February Week 3: Triangulating Marin

This week took us on an odyssey north, then west, and finally, on Friday, south: Mount Burdell in Novato, Inverness Ridge and Muddy Hollow in Point Reyes Seashore, and Gerbode Valley in the Marin Headlands. The bloom is accelerating, everywhere, but it’s still merely hinting at what’s to come.

Mount Burdell is Novato’s Tamalpais, with a huge Open Space preserve and, on its Bayside, Olompali State Park. Biologically, culturally and politically, Novato represents a transition toward Sonoma County. Land saving came late and imperfectly here, without the assistance of the vast Federal landholdings that bulwarked preservation in Southern Marin, and the community is more conservative and a bit less environmentally inclined, with a contentious city council that flips unproductively left and right decade after decade. But Burdell has been saved, and it is a treasure.

2-16-10 The first Mission Bells, or Checker Lilies, next to the Dwarf Oak Trail below Mt Burdell.

2-16-10 Hedge Nettles coming into bloom on Mt Burdell. Not a nettle (it doesn't sting), but a typically square-stemmed mint, alas with a quite unattractive scent.

One of our misty mornings this week, I slipped out of bed at first light and headed to Point Reyes. I parked at the top of the Limantour Road, ambled down the Bayview trail, poked around Muddy Hollow, and hiked back up the road to my car. I was back home a little after nine for breakfast with Tina. A couple of hours of stolen solitude in the midst of beauty is worth a month in church.

Much of my hike took me through the aftermath of the Mount Vision fire–impenetrable thickets of young, fire-spawned Bishop Pine, massed Ceanothus (Blueblossom) that will flood the air with its sweet musk in a few weeks. We should trust ourselves to life more than we ordinarily do: its capacity for self-renewal and healing is (almost) infinite.

On the way home, a burly male bobcat was taking a dignified stroll beside Sir Francis Drake Boulevard on the Olema Hill. He didn’t so much as give me a glance.

2-17-10 Flowering Currant in the soft chaparral along the Bayview Trail, with Red Elderberry leafing out right behind it

2-17-10 Salmonberry, named for its berries that are the bright orange-red of salmon roe. Great thickets of it adorn Muddy Hollow

2-17-10 The inconspicuous flowers and dark bronzy leaves of Coffeeberry beside Limantour Road

Friday was a complicated day. We crossed the Golden Gate to one of Tina’s regular appointments for an Alzheimer’s vaccine study she’s volunteered for. The drug has the gloriously indigestible name of bapineuzimab. This appointment was primarily for an MRI, so she spent 45 minutes motionless in a claustrophobic metal tube, having her brain imaged.

After that thoroughly urban experience, we did what any normal human beings would do: we fled to the Headlands for a contemplative 10-mile hike, up and all the way round the rim of the vast bowl of Gerbode Valley. Up on the ridge, two territorial ravens nipped and screamed at an unfortunate young redtail twenty feet above our heads. Slaty-black storms threatened to swallow Mt Tam, but pale-gold sun angled in to fill our valley.

2-19-10 A Rough-Skinned Newt clambers up the clear rill beside the Bobcat Trail. Newts can afford to be so clumsy and public because they carry in their skin the same powerful toxin that protects pufferfish. What a convenience to be inedible!

2-19-10 Wind-shorn Oregon Grape in a rocky crevice near Hawk Camp

2-19-10 Twinberry flowering in a willow thicket by the Bobcat Trail

2-19-10 If you like chewy names for flowers, it's hard to beat Sticky Monkeyflower. And if you like tough, beautiful plants, ditto. Bobcat Trail

2-19-10 We tramped 10 miles and saw perhaps a thousand gigantic Cow Parsnips heaving themselves up from the earth, but this was the only one in bloom. Hawk Camp

In the cool, foggy climate of the Headlands, forest denizens creep out onto the open hillsides. We usually associate Salal with the shady understory of redwoods and bishop pines

2-19-10 Two tangled Grass Iris in a remnant native grassland on the hillsides near the Miwok Trail



  1. Irene Brady said,

    February 22, 2010 at 3:29 am

    Glorious!!!!!!!! Especially because it’s still winter here!
    Many years ago my black cat Impy ate an old dried mummy of a rough-skinned newt (probably having been dead for at least a year, and lying on my windowsill as a gory specimen). Despite the vet’s best efforts, he was dead within a couple of hours. What I wonder is, if RSNewts are so fatal, how do critters learn not to eat them….any ideas?

    • billnoble said,

      February 22, 2010 at 6:05 am

      RS Newts are not just toxic, the most toxic individuals are almost certainly the most toxic of all amphibians, including even poison-arrow frogs! It’s probable that the tetrodotoxin is actually made by bacteria symbiotically in the newt’s skin, though we’re not quite sure, and the newts isolate it there in their skin, as they’re only resistant to it themselves, not immune.

      One RS newt has enough toxin to kill several thousand mice, or room full of people. The toxin kills by blocking nerve signals, including those that drive the heart and breathing.

      Some newts advertise their poisonousness with bright warning colors. Our guys do, kinda: when threatened, they roll their orange bellies upward by twisting their bodies in an odd way. Road-kill newts are usually found belly up.

      So why don’t things eat them? Or, same question, how do predators learn not to? I guess the selective pressures on predators must be huge, which is a crude way of saying, “The species that didn’t learn aren’t around anymore.” Actually, predator awareness of aposematic (warning) colors and patterns seems very widespread and generalized.

      Western newts are engaged in a fascinating arms race with their one significant predator, garter snakes. Many populations of garter snakes are extremely resistant to the toxin, some so much so that the newts would have to have several times the dose that would be fatal to THEMSELVES in their bodies to kill the snake!

      How’s that for not quite answering your question? 🙂

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