by George Phillips, Land Conservation Manager
Golden morning side sun rays illuminated the jagged eastern slopes of North Peak. My imagination was brimming and my curiosity piqued en route to my introduction to Save Mount Diablo as a volunteer – BioBlitz 2009. Enthusiasm was contagious at the event. Expert naturalists tallied several hundred species observations and buzzed around trading experiences of rare wildlife encounters. I was hooked. Little did I know that in three years’ time my role there would change from laborer to leader, coordinating the event this year and helping experts to document a staggering 737 species in a mere twenty-four hours.
Even the casual observer can see Curry Canyon’s many different habitats but a closer look at the biological diversity, beyond the plants and larger animals, reveals a rich diversity of arthropods, particularly insects. Entomologists use insects to build a fine-grained understanding of biodiversity and monitor changes in distributions that might be due to a changing climate. The huge number of beetles on the property include some real oddities like primitive bombardier beetles (Metrius contractus), which use a clever mixture of chemicals expressed from a pair of glands that produce a hot, predator-deterring explosion. New records of insects found on the property during BioBlitz, such as a moth (Neocrania bifasciata), which was previously known only to occur as far north as Monterey County, add important information in our database of distributional knowledge. Also found on the property was another moth (Barbara colfaxiana) that represents the first population thought to feed on knobcone pine. In total, the insect diversity in Curry Canyon is extraordinary and a great example of the East Bay’s biodiversity.
From Rocks to Roots
The event was based at SMD’s Wright Canyon property, which we share with its former owner Dorothy Wright, who has life estate to live on her family’s land. Viera-North Peak, SMD’s 165-acre treasure rising up the slopes of Mount Diablo, was one of the survey areas for the event given its diverse habitat types such as chaparral, oak woodland, grassland, riparian, rock outcrops and serpentine grassland. We were also honored by the opportunity to survey more than two square miles of private land owned by the Ginochio ranching family, rising from Curry Canyon south to Windy Point and north to Prospectors Gap. Very few scientists have ever seen these properties.
Discoveries began immediately. En route to dropping off the first group of scientists we documented four species of raptors in twenty minutes, a juvenile golden eagle, American kestrel, red-tailed hawk and a northern harrier. Turning over logs, a group looking for reptiles discovered a Gilberts Skink, southern alligator lizards mating, and a four foot gopher snake. As the sun set through Prospectors Gap, camera traps captured images of curious coyotes and a large bobcat. Veins of serpentine, California’s state mineral, support dozens of rare plants we found including Brewers Dwarf Flax, Mt. Diablo jewel flower, Mt. Diablo globe lily, Mt. Diablo sunflower and Diablo manzanita. The properties are excellent habitat for California red-legged frogs and Alameda whipsnake, both threatened species. Western pond turtle and kingfishers are found at Wright Canyon. Viburnum ellipticum, a white flowered shrub discovered by SMD co-founder Mary Bowerman below Windy Point in 1933 and known from just a handful of East Bay locations, was confirmed again and in good health.
By coincidence a realtor had contacted us about a new property three days earlier and several of us stopped at it on our way to BioBlitz. Scientists at the event ID’ed volcanic rock we’d collected there and one knew about rare plants onsite. Twelve days later, because of its biological importance, we signed a contract to purchase the property: Marsh Creek-V. It’s a great example of the value of resource evaluations such as BioBlitz.
A sunny day got chilly as fog divided around Windy Point and filled Curry and Riggs Canyons. One of our most magical experiences took place in an eerie setting along a heavily wooded stream canyon during the dark, foggy night. After playing taped owl calls from a boom box for nearly twenty minutes, a faint response call was heard downstream. As the melodic trill moved closer we became hyperaware of sound and movement. Time seemed to slow to a stop, then click – as a spotlight illuminated the gnarled branch of a valley oak hanging across the road, faster than the blink of an eye a screech owl glided through our field of vision.
As the event drew to a close Saturday afternoon, John Ginochio discovered what turned out to be the most unusual find of the event, a night snake with elegant copper colored eyes and vertical cat-like pupils. John was elated about his find because, despite having spent his entire life exploring and appreciating wildlife on the mountain, neither he nor anyone else at the event had ever seen this species before in the wild.
A formal biotic survey of the properties would have cost thousands of dollars. Twenty scientists participated in BioBlitz this year, lower than usual especially for such a large rugged area, but 305 species were documented in twenty-four hours. We greatly appreciate the time volunteered by our expert naturalists, permission by Dorothy Wright to base the event at Wright Canyon, and the Ginochio family’s permission to survey their land. It was a treat. These properties’ ecological health is a testament to the care the Wrights and Ginochios have taken with their land for generations.
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