Park Week 3/22/2024

Equinox Gathering at Solar Calendar

Alan Gould (left), retired director of the Lawrence Hall of Science Planetarium, among other astronomical ventures, led a gathering at the Chavez/Huerta Tribute Site at the Solar Calendar this Tuesday evening on the occasion of the Vernal Equinox.

The equinox, as the name implies, is the time when daylight and darkness have equal lengths. At the winter solstice, the darkness is the longest and daylight the shortest. From then on, the darkness retreats and the light advances. At the spring (vernal) equinox, they balance. At the summer solstice, the light is longest and the night is shortest. From then on, the night advances again and the light retreats, until they balance at the fall equinox. They continue that trend to the winter solstice, when the cycle starts again.

As Alan explained, the changes around the equinoxes happen rapidly. The exact equality of light and darkness occurred for just a fraction of a minute at 8:21 pm Tuesday, about an hour after sunset. Much more material about the astronomy involved and about the various cultural celebrations surrounding these events is on Alan’s website,

Rare Ruddy

I first noticed a flock of about two dozen Black Turnstones on Wednesday. They clustered in the rip-rap on the east side of the seasonal Burrowing Owl Sanctuary, where you could spot them with optics from the Open Circle Viewpoint. Only this morning did I notice that one member of the flock was a Ruddy Turnstone. Both species, the black and the ruddy, are members of the Arenaria genus, but don’t commonly hybridize. While the black are at home almost exclusively up and down the Pacific Coast, from northwestern Alaska down to Baja, the ruddies we see here may have come from Siberia as well as from northern Alaska and Canada. It’s not unusual for them to keep company during migration. Both species are pausing or resting for their spring trip back north. I’ve seen the Black Turnstones several times, but I only saw a Ruddy Turnstone once before. See “Park Week 4/28/23.”

Fearless Strider

American Pipit (Anthus rubescens)

This little bird fearlessly strode toward me twice, first on the pavement and then again on the retaining wall by the Open Circle Viewpoint, as shown in the video. It came so close I could almost have reached out and touched it. It’s an American Pipit, a “snowbird” that breeds in the short summers in the Canadian Arctic and Alaska, as well as in similar latitudes in Eurasia. It’s a ground-dweller, foraging on foot or with short, shallow flights for insects and worms. It walks, alternating feet, rather than hopping. Males and females look alike. It seemed to have no concept of danger from giant featherless bipeds carrying heavy black machinery.

So Elegant

Great Egret (Ardea alba)

As I entered the Open Circle Viewpoint, I saw that someone had taken possession of it before me. A Great Egret, slender and very tall, perched on a stone at the eastern margin and surveyed the scene beneath its feet. The stylish bird paid me no attention. I felt as if I had stumbled off the street into an elegant studio and would soon be thrown out as underdressed. But the bird was a pragmatist, only interested in a possible breakfast, and finding none, winged away.

Squirrel Peep: Hiccup or Message?

Some years ago I learned that the high-pitched peeping or chipping sound I sometimes heard in the park came not from a bird but from a Ground Squirrel. A controversy arose after I published a video. Was the squirrel sending a message? Or just suffering from hiccups? If a message, what was it? I searched the literature and found no illumination, other than evidence that numerous species besides humans have hiccups. Here, to add data to the inquiry, are two additional squirrel chipping videos, both from this week. In the first video, the chipping squirrel has one paw on the back of another for a while, until the other moves off and halts nearby. In the other video, the chipper is solo, with no other creature in sight. What do you think? Hiccup or message?

Loving this Little Flower

I published a picture of the Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) last week. Yesterday I visited it again and the hours of sunshine had brought out a burst of flowers, many more than last week. I’m charmed by this miniature member of the iris family. Here’s another photo celebration. These are among the Cal natives that Conservancy volunteers planted last year as part of the Native Pollinator Habitat in the Native Plant Area.

Spared by the Squirrels

Ground Squirrels love nothing better than very young sprouts of California Poppies. We found this out the hard way. Back in the fall of 2019 we planted hundreds of Cal poppy seeds among other wildflower seeds in a then bare strip of soil in the southeast corner of the park. See “Seeds of Beauty” Oct 26 2019. The next spring, all kinds of lovely wildflowers came up, but nary a native poppy. We saw the little rodents in the act of cutting the poppies down to the ground when they were about three inches tall.

But they didn’t get them all. A healthy bunch of Cal poppies bloomed this week on the east side, and a few more showed in other spots. Once they get to about six inches tall, they’re no longer in the squirrel diet. Here’s a photo.

We’d love to see thousands of these blooming all over the park. But it would probably take a half mile of wire screens to protect the sprouts from the squirrels.

One Local, One Not

The tiny flowers on the left belong to Rhus ovata, the native Sugar Bush. It’s one of the Southern California inland locals that is doing very well up here on the coast. It’s an evergreen shrub or small tree that grows very quickly in almost any soil, has a pleasing rounded form, is slightly fragrant, and resists drought, diseases, parasites, deer, and fire. It can live to 100 years. A number of insects feed on its nectar and birds eat the fruits. People have found nutritional and medicinal uses for the fruit and leaves; check this Wikipedia article for some details.

The flower on the right is a kind of ice plant known as Sea Fig (Carpobrotus chilensis) that’s spread on the west side of the park along with its close relative, Carpobrotus edulis, which has yellow or light pink flowers. Both, despite being pretty, get a vehement thumbs-down from environmentalists. This South Africa import is a highly invasive and aggressive weed that doesn’t support local pollinators. In the park it has very little room to spread, but out in the wild, particularly on dunes, it causes widespread havoc and takes enormous effort to remove. Read more about it here or here.

Tiny Short-lived Joys

This ladybug surfaced for just a minute on a Sourgrass leaf (Oxalis pes-caprae). It caught my eye as I was bending over to leg it over the fence at the Open Circle Viewpoint. Moments later it crawled under the leaf.

I saw this feather moments after a female Scaup released it from a vigorous flap of her wings on the north side, see below. The feather looks like it’s floating in air but it’s sitting in water. It survived little ripples, but it won’t stay on the surface for long. It’s a lucky day that offers up tiny short-lived joys like these.

Birds of the Week

The surprise of the week, other than the Ruddy Turnstone, came when I spotted the pair of Mallards in the deep grass on the north side of the Native Plant Area, a hundred yards from water. Possibly they’ve made a nest and laid some eggs there. We’ll have to be careful when we weed and mulch the native plant starters there. The Mallards walked north ahead of me, not in a hurry to get to water, when a Coast Guard helicopter flying low panicked them and they flew off.

All the birds I photographed this week and posted below were seasonal regulars, and if you’ve paid attention to this blog over the past few weeks you’ll score a perfect 100 identifying them.

Red-winged Blackbird M
Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius) Preening

Park With a View

Looking West from the Native Plant Area

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3 thoughts on “Park Week 3/22/2024

  • Oh, Martin – thank you, thank you. what gorgeous photos. and your commentary is just wonderful.
    I so appreciate you taking the time to share your insights, wisdom and knowledge.
    It heightens my awareness of what a rich diversity of life is all around us – if we take time to look/feel/see.

    A big fan,
    Kay Ellyard

  • Oh, Martin – thank you, thank you. what gorgeous photos. and your commentary is just wonderful.
    I so appreciate you taking the time to share your insights, wisdom and knowledge.
    It heightens my awareness of what a rich diversity of life is all around us – if we take time to look/feel/see.

    A big fan,
    Kay Ellyard

  • Hiccups!
    You can see the diaphragm moving especially in the first squirrel video.

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