Cuesta Ridge - 5/12/01

Mark Walker MWalker at
Fri May 18 17:24:59 EDT 2001

My father and I took a day off together to walk along Cuesta Ridge, just
north and west of San Luis Obispo, CA.  Last Saturday was not a good
butterflying day in the Central Coast.  Thick fog greeted us in the morning,
and above the fog was a heavy upper cloud layer.  But walk we planned, so
walk we did (and with our last name, it's the only appropriate thing to do).

We drove up the ridge and parked near the botanical garden.  The ridge is an
impressive place for a walk under any conditions.  Normally, you are treated
to a spectacular view of Morro Rock and Estero Bay - not to mention the
surrounding hillsides.  On this particular day, we were socked in by thick
fog - but the fog moves quickly, and the visual entertainment from billowing
fog sweeping over the ridgetop is almost as good as an ocean view.  Of
course, the temperature was also a factor.  Cold wet fog sweeping up through
your pant legs and across your - well, your torso - is just plain good

The stand of Sargent's Cypress that thrives on this ridge was largely
decimated by several recent and large wildfires.  I am happy to report that
they are indeed coming back in force.  Most of the burn area is inundated by
seedlings - they cover the ground - and it is obvious that only a few will
actually survive to grab the available sunlight.  In one of the areas with
old growth trees still hanging on strong, you can see why the plant is so
well enabled.  The seed pods literally dominate the branch stalks - with
hundreds per foot it seems.  The pods are designed to explode during hot
temperature, thereby releasing the seed during opportunistic times of
natural clearing.  The system works.

Another amazing thing about this tree is the way that it gets water.  You
hear about the trees of the Santa Lucia range living off moisture from fog -
and it's believable enough based on the amount of fog that frequents the
hill and mountaintops.  But not until you experience the fog in person - as
it thickly sweeps across the ridge - do you fully understand the
significance of this water source.  The heavily podded branches of the
Sargent's Cypress also benefit from the matted shape of the needles.  In the
presence of fog, these literally capture and extract the moisture from the
wet fog.  Water drips off the Cypress in almost a steady flow, providing a
much needed source of water to all of the chaparral flora.  It is no
surprise to find many wildflowers in bloom during these spring months - even
on the ridgetop where rainwater retention is virtually nonexistent.

So you get the picture - I'm having a pretty good walk, even if it's a bit
like being on the moon.  Imagine my surprise when the thick fog zoomed
through and left me standing in weak sunlight.  It was still chilly, but the
ground quickly warmed and soon we saw leps flitting rapidly around us.  I
have no idea where they got such energy from, as cold and cloudy as it was.

The most common butterfly was the pretty little Rural Skipper (Ochlodes
agricola).  This lep was favoring the open burn areas, landing and basking
on bare ground.  It's cousin, the Columbian Skipper (Hesperia columbia)
could be found flitting about the road - but, interestingly, only in areas
where the Cypress canopy was still thriving.  Other butterflies were seen
before the fog returned (which was a short hour or so), and included the
California Ringlet (Coenonympha californica), the Brown Elfin (Callophrys
augustinus), the Hedgerow Hairstreak (Satyrium saepium), and Muir's
Hairstreak (Callophrys muiri).  The latter was especially enjoyable, since
we saw only a single specimen - and we were looking intently for it.  The
bug eats the Cypress in it's larval stage.  I saw it flit about and land at
the top of a mature Cypress, and without an extension net, my father kindly
allowed me to climb on his back to get a better look.  This probably looked
especially strange to the two construction workers driving up to take a beer
break.  Hopefully they noticed the resemblance.

Mark Walker


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