Sunday, June 22, 2014

Trail Clearing & Weeding - The Reserve @ Rancho Mission Viejo

Ever wish you could find a means in Orange County to get a taste of the life of Little House on the Prairie or a small sense of what it is like to be a back-country ranger?  Well, look no further than the trail clearing & weeding volunteer opportunities offered by The Reserve at Rancho Mission Viejo.

This past Saturday morning, volunteers were asked to show up at 0745 at the San Juan Capistrano entrance to the Richard and Donna O'Neill Conservancy.  With work gloves and water in tow (be sure to wear long pants and sturdy shoes as well), we were each given an overview of the morning's assignment (up-rooting artichoke thistles) and our tools for the tasks (explained further below).

First, a note on artichoke thistles.  This is a true lesson in "all that glitters is not gold."  Artichoke thistles call out for attention because they are, well, "pretty" due to their vibrant purple flowerheads.  And, at first, this call for attention brings with it admiration for its attractive color. Ignorance is bliss however, and once you learn that the artichoke thistle is a non-native species (i.e. a weed) admiration dissipates and as it becomes your foe to be battled with.

Artichoke thistles thrive in Mediterranean climates, like our own, and are cousins to the globe artichoke we eat (it was interesting for me to learn that when I eat an artichoke I'm actually eating a flowerhead). However, here their growth limits the movement of livestock on range land, creates obstacles for the movement of wildfires through an area, and in general competes for native plants for light and nutrients.

How does one go about battling artichoke thistles?  We went about it like this:
  1. Cut off the flowerheads with clippers
  2. Place the flowerheads in a re-usable IKEA bags to take off-site (each flowerhead has hundreds of seeds!)
  3. Use a hoe to cut down the stalk and leaves
  4. Use a hoe to uproot (as much as possible) the aggressive taproot system
  5. Rake the cut down bits of stalk and leaves back over the hole that has the remaining parts of the root system in order to block light from encouraging the re-growth of the plant
Although we were only out cutting down these weeds for perhaps an hour, it was humbling work for a desk-job citizen like myself.  It caused me to have a whole new appreciation for Pa tilling the field for his little house on the prairie.  The roots especially are stubborn things and that, combined with their thorns, makes them into plants well-equipped for resistance and survival.

Trail clearing & weeding opportunities are offered periodically on Saturday morning and Monday mornings.  And while there will be a hiatus of both for the summer months, if you are interested in such volunteer opportunities, keep an eye on The Reserve's website and/or sign up for their newsletter.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Rattlesnakes of Orange County Lecture - The Reserve @ Rancho Mission Viejo

You need not be enrolled in an official academic course to continue academic endeavors in Orange County.

The Reserve at Rancho Mission Viejo offers a monthly lecture free to the public on a variety of topics.  This month's lecture, which took place last night, was on the topic of "Rattlesnakes of Orange County."

Steve Bledsoe, a "Avocational Herpetologist" (which he jested was a fancy way of saying a 'devoted hobbyist of herpetology') not only provided us with an informative PowerPoint presentation on the topic, but he also came equipped with a show-and-tell of about 10 or so different snakes native to Orange County. 

I scribbled facts furiously during the course of his lecture, being somewhat in the category of lack-of-knowledge (bordering on ignorance) as far as snakes go.  Here are some of the tidbits I jotted down:
  • There are 292 species of native snakes in the lower 48 (there are none in Alaska or Hawaii)
  • There are 32 types of rattlesnakes in the US
    • Their venom is actually digestive juices
    • They can track a rodent they bit by the venom they transmitted to it via the bite
  • There are 77 native species/subspecies of snakes in California and 19 in Orange County
  • Of the 19 species/subspecies of snakes native to Orange County, only 3 are dangerous (all subspecies of rattlesnakes)
    • Of the around 5,000 reported rattlesnake bites in the US each year, only 5 are fatal, so that is a 1% fatality rate
    • Many times a bite will be a dry bite.  Don't take any chances (go to the doctor regardless) but you can tell if it was a dry bite (i.e. no venom) if 1) bleeding is minimal from the wound (venom, a digestive juice, will cause more bleeding) and 2) your lips/wounded area aren't tingling
  • There are 3 native species/subspecies of rattlesnakes in Orange County: 
    • Southern Pacific Rattlesnake - loves to dwell in mustard/beaches/chaparral
    • Red Diamond Rattlesnake - biggest of the 3 in terms of mass, can grow to 5ft long, dwells mostly away from the beach and among boulders
    • Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake - a master of disguise, smallest of the 3, lives among granite (colors match the rocks)
The biggest take-away from the lecture was that we need not fear all snakes, and really need not fear rattlesnakes either.  First, Steve gave us some tips on how to tell a rattlesnake from a non-venomous snake (*he emphasized here that these tips apply only to California if you encounter a snake elsewhere, the rules may not apply):
    • Rattlesnakes are the only snakes on the planet that grow something on their tail.  Although not all rattlesnakes will necessarily have a rattle (some born without one and some may have lost them via a predator, etc.) all rattlesnakes have a blunted tail. [Non-venomous snakes (in California, that is) have long, slender, pointed tails]
    • Rattlesnakes are vipers, so they have long, retractable fangs (which are hollow) and venom glands in their cheek, which creates a diamond-shaped head.  [Non-venomous snakes have a narrow head such that it is hard to tell where the head ends and the neck begins]
    • Rattlesnakes have thick, heavy bodies [Non-venomous snakes have long, slender bodies]
Now, the tips above are ways to identify a rattlesnake form a safe distance.  Should you care to get a closer look at a snake (not that I encourage it necessarily), here are a few more litmus test elements to apply (*again, this applies to California snakes, but may not apply elsewhere):
    • Non-venomous snakes have large scales on their head, where as rattlers have small scales
    • Non-venomous snakes have eyes with round pupils, where as rattlers have cat-like eyes
    • Rattlers are pit-vipers so they have 2 holes on their faces which are heat sensing organs (pick up body heat of prey - they primarily eat rodents)
    • Rattlers wag their tongue - when they are threatened they stick out their tongue to its full length, angled downward then bend it back over their head, and repeat the motions (*note - if you see a snake do this, do NOT get closer. It is a sign of agitation)
    • Non-venomous snakes are bright colors and have a uniform color, bold bands, or stripes (rattlers are and have none of these things)
As an ever-increasing devotee of backcountry venturing, I was most interested in what the best course of action would be if one were to be bitten by a rattlesnake when a day or so into a backcountry hike.  So, here are some of the tips I gleaned from his lecture and the question/answer session that followed:
    • The only treatment is antivenin, so get the bitten person to a hospital ASAP
    • In general, if you can get someone to medical attention within 4 hours, minimal harm will be done
    • Remove all things from the body, near the bitten area, that might restrict blood flow (you WANT blood flow to the wound)
    • Wrap the wound with an ace bandage to minimize swelling, but DO NOT restrict blood flow
    • Use a splint on the bitten area to restrict movement
    • Apply a cold press to the bitten person's forehead (helps with the nausea that is a common side affect)
    • No alcohol (reduces body's ability to carry oxygen), caffeine (important to keep the bitten person calm), ice to the wound (slows circulation), or pain killers (no blood thinners that is, since blood flow to the wound is key)
    • If in the backcountry, travel with an ace bandage and EpiPen (*EpiPens won't combat the venom but it can help combat the common allergic reaction to the venom that might cause the bitten person to have a harder time breathing) but get the bitten person to a ranger ASAP
Steve encouraged us not to fear snakes, including rattlers, but to be informed and take precautions.  At the end he guided us in what to do if we see a rattlesnake out on a trail: keep your distance, move away slowly, and if you hear it but don't see it...don't move until you do see it.  Rattlers aren't aggressive (they won't chase you down a hillside) but they will bite if they feel threatened.

Looking at the non-venomous snakes he had on display following the lecture was quite a treat.  They are beautiful in their own right.  And it struck me as strange, after learning about them from Steve's talk, that we are so fearful of snakes.  If you take some time to really examine their coloring and the intricate design of their armor (i.e. their scaled skin), you might just develop some awe of our serpetine friends rather than terror.

After all, we have more in common with them then we might chance to believe:

"Snakes are prey as well as predators." - Steve Bledsoe

Lyre Snake

California Kingsnake

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Father's Day - San Clemente Summit Loop

 My dad and I celebrated Father's Day with a early morning hike in The Father's first sanctuary: the great outdoors.

Until recently, I did not realize that San Clemente had such a wealth of trails at easy access.  Google led me to a useful map of trails, and an 11-mile loop connects most of them.  The hike is not terribly hard, but it's not nothing either - so do bring plenty of water, have trail-worthy shoes, and sun-screen up!  Dad and I were both tired from the effort after our  4-hour (0600 - 1000) tour.

Pretty, dead things
Part of the trail was, unfortunately, closed off for maintenance, so part of our 'nature' loop was an urban hike (which made the loop 8 or 9 miles instead of 11), but we still got plenty of hills and great vistas in - including a view from San Clemente's highest point: 1008ft.  

As an added bonus, about 10 seconds onto the trail we spied 3 deer.  

Hard to see...but there are three of them there in the center
Other creature sightings included quail, lesser known goldfinches, crows galore (a favorite of mine always), a roadrunner, bees, a Jurassic-size (I exaggerate, but still) dragon fly, rabbits, lizards, and cicadas (? - didn't really see them, but certainly heard a symphony of something that sounded cicada-song like).

Bird prints - working on learning how to ID species by sight...
 It was a gift to discover a bit of a back-country feel mere minutes from our own backyard.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Domestic Vagabond Night

My two flatmates and I moved out of our pad today.  They are soon off on a camping trip of an undetermined duration - living the gypsy life if you will - and I am back with the parents for a short stint to save some funds.

In honor of their approaching life-nomadic, on our final eve in our place we had a "Domestic Vagabond Night."  This included:

1. Dinner of champions (infinite shelf-life for all - which suits the homeless life well) :

*Detail not to be missed - the "Stand Up Gummi"

2. Campout (the way vagabonds do...sans living room, but sleeping on the ground was on-point):

3. Inventive entertainment (We had a projector and a wall to project a movie, which granted isn't something the nomads have. However, the macgyvering of how to place the projector with no furniture about and the fact that our film selection included the theme of companionship with animals both seemed like things nomads would be keen on):

(I miss them already)