Being Thankful for the Trails

An adult wild turkey in the Red Quarry, blissfully oblivious of what most people in the US are doing today.

An adult wild turkey in the Red Quarry, blissfully oblivious of what most people in the US are doing today.

On this, Thanksgiving Day, it’s appropriate to consider what one treasures. For me, the Overlook Trail and the Montini Preserve are high on the list. I started hiking the Overlook 5-6 years ago, on virtually a daily basis. When the Montini Preserve was opened, I lengthened my hike by starting there, making my way to the Overlook and then back. For quite a while now this has been my daily exercise, a four mile hike with around a 400 foot elevation gain. This replaces what is for many people their indoor “spin class” or gym time.

So in the spirit of the holiday, these are just some of the things I’m thankful for that have come into my life through hiking these trails:

  • My health. Breaking a sweat for over an hour is always a good thing, especially when performed multiple times each week.
  • My mental health. Unlike a number of people I see on the trail, I don’t have earbuds in my ear piping in music. This lets my mind wander and process a lot of things as well as foster new ideas. I’ve had a number of ideas on hikes that have led to real results once I’ve left the trail. Also, there is new evidence that exercise prevents or decreases depression.
  • The views. I love seeing long distances. Perhaps this explains my love of the Grand Canyon and treehouses. There are some great views from the trails.
  • The wildlifeYou pretty much always see wildlife on the trail, whether it is the ubiquitous birds and squirrels, the frequently-spotted deer, or the more rarely spotted snakes (yes, including rattlesnakes). Of course let’s not forget insects.
  • The sense of adventure. My favorite times on the trail are actually when a storm is raging. I love when the creeks rise so high that they are a challenge to cross, and when there is a waterfall that crosses the Holstein Hill trail. It seems raw and exciting. Plus you often see more wildlife (like a flock of turkeys running in the rain) and fewer people.
  • The friends I’ve madeBy walking the trail so much, and running into volunteer trail Stewards and other regulars on the trail, I discovered a new source of good people to have in my life whom I appreciate.
  • The chance to do good. Whether it is picking up trash on a daily basis, or pulling invasive weeds in the Spring-Summer, there are multiple ways you can make a difference on these precious properties. Knowing that your work is both making an impact and is appreciated (as I’m often told by visitors on the trail), is a gift indeed.

The trails in the hills above Sonoma are truly a treasure. Many people I’ve met have traveled some distance to enjoy them. So those of us who live nearby are well and truly blessed. I am thankful indeed, on this Thanksgiving.

Who? Who?

p1010385_hdrA Great Horned Owl, that’s who. At least some hikers spotted one on the Montini Preserve this week. He or she was perched in a large Bay Laurel tree just below the trail near the Red Quarry entrance (see picture).

Owls are common in the forests and meadows of the Overlook and Montini properties, although sightings are not frequent.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has this to say, in part, about the Great Horned Owl:

“Great Horned Owls have the most diverse diet of all North American raptors. Their prey range in size from tiny rodents and scorpions to hares, skunks, geese, and raptors. They eat mostly mammals and birds—especially rabbits, hares, mice, and American Coots, but also many other species including voles, moles, shrews, rats, gophers, chipmunks, squirrels, woodchucks, marmots, prairie dogs, bats, skunks, house cats, porcupines, ducks, loons, mergansers, grebes, rails, owls, hawks, crows, ravens, doves, and starlings. They supplement their diet with reptiles, insects, fish, invertebrates, and sometimes carrion. Although they are usually nocturnal hunters, Great Horned Owls sometimes hunt in broad daylight. After spotting their prey from a perch, they pursue it on the wing over woodland edges, meadows, wetlands, open water, or other habitats. They may walk along the ground to stalk small prey around bushes or other obstacles.”

Feel free to find out more about this beautiful bird.

Here Be Snakes

rattlesnakeAs I set out on my hike in the warm morning air, I realized that today would be a likely day to see a snake. Today was predicted to be a hot day following on a warming trend over the last several days. It proved to be prophetic, as a group of us who converged on the Overlook upper meadow at about the same time were treated to spotting a gopher snake (see picture from a previous sighting).

Gopher snakes have similar markings to a rattlesnake, so they are often mis-identified. The simplest way to tell is to look for rattles — if the snake has rattles, it’s a rattlesnake, if it doesn’t, it’s a gopher snake. The gopher’s head is also not as spade-shaped as a rattlesnake.

Although many people are afraid of snakes — and especially the poisonous rattlesnake — snakes are a necessary part of our ecosystem. Without predators, ecosystems can fall tragically out of balance and perhaps damage an ecosystem irreparably. They also tend to avoid humans if they can, and it’s usually only when they are surprised or cornered do they strike.

In a conversation later the same day, a man recounted the story of a relative running the trail just last week who was nearly bitten by a rattler as she ran past. It missed because she was in rapid motion, but it was likely because she was in rapid motion and going past the snake in close proximity that it chose to strike. This is why it is very important to watch the ground ahead of you, especially when running. When hiking the snake usually has time to sound a warning before you get too close. I have had this happen on the trail.

So now that snakes are out of hibernation and on the Montini and Overlook properties, stay alert! If you can avoid riling up a snake it can be a pleasant outdoor experience to see a predator up close and watch it slide away into the grass. Let’s hope this describes all of your future snake encounters.

Getting Close to Wildlife Without Getting Close

HummingbirdintreeI’ve been an avid nature photographer for close to 45 years, and I’ve always been a fan of the zoom lens. Zoom lenses allow you to not only bring distant objects near, they can also provide a way to frame the shot the way you prefer instead of cropping it later with software.

Recently on the trail I was reminded about how important zoom capability can be when I spotted a hummingbird landing on a branch at the top of a tree. Despite the fact that the hummingbird was small (naturally) and the tree was some distance away (see photo), I was able to use the 30x zoom on my little point-and-shoot camera (at the moment the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS40), to zoom in on the little thing and get some shots that made it look like I could reach out and touch it (see second photo). Neither photograph has been cropped.

HummingbirdIf you are interested in achieving this kind of capability, these kinds of cameras are referred to as “super zooms”. Super zoom cameras come in all kinds of configurations, from general consumer kinds of cameras to “prosumer” to expensive professional rigs. As a hiker, you will most likely want a compact “point-and-shoot” camera that you can slip into a back pocket. If you are in the market for such a camera, here is a good web site outlining some of your best options.

Happy photographing!

Flowers Everywhere

P1000924If you like flowers, then now is the time to hike the Overlook and Montini trails, as they are going nuts. From California poppies, to Lupine, to you name it, they are out in great profusion. The picture to the right was taken just a few days ago on the Overlook Trail, where you can see both Lupine and Poppies hanging over the trail.

There are many other flower varieties out at this time, and others on their way. Spring is in full flower, and it is awesome.

However, keep in mind that other plants are going crazy right now, and among them is poison oak. Although we recently cut it back, it is still growing and we will likely need to cut it back again soon. Also, since the grass is growing like mad and often over-hanging the trail, keep an eye out for ticks. They like to climb up onto the tips of grasses where wildlife (and we count) are walking by so they can hitch a ride.

For tips on what to do if you are bitten, see this earlier post where I describe my own experience.

But by and large, it’s all good out there on the trail, and experiencing our wildflower bloom is well worth any slight risks.

Watch Out for Ticks!

2562198878_e548ea735c_zYesterday, likely due to my work in cutting back poison oak on the trails, I found a tick on me. Freaked out by the possibility of contracting Lyme disease, I quickly found a pair of tweezers and pulled the tick out, trying carefully to grab it from the head rather than squeezing the body. It was difficult, as it was quite tiny. The bite spot is still red and sore. But the important piece of information is this: save the tick, so it can be tested for Lyme Disease.

But as this Press Democrat article points out (helpfully published the day I found the tick), the actual incidence of Lyme disease in Sonoma County is not high, despite the fact that we have had the most reported cases in California in recent years.

To prevent tick bites, the Sonoma County Department of Health Services recommends:

  • Walk in the center of trails.
  • Use repellents that contain 20 to 30 percent DEET on exposed skin and clothing for protection that lasts up to several hours. Treat clothing and gear (boots, socks, pants, tents, etc.) with products containing 0.5 percent permethrin.
  • Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors, preferably within two hours.
  • Conduct a full-body tick check; parents should check children under arms, in and around ears, inside belly button, behind knees, between legs, around waist, especially in hair.
  • Examine gear and pets, which can bring home ticks that will then attach to a person.
  • Tumble clothes in a dryer on high heat for up to an hour to kill remaining ticks.

Remember that ticks that carry Lyme disease can be very small — about the size of a poppy seed. The biggest danger comes when the tick bite goes undetected and the disease is allowed to fester without antibiotics to fight it. Long-term effects are possible in these cases.

Therefore, it’s wise to know what the symptoms of Lyme disease are so if you have any of these you can contact your doctor immediately (from the Mayo Clinic):

“These signs and symptoms may occur within a month after you’ve been infected:

  • Rash. From 3 to 30 days after an infected tick bite, an expanding red area might appear that sometimes clears in the center, forming a bull’s-eye pattern. The rash (erythema migrans) expands slowly over days and can spread to 12 inches (30 centimeters) across. It is typically not itchy or painful.Erythema migrans is one of the hallmarks of Lyme disease. Some people develop this rash at more than one place on their bodies.
  • Flu-like symptoms. Fever, chills, fatigue, body aches and a headache may accompany the rash.”

If these symptoms are not spotted or recognized, later signs may appear in the following weeks and months. See the Mayo Clinic web site for more information.

So stay safe out there, and be vigilant!

Photo by wahoowins, Creative Commons License CC BY-ND 2.0

Lizards are Back!

lizardToday was the first day I noticed lizards on the trail this year, although it must be admitted that I hadn’t been on the trail for a couple days. But suddenly they are everywhere, along my entire hike from the 4th Street trailhead on the Montini Preserve all the way up to the top of the Overlook. Lizards provide a characteristic short, sharp rustling sound as they scurry and stop, scurry and stop, in the dry leaves. If the rustle is not of this variety, it may be a snake instead.

Lizards, like snakes, are reptiles and as such are cold-blooded. This means they rely upon their environment for body heat, which also requires them to hibernate for a period during the winter when ambient temperatures are cold. When they emerge from hibernation depends on the weather, and our recent heat wave in mid-February clearly has released them from hibernation.

So keep an eye peeled for this little creatures, who are often quite colorful, and also for their cousins, snakes. If the lizards are out, then rattlesnakes can’t be far behind.