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Coming Up in the Elfin Forest

Text and Photos By Jean Wheeler

With lots of rain since Thanksgiving, Morro Manzanitas along the lower boardwalk are covered with gorgeous little white and slightly blushing pink bell-shaped flowers as I write in early January. They should still be in bloom as February opens, with lots of the “little apples” soon following as fruit, from which they get their Spanish name, manzanita. Ceanothus (aka “California Lilac”) shrubs are now covered with large buds, a few of which have begun to open in white to pale lilac color. The boardwalk should be surrounded with their flowers throughout most of the two months of this issue.

Prickly-stemmed Fuchsia-flowered Gooseberries are showing their long red flower tubes and providing nectar for hummingbirds among shrubs along much of the lower boardwalk. California Peonies are raising their unusually large lush leaves, rising barely a foot or two directly from the soil along the 11th street sand trail. The leaves are protected from hot sun by surrounding shrubs. By early February, they should be adorned by a few drooping red balls of flowers an inch or two in diameter. They remain only for a few weeks; then the entire plants disappear completely for nearly another year, until rains again reach their bulbs in the soil.

During the two months covered by this issue, we can expect lots more of our late winter and early spring plants to respond to the return of winter rains by bursting into bloom in a variety of colors.

The frequent rains since Thanksgiving are also bringing on an excellent display of mushrooms, especially in the shelter of our live oak groves.  Even in the driest years our annual mushroom walk (see Walks in the Forest for Dennis Sheridan’s walk this year on February 15) revealed a few of these special and short-lived fruiting bodies.  In years with enough rain before that walk, we’ve been treated to a wide variety of these spore-bearing reproductive parts of fungus organisms. Their bodies are usually spread widely throughout the soil below the much smaller fruiting structure we see above ground. 

Mushrooms come in an amazing variety of shapes and colors. Some are delightfully edible, but many are deadly poisonous, and it can be very difficult to discern which of those is which. See my article on page 4 of this month's Oakleaves about a very appropriate resident of our Elfin Forest—the mushroom called a “Fluted Black Elfin Saddle!”

There are a number of migratory ducks on the estuary, including American Wigeons, Buffleheads, Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers, and Teal, but the waters are not nearly as crowded with them as they used to be each winter until just the last few years. Periodicals by birding organizations such as Audubon and Cornell Ornithology Lab are suggesting many more birds are not migrating as far south in the last few years in response to global warming, which has raised temperatures in arctic and subarctic climates much more strongly than in middle and lower latitudes.

Even so, virtually all species of water birds and wading birds listed in our Pocket Guide (sold in our "Forest Store" - button at top of this page) are at peak populations for the year between November and March, as are all the raptors listed, and a great many of the passerines. Watch the shrubs around the boardwalk for flitting finches, sparrows, warblers, wrens, phoebes, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and other little brown and little grey birds. The larger thrashers, towhees, scrub jays, quail, blackbirds, and doves can be seen and/or heard regularly. By the end of February and through March into April, we’ll also have the spring migration of birds passing through, and possibly remaining for a few days, en route from their winter homes in Central and South America to their summer breeding ranges in our northern states and Canada.

This winter and spring are excellent times to visit the Elfin Forest to see beautiful flowers in full bloom and active birds flitting around or swimming on the estuary. You may also catch a glimpse of lizards, rabbits, squirrels, or maybe even a wild coyote.


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: oakleaf@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.