Friday, May 24, 2013

Nature Study at the Beach

Inspired by Barb's recent descriptions of local hikes she has taken (she has me itching to make the trek to Yosemite!), I want to invite you on a tour of the Santa Cruz area, where we took a vacation recently.  It is a lovely stretch of coastline that has so many gems for families living a Charlotte Mason education.  And plenty of new nature-friends to meet!  Let me introduce you...

Neary Lagoon
This lagoon is a city park, a small preserve in the middle of a residential part of town, and you can either circle the park on foot via a dirt trail or walk through the lagoon by way of plank bridges that go out into the wetlands.  We opted for the latter, of course!  

I was hoping to see more waterfowl here, but I have a feeling that the inevitable noise of our "little" family might have been part of the problem--this was a very quiet park, with no street noise and very few people there when we were, so the happy shrieks of the baby and the fussing of the toddler were amplified. ;)  

Nevertheless, we did see plenty of the usuals (mallards, geese, coots), and we saw a wood duck for the first time, which my son recognized right away thanks to his  beautiful--and distinct--coloring.  Unfortunately, I couldn't get a photo, but we all drew our own at home.  And added him to our Life Lists!

There were also lots of new wildflowers:

Wild garlic, I think?
Yellow iris
Jerusalem sage
And this striking butterfly, who alit on a leaf just above us and stayed put long enough for me to get a sharp-ish photo.  I think it's a Lorquin's Admiral.

There are actually several lagoons in the city, so I think next time we're over there, we may try another.  It's a nice geographical change of pace from the beach--not that we could ever get sick of the seashore!  Speaking of...

The Beach!
We went to a few different beaches, some old favorites and some new to us, some run-of-the-mill stretches of sand, some a bit less commercial.  Either way, lots to see:

One of my very favorite parts about the local beaches are the curlews, who run along the shore all day.

I think these are whimbrels, but they could also be long-billed curlews; the two look almost identical.  From what I have read, both are present in the area but the former are more common.  Whichever they are, they are so fun to watch, darting around and dipping their slender beaks into the sand.  

Lots of lovely shells from the beaches that don't restrict collecting: 

Oh, and this little guy:

Isn't he cute?  (He's a striped shore crab.  Common but striking nonetheless!)

Natural Bridges
One of the natural gems of the Santa Cruz coast.  Besides being breathtakingly scenic, it boasts a monarch preserve, extensive rock flats for tidepooling, a creek that opens up to the ocean, trails through meadows and eucalyptus groves, and a visitor center.

I had a great time exploring the tidepools with my two oldest.  The climb onto the rocks is easy enough even for children, and on the way, we were treated to gorgeous markings along the rocks at the beach's west end, which are apparently formed of Santa Cruz Mudstone.  Nature's art, indeed!


And once we got up onto the flats, there was so much to see: anemones, mussels, crabs, limpets, many kinds of seaweed, dogwinkles, clams, acorn barnacles, turban snails and more.......

And what a view!

Once again, the birds there were such a treat: atop the rock bridge were a group of pelicans, flying above the waves offshore were a flock of cormorants, and of course, curlews and gulls by the dozen.  

Farther inland along the creek trail were dark-eyed juncoes and a sweet family of mallards--my daughter practically squealed when they spotted the three little ducklings.  

And the trail was lined with dune flowers, including sand verbena and these two varieties of ice plants (aka sea fig):

Seymour Marine Discovery Center
This was a new spot for us: a small-scale aquarium (when compared with the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium an hour south) that is part of the working marine lab at UC Santa Cruz. 

The emphasis here was on how marine scientists work, both in the lab and out in the field.  The placards labeling the inhabitants of each tank weren't just informational; through guided questioning, they led visitors through the same kinds of investigation that scientists have done and are doing in this field.  A great introduction to marine biology for little ones!

My favorites there were the sunflower starfish, which were just gorgeous, and the decorator crabs.  The latter made for an interesting case study: biologists noticed that these crabs' shells were covered with whatever objects were in their surrounding environment.  Some had red algae and some had green algae, for example, depending on where they lived.  The scientists wondered why: either (1) the crabs happened to be suited to their environments naturally (green-algae crabs born among green algae, for example), (2) the algae was growing naturally on their shells, or (3) they were adorning the shells themselves as a defense mechanism.  They guessed it was the third reason, but needed to test the theory, so they put the crabs in a tank with colorful pom-pom balls.  They have replicated this experiment there at the Center, and yep: they're crawling around the tank with pom poms all over their shells!  So colorful. :)

My children's favorites were the touch pools (especially the super-soft leather starfish), the bottle-nose dolphins, and the giant blue whale skeleton outside.  

This is actually the smaller of two whale skeletons on site!

And they got to pet a swell shark!  (As you might imagine, my 6yo son was thrilled.)

And that's some of our Santa Cruz highlights.  Needless to say, I'm looking forward to our next visit!


  1. Wow! I love the nature journal entry of the Wood Duck! The photos of the mudstone are very cool, too! :)

  2. Wow! What a great and detailed beach study. I especially like the different beaches you visited.