Monday, November 4, 2013

Nature Study at the Beach - A Fall Visit

We made an early-fall beach trip a few weeks ago that I'm finally getting around to sharing here.  It was a great example of noticing the little things that change seasonally in a forever-mild place like this and how those changes really do matter to little learners that are used to noticing, watching, observing, and journaling. 

This was our first longish vacation to the Santa Cruz coast in the fall.  We went to most of these same beaches last May and the May before, and we were just south of here last July, but the fall months were new to us.  I didn't expect for there to be much of a difference; even though the on-season rates run Memorial Day to Labor Day, the weeks before and after our official summer look pretty summery around here!

But there actually were quite a few differences that we noticed right away compared to our springtime visit.  I want to highlight those here, as well as some new places we discovered.

:: More seaweed on the beaches.  Most tourists would consider this a nuisance, probably, and if you have been near huge clumps of seaweed, you know that oftentimes, well, it smells.  It also attracts flies, which aren't what most people would consider beachy fun.  

still pretty photogenic, though, no? :)

BUT the reason that it smells and attracts flies is because there are live and dead sea creatures living in that seaweed.  And for nature-lovers like my kids, that's a plus!  All that extra seaweed afforded us lots of opportunities for observation.  At Capitola and Natural Bridges, we watched the large flocks of birds peck their way through the seaweed, angling for mussels, shrimp, and even these huge oval-hockey-puck-ish animals.  Anyone know what they are?  They were about 10-12 inches long and, though they were shaped like abalone, the "shells" were actually soft and fleshy.

They were a particular favorite of the gulls--and of my son, who happily found a huge blue one and carried it over to our umbrella with his shovel.  It smelled absolutely terrible, so we took it away and set it up on a log to look at and take pictures of.

We saw a handful more wash onto the sand with the tide, some brown and some pink.  As soon as each was spotted, one of the gulls would claim it and start eating...and flap his wings at any others trying to sneak a bite.  I've never seen them be so possessive!

We also had a great time finding different kinds of seaweed and trying to document and identify them.

:: More birds.  We didn't see more varieties of birds this time--in fact, I think we saw fewer.  But as for the total number of birds, there were definitely more this time around.  I have literally never seen so many birds in one place in my life!  The children stood and stared for a long while.

The pictures do not even begin to do justice to the huge flocks of cormorants, pelicans, and gulls that were so thick they created a haze along the horizon.  They were everywhere!

:: Different birds.  Despite the huge number of birds, there were a few we missed this time around: particularly, the curlews.  In visits past we have seen large flocks of them skirting the waves of the local beaches daily.  They are so fun to watch with their long stick legs and thin beaks.  This time: not one.  Thank goodness we had the turnstones to keep us occupied!  

We also saw so many different kinds of gulls--a Santa Cruz perennial, so not exactly new for us.  Gulls are one of the species of birds that take years to develop their full adult plumage; along the way, they go through partial and full moltings a couple times a year.  This makes it hard for novices like us to distinguish between the subtle differences of different gulls and all the possible stages they could be in.  But it's fun to try anyway!

:: The lagoons.  Along the Santa Cruz coast, there are lots of little lagoons, or inlets of water created partly by a flow of fresh water from a creek or river and partly from the ocean water flowing in during certain tides or seasons.  Some of them are lagoons proper, meaning that saltwater still flows in and out.  Some are now technically "lakes," since dams and then roads have been built separating the flow of water and turning the lagoons into freshwater lakes.  We visited Schwan Lake (formerly Schwan Lagoon) this time around, as all the cormorants we see along the beach seem to fly in and out of that area and I was curious whether we might see some nesting spots.  We didn't, though plenty of cormorants flew over us.  It was a lovely place anyway, a good spot for a short morning walk.

It's a very different place from the beach even though the sand is literally in walking distance.  I was hoping we would be able to get down to the lake's edge, but there was no safe path for doing so.  The water was covered in marsh pennywort, which was a surprise because we didn't notice the overgrowth last time we were there.  But apparently it's a recurring problem for the local wildlife and a constant battle for those monitoring the natural reserve.  Thankfully, the water birds didn't seem to mind--we saw mallards and coots making their way across and around the lake the whole morning.  Their tracks along the water as they swam through looked like jet contrails in the sky.

:: The ranch.  We visited another new park this time as well: Wilder Ranch, just north on Highway 1 past Natural Bridges.  We spent a quiet morning there, running in and out of the old buildings, visiting with the few farm animals, walking through the apple orchard and vegetable garden...

...and climbing in what seemed to be an enchanted tree!

Seriously--doesn't it!?

There were quite a few other amazing plants there too:

biggest gingko I have ever seen!

lovely "fall foliage" :)

 And these fantastic spiky bushes had little pathways carved into them--delightful.

This would be a charming place for an afternoon picnic.  Lots of shade and hidden nooks to explore, and very low-key for small ones.

I also saw quite a few wildflowers there that had already come and gone in our hometown.  Interesting how an hour's drive can mean an entirely different climate and nature calendar!  That's one of the things I love about our part of the country.

:: Sea lion.  I doubt this was seasonal, but we also spotted a sea lion swimming in the waves for the first time.  We have seen plenty of them lounging on rocks and cavorting along the piers a bit farther south in the Monterey area and north by San Francisco, but this one spent a couple hours swimming up and down Twin Lakes beach about 50 yards off the shoreline.  He was in the break of the waves, so we could see his outline clearly in the vertical feet of water formed by each big wave as it passed him.  And he was feasting, because we could also see (ahem) a ribbon of red now and then. ;)  The gulls followed him the whole way, trying to land on his back whenever he popped up and pecking non-stop at his leftovers.  He was undeterred.

:: Dried up creeks.  When we went to Natural Bridges in the spring, we had a wonderful time watching a family of mallards in the pond, which is filled with water and runs from the meadows down toward the coastline and, at certain times of year, extends onto the beach and into the ocean itself.  This time, the entire creek and pond area was dried up.  The children were a bit sad at first--the pond and ocean side-by-side made such a scenic view.  But then we climbed down into the creek bed, which was still soggy.  It was such fun to poke around.

And I think it was pretty scenic anyway, don't you agree?


  1. Just lovely.
    Thanks for sharing!
    My son and I enjoyed a little ocean scenery. We're in the middle of a snowy weekend here.

  2. i want to live next to you and do nature study with you...