15 November 2009

Big Springs Loop

Date: 13 November 2009
Who Hiked: Me
Route: Big Springs Loop
Time: 1015 to 1255
Estimated Distance: 5 miles
Weather: cool, breezy, and sunny

I've been so delinquent in my hiking, that today I went out even though I wasn't sure I'd have time to finish the route I'd planned. But I printed off my images from Google Earth and commenced on my hike anyway -- even part of the route would be better than none at all.

I left the house and drove to the trailhead, about a mile from the buffalo gate above Two Harbors. It was a beautiful day and I was excited to get started walking. The day was cool (maybe in the low 70s) and breezy. But the sun was out and I knew that I would warm up nicely once I got going.

The trailhead is just before the buffalo corral on Little Harbor Road. The trail is flat for about 0.5 mile until is climbs for about another 0.5 mile to an overlook of the San Pedro Channel and Empire Landing. An old mining community, a few families live at Empire Landing.

Between the top of the hill and the overlook of Empire Landing, I found a grove of oaks. Their low gray trunks twist out of the ground to sprawl just above the surface of the grass. Even though I'd only been hiking a short time, it was too good to pass up, so I sat for a while and ate a mini-bagel with cream cheese. Louv is right ("Last Child in the Woods") when he describes how nature soothes us, allows our minds to quiet so that we can think more clearly.

At about 1.5 miles, I began to walk downhill from the ridge overlooking the Channel and Empire. This part of the trail is steep in places, with rocks that rise on either side of the road. I found a lovely nearly clear chunk of quartz, which joined a piece of diatomaceous rock already in my backpack. I can't wait to look at the diatomaceous rock under a microscope to see the fossil animals immortalized in stone. Soon I reached a fork in the road, with one road heading precipitously downhill to Empire Landing. THAT must be quite a ride during the rainy season. Drivers must say a hasty prayer, click their vehicle into 4WD, teeter on the edge, then drop off the ridge, relying on their experience with the permanence of objects that the road is still there, because once you head over the edge, you probably can't see much until the nose of your vehicle is pointed all the way down. And by then you've committed to the trip, for good or ill.

The second road at this junction heads off uphill, but Big Springs Road, which is my route, heads south into a valley. The next 0.5 mile of Big Springs Road is a lovely stretch, with shrubs and oaks that reach over one's head. The bushes were full of spotted towhees, which I don't see often on the island. I pished up two and heard at least four or five more. The yellow-rumped warblers also liked this stretch, with its bushes to flit around. They vary from being very brightly colored, with vivid yellow throats, to being fairly dull (more like their East Coast counterparts). The habitat opens up more, but there are still clumps of vegetation along the road and I see and hear a number of birds.

It is the season of white-crowned sparrows on Catalina. The bushes have been rife with sparrows, though they are all fairly dull with their brown and tan heads and their beaks, half-way between orange and pink. I've seen many of them around Two Harbors and on the road out to Ballast Point, at the mouth of Catalina Harbor. Today was no exception, as it seemed that all along the road I saw white-crowned sparrows.

At about 2.5 miles into the hike, I came upon the Big Spring Reservoir, which at this time of year is dry. A short while later (about 0.25 mile), the road paralleled a wetland area, that must be spring-fed -- perhaps the "Big Spring"? Anyway, there were cat tails and other green vegetation in and along the rim of the stream from this spring for about the next quarter of a mile. At an incredibly huge tree [species?], the road angled sharply west and uphill.

After a short, but steep, uphill trudge, I reached the Little Harbor Road again. Near the junction of Big Springs and Little Harbor Roads, I found a pitfall trap array. Designed to sample small animals, a pitfall trap array is a Y-shaped series of barriers, often erosion control fencing, punctuated by pits, which can be opened and closed. Small animals encounter the barrier, travel along it, and fall into a pit. The pits, in this case, five-gallon buckets, are deep enough that the small animals cannot escape. Pitfall traps are opened for short periods of time (e.g. overnight, 24 hours) and checked regularly during that time. Some organisms are identified and released (like small mammals, lizards) while animals that are harder to identify might be preserved so that specialists can identify them later. Given that I'm hoping to do some diversity monitoring using the pitfall trap arrays that are established on Catalina, it was interesting to find one.

I was not thrilled to walk along Little Harbor Road, inhaling dust every time a vehicle passed. So I headed straight uphill along a secondary road that forked off at this intersection. It was steep for nearly 0.5 mile, then ran along the edge of the crest for about a quarter of a mile. To my right I could see the valley, with the Big Springs Reservoir and the wetland along Big Springs Road. To my left, I could see the Buffalo Corral along Little Harbor Road. The trail headed downhill to the Corral, which I walked around to reach Little Harbor Road.

I found several acorn woodpeckers in a tree across the road from the Corral. It is a tree that has been used for nesting, as evidenced by the large holes excavated in the trunk. I don't know if island populations of acorn woodpeckers are exactly like mainland populations, but acorn woodpeckers elsewhere in California breed communally. Communal breeding occurs when multiple females contribute eggs to a single nest. Not all birds are equal: dominant birds are more successful at raising young than are more subordinate females. Acorn woodpeckers eat acorns, which are available only at certain times of year. So, like squirrels and chipmunks, birds store acorns for future consumption. But they don't bury them in the dirt -- they carve an acorn-sized hole in wood, and pop a single acorn in each. Storage locations are usually clumped, with a single granary tree containing thousands of holes. On Catalina, I've seen granaries in buildings (Eagle Nest Lodge, barns at Rancho Escondido) and in fence posts. Granaries are valuable because they represent years of labor; thus, groups of acorn woodpeckers defend their granaries against other groups of acorn woodpeckers.

I walked along the road for a bit until there was a gap in the Opuntia so that I could walk along truck tracks in the wash adjacent to the road. The bushes here were also full of birds, and I saw my first blue-gray gnatcatcher (on Catalina). A short bit later, I was at my truck again and ready to head home!

I expected to see snakes or lizards today -- the temperatures were cool, but the sun was warm and I thought that they might be out basking on the road. But no luck!

Species seen today: California quail, Western gull, Mourning dove, Allen's hummingbird, Acorn woodpecker, Say's phoebe, Common raven, Blue-gray gnatcatcher, Northern mockingbird, Hutton's vireo, Spotted towhee, Yellow-rumped warbler, White-crowned sparrow, Western meadowlark, House finch

All the distances that I reference in my blog post are estimated from Google Earth. In fact, I had no idea how far apart things were. In fact, I was surprised when I hit Little Harbor Road -- I thought I was way on the other side of the loop. Goes to show how good I am at estimating distances as I walk!