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Coming Up in the Elfin Forest

Text and photos by Jean Wheeler

Too many dead shrubs and dead gray branches on surviving shrubs are grim reminders of our prolonged drought. However, with more rainfall this rainy season than in the last several drought years combined, our shrubs and herbs are doing their best to recover from those stressful years and open their floral bouquets in celebration. These species cover our Elfin Forest because they have evolved by surviving the many previous multi-year droughts characteristic of our dry-summer Mediterranean climate over thousands of years.

Buckbrush ceanothus (California lilac) shrubs are the most widespread in bloom now and should continue through most of April with their white to pale lavender blossoms covering most of their branches. As I write in early March, a few black sage shrubs are opening white flowers in their pompom arrangement along their branches and lots more will surely follow. They should continue into summer with their pompoms turning rust colored by late summer and still present but as dead black decorations by Halloween.

Yellow spikes of suffrutescent wallflowers are blooming in several areas around the boardwalk and entrance trails. Some orange flowers are already open on a few sticky monkey-flower shrubs. We can expect them to be widespread around the boardwalk during most of April and May, and well into summer. Yellow and orange native poppies are common almost any time of year.

Silver dune lupines were especially drought damaged, and quite a few died, but a reasonable number have survived and are green from the rains. They should open their beautiful long spikes of blue flowers near the estuary during the two months of this issue, if not as bountifully as in the last rainy years before the drought.

Deep purple/blue flowers are already beginning to cover purple nightshade, which should be blooming well into summer. Less common but also to be expected in April or May are the pink flowers of the California rose and native cobwebby thistle.

Purple Nightshade
Purple Nightshade

Perhaps the most excitingly colorful attraction in these two months will be the annual explosion of butterflies flitting about the flowers. Butterflies to watch for include the orange and black Variable Checkerspot, whose bristly black caterpillars dine on leaves of sticky monkey-flower plants. Gabb’s Checkerspot is orange and brown and is attracted to California poppies. The smaller green Coastal Bramble Hairstreak uses dune buckwheat among its host plants. The Morro Blue Butterfly is of special concern as the major host for its caterpillars is silver dune (bush) lupine, a plant whose habitat is fast being replaced by urbanization. Other butterflies to watch for include the Common Buckeye, Anise Swallowtail, Pale Swallowtail, Painted Lady, and Silvery Blue.

Coastal Bramble Hairstreak
Coastal Bramble Hairstreak

This is, of course, also a very busy time of the year for our avian residents, who are mating, building nests, incubating eggs, and feeding hungry hatchlings. Anna’s Hummingbirds are zipping around, their throats flashing bright red in the sun as they seek food for themselves and this year’s offspring from tube-shaped flowers such as the red Fuchsia-flowered Gooseberries. Bushtits flit around the shrubs looking for insects to eat, in mixed flocks with other birds such as Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Chestnut-backed Chickadees. There may also be flitting finches, sparrows, warblers, black phoebes, and nuthatches.

Larger California Thrashers are easy to recognize by their long, down-curved bills. Spotted Towhees make a loud buzzing call and are brilliantly colored with their black heads, white-spotted black wings, brilliant rufous flanks, and white breasts. Quail will be calling kwer-ca-go and zipping across the ground between bushes in large coveys with many of this year’s young. The resilience of our native California vegetation and wildlife is wonderful to behold in this first year of good rains after the devastatingly long drought.

Recent Sightings in the Elfin Forest

SWAP’s annual Fungus Foray, led this year by naturalist Al Normandin, yielded many fascinating finds due to generous rainfall in the weeks prior. Fungus enthusiasts were led down the slope above the estuary into the magical Don Klopfer Grove, where twisted oak trunks arch overhead. Walk participant Jaime Aranda found much to photograph with his smart phone. One image is a dramatic shot of Turkey Tail shelf fungi and round black Carbon Ball mushrooms.

Turkey Tail shelf fungi with round black Carbon Ball mushrooms
Turkey Tail shelf fungi with round black Carbon Ball mushrooms

Please Report Elfin Forest Sightings

Have you observed any unusual birds in the Elfin Forest? Mammals? Reptiles? Amphibians? Insects? Interesting activities or footprints of wildlife in our Elfin Forest? Unusual plants? Taken a good photo?

Please report any interesting sightings to your Oakleaves editors at: oakleaves@elfin-forest.org for inclusion in future issues under “Elfin Forest Sightings.” You can also leave a message on SWAP’s answering machine, (805) 528-0392.