a Taj MuttHall Dog Diary: Rarities and Treasures in the Coyote Hills

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Rarities and Treasures in the Coyote Hills

SUMMARY: Native wildflower hike on Coyote Ridge via Kirby Landfill.
Last weekend, I rose early, left the poor dogs at home, and joined docents from the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority on a wildflower hike of about 5 miles round trip up about 700 feet to the top of Coyote Ridge (which apparently isn't an official name, just a convenient one).

Important backstory

Kirby landfill, CalTrans (responsible for U.S. Highway 101 through the Coyote Valley), the Open Space Authority, Hewlett-Packard (corporate owner of thousands of acres here, dunno why), and others have collaborated to preserve the serpentine grasslands of this area. Serpentinite is a kind of rock which, when erodes, makes for a nutrient-poor serpentine soil, in which numerous plants and animals (such as the red-legged frog) thrive--as long as the serpentine environment is preserved.

From Coyote Ridge, looking back down towards U.S. Highway 101 in the Coyote valley, Santa Cruz mountains behind. In the distance, notice the brilliant yellow carpet below the foothills--nonnative and very invasive mustard. Beautiful but problematic. Also, notice the deer--yeh. We'll get back to that.

One challenge is eradicating horribly invasive natives, such as the yellow star thistle, whose tall structures block light and steal nutrients from the smaller native and endemic plants. Furthermore, the exhaust from hundreds of thousands--millions?-- of cars passing on the freeway dumps more nitrogen into the nearby environment than most people put onto their lawns in any given year, making the nutrient-poor soils suddenly nutrient rich, which further invites nonnatives into the area.

The serpentine grasslands were originally filled with native and endemic bunch grasses and small, uncommon flowers, an even smaller portion of the latter which support the endangered and very rare Bay Checkerspot. This colorful butterfly now exists in small numbers in only in two small serpentine grassland areas--Coyote Ridge about 15 miles south from my house, and Edgewood Park about 40 minutes north--also right alongside a major freeway that runs between San Jose and San Francisco.

(Vocabulary: "Native" means that it was here originally; "endemic" means that it appears only in California.)

On Into the Hike

The road up which we hiked begins in the landfill property--odd juxtaposition: endangered flora and fauna with a landfill!--and is normally off limits to all but the cattle ranchers who maintain cattle in the area, landfill personnel, researchers, and other similar official type persons. Only a few times a year does the Open Space Authority take some of the general people up into the hills. This hike was limited to 20 people and it stunned me that even fewer than that showed up. What an experience and what a treasure--hoping not only for visions of wildflowers, but maybe even a rare glimpse of the legendary Bay Checkerspot! The docents (4 of them) almost outnumbered us mere muggles.

We started under chilly, overcast skies, which was of concern, because, for example, the California Poppy doesn't unfurl until 68 degrees (F), with similar limits for many other flowers, and if the flowers aren't open, the butterflies don't come out to play. Fortunately the sun soon came out and we had perfect weather for a hike. The hillsides had also been invigorated by unusual, heavy rains in the preceding couple of weeks.

We had barely started the hike when a flurry of wings from the wetlands beside us alerted us to a black-crowned night heron bursting from the nearby reeds and heading for a safer, more distant location. My camera wasn't set for birding, but I panned along and got some recognizable shots.

Not too far up the path, the docents stopped to point out a rare treat: The state grass (purple needlegrass), the state flower (California poppy), and the state rock (serpentinite) all together on the hillside. It wasn't 68 degrees yet, so the poppies remained furled, but that didn't last long.

Poppies are not endangered and were everywhere; their large flowers and brilliant color dominate the landscape, and they are gorgeous.

You could frame almost any scene on the entire hike with poppies, like this view back across the Coyote Valley.

The ponds are old quarries that have been filled with water and stocked with catch-and-release fish. The high peak is Loma Prieta, the tallest in the Santa Cruz coastal range, at (3,790 ft (1,155 m)). I'm not sure what this grass is.

Even the poppy seedpods are stunning in shape and color.

For the first half hour, a huge gyrating flock of seagulls, undoubtedly here because of the landfill (which is very well maintained, BTW, with no visible signs of garbage, just bare soil), hovered over us, following us up the hill for the first half hour or so. We tried to hike quickly to get away from them, but they stayed with us. Protect your heads!

Partway up the ridge, some eagle-eyed hiker with binoculars spotted a pair of deer in the scrub below us. What I saw was, well, see the first photo above, lower right corner. But with my 200mm lens, I zoomed in and was finally able to actually find them.

Some really rare treasures

We stopped regularly to admire various plants, and the natives, endemics, and endangered plants were there waiting for us.

The native, endemic white Mount Hamilton Thistle occurs in only a few documented locations. (I posted photos of it from Santa Teresa Park last year sometime; didn't realize how rare it was.)

The native, endemic San Francisco Wallflower is also endangered.

The native, endemic Santa Clara Dudleya, a succulent type plant, is also rare and occurs in only a few random places near here. It wasn't in bloom yet.

The native, endemic, and endangered Most Beautiful Jewel Flower (how's that for a name?!) also appears in only a few locations near here. And only 3 of the plants that we saw were in bloom. The blooms are about the diameter of a fingernail on a sparse stalk. Very unusual appearance.

Not-so-rare treasures

We also saw many other flowers that are not endangered or rare, although no butterflies yet.

Fremont Tidy Tips are endemic to California but they are fairly common.

Not sure what this species of Fiddleneck is (note the fiddle neck!), but they're also native but common.

Also not positive on the species of scorpionweed (so named because its flower stalk also curls much like the fiddleneck--or like a scorpion's tail) but it's native, and I caught a bee wallowing around on this patch.

Saw many instances of this gilia, and I like them because they're purple. Native and not uncommon.

No flower was too small to pass my notice, like this tiny native lotus:

But we had yet to see a butterfly anywhere, let alone a Bay Checkerspot. I kept hoping.

Along the spine of Coyote Ridge

We reached the top of the ridge finally and started scanning the hills on the far side for native Tule Elk. The Elk were hunted to near extinction nearly a century ago, but eventually a tiny pocket of survivors was found a hundred miles south of here and reintroduced in the late 1970s. Now the local herd numbers about 400. We did finally see some, but so far away that even zooming in with my lens and then blowing up the photo just reveals little tan spots.

At the top of the ridge, we found a research station--a fenced-in section of serpentine meadow to protect it from cattle, deer, and elk. Beyond the research station perched the observatories on distant Mount Hamilton, which somehow seemed appropriate. The flowers were more profuse and taller here than outside the fence.

Walking along the spine of the ridge, where John Muir walked, enjoyed the weather, and wrote about the meadows of wildflowers over a century ago, we found other native but more common species, such as the blue-eyed grass (purple and not a grass, go figure) and the Red Maids.

Also more Tidy Tips and many other flowers.

Entering Checkerspotland

We also started seeing many instances of the few key plants on which the Bay Checkerspot larvae or adults feed: Purple Sanicle, which is a native flower, appeared in small patches all across the meadows. (Flowerhead is about the size of standard clover, maybe a little smaller.)

California plantain, a widespread native, is also key--it's a tiny, tiny thing, only 3 or 4 inches tall from the ground, and with such tiny, subtle flowers that you'd normally never notice it.

And another Checkerspot favorite is Owl's Clover--another native that's not endangered but that I've never seen many of.

Most of the hike, I'd been lagging to take photos and then running to catch up. But, along the ridgeline road, the others took over with their binoculars searching for meadowlarks and elk, and I raced ahead to snap a photo of the front of the group for a change. As I turned around, out in front for the first time, suddenly a flittering shape caught my eye and I snapped my camera to my eye as this little guy landed on the road maybe 15 feet in front of me--and, YES, OH WOW, a Bay Checkerspot it is!


After a long leisurely lunch atop the ridge, we descended, still enjoying the views and learning more about other native flowers, and turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks (below) circled lazily above us.

What a great day!

P.S. I took a whole lot more photos of these and other wildflowers and birds and posted them (with a bit more commentary) on my photo site here.


  1. What a wonderful slice of California nature! I enjoyed your post and pictures very much. Certainly looks very different from the Midwest.

  2. Thanks. I have to point out that, for about 6 months of the year, the coyote valley looks more like this. No green. But, OK, still has mountains. :-)

  3. Ellen, really enjoyed viewing your pictures, and offerings of detail from the event. Cannot wait to share this with my 82 year old mother, I have told so much about the area.

  4. Looks like it was a special day. Glad you were able to go. Very nice pictures too.

  5. What a great hike! Will go look at your photo site later after work. Loved going along with you!