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May 25, 2019

Dear Skyliners,


How about these late season rains?  We've had nearly four inches at Skyline in the last week!  With this long, cool spring and now good rain, it all still looks great.


Our biggest nemesis, Italian Thistles, are now up tall and just in flower.  We're keeping up, but barely.  If we cut them soon, they won't seeds, so we're going for a big thistle-catching push this Memorial Day weekend.  We'll be out as usual on 9:30 Sunday morning.  On Monday, we'll go out late afternoon, at 4pm.  If you could fit in a shift at Skyline in the next month, this would be the time to do it.  If another time this week is better, that's OK, as we'll be out nearly every day . Please let me know if you can make it.  


As to the other animals, they are very out and about, too.  Let's start with the insects.  Here's a shot of Yellow-faced Bumblebee on Silver Lupine:

Yellow faced bee on lupine.jpg

Bumblebees, with their long tongues, are specially adapted to nectar on plants of the pea family.  Unlike the non-native honeybees, Bumblebees build a new colony each spring.  They are the true workers of the world.  They nest in abandoned rodent holes.  Two days ago, I found the entrance to a colony in an old vole hole, in the midst of a patch of Fiddlenecks.  We make the best discoveries while weeding.  These days, you may see a few giant Yellow-facers flying around, really huge, about four times the size of the worker in this photo.  We call these the flying mice!  They are the new crop of gravid (pregnant) queens, searching for a hole or crack in which to burrow down and sleep for the dry season - and most of the rainy season.  They will emerge with the first wildflowers next spring, and build a new colony of up to a thousand workers -- all from pollen, nectar, and tons of work. 


Speaking of nests, look what we found while weeding geraniums on the trail shoulder above the Slide area:

Junco nest with blue eggs.jpg

The tip off was that Mom flew out from the bank when I got to about a foot away.  I've seen this before and it's the sure sign to look for a nest.  And there it was, on a nearly vertical slope tucked under a rock.  OK, birders, what species is this?  Hint - they are ground nesters.  This is a Junco's nest.  The eggs are a light powder blue with purple speckles on the fat end.    Juncos are ground nesters, and if there's one thing I would not want to be in this world, it's a ground nesting bird.  Just think of all the creatures who would just love to find and eat your eggs and babies.  In this case, Mom Junco was doing her very best to cluck, tweet, and harass me away, which I did just as soon as I could wrap up the weeding.  


The following week, Cynthia and I were walking back on the trail about 1:30 on a sunny Sunday afternoon, only about 50 feet south of the same Slide area.  I was in the lead, and saw a snake at the edge of the trail ahead.  We both stopped.  A Whipsnake?  I've seen only one of them in three years at Skyline, and that one was off in a flash.  But this one, now clearly an Alameda Whipsnake, began to move towards us, slowly, by which time Cynthia had her phone ready:

whipsnake 1.jpg

This was a really long one, over four feet!  Alameda Whipsnakes are a big deal in our area; they are rare and endangered, and Federally listed as a protected species.  At first glance, they may look like garter snakes, but on closer look, these Whipsnakes have just two yellow stripes going down their sides.  Garter snakes would have a third, often orange stripe, going right down the backbone.  EBMUD biologists have done extensive monitoring of Alameda Whipsnakes in the Skyline Gardens area, as it's prime habitat.  Whipsnakes eat mostly Western Fence Lizards, and boy, do we have a lot of lizards at Skyline.    


Anyway, Whipsnake did not seem to be at all bothered by us humans standing there.  If fact, this snake slid right past the toes of our boots, no more than nine inches away.  Whipsnake continued up the trail and then raised up his or her head to look around:

whipsnake 1 head up.jpg

Amazing, just amazing!!  What was going on?


A moment later, about two yards up the trail, a second Whipsnake slides out from the brush and heads down the path towards all of us:

whipsnake 2.jpg

Yes, this shot is a second, different Whipsnake.  In and out of the plants and brush they went, and then eventually out of sight. Our best guess is that they were courting, and so lit up with that drama that they could care less about the humans taking pictures.  If so, which was the male and which was the female?   We couldn't tell.


Not to worry, they can.


Happy Trails,



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