Going On a Docent Led Walk
in Blue Sky Canyon
By Claude Edwards – Biologist and Docent Instructor
I had the pleasure of tagging along on a docent led walk at the Blue Sky Ecological Reserve in early September, 2006. I had not intended to do anything in particular but enjoy the environment and ambience experienced along the way. If nobody was there to go on the walk, I would have and be some company. As it turned out one lady was awaiting a scheduled bird walk that she had read about somewhere. Her name was Chris.
Chris had not been to the Blue Sky Ecological Reserve before, and admitted that she was not really a birder either, coming to the walk without benefit of a pair of binoculars. We assured her that we would share ours with her as needed. After waiting a while more for anyone else to show up, we get started down the road.
As we departed, we noticed a recently-used shortcut down a steep slope from the parking lot, which visitors are asked not to use. Cutting switchbacks and forging new paths in the Reserve causes erosion and is not allowed.
The walk proceeded - slowly and patiently - stopping often to point out and explain facts and details of the habitats, plant species, and anticipated birds. A sunning western fence lizard provided a moment of focused discussion before it unwillingly scampered away. Numerous crickets ‘kree-kree-kreeked’ a background chorus that is generally un-noticed yet pervasive. Later, I heard the deliberately slow ‘clicks’ made by seldom-seen katydids.
I have been known to lead a walk or two, and at the beginning I was quick to add a word or comment into the conversation. But I tried to be mindful that I was a guest here today, not the guide! I followed along at a courteous distance, looking at and noting things that were thoroughly familiar to me - from many hours of personal observation - with or without an audience. These included the condition of the vegetation, what the plants looked like and what they were doing, and any birds or other wildlife I detected.
During the walk there were other visitors to the Reserve. Some people walked by chatting quietly. Some walked by with dogs-on-a-leash. Still others sped past while jogging. Evidence of numerous visitors was impressed onto the loose dirt and dust on the road, obscuring almost any hint of wild or native denizens. Earlier horseback riders left pungent packages and there were signs that bicycles had been down the road as well.
I spoke for a short while with a friendly lady who noticed I was taking notes. She said she was a supporter of the Audubon Society but was not affiliated with a local group or their public activities. I suggested she should learn about and come on a future bird or nature walk here at the Reserve, or find out about opportunities elsewhere. She continued on her way into the Canyon.
I followed along the trail leading off the main road, down to the creekside trail amidst the oak woodland. I was asked to confirm the identity of a white-marked black feather with a slight bend to it. Based on its size and dimensions, I determined it to be a left wing secondary feather shed by a Nuttall’s woodpecker. This was the one birds whose call Chris would be able to identify as she heard it on the walk.
The walk continued east along the narrow wooded trail, past furtive birds and changing plants. Poison-oaks are mostly leafless along the road but still leafy along the creekbed, turning subtle shades of red as they prepare to fall off their branches.
Other plants such as bush monkey-flower, golden-yarrow, and yellow bush-penstemon had also become dry and spent in their late season dormancy. On the other hand, streamside native roses retained their deciduous foliage beside still leafy mugworts.
Some plants gave almost no hint of the passing seasons by being ever-green, such as the live oak trees and scrub oak shrubs, chamise, and San Diego sedge. I also noted with personal amusement species with distinct aromas, white sage and California sagebrush, laurel sumac and California everlasting, best enjoyed with eyes closed.
Another special moment during the walk came in the form of a giant swallowtail butterfly, with striking yet cryptic yellow-splashed brown wings, that was almost overlooked as it perched on a low oak stem! Its presence was photo-documented.
Back on the main road at the end of the creekside trail, we were hard-pressed to account for much in the way of advertised bird-life. I of course recorded those that I could hear, secreted in dense and dimly lit cover of sage scrub and chaparral, overhead branches and terrestrial brush. We managed to show Chris a fast and flirtatious Anna’s hummingbird zig-zagging through the air above the road. The sounds of both towhees, crow and raven, wrentit and thrasher went nearly undetected or pointed out due to the approaching darkness as the sun prepared to set.
Also unappreciated were the few plants that were still blooming, unless their presence is pointed out. Numerous California buckwheat plants are almost done for the year, but there were widespread goldenbush and ragweed plants that I found in full flower, albeit modest by springtime standards. You can say that these are ‘late-bloomers’.
On our way back we saw plenty of spider webs, some that were funnel-shaped and others that looked like stacked pancakes, abandoned by their makers and sullied by the accumulation of roadside dust.
Back up the road to the parking lot, we were happy with the outcome of the walk. It was a pleasant day and I think Chris enjoyed herself.