By Katherine Mindel Jones, Marin County Parks
If you’ve spent time on the trails of Mt. Burdell recently, you’ve probably caught a glimpse of cows grazing placidly on the hills above San Marin. Livestock grazing has actually taken place on Mt. Burdell for more than a century. When the Marin County Open Space District acquired the preserve, which was part of a former ranch, in the mid-1970s, the District continued the practice. As far back as 1974, the District leased Mt. Burdell to local ranchers for grazing purposes and to provide fire fuel reduction to protect nearby homes.
Today, grazing is conducted by Hicks Valley Cattle and rancher Dr. Bill Barboni, a fourth generation Marin rancher, under a 5-year Lease Agreement. Grazing is beneficial to the Mt. Burdell preserve in many ways. It reduces fire fuels; preserves habitat for native species including fragrant fritillary, savannah sparrow and grasshopper sparrow; and sustains high quality forage to support local agriculture. The grazing season begins in early January each year and ends sometime in June; so over 150 cows (but no bulls or cows with calves) will graze on Mt. Burdell for the next few months.
Recently, Marin County Parks and Bill Barboni worked together to obtain Organic Certification, from the Marin County Department of Agriculture, making Mt. Burdell an organic certified rangeland. Dr. Barboni monitors the cows and the fence lines by horse a few times a month. If you see him, be sure to say hello!
By Marin County Parks Naturalist David Herlocker
When we think of February, we think of water. Every stony canyon is alive with dancing, splashing water; emerald green mosses carpet the fallen logs and ancient trunks. The rain has brought the world around us to life. In sunny openings we see traces of the coming spring; clouds of tiny insects dance in shafts of light. Where the sun’s rays touch the forest floor, red admiral and tortoiseshell butterflies spread their wings and soak up the rays.
Seeds are sprouting; leaves unfold as roots push deep into the soft, soaked earth. This is the best time to stoop down and try to figure out what these tiny sprouts will become in the months ahead. Milkmaids are already blooming in the woods; buttercups and shooting stars will soon brighten the grassy hills. Queen bumblebees emerge from their winter hideouts and seek these first flowers, their dense fur coats provide them with insulation for these brisk winter days.
Some birds are beginning the nesting process: Juncos and bushtits leave the flocks in which they have spent the winter months and form pairs. Red-tailed hawks are remodeling nests used in previous years and engaging in aerial courtship displays. Hawks are among the earliest breeders; this allows them to begin feeding their young just as rodent populations boom in early spring. Within our local bird community, the earliest nester is the Anna’s hummingbird; this is the only hummingbird that remains in this area all year. Courtship and pair formation commence in early winter; some of them will be feeding their first clutch of babies by early February.
Among the birds which spend our winter from Mexico to South America, the first migrants to reach this area are the tiny Allen’s hummingbirds. They arrive in Marin just as the manzanita and pink flowering currant are blooming. These beautiful blossoms provide the nectar that fuels the nimble flight of these feathered jewels. Violet-green and tree swallows also return during February, seeking nest sites in old woodpecker holes and other tree cavities. There is fierce competition for these prime pieces of real estate; bluebirds and oak titmice (species which don’t leave the area during winter) have already staked claim to many available cavities. These swallows take a big chance by arriving so early: they are entirely dependent upon flying insects for food, so extended periods of wet weather can make it difficult to feed their young.
In the bay – oak forests, the western gray squirrels have finished building their nests. You’ve seen these structures, typically they are messy looking balls of twigs and dead leaves placed high in the foliage of oak trees or tucked into the erect forks of bay tree branches. What look like disorganized clumps of dead vegetation are actually tightly constructed waterproof homes, within each is an insulated chamber lined with fluffy moss and fine grass; a perfect place to raise a family. The females are ripe with unborn young that will be delivered in March or April. During the early morning and evening hours, western gray squirrels forage on the forest floor, digging for the nuts they hid in the fall, and sniffing for buried truffles and other tasty fungi.
If you want to get out and see some of these marvels and learn a bit more about them, check out our naturalist walks, family walks and ranger-led activities. On Saturday February 16 naturalist David Herlocker will be leading a 7.5 mile walk that will start on Loma Alta and follow the new 680 trail to Terra Linda/Sleepy Hollow divide. Ranger Christin Lopez will guide a Bird walk at Bolinas Lagoon on Sunday February 17, and Open Space Rangers will lead a walk to Dawn Falls in our Baltimore Canyon preserve on Saturday February 23. These are just a few of the activities we offer, for a complete listing, please visit our events calendar at http://www.marincountyparks.org/depts/pk/calendar.
As we begin a new year, we’d like to take the time to thank our staff for all of their hard work in 2012. Today, we introduce you to one of our open space rangers, Jacob Feickert. Since 2002, he has worked tirelessly to protect and steward our open space preserves for future generations.
1) How long have you worked for Marin County Parks?
I’ve worked for Marin Parks for ten years. I was a seasonal several weeks in 2002, but was offered a job working outside Washington DC for the National Park Service. In October that year, a position opened with Marin County Parks. I got lucky and began a full-time position around Christmas 2002.
2) Where did you grow up?
My parents say the walls of our small house couldn’t contain my energy. With a group of neighborhood kids I explored Paper Mill Creek, and areas that would become Gary Giacomini and French Ranch Preserves. We’d usually come home cold, wet, hungry, and a little bruised, but no worse for wear. I grew up in San Geronimo and because of my roots, it’s now my assigned patrol area.
3) What inspired you to pursue your career with Marin County Parks (or in general)?
I loved being a Boy Scout. The activities, structure, and responsibility, were exactly what I needed. So naturally I went into public service and became a firefighter and EMT. Planning a career with Cal Fire, I earned a degree in forestry with an emphasis in resource protection. But one spring I worked with Marin Municipal Water District removing exotic plants and maintaining trails. I was outdoors hiking, exploring and found my calling.
4) What is your favorite preserve and why?
I grew up next to the Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve and spent a lot of time exploring the ridge. It has diverse microclimates and hidden treasures. Even now, I continue to be surprised by places I discover.
5) What is your favorite free time outdoor activity?
I love sharing the outdoors with my four year old daughter. To her, Roy’s Redwoods is a giant playground. We’ve spent hours exploring hollow trees and hiking trails. Now I’m really excited because she’s ready and agreed to take the training wheels off her bike. I hope she falls in love with cycling like her daddy.
6) What makes Marin so special?
The local climate and geology set the stage for Marin’s ecological diversity. But its politics, attitude of tolerance and relatively diverse population, also are very unique. My wife and I are both rangers and decided to stay in Marin because it has lots of outdoor activities but is also near metropolitan areas.
Marin County Parks is hosting two walks focused on the salmon and steelhead of Lagunitas and San Geronimo Creeks in December. With luck, we will see spawning activity. The first walk is on December 18, the second walk will be on December 30, 2012. For more information please visit our events calendar.
By David Herlocker, Marin County Parks
On a mid-December day in 2009, a gray winter sky hangs above the San Geronimo Valley. A pink-faced boy with a bulging backpack pedals his bike along the road, on his way to another day of eighth grade. Nearby, a creek slides by, spilling over rocks, sweeping below leafless willow and alder branches that cast their skeletal shadows on the pebbled creek bed. Gently swaying in the current, a tattered female coho salmon hangs above a clean patch of gravel, her tail worn white from the effort of digging a nest in which she has buried her precious load of eggs. Occasionally she tilts to one side and summons the strength to thrash her tail in an effort to lift a few more rocks onto the nest. Eventually the current overwhelms her failing muscles, and she drifts lifelessly down the channel.
In early February, the scene looks much the same, but below the gravel, the eggs have hatched. The newborn fish, now called alevins, remain nestled among the pebbles, breathing rhythmically in the swirling oxygen rich water that circulates through the nest. Their huge yolk sacs fuel the growth of their developing bodies. Six weeks later, a tiny fish wiggles up through the gravel bed and is immediately carried downstream to a small eddy. It finds itself among a group of look-alike newborns, lurking among the crevices and shadows at the edge of the pool. As tiny insects and other creatures drift by, the big-eyed fish (now called fry) dart out to capture them. The pool is crowded and competition is fierce. A few stronger fry dominate the upstream edge of the pool, capturing the choicer morsels as they drift in, but even these fish can’t venture out to the main channel, where hungry two year old steelhead threaten to swallow them whole.
When summer comes, all of the fry crowd into the deepest reaches of the pool. Weaker individuals, forced to the periphery of the group, are picked off by egrets and garter snakes that patrol the water’s edge. Fish that have sought refuge in nearby pools that aren’t as deep perish as the water temperature rises and the oxygen levels drop. Growth stops, mere survival becomes a luxury.
When the first rains fall in mid-October, the surge of cold, oxygen rich water is a refreshing change, but the torrents of November create a life threatening challenge to the small fry. The surging, muddy water creates a turbulent vacuum sucking everything in the creek into the center of the now raging current. Only those fish that find refuge in side channels and logjams can resist its pull. When the rains subside and the current slackens, the survivors resume the struggle for feeding positions in sheltered pools.
By mid-April, the school is composed of four to six inch fish, all of which are about 15 months old. For the next few weeks these fish move downstream in small groups, each morning finds them a bit closer to the sea. One day they arrive in the lower reaches of Olema Marsh, and get their first taste of salt water. They stay at the edge of the estuary, where the gentle rhythm of the tides slowly allows their skin and gills to adjust to the new environment. They find plenty of food in the southern end of Tomales Bay. With each tidal cycle they venture a bit farther north, eventually they swim out into the open ocean. Most of these fish will venture out to the edge of the continental shelf, where they will depend on the upwelling of fertile, cold water to deliver their food. Some of the males, those individuals who dominated the better feeding sites in the freshwater world, will grow even faster in the saltwater environment. They return to Tomales Bay that summer. By September, these foot long males will be reproductively mature, they are known as jacks. They join a milling school of larger, adult coho which prowl the depths of Whitehouse Pool, waiting for the first fall rains to draw them back into the spawning beds of the upper creek.
Most of the young salmon spend about a year and a half along the coast in loose schools. They prey upon anchovies, herring, and squid which have been plentiful this year. The ocean currents have been strong and the flow of nutrients has increased productivity all along the food chain. In autumn of 2012 they returned to Tomales Bay once again. Back at the edge of Olema Marsh, they undergo profound changes. Females swell with developing eggs, males turn a deep red color, and their jaws become deformed weapons, no longer fit for feeding. When the first hard rains fall in November, the taste of muddy fresh water draws them into the surging current. They navigate a chemical map of memory, back through the channels and pools that harbored them a lifetime before.
On a cold December morning in San Geronimo Valley, the young bike rider we met three years back now drives east to eleventh grade at the high school over the hill. In the creek beside the road, a two foot long female coho hovers above the cobbled streambed. With powerful upward sweeping tail strokes, she propels gravel into the current, and slowly creates a nest pit. Flanking her is a deep red male. He rubs against her flank and quivers expectantly just to be at her side. Ultimately, the female positions herself above the nest and releases a stream of eggs that are pushed into the gravel bed by the downward current of the passing water. The male practically shoves her forward as he releases a cloud of milt which also flows into the nest with the eggs. A jack dashes in at just this moment; he too releases a puff of milt, some of which will reach the eggs below. Throughout the Valley this scene is taking place, as the salmon of seasons past cast all of the energy of their lives into generations of the future. If you stand still long enough, you can feel the earth breathing.
By Ronnie Sharpe
Weeks after my daughter’s 9th birthday, the phrase “Best Birthday Party Ever!” is still ringing in my ears. That’s what I heard from the parents and kids who joined us for a camping party at magnificent McNears Beach in San Rafael. After months of planning, making a stegosaurus piñata, buying food; it all came down to the final week … and it was pouring with rain despite the weather report claiming sun. My husband asked if I had a plan B and with watery eyes I said “no.” Then the big day came around and the weather was perfect; warm, no breeze and no rain.
The first activity we planned was a beach clean up. Guided by one of the Marin County Parks rangers and armed with “super cool grabber tools” in one hand and a bucket in the other the kids set out to the beach. In the meantime, the adults erected tents and got the grill going. The kids proudly returned with buckets full and bellies empty. They not only did a great job, they LOVED it and voluntarily continued their work the following morning after breakfast.
Once the sun set, all the kids wore glow sticks, which they loved, and also helped me keep track of them. Inspired by the beautiful view and warm weather, we all took a late-night pajama walk to the end of the pier to watch the stars, observe the movement of the tide and absorb the magnificent view.
Finally, when all was quiet, we laid down in our tents. We heard the nearby hoot of an owl, the distant howl of a coyote, the gentle waves of the bay and a few little boys sneaking out of their tent to raid the girls tent in the middle of the night….plus lots of giggling. For me, the evening conjured up fond childhood memories from my own camping days. I cherished the moment and hope this time together with great friends etched out lifelong memories for all of them, too. I know it did for my daughter. Her smile still hasn’t left her face.
The funny thing I learned was that despite all the planning, games and ideas I worked so hard on, the kids favorite thing to do was to watch the sun set and rise again, climb trees, comb the beach, look for crabs and play games like tag. It was the simplicity of what fun really means and that is why we love camping. It was magic!
We have a long standing tradition with birthday presents; my daughter chooses a charity and in lieu of presents we ask guests to donate to that charity. This year she proudly chose Marin County Parks because, in her words, she is “in
spired by the beautiful parks, wide open spaces, trails, fun programs, plants and animals and especially the parks’ rangers.” I cannot thank them enough for allowing us to campout at McNears Beach and I don’t know how I am going to top this birthday!
NOTE: Camping at McNears Beach Park requires a special use permit. For more information, please visit www.marincountyparks.org.