A Hike Across the Grasslands

Chris Swarth
January 23, 2013

A cool, cloudy day offers the perfect chance for a camera-safari and get-acquainted hike across the planned Grassland-Vernal Pool Natural Reserve.

Jan. 23, was a perfect day for a trek across the grasslands of the planned UC Merced Grassland-Vernal Pool Natural Reserve. The sky was completely overcast with low, dark clouds, but there was no wind and temperatures were mild. Predicted rain showers never materialized.

Gene Barerra picked up Steve Shackleton and me on campus at 9 a.m. and drove us across the reserve in the SNRI four-wheel drive pickup to the east corner of the Virginia Smith Trust lands near La Paloma Road.

A 30-minute drive took us across grazed fields and muddy gullies, through several cattle gates and past herds of curious cows. Gene left us there and we began walking west, armed with two cameras, a pair of binoculars and fortified with bagels and scones.

Our trek began as a truck pulled up on La Paloma Road and several men jumped out to repair a fence where cows had pushed through. They stared at us, probably wondering who we were and why we were setting off across the hills on foot.

The cows stared, too.

But the answer is simple: The new reserve directors were on a get-acquainted hike – to get to know each other and to know the lay of the land and the ground under our feet.

The planned reserve’s terrain is expansive. Rolling hills and grasslands extend to the horizon in all directions. The landscape reminds me of the dry arctic “foothills” of the coastal plain in northern Alaska – no trees, houses or roads as far as the eye can see. The campus is even too far off in the haze to the west to be discernable. Snowy peaks loom to the east. Grand vistas, silence and solitude.

January is a quiet time in the planned reserve as far as many animals are concerned. Flying insects are few and amphibians and reptiles are underground or hibernating beneath the water of the stock ponds at this time of year. The vernal pools are empty or barely filled. Fairy shrimp have not emerged. We were surprised and delighted, however, to find a formidable 5-inch long centipede alive and active beneath an overturned board, sharing the darkest habitat with some small roaches and a tiny scorpion.

Birds, on the other hand, are abundant here in winter. Our most significant sightings were of a single burrowing owl, which flushed from the ground nearly at our feet; two short-eared owls; and a single rough-legged hawk. The burrowing owl is considered a species of special concern by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife because its population is declining across much of the state.

The owls depend on ground squirrel burrows, and much of their habitat has been lost to development.

The much larger short-eared owls swept across the hills on deeply beating wings and undulating flight. These large, buff-colored owls search for small rodents during the day and are often seen in loose bands of a dozen or more.

The rough-legged hawk is a regular winter visitor from the far north. They appear sparingly in California every winter, but if their food supply in the north (Microtus voles) crashes , sizeable numbers can be found in the Central Valley.

Inconspicuous horned larks accompanied us for almost the entire trip. We had excellent views of the brightly colored males as they perched on scattered rocks before lifting off to circle high in the sky.

We noticed that horned larks were common and meadowlarks absent in the eastern hills, but on the flatter terrain closer to campus, the meadowlarks were abundant and the horned larks were absent.

We had a delightful hike. Steve and I wonder what new animals and plants we’ll observe as the seasons progress and the rains begin to fill the vernal pools. We hope to organize regular hikes across the reserve, and will post dates for potential guided hikes in the near future.

Please get in touch if you want to come along.

Birds Observed

Grasslands/open country

Bald eagle: 2 (an adult and an immature)

Golden eagle: 1

Northern harrier hawk: 2

American kestrel: 2

Red-tailed hawk: 2

Rough-legged hawk: 1

Burrowing owl: 1

Short-eared owl: 2

Horned larks: about 100

American pipits: 10

Western meadowlarks: 10

Stock ponds

Canada goose: 1 (20 flock mates flew on and did not alight)

Bufflehead: 2 (male and female)

American wigeon: 45

Common merganser: 2

Ruddy duck: 9

American coot: 3

Killdeer: 1

Least sandpiper: 1