Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bear Valley Road: Colusa Wildflower update 2013

It's late March 2013 and if you're planning on going to Bear Valley Road in Colusa County to look for meadows of California Poppies my advice is to wait several weeks. Just like last year we were there too early. Which isn't to say there were no poppies, just very few. And none were in the meadows.

If you go looking for Bear Valley Road here are three signs you've almost arrived: The signs to Granzella's restaurant and shop, Exit 578 Clear Lake Colusa off ramp, and you'll see the Sutter Butte mountain range to the east of Interstate 5.

Once you arrive at Bear Valley Road after heading west on HWY 20, you travel down a dirt road for several miles before reaching the meadows that fill with wildflower blossoms. The sign I mentioned in last year's post has fallen down so don't look for it anymore.

Current status of wildflower meadows as of 3/24/13

Sadly, this is what we saw this year, just a lot of grass. Last year there were no poppies but in this same meadow there were lots of bird's-eye gilia, pale yellow cream cups and deep yellow tidy tips.

There was a nice variety of flowers growing alongside the road. So if you want to take individual flower portraits it would be worth the drive.

Row 1: Lupine, Red Maids, and Tidy Tips
Row 2: Tidy Tips and California Poppy
Row 3. Milk Vetch, Lomatium, and Indian Paint Brush

If there are no flowers there are always nice landscapes to be had using the trees, sky, and grassy hillsides.

And this year we saw a lot of free roaming cattle right alongside and even in the road.

We spotted a flock of Long Billed Curlew foraging in a field before they all took off in unison.

And funny how even though I had no clue what this bird was it's gorgeous song made me wonder if it was a Meadow Lark. And it was. It sat there serenading us for several minutes until we drove away. The first few we saw on fence posts took off as soon as we stopped the car so it was great to find one who was more social than the rest.

Unlike last year when we saw many, we spotted just a couple of Burrowing Owls.

And across a pasture and creek I saw ducks that didn't look like ducks. Turns out they were Common Mergansers. The male is to the right with the white wings and dark head and the two birds with brown spiky head feathers are females. They look so different, and the females are so ornate, I thought they were two different species.

And lat but not least I spotted several Wester Pond Turtles sunning themselves on a small dirt outcropping.

So, not a lot of flowers but there was still plenty to see. The trick is you have to drive slowly, and bring someone with you to act as a look out. You really have to look hard to spot animals like the turtles, curlew, and owls because they're well camouflaged. Oh, and don't get out of the car if you're trying to photograph birds. They'll fly away every time as soon as you do so we shoot them through the open windows of the car.

Later that day we headed down HWY 20 (eastbound) and stopped off at the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge. We photographed more birds, wildlife, and a stunning sunset.

To reach the meadows you'll take Interstate-5 to CA-20 BUS West which meets up with HWY 20 which you'll stay on for approximately 18 miles. At Bear Valley Road you'll turn north (right) and travel approximately 14 miles on a dirt to semi-paved road to reach the fields of flowers. Be aware that after heavy rains the dirt road can wash out so waiting for calm weather may be advisable.

Friday, March 29, 2013

My new favorite beers at Steins Beer Garden in Mountain View

What? Did I just say I have not one, but favorite beers (as in plural with an "s")? Yup. Which sounds weird to say because I've never liked a single beer I've ever sipped until last Tuesday when I went to Steins Beer Garden. It's a hybrid of a beer garden + restaurant with food that will exceed your expectations of what often passes for food at bars and breweries.

Located on Villa Street, at the intersection of Bryant, I arrived quite late for a media event hosted two nights before their official opening. It was the kind of service where the food and beverages are complimentary so that everyone from the hostesses, bar, kitchen and waitstaff can gain experience and learn how to meet the company's quality and service standards.

Inside I found the space broken into three sections. To the left is an expansive dining room with high ceilings, standard tables and several large and long community tables where people can gather. In the center of the room the bar is accessible from three sides. And on the right there's a chic lounge area with a lower ceiling and more club-like ambiance with colored lighting.

With wood plank walls and floors the feeling in the dining room was comfortable, modern, and earthy. Note the glowing windows to the left behind the bar. Guess what's inside?

It's the keg room where all of the tapped beers reside.

And over in the lounge was the bar and a more intimate seating area.

Just to the left there's an outdoor patio that I didn't photograph that night because it was too dark. I'll get a picture on my next visit and add it to this post later.

This is the bar on the lounge side.

The floor plan is very well done and at the end of the night I was given a teeny tiny beer mug with the company's name and logo printed on one side.

The reason I was there was to try their strawberry beer. What? Yes! I said strawberry beer! It's imported from Belgium and it was DIVINE! And so was the apple beer. I've never liked beer before but my friend Elley knew, since I had discovered I enjoy dessert wines, that I would equally enjoy the fruit beers at Steins. And she was right.

The flavors were of fresh fruit, smooth and sweet but not overly so. I have no idea how to describe beer or its proper vocabulary so I'll just say the apple beer is like a grown up's sparkling apple cider because the alcohol content is around 4% and there's no refined sugary sweetness to it. It tastes like the essence of fresh fruit with a depth of flavors that blend together in a way that there's no off or strong taste to hide from. I let the beer pass over my finicky super taster taste buds and found it to be a superbly enjoyable experience. Yum, and double yum for the strawberry too.

I'm looking forward to returning and having them again on a hot day this summer. I've always felt a bit of envy watching people enjoy cold beer on a hot day. Now I can too, but apparently only in Mountain View when I visit Steins.

And I mentioned the food was good. How classy is this? Instead of giving me a bowl of nuts or pretzels I was offered a small jar of house pickled vegetables. Just looking at this picture is making my mouth water. Lately I've been loving pickled veggies like a pregnant lady! LOL. My very nice waitress packed a small to go box of them so I could have them at home too. What a nice treat!

Clearly there's a chef, not a cook, in the kitchen at Steins.

Though I could have ordered anything on the menu, I only ordered one appetizer because it was more than enough to be a meal (for me). I tried the Smoked Salmon and Potato Pancakes with an apple herb salad and crème fraîche. The staff was disappointed that I didn't want to try more dishes but I honestly, I couldn't eat another bite. Plus it gives me a reason to go back and something to look forward to. I really want to try their soft, hot pretzels appetizer too.

There was even a dessert buffet where I was able to sample a multitude of dainty, bite-sized, desserts.

My favorite was the tiny cinnamon sugar donut.

I think the buffet was only there because it was a special event but I heard the donuts are a menu item you should be able to order when you visit.

As I sat staring at my glasses of beer it made me sad I couldn't drink them up. I hate waste. So I posted on Facebook to see if anyone would come pick me up and drive me home if I drank both of them. LOL. There were no takers so I'll have to bring hubby along in the future to be my designated driver so I can enjoy my entire serving.

Their website isn't live yet but you can find them at:

Steins Beer Garden - website
895 Villa Street
Mountain View, CA

Their Facebook page is pretty active so until their site is live you can learn more about them there.

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge: Birds, Black-tailed Deer and a Cottontail Rabbit

Without a doubt the light last weekend was the worst, most difficult to shoot in light I'd experienced since taking up photography. It's hard to describe. We had just arrived at the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, a 2 hour and 20 minute drive due north of San Jose, when a small bank of thin clouds covered the sun and the light turned to blah blech in an instant.

White Faced Ibis

No matter which direction we shot from everything looked dull and backlit. The only good light we saw that day was when the golden hour began. You can see it starting in that bottom panoramic picture. From then through sunset the light improved dramatically so skip to the end if you want to see pretty pictures.

In March there are very few birds and even fewer people visiting Colusa. We were surprised no one else was there. It was just us. We wondered why since the bad light had only just begun upon our arrival. It only took being there for a few minutes to realize why. While this hawk was hidden from view, one thing was more than happy to come up close and personal were dozens upon dozens (probably thousands) of mosquitos! As I was standing on the viewing deck I first noticed them buzzing around me.

Once we got in the car to drive around the loop there were hordes of them coming in through our open car windows. The loop is a large oval that cuts through the marsh. While you can roll down your windows to take pictures, the rules are you can't get out of your car and walk around once you're on the road. It makes it challenging but we always somehow manage to still get lots of photos leaning over each other or out of the sunroof.

I hoped the photos we would take that afternoon were going to be worth the West Nile Virus we were probably going to catch. I crossed my fingers and off we went.

Back to the light that day. Here's a picture of a White Faced Ibis I shot last April at the same wildlife refuge. It was sunny and bright out highlighting the iridescence of the bird's feathers and the richness of colors painted across its head, neck, chest, and wings.

But last weekend? The bird's feathers looked so dull. Which, of course, didn't stop me from shooting. After all how often do you see a an ibis successfully hunt crayfish when you have a camera with a 300mm zoom lens in your hand?

This happened in an instant and I hadn't had any time to set up. I was just approaching the opposite of the viewing deck at the reserve when it struck.

The funny thing is at the time I could only tell it caught something. It wasn't until I saw the images on my computer that I was able to tell what it had clasped in its curved, lavender bill.

Here it had just snapped the crayfish in two.

Because there were so few birds at the viewing deck Hubby had lost his patience and left to go get the car to drive the loop so he missed out on this sequence of shots.

Greater Egret

We also saw a Greater Egret. They're so easy to spot against the reeds.

The ways you can tell a Greater Egret from a Snowy Egret are the Greater Egrets are larger, have green colored skin surrounding its eye, and their feet are black instead of the bright yellow feet you'll see on a Snowy Egret.

Great Blue Heron

This Great Blue Heron was hunting though I never saw it make a strike.

As we drove along I would scan the mash lands and holler "stop, wait" or "hold on" when I'd spot something we could shoot. In the picture above I just barely saw them. Can you see who I saw?

Black-tailed Deer

Camouflaged in the reeds of the marsh were four Black-tailed Deer! Two were back near the trees and two were closer in a more open area. They calmly watched us for a minute before ambling off into the reeds.

Western Pond Turtle

We also saw a few Western Pond Turtles. This one stood out fairly clearly against the surrounding water plants. Which was nice because a lot of the birds and animals we saw that day were well hidden.

Cottontail Rabbit

For instance, I barely spotted this little cottontail rabbit. It was sitting just feet away near the side of the road but I think it thought it was invisible.

I could tell it was a Cottontail and not a Jack Rabbit because of its small size, short ears, and small hind legs and feet. Boy was it cute!

After a few minutes it got up, hopped a bit, then turned around.

As it hopped away I was so happy I realized I didn't care that the light had been a disappointment. This was the first time I'd had the opportunity to take some clear pictures of a wild rabbit so I was pretty thrilled.

Later, we did see some Jack Rabbits but it was already dark out and they ran away quickly so there was no chance to take any pictures.

Red-winged Blackbirds

This was also my first visit where flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds were clustered in the reeds and trees along the east end of the marsh. They were something to see and hear.

Long Billed Curlew

And it was also the first time I'd seen a Long Billed Curlew. It was far away and well camouflaged as it walked through the marsh. Do you remember artist Kristin William's curlew tea set I purchased on Etsy two years ago? The moment I saw it online I wanted it. I suspected this bird was a curlew but had to wait until I got home to research online and confirm it.


Finally, as the sun began to set it broke beneath the clouds just in time to light this pheasant, the fourth one we'd seen that day.

American Bittern

We also saw one of my favorite birds, an American Bittern. They're so funny, and very, very, sloth-like slow. It makes them easy to photograph because they literally freeze in place.

This one was right alongside the road and was very cooperative posing for us as it looked for dinner. We saw it make several successful strikes but I wasn't able to photograph any of them.

Black Crowned Night Heron

And at the end of the loop along the right side of the road are always a flock of Black Crowned Night Heron scattered about the trees like Christmas ornaments.

American Coots

We made two loops around the marsh that day. At the end of the second loop we caught dusk as the Coots gathered together in the water.

Sunset photos were taken with the NEX-5R

Soon those same pesky clouds that had thwarted our efforts the entire afternoon turned into the best possible sunset scenario. As the sun continued to set the clouds were painted intense shades of pink, lavender and gold. It made the whole day so worth it to be there at that moment.

I used my new Sony NEX-5R to take the sunset pictures. I would have used it all day except for that my strongest Sony lens is a 200mm and with wildlife I had to go with the strongest telephoto I had which was my 300mm Panasonic Lumix lens. What I really need is a 600mm zoom lens. LOL. Hubby said I can't afford one, plus I don't think Sony or Panasonic even make one.

I recently posted a tutorial about what I've figured out when it comes to photographing sunsets. You can view it by Clicking Here.

The moral of this story is: Sometimes the silver lining is in the sunset :)

If you want to visit the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge here's how you get there from San Jose.

Their website describes the refuge this way:

"The 4,507-acre refuge primarily consists of intensively managed wetland impoundments, with some grassland and riparian habitat. The Sacramento Valley is one of the most important wintering areas for waterfowl in North America. Colusa Refuge typically supports wintering populations of more than 200,000 ducks and 50,000 geese."

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge - Visit their website by CLICKING HERE
  • The best wildlife viewing time is in the early morning and late afternoon
  • Wildlife observation is best during mid-November - January
  • The refuge is open one-hour before sunrise to one-hour after sunset year-round
  • 4,567 acres, including seasonal marsh, permanent ponds, and uplands
  • CLICK HERE for a list of abundant, common, uncommon and rare wildlife sightings
  • Restrooms are available near the free parking lot
  • In the winter dress in layers and bring a warm hat and gloves
  • How to get there from San Jose: Take I-5 to the “Highway 20, Colusa” exit. Turn east on Highway 20. The Refuge is about 6.5 miles on the right. (Note: you will pass the Colusa Hunter Check Station turnoff a few miles before the Refuge.)