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2015 Trip Chronicles:    Contents

Pacheco State Park 12/21/14
Pacheco State Park 2/1/15
Pacheco State Park 2/11
Pacheco State Park 2/14
Pacheco State Park 2/16
Pacheco State Park 2/21
Pacheco State Park 3/1

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Spring 2015 Trip Chronicles:  Page 1

Pacheco State Park

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After the summer of 2014 given some signs of a coming El Nino, many of our hopes were rising that the 3 year drought in California might be coming to its end. A return to wet was a pleasant dream to a range of outdoor enthusiasts including this photographer as dry conditions reduce aesthetics for a list of reasons including a loss of lush green vegetation and fewer wildflowers. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, 5 small fronts came through between mid September and late October providing more than an inch to North Bay areas but little to the south. Then just as our ski season can get going, November went bone dry. But then in December storms hit in a major way across the whole state. Well except strangely for the Sierra Nevada as storms tended to deflect to the northeast up the Sacramento Valley. And with high snow levels, an uncharacteristically low percentage remained as snow pack. Still enough that I managed to get a couple days in skiing about the holiday period. Our SF Bay Area hills suddenly became wonderfully green like we had not seen in a long time. Fremont bay side vernal pools I pass on my way to work each day were full with water for the first time in years. With several inches totaled during the month in many areas, wildflower seeds of annuals were set to make an appearance regardless of what followed.

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Pacheco State Park after heavy December rains

On December 21 eager to get some exercise, I drove the 60 miles down to Pacheco State Park where the wet weather had as expected given rise to fungi on coast live oak, quercus agrifolia. (image above) In summer the park at Pacheco Pass along SR152 is on the divide between warm dry air to the east in the San Joaquin Valley and cool marine heavy air to the west that often flows eastward displacing that lighter air. It is windy enough that a wind farm covers eastern ridgelines of the park. That also causes trees to form windswept shapes. These evergreen oaks often form a dense rounded canopy with outer branches at ground level hugging the earth to deflect wind up and over a tree. And that also provides a shady moist cool environment beneath. Another common tree in the park is deciduous California buckeye, a short lived tree that tends to grow on shady protected lee side slopes. In later spring they are wonderfully clothed in white blossoms. Lichen and fungi readily find nutrition on their bark so during wet winters there can be aesthetic growths on their trunk and branches. The most common tree in the park is the deciduous blue oak (image page top), our most common oak in the state covering vast areas around the Central Valley below higher elevation pine belts while above valley bottomlands. The blue oak apparently with stronger branches than its live oak cousin, in exposed locations tends to form open canopy wind-swept forms.

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Walking about a favorite ridgeline area of the park, indeed small mushrooms and fungi were making a modest appearance in numbers of predictable places beneath the shady evergreen canopies looking like miniature fairylands.

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And as expected a few of our earliest wildflowers, milk maids were out. Otherwise hillsides were a bright green without additional color so confined my camera work to close up subjects.

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And then there was January. Even worse than January 2014 as most of the state remained storm-less. However a modest Baja system did come up mid month to water Southern California areas that put even more seeds into germination mode. On January 24 two of us took a long exercise hike up at our local JD Grant County Park that showed lots of nice green grass and herbs coming up that would soon provide color to the very green landscapes.

Pacheco State Park after 6 dry weeks

Ok it was finally February and most of us expected things would change as has been the case in previous long dry spells mid winter due to blocking high pressure ridges. I knew that despite the weeks of dry that padre's shooting stars would be making an appearance in Pacheco State Park so on February 1 drove down to see what that looked like. Well most of the landscapes were just green with short drought inhibited grasses but yes there were a few nice patches of padre's shootingstar, primula clevelandii or dodecatheon clevelandii, as on the 2x2 panel landscape below. Note how stunted the green grasses are reflecting several weeks without rains. After the big coming storm, annual wildflowers were not going to have the usual thick robust grasses to compete against. Although these deciduous oaks go into dormancy in November, it takes some bouts of windy stormy weather to knock the brown leaves off trees. So it is usually later December when oak branches are free of leaves allowing aesthetic images of their bare twisting branches against sky.

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Perennial hillside gooseberry, ribes californicum, was among several other scattered species making appearances.

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The lush fungi and green mosses of the holidays had shriveled up from the 6 weeks of dryness. The dominant blue oak, quercus douglasii, of these grassland hills, were still bare of new leaves thus provided some fine graphics against the blue sky. Arguably as I have mentioned on web boards for years, the windswept blue oaks of Pacheco Pass have some of the most aesthetic forms on public lands in the state. Notice the smooth curve of the upper canopy. Any branches that stick up above that curve become exposed to higher wind speeds and thus are wind pruned. The same forces create similar curved tree shapes of whitebark pine in alpine regions of the Sierra Nevada.

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Well despite lack of rain for weeks, the big December storms committed a lot of species to make an appearance and they would all be coming out in the following weeks. In past springs, wildflowers at Pacheco have appeared two or three weeks before other Diablo Range lands to the north though photographers have taken little notice. On February 7 the second large warm storm of the winter season visited Northern California and again deflected northeast leaving only modest totals in the Sierra and little south of Central California. The nearest online rain gauge to Pacheco Pass is below the park a few miles east at the San Luis Reservoir Dam (Los Banos graph below page top) and it recorded just a third of an inch of rain which would tend to have only a minor effect on rising plants. However while monitoring passage of the main frontal band, a heavy area on radar had lingered over the area?

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Pacheco Pass receives 4 inches of rain... wildflowers explode

The following weekend weather was still too wet and breezy for landscapes. So I waited until midweek on Wednesday February 11 when NWS forecasts expected more sun with light breezes, to sneak out with a single day of PTO from my hi tech job debugging telephony media gateway switch hardware and see what Pacheco was now like. Immediately upon venturing out from the parking lot could see a lot more rain had fallen up at this higher divide area of the Coast Range as the dirt road after 4 days passed was still covered with puddles while seepage flowed out from grasslands. A park employee at the lot related all three rain gauges at the park ranch headquarters had recorded over an astounding 4 inches of water! Oh yeah, something big was going to happen as it just takes a few days for that to show strongly on blooming wildflowers. Blue dicks, dichelostemma capitatum, (see above image) and shooting stars just exploded. See image below and at page top. Given what I've seen in big years of the past like 2005, could argue that no other blue oak savanna parkland in the SF Bay Area region has as dense a wildflower seed bed on average as at Pacheco Pass.

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The hilly park has about 5 square miles open to hiking with most trails dirt ranch roads instead of narrow foot trails. Far more equestrians use the park than hikers. Cross country travel with a topo is easy for those who enjoy open roaming as this person. Back at work Thursday, my excited mind played over the various exploration strategies for the coming weekend and back home in the evening spent considerable time looking at a custom topographic map I'd created. A compulsive past time of mine for decades has been analyzing topographic maps for photography and cross-country travels. That is particularly valuable while backpacking off-trail carrying heavy loads in mountainous wilderness. Rarely do I visit unfamiliar locations and just ramble about inefficiently by sight alone. So on Saturday February 14 returned exploring areas on the eastern part of the park including Dinosaur Lake where croaking frogs, quacking ducks, and many tweeting birds sounded wonderfully happy. A long list of wildflower species were now making a show with California violets adding yellow over large areas. Keeping with its historic usage, cattle range on the western two-thirds of the open park while a barbed wire fence on the eastern one-third keeps the heavy beasts out. Note a large area of the eastern park is used by a windmill farm so is off limits. On the 1x2 panel image below, the olive drab green hued growths in branches is parasitic dense mistletoe, phoradendron bolleanum. The wind affected low height, swayed back, linear form of these blue oak is typical. Note how the lee branches reach back down to the ground providing multipoint support. Different species of lichen tend to grow on blue oak versus coast live oak. The lichens form a beneficial symbiotic relationship with the oaks capturing more nutrients in the airstream that also contributes to a much richer biotic footprint directly below canopies versus open grasslands.

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Two days later on President's Day Monday, February 16, was out again exploring in the southern zone of the park as padre's shooting stars reached a peak. In shady woodland understory areas Henderson's shooting stars, miner's lettuce, milkmaids, and California buttercups added to the beauty. Most of the blue oaks were now wearing small bright yellow-green unfurling leaves.

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Many of my shooting star foreground landscapes are captured with the sun somewhat back lighting as with the 2x2 panels above and below which helps bring out the green translucent glow of the grasses and color of flowers. At this early time of year, the sun altitude never gets high enough to make photography too harsh even at mid day if one is attentive to orientations color saturation is strongest. I posted an image and heads up about the bloom at Pacheco State Park on a couple web boards and DesertUSA.com though expected that ironically few in our own region would take notice. The small yellow flowers mid frame lower center on image below are California buttercup, ranunculus californica. Such flower areas were always buzzing with activity of several species of bees. Another day carrying my considerable load of over 30 pounds about 9 miles, much off trails. Although only one to few of the better pictures are posted herein for each day, several more fine images each day were captured keeping me so busy that I'd notice it was getting into afternoon without having bothering to yet take lunch.

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My sixth day at Pacheco Pass was Saturday February 21. Always an early riser, on drive out stopped roadside along SR152 at Louise Lake to snag this misty ground fog shot a bit after sunrise with my Sony SEL55210 telephoto.

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ramble out to the south boundary

For all my visits to the park had yet to see another person with a tripod. A mild east breeze blew Central Valley ground fog over the range keeping the air interestingly hazy. On this day did a long 11 mile route up and over the Spikes Peak trail to the west, then all the way out to the southwest boundary at Nun Lake, then followed the boundary fence cross country to Diamond Lake before heading back via Pig Pond Trail. Image below at midday, a southward view to areas a few miles beyond the southern park border towards Mariposa Peak. The northern headwaters basin of that peak which is remote cattle ranchland would be a spectacular addition to the park. The yellow hued species is California violet aka johnny-jump-ups, viola pedunculata, that covered large areas of the open southern grasslands of the park.

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The only goldfields encountered all month were over near the Whiskey Flat Trail. There are some wonderful areas on that western side. Nun Lake like all "lakes" in the park are simple earthen dam cattle watering ponds popular with wildlife, birds, and especially ducks. Several wildflower species were quite impressive on these sunny south facing slopes of the park with California poppies making an increasing show. This next image below shows a blue oak with new unfurling spring leaves that have a bright yellow-green hue versus the dull bluish-green of midsummer. In a few weeks the canopy of trees like this would be much fuller blocking much of the view of inner branches.

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On my seventh and final visit to the park on March 1, I finally settled down from landscapes to take a few close-up pictures. Here blue oak leaves up in a late afternoon blue sky with typical lichen covering branches.

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Image above, the Moon showing through a twisting curving blue oak branch labyrinth. As a child growing up in the northeast suburban Sacramento region where these oaks were very common, we kids endlessly climbed about in such branches with every tree a new puzzle for ascent.

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Of course never tired of imaging shooting stars and blue oaks that were so much a pleasure to be wandering about through beyond what these 2-dimensional images convey. The fresh clean air fragrance, blue skies, quiet breezeless mornings, buzzing bees, and abundant happily tweeting singing birds.

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Image below, a 2x2 panel of a wonderful natural shaded grassy green parkland on the north facing slope above where the Dinosaur Lake Trail reaches Salt Creek at right, beneath a canopy of blue oaks with California buckeye at right. Henderson's shooting star and California buttercup foreground plus Padre's shooting stars down the slope.

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Henderson's shooting star aka mosquito bills, dodecatheon hendersonni with California buttercup, ranunculus californicus. Sigma 60mm F2.8 DN at F11, flash fill, diffusion disk, extension tubes.

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And little did I know areas in our southland would provide a couple of even more impressive days just a week hence...

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2015 Trip Chronicles:    Contents

   David Senesac
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