First Time at Deer Creek Hills, 02-22-20

I got up around 5:30 this morning, and got the dog potties and fed before I got dressed and then headed out with my friend Roxanne for breakfast.  We left the house around 6:30 and went over to Brookfields Restaurant in Rancho Cordova.

Our final destination today was Deer Creek Hills Preserve, a working cattle ranch in Sloughouse off of Highway 16, which boasts several trails, large rock outcroppings and a Blue Oak woodland on its 4,060 acres.  It’s overseen by the Sacramento Regional Parks system,which co-owns the property,  The County works with the Sacramento Valley Conservancy to manage the ranch and public access to it. 

We thought it would take us and hour to get to the place, but our calculations were off a little bit, so we had LOTS of time for breakfast and a short jaunt out to the Mather Fields Vernal Pools before the gates at Deer Creek opened at 9:00 am.

Breakfast was yummy, and we took our time enjoying it.  The visit to the Mather Fields Vernal Pools area was short – and somewhat disappointing and sad. We’ve had no rain this February; the only time on record this has happened.  So, the areas where the pools would normally sit are bone dry. That means no specialty flowers are blooming; no vernal pool critters have a place to live – and those eggs that were laid in the pools when they had water in them in January are now dead because the water is gone.

The vernal pools were dried and nonexistent today. It’s so sad to see them this way in February.

We could hear Western Meadowlarks, but couldn’t get a bead on them because they were in the grass. We also heard some Ring-Necked Pheasants croaking at each other, but couldn’t see them either.  On our way OUT of the area, though, we were treated to the sight of a White-Tailed Kite on the telephone lines with his breakfast in his talons – a dark mouse, by the look of it.  We were able to get a few photos of it before it got disgusted with us and flew off.

White Tailed Kite, Elanus leucurus, with its breakfast

We then went on to Deer Creek Hills and got there just as the gates opened around 9:00 am.  One problem with visiting this location is that they open the gates at 9 o’clock and close them at 1:00 pm… so if you can’t walk fast, you can see what there is to see on the trails.  Opening the gates at 9:00 am also means you don’t get to see any crepuscular animals that might be on the property. (We thought we saw elk tracks in the dirt.)  And you have to start your walk when it’s already almost too warm to hike outside. 

It was in the 70’s when we were there – which in itself is weird for February – and got warmer as we went along.  My heat tolerance threshold is pretty low (anything over 72° is “too hot” for me to walk in), so I was burned out before we even got halfway through the trail.  Our pace is very slow, of course, but I don’t think there was any way I could ever complete the 3-mile trail we were on before 1:00 pm. 

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

Anyway, the drive in was interesting because there were a lot of Blue Oak trees along the road, and a small creek (Crevice Creek) along the driver’s side of the car which still had some water in it.  And there were some really beautiful outcroppings of boulders on both sides of the car. On one of the outcroppings a Turkey Vulture was sitting on the very top; and in one of the trees there was a flock of about 7 or 8 of the vultures. 

Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura,on a rock outcropping

We had to cross a shallow section on Crevice Creek, and then continue on to the corral and cattle-chute area before parking and signing in at the check-in table.  Roxanne signed up is while I took advantage of the porta potty nearby.  Had to get rid of my breakfast coffee and orange juice. 

Around that same time, a yoga class was starting and all of the participants mounted one of the hills to do yoga to the sun.  What a neat idea!

Yoga class saluting the sun

We decided to take the shorter of the two trails that were open.  One was four miles long and the other was three.  We chose the shorter one in part because of its length, but mostly because it was supposed to go around the Blue Oak woodland there. None of those oaks had leaves on them yet, so no chances for shade (or to spot galls).  There were a few live oaks on the property, but they were few and far between.

We didn’t get very far before we were sidetracked by a tree covered in lichen and then found some rock outcroppings with even more lichen on them including some very impressive bright red-orange stuff and rock tripe. 

In some areas on the rocks the lichen were butted up against one another or overlapping… so many different kinds!  We also found some large pink quartz rocks on the ground, and the green lichen against the subtle pink of the quartz was so lovely…

Ear-leaf Lichen, Normandina pulchella, on pink quartz

There were also cattle all over everywhere.  We saw small herds of them dotting the landscape, including some moms with their calves.  And at one point we could hear what we thought was probably a bull bellowing loudly – and saw a small herd of cows and calves running away from the sound. Never saw the bull.  We did find a few old cattle bones, though; huge sun-bleached specimens broken into pieces.

In a different shaded area, we were greeted by the loud songs of Re-Winged Blackbirds and Western Meadowlarks, but again had trouble actually seeing the birds.  In that same area, we found Blessed Milk Thistle plants just starting to sprout out, along with some Stinging Nettle plants.  The nettles are interesting in that they have “trichomes” on the leaves and stems which can inject histamine and other chemicals into the skin causing a burning sensation. 

This is also a host plant for Red Admiral Butterflies, Vanessa atalanta.  The butterfly lays its eggs on the leaves, and when the caterpillars hatch, they fold the stinging leaves around them to ward off predators. This is a butterfly with two brood per year: March and October.  Female Red Admirals will only mate with male that hold territory and have strong flight patterns. 

Most of the trail was without cover and open to sun, and after a couple of hours, I just couldn’t go any farther, so we turned around and headed back to the coral.  Partway there, I needed to sit down somewhere.  There were no obliging rocks or tree stumps in that particular area, but luckily there was a porta-potty on the side of the trail, so I sat in there for a few minutes until I could go on.

A little further back down the trail, we sat on an obliging tree stump to take another look at the lichen there and to see if there was anything interesting on the underside of fallen branches.  On one of them we found some worms and a Harvestman.  It’s hard to narrow down the species on these guys because there are 6,650 known species worldwide. They look like spiders but they’re not. They’re ancient arachnids with fused body parts. They only have two eyes (spiders can have 6 to 8 eyes), they don’t have silk glands so they can’t spin webs, and they have no fangs (so no venom). To protect themselves, then, Harvestmen use camouflage and chemical defenses. 

The one we found was so well camouflaged, it was difficult to see him even in close-up photos. Based on the wicked-looking pedipalps on the Harvestman we found, I think it’s the species, Phalangium opilio.

Harvestman, Phalangium opilio. The inset shows the Harvestman’s shiny black eyes and gnarly-looking claw-like pedipalps.

When we got back to the coral, we walked slowly up to the car and found some Johnnytuck just starting to show up.  We couldn’t remember it’s other common name (Butter-and-Eggs) so we started making up names for it like Cheese-and-Crackers and Bananas-and-Cheese…and now Bananas-and-Cheese is stuck in my head. Every time I see this plant, now, that’s what I think of. Hah!

Johnnytuck, Butter and Eggs, “Bananas and Cheese”, Triphysaria eriantha

Species List:

  1. Blessed Milk Thistle, Silybum marianum
  2. Blue Oak, Quercus douglasii
  3. Brewer’s Blackbird, Euphagus cyanocephalus
  4. Canyon Live Oak, Quercus chrysolepis
  5. Cattle, mixed herd, Bos Taurus
  6. Cloudy Cobblestone Lichen, Acarospora obnubila [dull brown on rocks, lumpy]
  7. Common Gold Cobblestone Lichen, Pleopsidium flavum [bright yellow]
  8. Common Goldspeck Lichen, Candelariella vitellina [bright yellow with rimmed apothecia on rocks]
  9. Copper Patch Lichen, Sporastatia testuinea [light brown thallus rimmed in black on rock, black apothecia]
  10. Cowpie Lichen, Diploschistes muscorum [light gray on rocks, similar to Crater Lichen but more pruinose]
  11. Crater Lichen, Diploschistes scruposus [gray/dark grey on rocks with dark apothecia]
  12. Cumberland Rock-Shield Lichen, Xanthoparmelia cumberlandia
  13. Ear-leaf Lichen, Normandina pulchella [green leaf-like on rocks]
  14. European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris
  15. Flame Firedot Lichen, Caloplaca ignea [orange on rock, elongated lobes and orange apothecia]
  16. Golden Shield Lichen, Xanthoria parietina
  17. Gray Ghost, Northern Harrier, Marsh Hawk, Circus hudsonius
  18. Green Shield Lichen, Flavoparmelia caperata
  19. Hairy Bittercress, Cardamine hirsuta
  20. Harvestman, Phalangium opilio
  21. Hidden Goldspeck Lichen, Candelariella aurella [small, scattered, yellow, on rocks]
  22. Hoary Lichen, Hoary Rosette, Physcia aipolia
  23. Hooded Rosette Lichen, Physcia adscendens [hairs/eyelashes on the tips of the lobes]
  24. Ink Lichen, Placynthium nigrum [pitch black, fine grained]
  25. Interior Live Oak, Quercus wislizeni
  26. Johnnytuck, Butter and Eggs, “Bananas and Cheese”, Triphysaria eriantha
  27. Medusa Head Rye, Taeniatherum caput-medusae
  28. Oregon Sunburst Lichen, Xanthomendoza oregana [yellow/orange thallus bearing granular soredia on the tips and/or underside; looks like leaves with grainy edges]
  29. Powdered Ruffle Lichen, Parmotrema arnoldi [gray, has soredia or eyelashes/hairs on the thallus, on trees]
  30. Red-Shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus
  31. Red-Tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis
  32. Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus
  33. Rock Tripe, Emery Rock Tripe, Umbilicaria phaea
  34. Sagebrush Goldspeck Lichen, Candelariella rosulans [yellow, on rocks]
  35. Scattered Button Lichen, Buellia dispersa [gray/off white on rocks with black spots]
  36. Shrubby Sunburst Lichen Polycauliona candelaria
  37. Sidewalk Firedot Lichen, Xanthocarpia feracissima  [bright orange, on rocks]
  38. Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia
  39. Stinging Nettle, California Nettle, Urtica dioica gracilis
  40. Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura
  41. Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta
  42. White Rock Posey, Rhizoplaca marginalis [light grey on rocks, some ruffle, with dark gray apothecia]
  43. White Tailed Kite, Elanus leucurus