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Coming Up in the Elfin Forest

Text and photos by Jean Wheeler

We’ve lucked out with good rains so far this year, several well-spaced and gently penetrating before year’s end. Heavy rains are starting as I write in early January. Let us hope rains continue through February and March and even later rather than the La Nina drought previously predicted.

A lot of shrubs died during the severe drought years, but most species have many surviving shrubs showing strong signs of recovery. There are new green leaves on many if not most branches. Species expected to bloom in midwinter are doing so and on schedule, even ones that last year bloomed sparsely and 1-2 months later than normal.

Around the boardwalk Buckbrush Ceanothus shrubs are covered with white to lavender blossoms and should continue to bloom through February and March. Morro Manzanitas were among the species hardest hit by the prolonged drought. Large ones along the lower boardwalk shut off many branches to die in order to save the minimal water they could obtain for remaining branches. New leaves and even tiny bell-shaped flowers on many surviving branches next to obviously dead branches attest to the effectiveness of this survival mechanism.

Black Sage has been a strong survivor. Its white pompoms of flowers (pictured) will continue blooming through the spring. Fuchsia-flowered Gooseberries are advertising their bright red trumpet-shaped flowers to Anna’s Hummingbirds, who will provide pollination service in return for using this nectar source to feed their young.

Black Sage
Black Sage

Also red are drooping globes of California peonies. These dark red globes are less than two inches in diameter. The leaves are unusually large for Elfin Forest plants but grow only a foot or so high as they lurk under the shady protection of taller shrubs. They are best seen on the sand trail leading from 11th Street to the boardwalk near Bush Lupine Point or from the boardwalk close to Siena’s View.

February and March provide some of the best birding opportunities in the Elfin Forest year. Our resident birds have been joined by hundreds migrating in to escape cold weather and food shortages at higher latitudes and altitudes. Most will not be flying back to their summer breeding territories in Canada, Alaska, and high mountains of our west until at least March.

I’ve been concerned that the estuary is not nearly as blanketed with ducks, geese, and other water birds as in former years, and the Christmas Bird Count bears this out. Speculation is that many birds are wintering farther north in reaction to global warming. I was relieved to see that virtually all species are still present, if in reduced numbers. CBC counted only one Clark’s Grebe and 3 Western Grebes this year whereas my adjoining photo, taken in 2011 includes eight birds of those two species, and I remember there were many more nearby when I took the photo.

Of the species listed in our Pocket Guide the CBC list for Dec 17 includes 4 of the 5 Grebe species, 7 of 8 Dabbling Ducks and 7 of 9 Diving Ducks species we list. It lists 175 American Wigeons, 250 Northern Pintails, 350 Green-winged Teal and 225 Lesser Scaup among their totals, so you’re very likely to see at least those species from our two lookout points.

There are also many regulars and some migrant birds to see among the shrubs and oaks of our little woodland. A few species among those listed by the CBC include 94 California Quail, 28 Anna’s Hummingbirds, 20 California Scrub Jays, 20 Bushtits, 55 White-crowned Sparrows, and 25 Golden-crowned Sparrows. Those last 25 are all migrants visiting their resident cousins for the winter. The 16 Yellow-rumped Warblers listed are also migrants.


This winter and spring are excellent times to visit the Elfin Forest to see beautiful flowers in bloom and active birds flitting around or swimming on the estuary!

Recent Sightings in the Elfin Forest

In In the winter, before the Elfin Forest is filled with wildflowers, one’s eye is drawn to smaller plant life, such as lichens. Recently we received two striking lichen photos from Oakleaves readers. If you are reading a print copy of Oakleaves, we suggest that you visit www.elfin-forest.org to see the photos in color. Thank you to both photographers for taking the time to share their delightful images with us.

Some like to pretend that the Elfin Forest has elves; but who would have thought that it has real pixies? Marlin Harms has been interested in photographing lichens lately, and spotted the Western pixie-cup during one of his visits to the Forest. This lichen grows on the ground or on rocks; in this case, it was on the ground. One has to have a sharp eye and a very good close-up lens to find and take a picture of it. The gray-green lichen sprouts hollow tubes that flare at the end like cups or trumpets. The tubes are 10 to 25 millimeters tall (about 1 or 2 centimeters, or 3/8 to 3/4 inch).

Western pixie-cup
Western pixie-cup

Early in December, Vicky Johnsen took a lovely Sunday morning walkabout in the Elfin Forest. She said that the sun had just chased the fog away and there were glistening drops hanging from lichens and other plants. Vicky sent us her photo of a branch with yellow and gray crustose lichens, and Lace lichen (Ramalina menizesii), all glowing in early morning sunlight.

Multiple lichens
Multiple lichens

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.