Wednesday, October 27, 2010

hard monsters

Monster Park in San Gabriel, California
One of the peculiar places filled with concrete critters in Southern California that we have returned to visit nearly as often as the Cabazon Dinosaurs is Monster Park in San Gabriel. The place's official name is Vincent Lugo Park but that shouldn't stop you calling it what you like after seeing the menagerie.
There's a big octopus, an undulating sea monster, a pink whale, a huge (sea?) snail, a sinking ship, and more. The snail and the whale have steel slides built in but the others are concrete painted with what is intended to be a slick surface. The dragon slide, for instance, has a slope that wiggles from side to side. Super cool, but the slickness is a little lacking and one must work a bit to get down the slide. That's all well and good as all the rough surfaces make these play structures a bit lacking in the eyes of safety watchdogs and a fast ride down the serpent's back could make for some ugly rash.
I suppose that lack of safety features is part of why this nifty little artwork was threatened with demolition until fairly recently. Fortunately a group of San Gabriel residents fought hard to save the work of Benjamin Dominguez, the man who's vision and hands built the monsters in the 1960s. Volunteers have been working to keep the monsters brightly painted and to clean up the occasional graffiti.
mrs. a-go-go did a little color selection on this one. The rocks and lighthouse actually have more color detail than what is shown.

The park is close to the San Gabriel Mission if you are looking for a tidbit of history, or just packing a picnic and having lunch with the critters makes a nice afternoon. Bring some well worn pants if you wish to ride the serpents, and get ready to scoot!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

the bluffs in Fall

10/15 Montaña de Oro State Park

Just south of Morro Bay and Los Osos on the central coast is Montaña de Oro State Park with lots of hiking and mountain biking options. Rain was in the forecast for Sunday so we took our opportunity to get out for a hike on Saturday morning knowing that we'd be in for cool and gray skies. Pecho Valley Road, shown above winding between Monterrey Pines and eucalyptus trees, took us all the way to the south end of the park where the road ends at a locked gate. From here we could hike inland on a trail following Coon Creek or out to the bluffs. We chose the later.Our whole hike was probably less than 3 miles out and back but we spent alot of time tracing the deep cuts in the shore line. The bluffs pretty thoroughly exclude anyone making their way to the water's edge here. A thick layer of jumbled and upended sedimentary rock makes a cliff of at least 30 feet along the bluffs. This is topped with a more recent layer of rather loose crumbly erosion debris from the hills above the bluffs. That crumbly layer would daunt any adventurous bluff scrambler, and it's good to have some small beaches that people don't frequent. It keeps the local sea birds and aquatic mammals happy. I highly recommend heeding the posted warnings and keeping a little distance from the edge, and don't attempt to find your way down to the tempting small coves.
Still, there are many places to get a good look over the edge. We spent at least an hour watching the waves wash up the inlets to scramble the small rocks and heaps of kelp. The hard sedimentary rock juts out from under the soft top layer in many places forming shelves with tide pools. We spotted several Black Oystercatchers, sea birds with bright red beaks, poking around in the exposed puddles looking for lunch.
mrs. a go-go didn't have her long lens on the camera so we are short on zoom pictures of the action. There are lots of small sea cliff caves and funky small arches of rock. All good places for pirates to wash up.In spite of the gray day Montaña de Oro was having a smidge of Spring in the Fall.The poppies were making a show here and there among all the olive green coast scrub. Montaña de Oro is covered by gobs of trails headed in every direction and Morro Bay offers even more to the North. It will take lots of visits for us to explore them all.

If you go and are up for a burger lunch after your walk, don't miss Sylvester's in Los Osos. They make 'em sloppy with all sorts of tasty toppings. An excellent no nonsense lunch.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

sandhill surprise

October 2007, Whitewater Draw, Southeast Arizona

Speaking of migrations, seeing all those tarantulas on the move last week reminded me of another epic journey we were lucky to witness several years ago. After visiting Bisbee, Arizona we wandered in the Sulfur Springs Valley just a bit further East. There we stumbled upon Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area and its seasonal wetland.
The wetland is a stopover point for many migrating birds making their way along the dry valleys. Among the most spectacular mass visitors are the Sandhill Cranes. We found our selves at Whitewater Draw a bit late in the morning and we didn't expect to see a bonanza of birds as most activity typically happens in the cool mornings and evenings. Boy, were we surpised when shortly after making our way to the short boardwalk the Cranes started to arrive from the North in wave after noisy wave. Here's mrs. a-go-go's short sound bite of the squadrons arriving:

Crazy luck! The short fuzzy video doesn't do it justice. The sky was quite clear and we could see far to the north the narrow bands of more birds following in the wakes of those already partying in the shallow water. Surprisingly a few groups of birds decided to start the next leg of the journey within the hour or so that we were there. More were still arriving from the North while small groups began to wade away from the mob and take off for the South, chattering and squawking the whole way.

In addition we had a fleeting glimpse of the Vermilion Flycatcher. Now I'm no birdwatching expert, but I hear tell that the little fellow is rather elusive on most birders lists.
The photo really didn't catch the color. When he flew it really was a vermilion flash.

If you're a bird nut and you are traveling this part of Arizona in the Fall or Spring, don't miss Whitewater Draw. It may take a bit of dead reckoning to find it. Some of the lonely straight roads in the valley are poorly signed and we took a route requiring some dirt road. So, do a bit of map research before you go, and bring plenty of water.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

get out of the road!

Tarantulas make their move in Santa Barbara County
WARNING, if you're an arachnophobe you should look away and close your browser now. This post contains photos and video of some of the largest spiders in North America out looking for love. We think they are adorable and harmless, but we're keenly aware that we are weirdos that way and some folks will be revolted by what follows. So, if spiders make your skin crawl stop here, look away, and go get some ice cream or something soothing. For the rest of you critter loving dorks, read on...

Last October driving on a back road near Santa Maria, California mrs. a-go-go noticed what looked like a large spider on the shoulder of the road. Then there was another. The third was making its way down the middle of the lane. I swerved to avoid squashing it, and mrs. a-go-go hollered out, "I was right! they're tarantulas! Stop! Pictures! Aaah!".Camera in hand we chased that one down the center stripe; he was fast and didn't wait around for a photo op. That day we saw a few more on our way (and more than a few singing cows) and it prompted mrs. a-go-go to do a little research on the local tarantula habits. Finding that late September and early October is the season to see the big fuzzy (looking) fellas on the back roads we determined to go out for another look.Now, I am no expert on this subject and can't go into great detail about spider sightings or tarantula behavior but I understand it's the males that are out seeking a mate. We found a few references to this being a tarantula migration to ancestral breading grounds, but after thinking about it I'm not convinced that's what a spider specialist would call it. I'll apply Occam's razor and remain skeptical about there being some special place they migrate to. It's my hunch that in the areas with good tarantula habitat the males are just out looking for love, not all headed in one direction, but it's a swell myth anyhow. I hear tell that the males are out and about this time of year all over Southwestern North America.
Our drive along Foxen Canyon Road between Los Olivos and Santa Maria turned up quite a few sightings and we had to pull over and act like crazy people many times along the way. We'd run out in the road, capture a few portraits, and then encourage the poor victim of wanderlust back into the weeds. Two of the wayfarers were reluctant to leave the road. Maybe they like the warm pavement and the lack of obstacles. I coaxed these lubbers onto branched sticks and airlifted to the roadside brush. If you're into it and are going to try to pick one up on a twig use one that can take the weight. These are some heavy spiders, carry them very low to the ground. If they fall you may just maim the hapless bugger. The ones we coaxed off the pavement may likely find there way back into the road anyhow, but we couldn't watch them waiting for a treaded death.The range of colors was surprising. Some were quite auburn, others were grey, and one was near jet black. Some were sluggish and seemed that they had had enough, others were quick and skittish. One wheeled around so fast when I noodged him with a blade of grass that mrs. a-go-go jumped and caught her breath.

I did my best to get a "Giant Spider! Evacuate the city!"

This red shaded one did his best to look big and tough waving his spinnerets when I brushed with a blade of grass.

The quick and the dead... This resourceful guy was working over the squashed body of a rival near the center of the road as we approached. By the time we were out of the car he had gathered some bits, I suppose for a meal, and was on his way into the brush. You can see what's left of the other spider just off center at the top of the frame.

The increase in auto traffic on this back road due to all the small wineries springing up with their wine tasting rooms must be putting a dent in the tarantula population. We did not see too many squashed fuzzy bodies and the cars and trucks that passed when we were chasing spiders all seemed to be reasonably courteous and steered to avoid unnecessary death. Still, Foxen Canyon Road could use some tarantula crossing signs to encourage people to continue being courteous.

If you want to seek out a first hand big spider encounter now is the season. I don't suggest handling the tarantulas. I understand they are not very dangerous for their bite, but some folks could have a deadly allergic reaction to the venom. In addition their bite is rather painful, and some have special "hairs" (they really don't have hair quite like you and me) that can be really irritating to your skin and eyes. It's even worse if you inhale them. So, keep a little distance and encourage them off the road with a blade of grass. I did lift two off the road with a reasonably thick well branched twig. Again, if you try this, keep it really close to the ground. They are heavy enough to be mashed a bit by falling too far.

I'm certain there are other places beyond the back roads of Santa Barabara County where the fuzzy fellows are on the move, just do a little research on Flickr. Find the big spider pics and look for the location and date. A week ago we drove the same road on a warm afternoon and made no sightings. Our first encounter last year was on a cool overcast day before 11am and we spotted 5 tarantulas. This encounter was on another cool overcast day with some sprinkles of rain and we saw at least 10 big spiders. Don't know enough yet to suggest a particular time of day but cloudy and cool seems to be promising. Do drive slow, these are big spiders but they are still hard to spot unless they are right out on the pavement, and you wouldn't want to add to the casualties. Go! Tarantulas, Go!

For the curious here's more tarantula goodies:
American Tarantula Society
The Corsegold Tarantula Festival North of Fresno on Hwy 41 seems to be happening this year Oct. 30th even though they seem slow to update the web page.
a bit about Tarantulas at Mt. Diablo State Park
Gadzooks! it's the The Tarantula's Burrow
And brief tarantula facts from The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum


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