Hike Report: Bird Watching While Walking from the Neighborhood to Trails on the UCSF Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve
In the 1970s I dreamed of being able to walk from my flat on Parnassus Avenue through the neighborhood to the hills-y and trees-y Mount Sutro. At that time the only access to Mount Sutro was on the asphalt of the paved road to rare, narrow and treacherous foot paths. “Treacherous” because that was a time of fearsome kidnappings of hikers in the greater Bay Area. I felt threatened by the many hiding places that I identified in the thick trailside vegetation 45 years ago. For an out-of-door wooded experience I cycled to Mount Tamalpais as often as possible.
Shift to the present time. My dream has come to pass. Now I frequently walk from my home in the Inner Sunset to a network of multi-use paths within UCSF Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve.
This is the route that I often take: Begin at the base of the Farnsworth Steps on Woodland Avenue, continue up the steps to Edgewood Avenue, walk the length of the avenue and enter the Mount Sutro Open Space at the Edgewood Avenue trailhead, proceed to the Fairy Gates Trail, cross the asphalt road, continue onto the North Ridge Trail and conclude at the Rotary Meadow near the summit. A map can be found on the Sutro Stewards website here (and black and white maps may be found at kiosks at the open space in the future).
In January of 2018 I walked along this trail and wrote my observations. January is the time of winter rain. Again, my journey began close to Parnassus Avenue on Woodland Avenue at the base of the Farnsworth Steps. Blooming Fuchsias line the Farnsworth Steps. The aroma of moist earth and vegetation filled the air. A recent light rain and the low cloud cover provided the moisture that condensed on the vegetation and dripped into the soil. At the top of the steps a Song Sparrow sang loudly, hidden in the undergrowth. Neighborhood pride showed in the groomed front gardens along Edgewood Avenue. Echoes of “Tales of the City”, of the San Francisco hillside city abounded in this neighborhood. I suspected that it is not a coincidence that Armistead Maupin, the author of the series, once lived in this neighborhood in a home approached by woodland-sided stairs.
Entering the woods at the Edgewood Avenue trailhead was entering a forest in transition. The trail is a generous three feet wide, hewn from Radiolarian Chert and puddle-free. This path was built by the Sutro Stewards, a collaborative of volunteers, staff, UCSF and others. Off-road cyclists have built, used and continue to maintain the trails as active members of the collaborative. Runners also volunteer and take advantage of the trails. Leashed dogs are welcome.
In the distance I heard the roar of traffic, planes and the midday Caltrain whistle. Within a tangle of blackberry at the trailside the two-note Selectric typewriter-like call of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet pulled my attention. I stood still for several minutes with binoculars at the ready. The quick-moving small insect-eating bird showed the ruby crest in excitement as it flitted through the lower canopy.
By ear I could tell that Anna’s Hummingbirds were nearby. The female Anna’s hummingbird made loud chirps while perched on a bramble, her red throat iridescent. I heard a male Anna’s hummingbird as he made his long, squeaky call, perhaps in response. I did not see the male Anna’s Hummingbird doing the characteristic J-flight dance, but I did hear the loud chirp that he makes. The chirp of the male is known to be created by the tail feathers and the pressure created in his dive through the air. The female flew from her perch, perhaps in response.
While I was seated on the side of the path, waiting and watching, suddenly a Robin-sized bird swiftly appeared and perched high atop a leafless eucalyptus branch, seventy feet above. Rapid wing beats notified me that this might be a raptor. The hooked beak, the straight, long and striped tail of this raptor was visible through binoculars. It was an accipiter, a bird designed to catch other birds in flight. The athleticism and specialization demonstrated by hawks is awe inspiring! After stopping for five minutes it flew away with a rapid wingbeat on sickle shaped wings. It was probably a Sharp-shinned Hawk but possibly a Cooper’s Hawk.
To the sides of the path there are both new and maturing plantings of locally native plants that were propagated in the Mount Sutro Native Plant Nursery over the course of the past four years. Many volunteers and few staff have planted Coffeeberry, Fringe Cups, Columbine, Yerba Buena, Bee Plant, Ribes and more. These plantings become more prominent higher on the hill. The trailside plantings are increasing in number and prominence over time.
Red Elderberry is prominent on Mount Sutro, but it was years before I was able to identify this deciduous shrub. At this time of year the Red Elderberry is almost invisible to the casual observer. I have come to recognize the elderberry, now, in January, with the appearance of brown sticks, sporting pairs of small half inch leaf buds along the length of the “sticks”. Now some of the most distal buds are leafing out, showing characteristic compound leaves. In a few months, umbels of creamy flowers will appear, then develop to become heads of red berries. Finally, in September, the Elderberry becomes leafless again. Some of the Elderberry have vines of deciduous small leafed Hillside Pea and tendrils deciduous of Manroot climbing upon them.
I wonder about the pending success or failure-to-thrive of some of the Red Elderberry bushes because many are cloaked in the blooming Cape Ivy and live in the shadow of the Eucalyptus trees. They appear to be starved for sunlight. How much assistance do the Elderberry, the Coffeeberry, the Coast Live Oak need to thrive with the current challenges? Ecologists have documented that locally native plants are known to provide botanical and entomological complexity that in turn provides more insects for the benefit of the bird population than provided by non-native vegetation.
As I continued walking I felt the exertion, the euphoria that accompanied my uphill tramp with cool air on my cheeks and the rasp of deep breathing in my ears. I tasted mint in the air as well as the bite of sage, characteristic of California flora in the surrounding meadow of chaparral plants. I arrived at my destination at the Rotary Meadow, hoping to film the Black Phoebe. I was seated and ready. A Red-tailed Hawk made a quiet sound that attracted my attention. I saw the hawk land in a tree bough above. With binoculars the dappled back and the brown belly band were visible as it adjusted its position. The hawk perched quietly, head down and moving from side to side, alert for movement below. Then the hawk took off, showing his rusty red tail. The small voles and mice that inhabit the hill are most active at night, attractive to hawks by day and owls by night.
Flocks of Golden-crowned Sparrows in first-winter plumage pecked at leaves and in the dirt, eating soft vegetation and seeds. Perhaps they were finding seeds that fell from the dry seed heads of buckwheat set low on the Rotary Meadow.
Again the female Anna’s Hummingbird appeared, hovering over the ground among the low forbs and dirt, collecting spider webs.
The wheezing chip of Dark-eyed Juncos surrounded the Meadow as they foraged in shrubbery. On the top of a twelve foot high leafless buckeye a lone Dark-eyed Junco sang a twittering song containing slurred whistles. His head was flung back, throat and pink beak quivering as he sang from his nearly invisible perch within his territory. Here in the Rotary Meadow the birds can hear each other more successfully than close to the din of traffic. This is a welcome refuge for man and beast, an oasis of locally native habitat and of relative quiet.
The Black Phoebe won the Rotary Garden as its territory. The bird landed on several low perches in and around the Rotary Garden. Watch this one minute video to hear and see the characteristic behavior and call! He is not singing in this clip. You will see the bird look for, catch and eat two flying insects. Watch how the Black Phoebe breathes and constantly adjusts his/her plumage. He/she appears to be so vital.
Heading downhill on a different path, I saw evidence of new trailside plantings from the propagation nursery. I saw evidence of weeding that protects new plantings, very necessary for the first three years after plants are put in the ground. It was a treat to experience the out-of-doors on the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve in January. I looked forward to my return.