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Recapping the Alum Rock BioBlitz with all 5 Senses

This past weekend I attended my last event as a KCCB employee, and boy did I end it with a good one! The park is a perfect location for a BioBlitz, it’s vast, beautiful and full of nature of all kinds. I had the pleasure of being taken around this time by Carolyn, an incredibly knowledgeable staff member of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society with an amazing attention to detail. Over the course of the 2.5 hours we were out and about, I came to realize that there is so much to not just see around Alum Rock Park, but almost even more to pick up with our other senses also. So here are some observations of all the sights, sounds and smells there were to be seen, heard and smelt at last week’s BioBlitz.

Alum Rock Park buildings (left), hillside (right)


Needless to say, there was much to see at Alum Rock. It was my first time in the park, and the vast, picturesque landscape was lovely enough on its own, but upon further intentional inspection, there was a whole lot more to take in.

Not even 30 seconds into our walk we came upon a Valley Oak Tree.  In the oak you could see rows and rows of little holes in horizontal lines. I came to find out these perforations are from woodpeckers, specifically "sap suckers''. They are named accordingly because they are a migratory species that make the holes that allow the sap in the trees to well up into them, and then later return to these holes to find bugs that have been attracted and then trapped in these sap wells.

Valley oak tree (left), California Buckeye (right).

Speaking of trees, we can’t forget about the California Buckeye, a building block of California ecosystems, found in many different areas and landscapes. The buckeyes that hang and later fall off these trees look like big chestnuts - but don’t be fooled: they are quite toxic. In fact, I learned that Native Americans would grind up buckeyes, throw them into the creeks/rivers in order to stun the fish in the water. In effect, they would float up to the top and get caught fairly easily. This method is what led to the concept of electro-fishing in modern times. It consists of zapping the water with a special device which will temporarily stun all the fish in the water and allow them to float to the top. Then, you are able to scoop up all the invasive species, while the native ones simply wake up later and swim away unharmed. This is a much less invasive way to fish as well as remove invasive species. 


As you can imagine, if you listen closely there are an endless amount of sounds to be heard out in a large and open park like Alum Rock. One of the first things we heard was what Carolyn identified as a Grosbeak Jay. Apparently, these birds are known for being very selfish. Their name comes from the French term “grosbec”, translating to “large beak”. Their call resembles a very harsh squawk, and is almost rattling. These jays develop very brightly colored mouths as baby birds in order to signal to their parents where to put the food they bring back to the nest. Think like a vibrant orange “place here!” sign for their mom and dad. 

That was not the only jay we heard. There was also the Steller’s Jay, whose call is actually a much rarer thing to hear. This is due to the fact that these jays are monogamous, meaning they mate for life. Hearing mating calls is rare because once they find a mate, they are with them for life and no longer need to search for another one.

Steller's jay.

Suddenly, there was a loud and sharp chirping call that almost sounded like a sort of alarm. Of course, it was easy to assume that this was some type of bird call, but as we learned, it was not! This call was actually coming from a ground squirrel warning its buddies about a nearby fox! 


Just a disclaimer, this section is labeled as “touch”, but the more appropriate title would be “DON’T touch”. Trust me, poison oak and thistle are both things that will probably ruin your day if you accidentally brush against one. On that note, we did see a bunch of poison oak at many different times while on our walk. It should be noted that it is poison oak, not poison ivy, as that is an East Coast thing that we don’t have over in our neck of the woods. Although it can be a pain, it is an important plant in our ecosystems, being that a lot of animals feed off its berries, and deer even eat its leaves. The reason it can be so irritating is because it has a certain oil that the leaves and stems secrete that can cause an itchy rash if you come into contact with it. Know that hand sanitizer or rubbing alcohol can offset these effects. Just don’t rinse the rash with warm water, as this can further open your pores to the harmful oils!

Poison oak (left), thistle (center), soap plant (right).

Another plant we came across that you might want to avoid touching is thistle. There are all different types of thistle, but the thing the many kinds all have in common is that they are all flowering plants with sharp prickles on them. As a matter of fact, artichokes are a type of thistle!

Now for the plant that you can touch with no problem: soap plant. This plant is particularly interesting, being that if you cut off a piece and combine with water, it will suds and bubble up like soap. So in other words, it’s not the end of the world if you forget your hand soap the next time you go camping, just keep an eye out for some soap plant. The more you know!


Now onto my favorite section, taste and smell! Surprisingly there are a ton of edible plants growing right along the trail. First we happened upon a California Bay  (or California Laurel) Tree, which might sound familiar if you are cook. This is where bay leaves come from! In fact, California bay leaves specifically are stronger than most regular bay leaves used for cooking. You would only need to use a fraction of quantity in a recipe as you normally would with typical bay leaves. Native woodrats actually build super intricate stick nests, which they line with bay leaves to keep bugs away. 

California bay (left), California elderberry (center), wild blackberry (right).

Not too far away we spotted miner's lettuce, a common forage item for miners in the mountains. Apparently, the taste resembles the lettuce we’ve come to know, but might have a funny aftertaste to some.

There was also the California Elderberry, of which there are both edible and poisonous types. Unfortunately, they look very similar and are hard to tell apart, so you won’t catch me taking any chances any time soon.


Lastly, my personal favorite is the wild blackberry. This particular one was native, but many types found along creeks are introduced, or non-native. Although they have some resemblance, blackberry plants are fairly easy to tell apart from poison oak, as they have leaves of 5 and big thorns on them. 

As you can see, there is so much to take in with all five senses when at a BioBlitz. So next time you are at one of our events, or even just on a hike or your daily walk, try paying attention in a different way than you might be used to, and take in all of the new sights, sounds, tastes, smells and textures that you are able to discover!

All photos taken by Rae Knapp

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