Jepson Prairie Preserve (4/24/2023)

Today was my weekly day trip day, and I went to see something called a Vernal Pool. I learned about them when we studied Grasslands in my class. And I was fascinated by something called a Vernal Pool. Especially in a place I don’t think of as full of water, like the Central Valley.

But our class book talked about the Jepson Prairie and how it had a vernal pool you could visit, at the right time of year. With it being just an hour and a half drive away, I was IN. It’s also free to visit!

It’s been on my list to visit for some time now. But other day trips have taken priority. But this week, the temperatures jumped everywhere East of SF, and today’s high at Jepson was 76 degrees. And it was only going to get considerably worse later on. For someone who prefers it to prettymuchnever get above 65 degrees, it was critical I go TODAY.

And I found myself enamored of the drive there. I took the North Bay route from SF, as the dang Bay Bridge was already starting to have delays by 1pm (!!). Once I got onto 37, the loveliness of the flooded areas here and there on either side of the road started to show. And I think once I got into true farm country somewhere East of Fairfield, I started seeing mini super blooms of a small orange flower. And a number of what I imagined vernal pools to look like.

That continued all the way til I got to Jepson Prairie. And you’d never know there was a Reserve at the end of that dead-end road unless you went right to it! It’s very unassuming. No building whatsoever. One portable bathroom (that I’d advise you bring TP with you for, should you expect to use it) and one trailhead sign of sorts. One small interpretive area, with a small area of bench seating (for talks/groups) and a picnic table. That’s it.

The other side of the road is where you can walk in the Reserve. Behind a fence and one gate. One small loop, with part of it along the vernal pool, and that’s it! I figured I’d be there for an hour, then go visit somewhere else of interest nearby. But, no. I was there almost two hours. There was that much to see along that small loop!

I will say that I was initially quite disappointed. Not by the size of the area you can walk in, as I knew that in advance. But my first sights were on introduced/invasive plants everywhere I looked. Introduced (and I’m assuming invasive) grasses and Hairy Vetch and Herb Robert, I think. Western Honey Bees there were loving that Hairy Vetch. Guess that’s how it’s going so strong!

But I soon enough began to see things I thought might belong there. Like Butter-and-Eggs, which I’ve only seen once before and briefly on San Bruno Mountain, I believe. And then they were EVERYWHERE. Lining so much of the trail! And they’d pop up in almost every patch and corner of the entire trail area there.

Bits of Common Yarrow and Miniature Lupine followed. And I noticed some White Brodiaea, which Seek reminded me was something I’ve seen before. But I cannot recall where.

And then there were patches and patches and PATCHES of BRIGHT ORANGE. The SAME ORANGE I saw on my drive there. Goldfields! Either California or Common? The iNat jury is still out on that one. But, MY GAWD. It’s incredible how many mini super blooms of these flowers were on my way there and within the small Reserve. Just stunning.

At times, the trail would go right in the center of a huge patch of them. And it felt like a Dorothy moment, for certain.

And then I was able to walk to the edge of the vernal pool. And it’s BIG! And not super attractive! I was expecting blue or even green water. But it appeared brown, which makes more sense as its bottom is pretty shallow. Guessing it’s a prettier color closer to the rains? Or maybe not! But it was nice to see, nonetheless. It’s hard to express just how much I’m enjoying seeing examples of what parts of California used to look like. Especially when it’s something you’ve only read about in books. The reality of its beauty is hard to sufficiently capture with words, I find.

Seep Monkeyflower started to show up, which was A DELIGHT. I delight in ALL Monkeyflowers. Then I saw something newtome. A small purple and white Violet-looking thing. Newtome Maroonspot Calicoflower! I’m now in love with Calicoflowers! They are flippin’ ADORABLE. And soon after that, I spotted ANOTHER newtome flower, which looked a lot like the Maroonspot Calicoflower but with bunny ears. And it turned out to be ANOTHER of the same genus, Downingia. Newtome Harlequin Calicoflower!

Blue Dicks and more White Brodiaea greeted me as I got to another spot at the edge of the vernal pool where I could see the birds across the way better. It looked like maybe Ruddy Ducks were out there? Maybe some American Coots on the small island?

Below me were Douglas’ Meadowfoam flowers, though they looked quite different from ones I’ve seen before.

Watched a Black-necked Stilt fly in. Somewhere near a handful of American Avocets. One of which was calling, which I think maybe I’ve never heard before? Got my best looks of one to date, I believe. AND, I luckily got some shots of it actually calling, which shows how bizarre and wonderful their curved beaks are!

A couple of California Golden Violets made appearances. Not enough, for my tastes.

I took one last look out at the vernal pool, as the trail began to curve away from it at that point. And I thought how important they are/were for birds and other wildlife. How sadly they must be missed.

Western Meadowlarks were calling, which I actually recognized from hearing one recently at Cosumnes! But, yeah. Had Merlin’s Sound ID feature app confirm it for me. Red-winged Blackbirds were also very much there and very much vocal, as one would expect.

There was more to see away from the vernal pool, like a sea of about to burst-open flowers. Blow Wives! So, soon it’ll be a sea of Gold and fuzzy White. Maybe Alkali Heath? Some intriguing scat on the trail I didn’t recognize. Newtome Sea Muilla (?) and newtome Sacramento Beardstyle (I am NOT making that name up) and newtome Whitehead Navarretia (?).

At one point, I decided to take a selfie with the MANY Goldfields and Calicoflowers behind me. It’ll be my (mini) super bloom moment of 2023.

Realized I’d spotted a couple of holes in the earth along the trails. Who lives there? I’d later learn from one of the interpretive signs on the other side of the road that they must be Botta’s Pocket Gophers! Right? Didn’t see any mounds, but they seemed the right size.

Ok, I need to note something I learned about these Gophers. In my class. Those mounds they push up? They are IMPORTANT. A result of their tunnel-building is that they contribute to nutrient cycling. They end up bringing nutrients from below up to the surface, which makes the top of the soil richer for growing things on it! Isn’t that awesome?

Apparently, California Tiger Salamanders are here, and they use those tunnels, too. If there’s a good-to-decent chance I’d see one earlier in the year, I’m going to try for it next year.

Back to the journey. Found some actual flowering Blow Wives. One flower had already come off its stem, so I got a good look at it. I think I’ve seen them before somewhere in the Eastbayian Ranges. Sibley, maybe? It is so interesting to me that some flowers can grow in a valley AND on a mountain, like the California Golden Violet and Blow Wives. AMAZING!

Some Harvest Brodiaea showed up, near what looked like bunny scat! And a small cluster of California Poppies were doing their best to rise up above the grasses that engulfed them from all sides. Also spotted some Tomcat Clover, most of which was fading or barely there. Must’ve been pretty right there some weeks ago. Oh, and Common Fiddleneck were in decent numbers right there, too. Along with one flowering Brass Buttons plant that I could see.

And then I heard the Western Meadowlark again. And I found it! It was far away on the top of a fence post. Then it flew onto a wire. Not very close to me. I thought I was getting good photos, but it turns out I didn’t. I continue to endeavor to get ONE DECENT PHOTO of them someday!

I need to note that I actually saw two butterflies while there. I thought so often how much the grasses would be inviting to butterflies, but I was confused I wasn’t really seeing much. Maybe their host plants aren’t here? But I should note that I DID see two. I think both were orange. But I literally saw them for about two seconds before THEY VANISHED.

It’d be so neat to be here if and when butterflies are there…

I had finished my time at Jepson Prairie. And it was so nice to finally see it!

On my way out, I spotted TONS of Snow Geese in the fields on the other side of 113. I stopped to see them and get some photos. They’re so pretty! And I bet the drivers whizzing past me thought I was cuckoo, as there wasn’t much shoulder to observe from. But they can think what they like.

My drive from Jepson Prairie continued to be as lovely as the way in. More baby vernal pools (or just ponds?) and mini super blooms of Goldfields. And after crossing the Sacramento River, I drove alongside it on 160. And I didn’t realize until I got home that the San Joaquin River was on the other side. With island farmland scattered inbetween. I never knew those two rivers join (somewhat) just North of Antioch. For some entirely uninformed reason, I thought they did that further inland.

These field trips I’m making to complement my class learnings have truly been fantastic. I love learning more about my state. I love seeing these newtome biotic communities. I love getting these glimpses into California’s past. And I love that I can still go see what tiny bit remains of these particularly special places. Especially on a weekday.

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