Coyote Ridge is an open space parcel in central Santa Clara County, including a small protected area within a larger study area. The protected area is owned by the VTA and managed by the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority (OSA). The soil of Coyote Ridge is serpentine and hosts critical habitat for the endangered bay checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha bayensis). Public access is restricted in order to maintain the special and unique ecosystem, which supports several other endangered species in addition to the checkerspot. For the past several years the OSA has hosted docent-led spring wildflower hikes for just a few weeks at the peak of the spring wildflowers. I was fortunate to sign up in time to participate in one of the hikes; they fill up fast. Since the purpose of the hikes is to enjoy, and learn about, and photograph the wildflowers and other unique wildlife in the area, the distance is relatively short; the day of my hike, the route was just 2.8 miles in a semi-loop configuration with an 800-foot climb to the top of the ridge.
The hike was pretty, and the wildflowers were simply spectacular. This post is mainly about the hike and non-wildflower sightings, with a separate post focusing on the wildflowers.
On the GPS track the orange dot denotes the start/end of the hike.
There are no formal trails, but the docent-led walks have created informal trails along part of the route. In other parts, the group was asked to deliberately spread out over a wider area in order to avoid creating even an informal trail.
We hiked gently uphill along a fence and shortly climbed a little more steeply. We were treated to hillside fields blanketed in wildflowers, such as this one with white popcorn flower and purple owl’s clover, with a few California poppies adding brighter color. The poppies were closed because the overnight fog layer had not yet burned off, but it did about an hour later. It was not unusual to see several different types of wildflower in this kind of close proximity.
Not far from the beginning of the hike we passed what we were informed would be the last tree we would see for most of the hike; the hillsides and ridge are essentially completely exposed. We heard a bird song that I did not recognize, but soon one of the other hikers identified it as a Bullock’s oriole and commented that it was very unusual to hear one sing. When it flew away the lighting was such that I couldn’t make a visual identification at all, though the coloring and pattern are actually rather distinctive.
A little farther up the hill there was a section of the trail covered with goldfields, creating an effect dubbed by the docents as the yellow brick road.
As is evident from the elevation profile, the first half of the elevation gain was a gentler grade, and the last half was a bit steeper. The steep section was also where we spread out to avoid creating a specific path through the fields of wildflowers.
As we climbed higher we enjoyed beautiful views, behind us, across the Coyote Valley toward the southern portion of the Santa Cruz Mountains. These views included Loma Prieta, the high point on the skyline, and Mt Umunhum. The browner-hued hill to the right is another area with serpentine soil and is the site of another study and/or protected area. The green area on the valley floor is the Coyote Creek Golf Course, next to US-101.
As we approached the ridge top, the sun had been out for long enough that the light-sensitive flowers had opened up and the butterflies were out flying around. One of the docents noticed a ferruginous hawk and a harrier above the ridge. It was kind of neat to see my first bay checkerspot (Euphydryas editha bayensis) and get a photo of it as it paused to feed or rest briefly. The small white puffs in the upper right of the picture are dwarf plantain (Plantago erecta), at the base of which the checkerspot lays its eggs.
When the group reached the ridgetop we stopped for a relatively extended break with opportunities for more sightings and photos. We had a great view of Lick Observatory on Mt Hamilton, perhaps 10 miles away almost due north. The actual peak is Copernicus Peak, just out of the picture to the right.
The view to the east was across a pretty, green valley toward Henry W Coe State Park. The ridge in the middle of the skyline is Pine Ridge or Blue Ridge, including Mt Sizer as the highest point. The ridge is less than 10 miles away.
We saw quite a few butterflies during the break, but they did not seem to want to land and pose for photos. However, I eventually got a picture of a buckeye (Junonia coenia), which is similar in size to the checkerspot and smaller than monarchs and painted ladies.
During the break, someone noticed that the two birds soaring overhead at the time were bald eagles, with strikingly distinct white heads and tails against the brilliant blue sky. They were magnificent! Too bad that I was unable to get a photograph, so I simply enjoyed watching them for several minutes.
After the break we proceeded a short distance along the ridge top and then started down. At the bottom of the steep section we curved to the right to meet up with our outbound path. Along the way we passed a solitary oak tree: a leather oak (Quercus durata), whose leaves are actually almost succulent and have prickly edges. The leather oak is endemic to serpentine environments in California. This one is growing next to a seep, and we saw some seep spring monkey flowers near the base of the trunk.
Not far after that we passed a bit of chaparral with a bird, identified by someone else as a rock wren. Moments later there was a pair of lark sparrows (Chondestes grammacus) that paused long enough for a few quick pictures. The facial pattern is very distinctive!
Shortly after seeing the lark sparrows we passed a small mound a few yards away from our path. The mound was covered with poppies, owl’s clover, and cream cups interspersed with a few blue dicks.
We then finished closing the loop and retraced our initial path back to the start. It had been a beautiful day and a very enjoyable hike. In a companion post I’ll focus on the many wildflowers we encountered along the way.