Salmon and Trout – the Coastal Prairie Connection

Detail of rainbow trout, oil on cotton rag paper, Laura Cunningham.

Why talk about fish in a coastal prairie blog? Because the health of streams, clear water, and fish populations are intimately tied with healthy functioning watersheds–from marshes, meadows, upland grasslands, forests, and mountain ranges. Healthy deep-rooted coastal prairies can have huge benefits to waters and fish habitat.

So I decided to talk about salmon and trout in this blog to try to show the connections between healthy prairies and healthy fish. Years ago I worked as a seasonal fishery biologist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, so this is something of keen interest to me. I use current monitoring of cattle-impacted coastal prairies and salmonid streams in Point Reyes National Seashore as an example to show current threats to fish habitat, and how restoring coastal prairies can go a long way towards restoring stream and ocean habitat for fish.

See this special page with information on salmon, steelhead, and trout of California, how livestock grazing impacts these fish, and how the processes of grassland restoration and cultural fire can benefit watersheds and streams >> here.


Join me for a Coastal Prairie Tour!

Join me and expert native plant restorationist Diana Oppenheim for a Monday morning tour in April of coastal prairie relicts and discussions of how we can help conserve this amazing habitat on the peninsula.

Can’t make it? No worries, I will schedule another tour in June on a weekend.

Point Reyes National Seashore is undergoing a General Management  Plan revision, which means we the public all need to weigh in and comment. I’ll let you know what links to follow to comment when the time comes.


Albany Hill

AFTER: Albany Hill currently as seen from El Cerrito Plaza.

BEFORE: Albany Hill 500 years ago with California grizzlies dining on fallen coast live oak acorns on a coastal prairie of California oatgrass bunches (Danthonia californica). The grizzlies have spent time in the prairie digging up gophers. Oil on cotton rag paper, Laura Cunningham. Private collection.

Part of what I intend this blog to be is a journal of visits to special places in the coastal prairie, the relict plant communities I have found, the parks, preserves, and neighborhoods that still hold coastal prairies, the threats to existing coastal prairies, and the special places that are being actively restored to coastal prairie by people who care. After all, this was most likely the dominant plant community across the Bay Area and coastal California hundreds of years ago. Cities have been built on it: San Francisco, San Jose, Richmond, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, to name a few. Part of my fascination with coastal prairie is how it continues to survive in this built world in the heart of California, and how so many people want to restore it.

I grew up near Albany Hill in the East Bay and even went to El Cerrito High School–“The Little Hill” in Spanish. It is a landmark feature near Berkeley and visibly across the Bay from San Francisco; presently it is a city park oasis surrounded by urbanization. An island of native plants and animals in a sea of houses, cars, freeways, and shopping malls. It was my backyard in the city.

My sister Margot works for the City of Albany to help restore and maintain the ecosystems of Albany Hill and Creekside Park, and also volunteers a lot of time to help take care of it at Tending the Ancient Shoreline Hill. Check this site out, the Mini Herbarium and Haiku-like poetry reflecting the natural world are unique. Margot has spent a lot of time and creative effort into studying, conserving, and restoring this piece of land that retains the imprint of history and ecological heritage of the local place. This is a model of what I believe to be so important in our hyper-digital industrial age: respect for place, involvement in backyard neighborhood projects, awareness of the local natural world and underlying landscape history that gives rise to our present global society. We forget this local ecology at our peril. Remember that logo: “Think Globally, Act Locally”?

I frequently visit Albany Hill when I am in the Bay Area, and tag along with Margot to see what she is doing there. Restoration of the original coastal prairie that dominated the hill is a priority. There are some high-quality coastal prairie stands still growing here under the groves of introduced blue gum Eucalyptus which were planted on the hill by the powder companies on the west side in the late 1800’s as a barrier to their accidental explosions. They’ve been reproducing and spreading since then, although many appear drought-stressed these days. The trees harbor some native species such as migratory Monarch butterflies.

This makes restoration tricky, as the non-native Eucalyptus trees impact the native grasses and forbs underneath. Like all restoration, the process is gradual, and Margot oversees the removal of individual hazard trees and sick trees down in the park, one by one, so as not to disturb nesting hummingbirds or butterflies. A native grove of Coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) grows on the north end of the hill, likely an original woodland, that in the future may be freed from the domineering tall Eucalyptus.

Margot Cunningham at an ancient bedrock mortar rock used by the Ohlone people to pound acorns into flour, in a coastal prairie patch she is restoring on Albany Hill.

It amazed me to see Margot’s photos of black-tailed deer and a pair of gray foxes frolicking in this small live oak grove, in the middle of a vast metropolitan area. The deer have connectivity with larger wildlands such as the regional parks and water district ridges and valleys behind the Oakland-Berkeley Hills, as they walk between houses and gardens in the dark of night. Perhaps the foxes travel through the suburbs at night as well to access patches of oak and grassland. I’ll have a future blog post about these wildlife sitings.

Beautiful stands of Foothill needlegrass (Stipa lepida) still cover the slopes of Albany Hill, as they once did over thousands of acres of the East Bay back in time. I will have more to say about this also in future blog posts.

Margot found other native coastal prairie plants here, including rare plants. She carefully collects seeds from the native plants to grow more individuals in order to restore the hill.

Elymus glaucus from Albany Hill, grown from seed
Native grass seedlings grown from local seeds, getting ready for transplanting onto Albany Hill. Photo courtesy TASH.

Some of the threats to Albany Hill are the presence of private inholdings that include relatively pristine coastal prairies on the southwest slopes of the hill, outside of the park, land owned by Chinese companies that may in the future decide to sell or build condos here. This would be a terrible loss of native plant communities that are vanishingly rare in the Bay Area.

Other threats include trash, vandalism, poor water quality in the small creeks that flow around the hill into the Bay, and invasive species such as English ivy, Scotch broom, and the ever-abundant Mediterranean annual grasses and forbs.

Margot tirelessly organizes volunteer crews to pull up the invasive plants by hand, and hires tree-cutters to take down the larger woody invasives.

No herbicides are used in order to preserve the healthy soil and water quality of the area (tree frogs and stickleback fish live in Cerrito Creek). Black tarps are pinned over cut stumps to gradually eliminate the invasive woody plants. Native species are transplanted into the areas where invasive species were removed.

I’ll be returning to report on the coastal prairie of Albany Hill often in the future, it is a very special place that shows how small acreages of restored natural California can co-exist in our own backyard towns and neighborhoods within the immediate radius of booming Silicon Valley. As long as there are people like Margot to take care of them.

Following Margot on a trail through the coast live oak woodland on Albany Hill. Who could tell we are in the middle of a bustling Bay Area metropolis?

Albany Hill native coastal prairie and oak woodland is an island in the urban Bay Area.

Wildlife Viewing at Point Reyes

Bobcat hunting in coastal prairie at Golden Gate National Recreation Area adjacent to Point Reyes National Seashore.

These are some of my natural history observations over the years from my field notebooks in the coastal prairie at Point Reyes National Seashore. The Pacific edge grasslands are full of biodiversity, from salmon to salamanders and frogs, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Wildlife watching in this habitat can be quite rewarding, and Point Reyes is one of the best places to catch a glimpse of what early California was like before European contact.

From my Field Notebooks:

April 4, 1997 – A clear, cool, windy day at Tomales Point in Point Reyes National Seashore. I came to observe the tule elk here, while I was researching my book, trying to imagine California grasslands filled with herds of this endemic California elk subspecies (Cervus elaphus nannodes).

I found the 21 young bulls at 8:30 AM grazing in the bottom of a ravine in grassy areas. Others lay on open ridge-tops. Their antlers were growing, some mere nubbins, others larger and round in velvet. Groups of cow elk were lying about in the morning sun or grazing peacefully. All the elk were still shedding their winter coats.


A coyote (Canis latrans) walked along the grassy slope near a group of elk. It saw me and trotted off away.

My bird list this day at Tomales Point:

  • Turkey vulture
  • Great blue heron
  • Northern harrier
  • Surf scoter – seen from the coastal prairie out on the sea.
  • Herring gulls
  • Mourning dove
  • California quail
  • Barn swallow
  • Western bluebird
  • American crow
  • Common raven
  • California scrub jay
  • Wrentit
  • Wilson’s warbler
  • Yellowthroat
  • Red-winged blackbird
  • Song sparrow
  • House finch

On the drive out, two black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus)–a pregnant doe accompanied by her yearling from the previous year, fed in the grassy field near Bear Valley.

For some reason, this area is one of the best places to view bobcats. at 2 PM I found a bobcat hunting gophers in grassy hills in Golden Gate National Recreation Area (adjacent to Point Reyes National Seashore).


June 25, 1997 – Tomales Point at 8:15 AM, Point Reyes National Seashore. I came for tule elk watching. I found a herd of 16 large bull elk with antlers well-grown and in velvet. I noticed their antlers were relatively smaller than those of tule elk at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in the San Joaquin Valley. Is the range behind the tall fence on Tomales Point poorer nutritionally than the rich riverine grasslands of the Central Valley?

A cow elk herd was lying in the sun on a grassy hill, their fur color still a pale winter light brown, just growing in their redder summer coats. A few growing elk calves grazed among the cow elk, some still with their baby spots.


California poppies grew in elk beds in the grass.

A brush rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmani) hopped into a north coastal scrub patch from the grass edge.

My bird list:

  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Northern harrier
  • American crow
  • Anna’s hummingbird
  • Barn swallow
  • Western bluebird
  • Yellowthroat
  • Swainson’s thrush – singing in a brushy canyon.
  • Brewer’s blackbird
  • Song sparrow
  • Savannah sparrow
  • White-crowned sparrow
  • American goldfinch
  • House finch

September 24, 1997 – A warm, clear day at 7 AM on Tomales Point, Point Reyes National Seashore. A wave of fog blew in off the ocean as I watched with binoculars in the morning. The tule elk rut was in full swing now, the bulls bugling their high trumpeting squeal to each other. At 7:15 AM a stirring chorus of bugling occurred–almost continuously and simultaneously from several bulls together. Harem bulls herded their cow groups about, while younger bulls practiced fighting and clacking their new antlers together. Larger bulls faced off and clashed. The day proved to be rewarding for field sketching and watching elk behavior.


Meanwhile a pair of ravens walked through the grass near the elk commotion, oblivious and possibly hunting grasshoppers–one ran down the hill after something, ignoring the fighting bull elk.

At one point a doe Axis deer, or Chital (Axis axis) walked by near the elk–these introduced game species from India have since been removed from the park.

My bird list out on the coastal prairie and north coastal scrub patches that day:

  • Red-tailed hawk
  • American kestrel
  • Northern harrier
  • White-tailed kite
  • Killdeer
  • California quail
  • Long-eared owl – in a willow copse.
  • Black phoebe
  • Say’s phoebe
  • Western bluebird
  • American pipit
  • Wrentit
  • Blue-gray gnatcatcher
  • Western meadowlark
  • Red-winged blackbird
  • Brewer’s blackbird
  • Song sparrow
  • Savannah sparrow
  • White-crowned sparrow
  • Golden-crowned sparrow
  • House finch
  • Lesser goldfinch
  • American goldfinch
  • Lawrence’s goldfinch – a rare siting!

September 27, 1997 – a clear day at 1 PM, Kehoe Beach, a freshwater marsh behind the beach in the coastal prairie in Point Reyes National Seashore. I saw an Aquatic  Western garter snake (Thamnophis couchi).

(Check out this helpful illustrated plant list of the Kehoe trail at Calflora by Marin California Native Plant Society.)

I was lucky enough on Tomales Point, while listening to the tule elk harem bulls bugling, to view a white-tailed kite out on the coastal prairie.



Coastal Prairie Conservation

Since beginning the exploration of California’s ecological history decades ago, I quickly became aware of the lush coastal grasslands bathed in summer fog and Pacific winter storm fronts, as I discovered my childhood house in the East Bay on the El Cerrito-Berkeley Hills was once coastal prairie.

The place is now converted to urban streets, houses, and exotic trees and gardens, with little hint of what the landscape was like 200 years ago.

As I delved deeper into trying to reconstruct California’s natural past, I found remnants of coastal prairie all along the California Coast, and my research evolved into the writing my book on pre-European contact California landscapes and wildlife.

This blog seeks to focus on the coastal prairies that I have studied, their ecology, identification, geography, history, threats, and avenues towards conservation and restoration. I will also discuss wildlife that is associated with coastal prairies, past and present.

The fields of science, natural history observation, art, illustration, writing, and advocacy are my tools of choice towards including a broader audience in sharing my appreciation for this increasingly rare natural community that once formed the dominant scene along the Pacific Coast of the Golden State.

Let’s explore the coastal prairie!