Tag Archives: Western-Fence-Lizard

Ladybugs Swarm Again in Strawberry Canyon!

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Welcome, friends of the Berkeley Hills and nature lovers!

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Just like last year, we had some powerful October rains, though nothing like record breaker on October 14th of 2009, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported:

The Great October Rainstorm of 2009

“It was the worst October storm the Bay Area has experienced since 1962, when terrible weather famously disrupted the World Series between the Giants and the New York Yankees.

San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Livermore all set rainfall records for a single day in October. Nearly 4 inches fell in downtown Oakland, almost 20 percent of what the city usually gets during an entire year.

And just like last year, after the record storm, I found a number of very large ladybug masses in Strawberry Canyon along the fire trail:  (Note, you can click on any of the images below to see a desktop-sized image.)

Compared to last year’s massing, however, this was a rather modest gathering, maybe several thousand. But in October of 2009, the gathering was monumental!   The swarm thickly covered  plants for at least 20 yards, compared to about 4 feet this time. As I wrote in that post:

I read that a gallon jar will hold from 72,000 to 80,000 ladybugs. If that’s the case, then the number alongside the fire trail had to be way, way over a hundred thousand, maybe two or three hundred thousand! It was astonishing, and somehow touching, to see so many little creatures in a brief moment of community.

This was just one small portion of the huge 2009 swarm, which covered blackberry bushes for over 20 yards!

Perhaps this gathering will grow in the days ahead. I’m very curious to see if the numbers build, and I still wonder, as with the 2009 storm, if the big rains had anything to do with the gathering, or whether the ladybugs always head up into the canyons in late October.

By the way, last year’s post includes a ton of fascinating information and folklore on ladybugs that I think you’ll really enjoy if you haven’t read it yet:

See:  They Are the Ladybugs of the Canyon

One of the best things about the rain, especially the first big rain after nearly half a year of typical summer drought, is how wonderful it smells in the Hills and how vibrant the colors are!  The mosses and lichen, especially, almost seem to glow in deep greens and yellows:

Looking at the moss and lichen, I also found discovered I was being eye-balled by one of the many Fox Squirrels in the Canyon:

“You lookin’ at me?”

This orb spider web was especially beautiful in the sun:

Another beastie you will usually see after a good rain are the beautiful—and often, huge!—banana slugs:

A lot of people go, “Ugh, slimy slugs!” and I know that banana slugs can be a pest, but I you get down on the slugs level, and watch it move, it’s an incredibly graceful animal. It’s very responsive to its environment and is far from stupid, a term I’m reluctant to use looking at any marvel of nature, no matter how humble.

This banana slug was almost 10 inches long and twice as thick as my thumb!

When I find slugs in the middle of the fire trail, I always move them to the side of the trial they were heading for, because, sadly, I’ve seen way too many smooshed slugs by runners and walkers who didn’t see these little wonders.

This particular day, after the rains, I noticed hundreds and hundreds of small, fluttering creatures in the air. Clearly, flying was not their forte, and yet, the air was filled with them. On closer examination, I discovered that they were some kind of termite.  My camera doesn’t have a close-up lens, but they looked very much like this:

Termite Alates

At first, I wondered if they might not be flying ants, but I did a little research and was able to confirm from their body shape and wing structure that they were in fact termites:

I also learned that in areas like ours, which have a distinct dry season, the winged (or “alate”) caste members of termite nests leave in large swarms after the first good soaking rain. The alates are the reproductive caste. They fly off to find a new nesting sight, shed their fragile wings, mate, and start a new colony. I noticed alates all through Strawberry Canyon and over into the Claremont Canyon as well. There must have been tens of thousands of them, fluttering precariously in the air.

I was not the only one noticing this mass exodus. When I came to the sunnier parts of the Canyon, I started seeing lots of Western Fence lizards, running from cover to snap up some hapless alate that landed too close:

Western Fence Lizard hunting alates—and watching me!

There must have been a lot of stuffed Western Fence Lizards that evening, because the alates seemed endless in numbers—natures way of making sure that enough termites survived to carry forward the species.

On my way down Claremont Canyon, I came across this lovely, but rather faded and battered butterfly:

I believe this is a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), one of the many lovely butterflies you will often see in the Canyons. (Kudos to Kay Loughman’s wonderful Wild Life in the North Hills website, which has some great images and information to help nature lovers identify plants and animals of our area.)

Yes, the fire trails in the Berkeley Hills can be muddy after a big rain, but there are many rewards for braving the mud. As I said, the fresh smell of the wet earth and vegetation is simply wonderful.  The washed and soaked plants and lichen are so vibrant. I’ve also noticed that, for some reason, one tends to see more wild animals out right after a rain than at other times.

I hope enjoyed this post and that you will take find time to explore for yourself the amazing and beautiful ecosystem, that is the Berkely Hills. Hope to see meet you on the trails some day!

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Berkeley Hills-Blackberries, Ladybugs, and Fence Lizards!

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Today’s post features some of my favorite summer things in Strawberry and Claremont Canyons:

Blackberries!

The first blackberries of the season!

Western Fence Lizards!

Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)

Ladybugs!

Ladybugs on Himalayan Blackberry plants

Now that summer is finally here, after a very rainy winter and cool spring, you’re likely to see lots of these in the canyons and Hills in the months ahead.

The Blackberries of the Berkeley Hills

Blackberries are not hard to find along almost any of the fire trails in either Strawberry or Claremont Canyons.  So far, however, I’ve found the best picking and eating to be along Centennial Road and the fire trail that leads off of it into Strawberry Canyon.

On Centennial Drive, there are blackberries stands all long the pedestrian path up to the fire trail parking lot.

In many places along the trail, and along Centennial Drive the blackberry bushes are really thick.  You have to be careful, though, because most of these plant are growing right on the edge of very steep drop offs.  Trying to reach ripe berries that are tantalizingly out of reach, you can easily step off a cliff.  Be very careful!

Just out of reach! Step off the trail too far, and you’ll tumble into the canyon!

Earlier this spring, you could see hundreds of blackberry flowers, foretelling the bounty to come:

Blackberry flowers are very delicate, with dozens of beautiful golden stamens.

The berries all start out a bright green and then get darker and darker purple as they ripen.  Of course, the darkest colored berries, the ones that look black, are the sweetest and most delectable.  This last hike I had all the berries I could eat, and it’s still early in the season.

Typical cluster of Himalayan blackberries

In researching this post, I discovered, to my surprise, that I’m probably seeing two species of blackberry plants in the canyons:  the California blackberry (Rubus ursinus) and the Himalayan or Armenian blackberry (Rubus armeniacus).  The Himalayan blackberry is actually considered an invasive species.

Since its introduction in the 1880’s, the plant has spread widely and become naturalised.  But because of its tasty fruit, it usually isn’t considered a pest.  It seems to be the dominant blackberry in Strawberry Canyon.

There are two easy ways to tell the difference between the two species.

First: the flowers of the California blackberry (left) are much more slender than that of the Himalayan (right):

Left: California blackberry (Rubus ursinus) Right: Himalayan or Armenian blackberry (Rubus armeniacus)

Second, as is explained at Kay Loughman’s most excellent Wild Life in the North Hills website, the Californian has a three leaves and the Himalayan typically has five leaves.  (The stems of the Himalayan are red and very thorny.)

Three Leaves = California blackberry — Five Leaves = Himalayan blackberry

The Summer Ladybugs of the Canyon

As I was walking up the lower Strawberry Canyon fire trail, I soon encountered hundreds and hundreds of flying ladybugs.  They seemed to congregate in the warmest, sunniest parts of the of the trail, like this:

The ladybugs loved the warm, sunny places along the Strawberry Canyon fire trail, like this. There are actually hundreds of ladybugs in the air at this spot, but my camera couldn’t pick them up!.

I found very few ladybugs on the plants along the trail; most seemed to be flying about.  It was such a scene of intense activity, compared to the very quiet but huge swarms I found on the blackberry plants last fall after the record October rainstorm:

If you’re lucky, in the fall or early winter, you’ll come upon huge ladybug swarms in Strawberry Canyon, like this one I saw last year.

I tried to catch the beautiful insects on camera, but they moved too fast and my humble camera just wasn’t up to the task, even though the air was thick with them.  Here’s a close-up image of a ladybug flying that I collected some years ago doing research. Like all beetles, to fly, the ladybug has to lift her beautiful wing covers in order to free her wings for flight:

If you want to learn a lot more about ladybugs and see beautiful images of other species, be sure to check out my earlier post They are the Lady(bugs)of the Canyon.

On my way out of Strawberry Canyon, I took this shot across the Canyon to UC Berkeley’s historic Cyclotron:

The historic Berkeley Cyclotron and the North Bay on a gorgeous summer day.

The Western Fence Lizard

Once summer arrives, you can find the Western Fence lizard most places in the Berkeley Hills, but you rarely find them in the cooler, deeper parts of the canyons.  They love the warmth and sun of the upper canyon, and you will often find them sunning themselves on canyon trails and roads.

The Western fence lizard enjoys a variety of habitats from grassland to broken chaparral to woodland and coniferous forests, although they avoid harsh deserts.  I came across this one on the paved road near the top of Panoramic Way, above Claremont Canyon.

Western Fence lizards are also known as Blue-bellies, but unless you catch one or are in a vantage point where a displaying male shows off his underside, you might not know they have blue bellies.  I’ve never been able to get close enough to a displaying male with my camera to catch his underside, but here’s a fine image from Wikimedia that shows it:

“Don’t I have a beautiful blue belly? I wonder if that cute babe over there notices!”

The Western fence lizard can be a long as 21 cm (8 inches), though I’ve only seen one that big to date.  Here’s a juvenile I saw on my last hike.  He had just squirmed around because an ant had tickled him:

“Hey, where’d you go? That tickled!”

And here is a larger Blue-belly with very unusual head markings.  It looked like it had dipped its head into ink!

“The ladies find my black head cap irresistible!”

Vistas from the Claremont Canyon

I hiked out of Strawberry Canyon and crossed over to the trails of Claremont Canyon.  From there, I usually head down Panoramic Way or Dwight Way and back through the UC Berkeley campus. The vistas from the tops of the Hills are different every hike and always so wonderful:

Nearing the end of the upper fire trail where it joins Panoramic Way. You can see the Bay Bridge and San Francisco City in the distance.

Milk Thistle and downtown Oakland in the distance

Looking at the Bay Bridge and San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge with distant fog

Flowering agave plants in Claremont Canyon

Goodbye, beloved Hills! Heading home!

May all beings be happy. May all beings find the supreme joy that is beyond all sorrow. And may we meet as friends, some day, in the Hills of Great Beauty!

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Berkeley Hills-Observations and Thoughts-July 1, 2010

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The Trail Goes Ever On

I’ve decided to include a journal of some of my walks and share my observations and thoughts about my hikes in the Hills here on Berkeley, Naturally!

This is the first entry, appropriately enough, on the first day of July. (I’ll date these by my post date, not by the day of my walk.)  May all my readers have a great 4th of July weekend!

July 1, 2010

Wonders on this hike:

Amazing blue skies. Golden, shimmering summer grasses dancing in the warm wind caressing the Hills. The warmth of the sun coming through my T-shirt and making me wonderfully hot as I labored up the slopes. The cool breeze from the Bay evaporating my sweat.

Plum trees are already dropping their sweet fruit—yummy treats on  some of the streets and trails. Also, the first ripe blackberries are starting to show up among their green brethren. I picked and ate a handful. There will be many, many more to enjoy throughout the summer and into the fall.

Western Fence Lizard, stopping his duel to check me out

Spent 10 minutes watching a Western Fence lizard defend its territory against another male. Much head-bobbing, rapid body push-ups, and posturing; no violence.

Plaintive red-tailed hawk, sitting in the shadow of the tree

Saw a very young red-tailed hawk crying plaintively in a tree—for its mother?

Came upon a black beetle on the trail just as a runner was coming; stood between the beetle and the runner so the little hunter wouldn’t be crushed. Waited until beetle moved off the trail, foraging for food.

Hiked into a huge stand of wild rosemary. Made some cuttings to bring home to Sarah and for spices for our cooking.

Coming down Panoramic Way, met a wonderful tortoise-shell cat who demanded that she be stroked and petted until she’d had enough—and then plopped over in the sun as if to say, “OK, your job is done. I won’t be needing you until the next time we meet.”

Then met a wonderful old woman who saw me loving the cat. She said she’d loved her earlier and that the cat lived in the area. But, she didn’t know her name. I showed her the cut rosemary; she drew a big, long breath of it, and said, “Wonderful!” I told her where she could find it and she beamed. She ambled very, very slowly up the hill. I thought she was a miracle of beauty and grace.

May all beings be happy. May all beings find the supreme joy that is beyond all sorrow. And may we meet as friends, some day, in the Hills of Great Beauty!

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