I lie in my bed beneath the windows Hoping for wind to move the chimes. I lift my head at dawn. Do I see the silhouette of the mountains Against the lightening sky?
Or are we cocooned in the fog That drips from trees Almost as welcome as rain.
And what is the first bird this morning? The clink of the towhee The querulous wren The sweet ring of sparrows’ song?
Now you are hearing the voice of the birder Leaning on every song In the absence of good eyesight.
Acorn woodpecker, flicker With strong beak and loud call, Or the relentless caw of the black crow, Boss of the neighborhood?
Will I be lucky enough To have an owl’s hoot rouse me In the early morning hour?
I feather my nest With a down comforter Books, Bouquets of pungent sage, Baskets of lichen.
How do I finish this short tale? A day ending, I suppose. With the dark coming on by five A tale of rain arriving?
A gusty wind from the southeast Testing itself.
In the early morning hours Between midnight and dawn The rain falls I smell it first And then sweet fragrance of hope
Could this be The beginning of a season Of abundant rains Enough to end the drought?
COMING IN THE SPRING: The Best for Last: The Nature of Santa Barbara by Phila Rogers. Includes the blogs and a number of short pieces.
For the last four years, I have written about Santa Barbara’s seasons, landscapes, and sometimes history. But what has really commanded my imagination during all this time have been the Channel Islands.
On infrequent childhood visits to Santa Barbara during the summer to visit my grandmother’s apartment, two blocks from the beach, or my cousin’s house in the hills, I usually came alone from Oakland on the Southern Pacific Daylight train.
I have no recollection of seeing the islands. Even though mountainous Santa Cruz Island was only 25 miles offshore, it, and its neighboring islands, were usually hidden by a bank of fog.
What I remember most was the beach, the bright city lights from my cousin’s house, the pale flakes of ash that my aunt said were coming from a fire in the mountains.
Not until I was an adult, when two of my three children settled in Santa Barbara, and I often flew south to visit them, did the islands became familiar to me. Most often, the plane approaching the airport made a wide arc over the ocean and the islands so as to land into the prevailing wind from the northwest.
From then on, I was eager to find some way of getting out to the islands. Santa Cruz Island, the largest, was mostly privately owned by the Stanton family of Los Angeles. The second largest island, Santa Rosa Island was owned and operated as a cattle ranch by Vail and Vickers, whose boats sometimes brought cattle to the mainland at Santa Barbara. San Miguel, the northernmost island off Point Conception, a windy place surrounded by a turbulent sea, was famous mostly for its huge population of seals and sea lions, drawn to the cold, upwelled water rich in nutrients.
I remembered from the family stories that both my mother and father as children had visited Santa Cruz Island. Before she died in 1981, I asked my mother to tell me her story.
On lined yellow paper, she wrote in her spidery hand: “When I was a small girl the trip to the Santa Barbara islands was a great adventure. One time my mother, grandmother and little brother went to Santa Cruz Island in a fishing boat. As The Channel was very rough that day, the deep dips into the troughs of the waves were terrifying to all of us. The kindly Italian fisherman tried to reassure us but we did not retain our equilibrium until we landed safely on the island.
At that time, the only accommodations on Santa Cruz Island consisted of tents with wooden floors.* At night we could hear the wild hogs rooting around in the under brush which was scary. The food in the dining tent was plain but good with plenty of fresh fish.
A highlight of our stay was the trip into the blue caves. One entered their inner fastnesses in row boats. These caves were accessible only at low tide and in quiet waters. Within them, the water was a brilliant blue which became darker the further in we ventured. It was thrilling to trail one’s hand which yielded a ghostly phosphorescence. Back home again I had much to tell my less venturesome playmates.” – Elaine Adrian Willoughby
I knew less about my father’s trip (or trips) to Santa Cruz Island. There was something about a borrowed Boston whaler, and that the wild boar they shot was so tightly wedged in a narrow canyon that they had to butcher it on site and deliver it piecemeal to the boat.
I can imagine that Santa Barbara in the early 1900s, with less than 10,000 inhabitants, was an ideal place for a boy to grow up. He and several co-conspirator built a shack up San Roque canyon until a wild-fire destroyed it. I have a small photo of him as a young teenager with his dad on a mountain trail, he with high boots, a slouch hat, and a canvas rucksack hanging heavily off his shoulders.
Now it was my turn.
TWO WHO CELEBRATE THE NATURAL WORLD
HUGH RANSON – birder, teacher, and writer who writes the Saturday column “Bird Watch” for the Santa Barbara News Press. He began his bird watching as a boy in England.
In the last five years, he has taken up the study of dragonflies and during lunch breaks can often be found at a local pond with his net and camera.
Be sure and read an except from “Bird Watch” in the Blog “This Time for Work.”
BILL DEWEY Bill has been photographing the California landscape since the early 1970s and has been flying since the 1980s. Some of his favorite subjects include the California Channel Islands, Carrizo plain, Baja California, and the rural California landscape. His work is widely published and shown in various galleries and museums. His aerial photos begin each my Santa Cruz Island blogs.
The Archipelago of the four Northern Channel Islands included westernmost San Miguel Island, Santa Rosa Island, the mountainous Santa Cruz Island, and finally little Anacapa with its “tail” of broken islets trailing behind. Now that I’ve settled in Santa Barbara where I most likely will conclude my life, I view the islands from the mainland, always drawn outward toward them. I see them from my daughter’s house high on the hillside above Mission Canyon, most often reclining on the horizon in their bed of haze. Sometimes the fog obscures them from view altogether, or there are times when the vapors are swept away by a dry north wind, and I can clearly see their cliffs and coves.
Over the years I’ve collected my own experiences of the islands. Last year, I crossed the choppy Channel on an Island Packers boat out of Ventura Harbor. I was lucky enough to have secured an invitation to the annual mass, thanks to Marla Daily, the head of the Santa Cruz Island Foundation.
But my awareness of the islands, particularly Santa Cruz Island, began as a child when I read The Channel Islands of California, by Charles F. Holder, published in 1910 which I claimed from my parents’ library. The book with its turquoise-blue linen cover and the decorative drawings of the flying fish is now on my Santa Barbara bookshelf. I still love to reread the description of the ride in a horse-drawn carriage up the wild canyon to the Central Valley from the anchorage at Prisoners’ Harbor.
Quoting from the book: “From the sea, Santa Cruz Island is a jumble of lofty hills and mountains, with deep gorges and canons winding in every direction.
Hidden away in the very heart of the island is an ideal ranch, with a pronounced foreign atmosphere, in a climate as perfect as that of Avalon to the south.”
“Seated in the trap, with our host holding the reins, we turned into a gorge… the road wound upward; the horses now splashing through the summer stream beneath gnarled and picturesque oaks, now out into the open, where the sun poured down through rifts in the cañon beneath a sky of tender blue, plunging into the narrow cañon again, where walls grew lofty and precipitous, shutting out the glare of sunlight; …”Three miles of this, and the charming canon road came to an abrupt end. The canon sides and the mountains suddenly melted away, and the horse dashed into a long, rolling valley, where the air was like velvet on the cheek and an incense of flowers and vines filled the nostrils.
But last Sunday it was in the cab of battered green truck driven by one of Marla’s relatives. Several trucks of various vintages were waiting for passengers who had disembarked from the boat tied up at the end of the green trucks brought us up from the boat long pier. I carefully climbed up the ladder, aided by the crew, to the rough planks of the pier. I was more uncertain than usual because I had fallen on the deck of the boat when a sudden lurch had tossed me down on my back.
I’d been pulled back upright without apparent injury though my confidence in staying upright had been challenged.
The streambed was dry the first mile or so but then we encountered water. We forded the stream several times “before the canyon sides and the mountains suddenly melted away.”
It was different from when Holder had made the same trip a least a hundred years earlier. No longer a working ranch, most of the island now belongs to the Nature Conservancy. The vineyards which once traced the contours of the hills had been removed. Gone were the horses, cattle, and sheep. The ranch house was no longer ornamented with the iron grilles forged in the ranch forge.
The people this day were mainlanders who had come to enjoy the annual festivities, attend mass, drink wine and feast on the barbecue before returning to the mainland on the four o’clock boat.
A trip on Island Packers from Ventura to Santa Cruz Island
I mostly kept to myself, listening for bird songs and calls and finally spotting an Island fox. Mostly I tried to recapture in these dry hills the island of my dreams.
THIS TIME FOR WORK
(First published as “Island Exuberance” for Santa Barbara Magazine spring 94)
I’m drawn to all islands, but especially to those that lie off a mainland shore, like the Channel Islands. At times they beguile you, half hidden behind veils of fog, and at other times they abandon subtlety, revealing in dazzling detail their pale sea cliffs and shadowed canyons.
I don’t pretend to understand the power these islands have on me. Maybe it was the epic tales of sea voyages and island landfalls that fueled my imagination as a young reader. Or the stories told by my parents, who were raised in Santa Barbara. I made my first crossing to Santa Cruz Island, the largest island of the northern group, 25 years ago on a three-masted schooner. Since then I have managed to return often, usually as a participant in natural history groups or as a Nature Conservancy volunteer. Last spring, I volunteered as a plant monitor, and saw the island once again, this time from the back of a jeep as we lurched over ridgetop dirt roads on our way to inventory plants.
To the north was a mountain range of ruddy-colored volcanic rock. To the south toward the open sea rose a conical mountain peak of dazzling white rock know as the Blanca Volcanics. The island is, in fact, made up of two disparate land masses, that came from different directions and are sutured together by a fault know as the Central Valley. It is not hard to believe that this wild jumbled Technicolor landscape is still on the move, sliding northward toward the Aleutians. Some 18,000 years ago when the ocean level was lower, all four islands of the northern group were joined together in one super-island scientists refer to as “Santarosae”. Through the islands’ evolution many configurations developed, but they have not been joined to the mainland, at least not in recent geological times.
The plants and animals we see on Santa Cruz Island today came on the winds, were carried by ocean currents, or were brought ashore by human visitors. Salamanders and other stowaways came ashore on the same log rafts that the Chumash fashioned into canoes. Once on the island, many animals and plants have evolved distinctive forms
On our trips around the island, we saw the little island fox that weighs barely three pounds. Other species are larger than their mainland cousins – examples of what scientists call gigantism. The Santa Cruz Island jay, for example, is bluer and 25 percent larger than the mainland Scrub Jay. Toyons and elderberries are shrubs or small trees on the mainland, but they can grow to 40-60 feet on the island. Maybe it’s the temperature, moist climate or lack of competitive species. I call it island exuberance. There are fewer species too, fewer kinds of birds, two types of snakes, and no burrowing animals at all. The four terrestrial animals are endemic, meaning they are found no place else.
This article and photo was excepted from “Bird Watch,” published each Saturday in the Santa Barbara News Press and written by Hugh Ranson.
Santa Cruz Island: the California Galapagos
I recently ventured out to Santa Cruz Island in search of migrant birds. While I didn’t see a great variety of migrants, there were enough resident species to keep me well entertained. Island foxes, which have made quite a comeback, trotted about throughout the day, seemingly unconcerned by human intrusion. Another island endemic, the island scrub jay, was much in evidence.
Hundreds of birders venture out to the island each year to see the jay. Why? It’s a species found nowhere else on earth. The island scrub jay was once considered conspecific with the California scrub jay, the familiar jay found commonly along our coast. It was officially recognized as a separate species in 1998. It is larger, much more brilliantly blue, has a larger beak, a different voice, and different social habits than its coastal cousin.
There are at least a couple of theories as to how the jay made its way to the island and began the slow differentiation from the mainland species. Jays are weak fliers and do not travel across large bodies of water. One thought is that jays made their way by hitching rides on floating vegetation. Another is that during a period of glaciation, when sea levels were lower, jays were able to cross the much narrower channel. At any rate, it is thought island jays have been isolated from the mainland for over 150,000 years.
Santa Cruz Island has a healthy population of jays estimated at 2,300 individuals. However, this population is considered vulnerable because of the small area of the island. There is the constant danger of fire, and more menacing still, the threat of West Nile Virus, to which corvids (jays are in the crow family) are particularly susceptible. Because of this latter threat, many of the jays have been captured and vaccinated.
It seems the island scrub jay is perhaps even more remarkable than we realized. Recently, biologist Kate Langin made a discovery that turned a theory of evolution on its head. She found that there are two separate populations of jays on the island, one that favors oak woodland, and one that inhabits pine forests. The oak-loving jays feed largely on acorns and have evolved shorter, stouter bills. The pine-inhabiting jays have longer, narrower bills, adapted for extracting pine nuts from pinecones. Even where pine and oak woodland are mere yards apart, the two populations appear to remain separate.
Charles Darwin theorized that in order for species to differentiate, like the famous Galapagos finches, there needs to be geographic separation. The island jays appear to be the first known instance where this theory doesn’t hold.
If you haven’t yet made it out to Santa Cruz Island, it’s time you did! Island Packers of Ventura run daily trips to the island. It takes a little over an hour to reach the island, and there are excellent opportunities for viewing marine mammals and birds on the crossing. There are two anchorages served by the company, Scorpion and Prisoners. You have an excellent chance of seeing the jay at Prisoners. It used to be that they were rarely seen at Scorpion, but in recent years they have become more common there, frequently foraging in the campground. I saw several there on my last visit. Scorpion also has many choices for coastal walking trails
The scalloped-edged ironwood leaf resembles the splayed, scaly foot of some prehistoric bird. The light ripples as the tall trees sway in the sea breeze. In the presence of these shaggy-barked survivors, you can imagine these to be sacred groves. Islands have a way of compressing — and enlarging – human emotions, and island tales are replete with mysterious and sometimes tragic human stories. In the singularity of an island, you confront your own separateness, you own uniqueness. It’s been almost a year since my last island visit. Every day here on the mainland, I climb the hill behind my house to look seaward, hoping for a glimpse of the dark shapes on the horizon – elated when I can see them, a little lonely when they are obscured by fog or clouds.
The Island Shrub-Jay was once thought to be a sub-species of our common coastal California Shrub-Jay, but now is recognized as a separate species. The Channel Islands have been separated for eons from the mainland. Jays being weak flyers, and with 25 miles of channel separating them, the Island Shrub-Jay has had a long time to develop its separate characteristics.
The Island jay is over all bigger (the beak especially so), the plumage is brighter and bluer and its cheek is near-black instead of gray.
Sometimes it’s only a few thin bands of water dropping 164 feet. Other times it’s a gossamer tracery of water more mist than substance. It nourishes families of mosses and ferns growing on its walls. Only after a rain, does Nojoqui Falls aspire to something grander.
The falls (pronounced NAW- ho – wee) are named for a Chumash village “Naxuwi” once nearby.
When my granddaughter asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I said: “A day trip with you.” We talked about where and decided on a drive up the coast and inland to Nojoqui
Falls County Park, and then lunch at one of the good places in the Santa Ynez Valley. I wanted to walk along a creek and possibly even see falling water while it was still spring.
Driving up along the coast is a treat in itself. Once you’ve cleared the outskirts of Goleta you are in full view of the ocean and if the day is clear enough, you can see the profile of the islands on the horizon.
On the right, the Santa Ynez Mountains make a formidable barrier to the sea and its cool breezes. We passed three beach parks. On the landward side of the freeway, the beaches become canyons. Though beautiful on its own, the landscape stimulated memories – El Capitan Beach where grandson Stuart always wanted his birthday to be celebrated with a campout.
Just beyond Refugio Beach, the highway swings inland where ahead, the mountain wall is pierced by the Gaviota Tunnel. I thought about all those years when Santa Barbara could only be approached easily from the south.
At the sign “Nojoqui Falls County Park,” we left the noisy highway and dropped down to the Old Coast Highway and Alisal Road to the peace and quiet of farmlands. Once horse pastures, organic produce now grows in the soil enriched by manure.
Skirting the western edge of the mountains, we rounded the corner to the lush, north-facing slopes, the rainiest place in the county. How different from the south-facing slopes above Santa Barbara where the mountain slopes are dominated by bare sandstone and chaparral.
When we turned into the park with its broad meadow and a scattering of trees, Caroline said: “This reminds me of Yosemite Valley.” I could see her point except that when every detail of a beloved place like Yosemite is so perfectly embedded in my memory, nothing can compare.
We drove up to the end of the road where a few cars were parked. At the base of the canyon, a short trail leads up to the falls.. Starting up the trail I was transported to the Berkeley Hills where bay trees also form arches of fragrant leaves and the sun shines through the thin leaves of the big-leaved maples. The creek burbling over dark rocks reminded me of the dark-gray basalts of home.
The final ascent on stone steps to the base of the falls looked damp, making them especially perilous for my old legs. A bench at their base invited me to sit a while, let my granddaughter
Purple Martins are our largest and highest-flying swallow. They perform breath-taking acrobatics when hunting insects. At the park, martins ignore man-made boxes in favor of holes in the sycamore trees.
Three weeks later with Berkeley birding friends, Bob Lewis and his wife, Hanno, we returned to Nojoqui Falls park to find the Purple Martins. Bob is sitting on the left. The heap on the right is actually me lying on my side watching martins in flight. Stretched out, has become my preferred position for watching birds of the sky and for general cloud-spotting.(I highly recommend to others who love clouds “The Cloudspotter’s Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney – the founder of The Cloud Appreciation Society)
Now we will be leaving the park to the summer crowds, returning in the fall to see the winter birds like the beautiful Varied Thrush.
If you have lived a natural life say as a manzanita bush on the slope of the San Ynez Mountains you will understand the true meaning of summer. You will have grown new foliage or lengthened the leaves you have during late winter or early spring. You will have flowered and welcomed the bees. Now the flowers have turned into fruit, it’s time to let them ripen in the warm sun of the long days. It’s a season for repose or maybe deepening, as your tap root reaches down further to find water.
Tucked into the coastal range 40 miles southeast of here, is a valley that fits my description of near perfection. The road which travels its length is five miles long. There are few buildings of any kind. Geographers would describe the countryside as oak/savanna. Only the fence lines tell you that the land has been claimed. On a good year of decent pasturage, you’re apt to see some cattle and maybe men on horseback responsible for their well being.
Even its name Canada (pronounced canyada) Larga has a sweet resonance. “Canada” has a number of meanings: valley, glen, cattle trail. Take your pick. “Larga is more specific, meaning long (or tall in another dimension).
The valley was part of a 6,658 acre Mexican land grant known as Canada Larga 0 Verde. Turning off highway 33 (one road to Ojai) onto Canada Larga Road you see your first bit of early California history – a 7-foor-high remnant of a rubble wall which was part of the aqueduct that once carried water seven miles from the Ventura River down to the the mission San Buenaventura where it satisfied the needs of the 350 inhabitants for their gardens and pastures. The waterworks were built by the Chumash Indians under the instruction from the padres sometime between 1785 and the early 1800s. What’s left of the ruins is protected behind a chain link fence.
Not much remains of the nearby Canada Larga Creek in late spring but a sluggish flow full of clots and streamers of algae. By the bridge, the creek runs beneath a steep slope of near white rock.
What interested us was the old, rather disreputable blue gum eucalyptus (actually several trees in various stages of decline). Ignoring the heaps of shed bark caught between branches, our focus was on a Red-tailed Hawk’s nest with a full-grown young standing at its edge with an adult nearby. Nobody appeared happy with their presence. The Cassin’s Kingbird with their nest in the same tree voiced their raucous objections, while a pair of Bullock’s Orioles, with their nest in a smaller euc behind, went about their business of carrying food to their young.
I sat in the shade of a walnut orchard where ground doves were seen earlier and watched the activity. Getting back into the car, with windows down, we proceeded slowly up the narrow road stopping where there appeared to be activity. Birding along the Canada Larga Road is a challenge as the pullouts are infrequent and hardly adequate and the occasional cars and trucks often travel at a high speed.
Barbwire fences make good perches and we were almost always in sight of a Western Kingbird, a low-slung bird with a yellow belly who would frequently leave its perch to grab something appetizing. One stop was warranted by a phainopepla calling from the upper branches of a half-dead walnut tree.
My eyes were on the yellow mustard growing along the fence where last year I had seen a dazzling Lazuli Bunting amongst the yellow flowers. Plenty of mustard this spring but no bunting. Further up the road everyone (but me) saw a smallish bird sitting on a rusty water tank. The bird turned out to be a blue grosbeak – one of the target birds of the trip. And best yet, it appeared to have food in its mouth. With young to raise, the pair should be around for a while.
Now I could indulge myself with the scenery and days later, at the computer, I would struggle for words adequate to describe what I was seeing. Maybe I should let it go and simply say that this landscape made me superbly happy.
Was it the contours and shapes of the hills, the close and distant views, the colors and always the possibility of an eagle?. You’re not going to be slammed by the brilliance of spring wildflowers. The muted tones of late spring reach a deeper place. Russets, pale beige grass, drifts of mustard reach up into gray chaparral with lavender undertones. A gifted Landscape Architect couldn’t do it as well.
Far to the northeast beyond the rounded hills, gave a glimpse of the higher mountains with their irregular profile. A fresh breeze filled my lungs and lifted hair away from my face. Two kingbirds flew close to a Raven’s tail. My birding friend called it a “teaching lesson.”
The road ended at a horse ranch. Now we were on level ground where we could rest in the shade of live oaks and sycamores with the bubbling songs of House Wrens surrounding us.
We planned on picnicking at a park along the Ventura River where we could count on Yellow Warblers singing in the sycamores and swallows with their small, bright voices sieving up insects over the water.
But I could only think about how nice it would be to set up my cot and roll out my bed roll under the edge of one of the oaks in the Canada Larga valley on a gentle slope with a view in all directions – perfect for night coming on with the changing colors. I could imagine crickets chirping in the dry grass and a small owl hooting nearby. Once darkness was complete I would observe stars undimmed by city lights and listen to a night wind rustling the oak leaves, bringing me far off scents.
The next blog will be about the same distance northwest to another favorite spot. I’m on a roll!