Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Gardens Gone Native: A Native Plant Garden Tour in the Sacramento Valley

Last Saturday, I spent a very enjoyable day touring 13 of the 21 gardens featured in the 2018 Gardens Gone Native Tour, hosted by the Sacramento Valley chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

The centerpiece of this front yard is a young Valley Oak (Quercus lobata).  It is surrounded by plantings of Silver Bush Lupine, Western Redbud, Deer Grass and more, all interlaced with inviting pathways and scattered with annual California Poppies.

According to their website,

"The purpose of the Gardens Gone Native Tour is to support the mission of the Sacramento Valley Chapter of the California Native Plant Society by raising awareness of the beauty and environmental functions of California's diverse native plants.  Our goal is to provide members of our community with the opportunity to view outstanding examples of native plant gardens, promote the benefits and use of California natives in home and public gardens, and provide information on how to plant and successfully grow native plants."

Gardens were located from Woodland and Davis in the west, to various neighborhoods in Sacramento proper, east to Rancho Cordova, Fair Oaks and Citrus Heights, and provided excellent examples of how to incorporate native plants into landscapes in our region.  Gardens ranged in size from a one acre rural garden, to a 0.7 acre suburban yard bordering the Sacramento River, to the small courtyard of a condo.  And every garden was alive with native butterflies and birds! 

The vertical elements of Deer Grass are balanced by soft mounds of Silver Bush Lupine behind, and California Fuchsia in front.  The California Fuchsia will be covered in red blooms from summer through fall - a hummingbird magnet!

Gardens of native plants provide valuable, even critical, habitat for wildlife in an increasingly paved world.  Some birds and butterflies will visit non-native ornamental plants as well as natives, but they are really adapted to live in harmony with our native plants.  Native plants provide the most benefits for native birds and pollinators, and some species feed exclusively or nearly so on only one or two native plants.  Some species of butterfly are very host-specific, laying their eggs on just one type of plant.  For example, several gardens we visited on the tour were alive with Pipevine Swallowtail Butterflies (Battus philenor hirsute), simply because homeowners planted this butterfly's host plant, California Pipevine (Aristolochia californica).

California Pipevine and its pitcher-shaped flower (also a couple of California Poppies)

Native plant gardens are an absolute treat for the senses.  They are a delight to look at, of course, as light plays through the heart-shaped foliage of Western Redbud and glints off of the silver leaves of Bush Lupine, flowers bloom in profusion and Deer Grass sways in the breeze.  But as winding paths beckon visitors to meander slowly through the plants, the garden truly comes alive: Feel the textures, drink in the scents, admire the colors, listen as the wind plays through the leaves and birdsong fills the air. 

Western Redbuds, nearing the end of their prolific bloom cycle, are the eye-catching centerpieces of this front yard.

Not only are native plants a delightful sensory experience, they are also beneficial from a practical standpoint as well.  They require less maintenance than a traditional landscape - certainly less work than mowing, edging and hedging once a week during the summer!  Native plants are adapted to local conditions, so once they are established, they require very little supplemental water. 

The ground cover in this front yard is Lippia, which spreads rapidly to form a lawn-like replacement that can tolerate some traffic.  (It also has neat little flowers.)  Also in this yard are representatives of Ceanothus, Manzanita, and Salvia, three genera of California natives that are an excellent place to start for those new to native plants.

Though planting one yard with native plants may not seem like enough to counteract the millions of acres of lost habitat in California, it can really begin to add up.  And to a winged creature - bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, songbirds, and even larger birds - little patches of habitat where they are able to rest and refuel during migration can mean the difference between success or failure for an animal.  The birds and butterflies will find your habitat patch, no matter how small it is! 

But dream with me for a moment... about what it would be like to live in neighborhoods that were nestled into local plant communities, integrated into the surrounding landscape! 

I would be delighted to see all of our non-native landscape plants replaced with California natives!  I dream of a California where...

Silver Bush Lupine
Toyon replaces Photinia...
Elderberry replaces Oleander...
Oregon Grape replaces Nandina...
Bush Lupines replace Raphiolepsis...
Manzanitas replace boxwoods...
Coffeeberry replaces Pitosporums...
Redbud replaces Butterfly Bush...
Ceanothus replaces Bottlebrush...
Salvias replace Eyonymus...
Pipevine replaces ivy...
Chaparral Clematis and native honeysuckles replace Chinese Wisteria and other ramblers...
Lippia and fescue blends replace lawns...

And on and on!

There are a number of flowering natives to choose from if you want to grow a cottage garden that is a riot of color nearly year-round.  Try a few of the following perennials:

Pacific Coast Iris
Pacific coast iris
Western Columbine
Monkey flower
California fuchsia
Blue-eyed Grass
Sierra tiger lily
Snowy and narrowleaf milkweed
Red and Sulfur Buckwheat
Coral Bells
Coyote Mint
Salvias, like Hummingbird Sage and 'Bee's Bliss'  

California Poppy & Baby Blue Eyes

... And annuals:
Tidy Tips
Five Spot
Baby blue eyes
Chinese houses
And of course California poppy!

If you're tired of mowing and fertilizing and watering and weeding that boring patch of grass, I strongly encourage you to consider replacing it with a vibrant and living assemblage of native plants. The initial investment will greatly pay off in the long run!

If you missed the garden tour this year, mark your calendar for next April and visit the website for updates, as well as photos from previous years.

And here is my list of favorite online resources for gardening with native plants:

The website of Las Pilitas Native Plant Nursery is a phenomenal, one-stop-shop resource with a wealth of information.  I have spent countless hours on this site...

Las Pilitas has a tool that lets you discover the natural or historic native plant community of your area based on your zip code: Plant Community Tool.  This is an excellent way to find out what should be growing where you live and helps narrow down your selection to local choices.  Not all California natives are suitable for all regions in California!  (For example, though Coast Redwoods are native to the state of California, they are NOT appropriate for planting in the Central Valley, which is way outside of their natural range and has a climate that is vastly different from the cool, moist, foggy belt where they occur naturally.)

For a more in depth search, use the online "survey" (also designed by Las Pilitas) to answer questions, like how often do you water, what is your soil type and how much sun your plants will receive.  This returns a tailored list of plants suitable to your location as well as your garden's specific conditions.  Access the tool here:

My Native Plants

The California Native Plant Society also has an excellent website dedicated to gardening with native plants.  Here you can find design inspiration and how-to information as well as their own tool for selecting plants based on your location.  Access the website here:

California Native Plant Society

Both the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society have online tools that have users type in a zip code (anywhere in the U.S.), and returns a list of plants appropriate for that region.  The NWF focuses on plants for butterflies, while Audubon focuses on plants for birds.  Follow the links for both here:

NWF Native Plant Finder

Audubon Native Plants Database

To find a native plant nursery near you, the California Native Plant Society has put together this excellent mapping tool: Native Plant Nurseries in California

However, if you follow the link above, the unfortunate truth is the map shows a large empty spot in the Valley between Sacramento and Fresno, where there are no native plant nurseries.  I live within that empty spot!  So I've done a little sleuthing on my own to discover a few additional places that sell native plants...

UC Davis periodically holds plants sales at their arboretum teaching nursery.  Not all of the plants are native, but many are!

Check with your local chapter of the California Native Plant Society for annual or biannual plant sales.  For example, the North San Joaquin Chapter and Sierra Foothills Chapter are both near me!

Some nurseries may be too small to earn a spot on the map, but worth looking into.  In the Sonora region, The Garden Company and Solomon's Gardens both sell California natives. 

Blossom Hill nursery out of Oakdale sells California natives at periodic plant sales - the next one is this Saturday (April 21st, 9am-2pm)!

Even large nurseries like Frantz Garden Center in Hickman and Westurf in Modesto stock a few native plants in amongst the typical characters.  It's always worth a look.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Chuckwallas and Other Miniature Dinosaurs of the Colorado Desert

Perhaps, just perhaps, there is a place where dinosaurs walk among us. 
Common Chuckwalla, peering out from beneath a shrub in Borrego Palm Canyon
Perhaps the Colorado Desert of California is another "Isla Nublar" and Jurassic Park could also take place here, amongst ocotillos and chollas... rather than Isla Sorna's Coast Redwoods that would never be found growing on tropical Costa Rican islands in the present day, never grew there in the past, and were not even around during the reign of the dinosaurs at all. 
(This is what happens when botanists watch Hollywood films...  Though I realize Coast Redwoods are ancient trees that grew during the warm, wet climate of the past, they flourished across the northern hemisphere during the Tertiary Period (65-1.6 million years ago), which is known as the beginning of the age of mammals and took place after the extinction of the dinosaurs.  I've hiked Fern Canyon and I suppose redwoods and ferns do look like they could have been growing during the reign of the dinosaurs' and must have seemed appropriate enough for the habitat that Dr. Hammond was trying to create for his dinosaurs.  Clearly, he should have consulted Dr. Ellie Sattler, the paleobotanist (and my favorite character).  The real problem I have is that the islands in the book/movie were in the tropics, where fully-mature several-hundred-year-old Coast Redwoods just wouldn't be found.  But I digress.) 
All of that to say, we certainly encountered an abundance of reptilian life last week in the desert.  Perhaps the Colorado Desert, and other deserts of the American Southwest, remain as great strongholds of living dinosaurs, mini versions of their long-extinct kin.
Desert Spiny Lizard near the Salton Sea

Together, the Mojave and Colorado deserts of Southern California are home to 80% of California's reptile species.  There are even a few surprising amphibians that make their livings in harsh desert environments.  Most are anurans (the taxonomic order including frogs and toads) that have adapted to arid conditions, like spadefoot toads.  Other surprising desert anurans include the California Treefrog, a species that requires the permanent water of desert oases.  It was an unexpected experience to hear a chorus of treefrogs while camped beside a creosote bush, within sight of several cholla cacti, at the mouth of an arid canyon!  (The frogs inhabited a small nearby palm oasis.)

A larva (tadpole) of what I presume to be a California Treefrog, in Borrego Palm Canyon, San Diego County.
(Herpetologists, please correct me!)

Most reptiles found in the Colorado and Mojave deserts are squamates - scaled members of the order Squamata, which includes all lizards and snakes.  There are more lizards in the desert than any other bioregion in California, and almost all of California's nearly 40 lizard species have ranges that extend into desert regions.  Likewise, 26 of California's 37 snake species also make their home in the desert (which includes five species of rattlesnake). 

Desert Iguana

Desert lizards range in size from the tiny Desert Night Lizard (1.5-2.75 inches long) to the whopping Common Chuckwalla (Sauromalus ater).  The Chuckwalla reaches a snout-to-vent length of 9 inches, a measurement that doesn't include its substantial tail, which is nearly as long as its body.  (Total lengths can be up to 20 inches!)  This two-pound reptile is the only species of Californian lizard that is nearly entirely herbivorous as an adult.  In the United States, it is the second-largest lizard; only the 14-inch, five-pound Gila Monster is larger - and also venomous.  (Conjuring up Jurassic Park memories yet?)
Chuckwallas are active during the day, from spring through fall.  From late fall through winter, they remain in an inactive state similar to hibernation (called brumation).  They may also enter into estivation (summer or warm weather hibernation) during dry years when food is scarce.  As cold-blooded animals, or ectotherms, they require external energy from the sun to warm their bodies.  In the morning, they emerge from rock crevices to bask on sun-warmed rocks until their body temperature raises sufficiently to forage. 
A basking Chuckwalla in Borrego Palm Canyon
The coloration of individual Chuckwallas varies (from light to dark or even reddish) with age, gender and region (based on the colors found in the surrounding habitat).  Incredibly, their color also lightens as they warm up.  In the mornings when they emerge from rock crevices, they are dark in color, which allows them to absorb the most heat.  As their bodies warm up, they lighten in color, thus reflecting heat during the hottest part of the day. 
In addition to requiring rocks for basking, Chuckwallas need deep, rocky crevices for protection from predators as well as from the elements.  The only defense of the Chuckwalla is to wedge itself firmly and deeply inside protective rock crevices.  When threatened, it puffs itself up by inflating its lungs to prevent being pulled out by a predator.
The large rocky areas inhabited by Chuckwallas have one more surprising benefit for these almost exclusively herbivorous reptiles: the rocks water the Chuckwallas' gardens.  When rain falls on rocks, it runs off, soaking into the ground or even pooling at the base of the rock.  In this way, the rocks "collect" a surprising amount of water.  This creates a microenvironment at their base perfect for growing a lush crop of annual plants, like the grasses and forbs favored by Chuckwallas, that far surpasses the amount of plant growth found in surrounding areas.  Conveniently, the rocks provide shelter, basking sites and even food for the Chuckwalla, all in one location.
Five Chuckwallas, enjoying the morning sun on a favorite basking rock. 
(Also note the presence of inviting, protective crevices!) 
While Desert Night Lizards are classic habitat specialists, restricted to the leaf litter beneath Joshua trees, the habitat of Chuckwallas is almost just as restricted.  These large lizards require rocky terrain, including canyons, hillsides and isolated outcrops of rock.  My Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California states: "A typical habitat consists of a group of massive angular, fractured rocks that provide elevated outlooks, deep crevices, and platforms for basking." (Stebbins, 2012)  And this describes the habitat we found them in exactly (see photo above). 
Borrego Palm Canyon, with its combination of rocky canyon walls and outcrops, stretches of sandy substrate and wash bottom habitat, is an excellent place to see not only Chuckwallas, but a variety of other lizards as well.  With so many species sharing similar food preferences (insects), lizards practice niche partitioning, illustrated below.

This illustration shows how so many species of lizards are able to successfully coexist within a limited area, such as
Borrego Palm Canyon.  Illustration from A Natural History of California (Schoenherr, 1992) 

For further reading about California's diverse array of reptiles and amphibians, I direct you to an excellent book in the California Natural History Guides series, Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California,(Stebbins and McGinnis, 2012). 
For more information on the natural history of California's deserts in general, Allan A. Schoenherr's comprehensive A Natural History of California has a nice chapter on deserts; the entirety of The California Deserts: An Ecological Rediscovery, by Bruce M. Pavlik, is also an excellent resource!
And, of course, you can read about my previous adventures in desert herping (searching for reptiles)by following this link.

Desert Horned Lizard, Joshua Tree NP, April 2016

P.S.  I know there are a few problems with my Jurassic Park dinosaurs - Colorado Desert lizards comparison.  For one, California's deserts would have pretty much been inundated by water during the age of the dinosaurs; dinosaur fossils are more common on the Colorado Plateau, particularly in the deserts of Arizona and Utah. 

The second problem, of course, is that dinosaurs are probably more closely related to birds and crocodiles than modern lizards.  But they sure do bear a striking resemblance! 

So maybe if we talked about the desert's Greater Roadrunners instead...  Perhaps they are the real living dinosaurs of the Colorado Desert!!

A dinosaur-esque Greater Roadrunner, appropriately crossing the road. Death Valley NP, April 2016

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Birds of the Desert: Residents & Spring Migrants

Nearly everyone knows the desert as a barren, desolate land of extremes: high heat, low precipitation; little available food and water; prickly, spiny, unfriendly plants growing in a sea of rocks and sand as far as the eye can see.  But for those who stop and look closer, the desert reveals itself as the beautiful, incredible, mesmerizing place it truly is, teeming with unexpected life.

Juvenile male Costa's Hummingbird visiting chuparosa blooms next to our campsite in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

I particularly love the desert in the spring, when the annual wildflowers, cacti, flowering trees and shrubs are all in bloom.  (I've experienced the desert in the searing 120 degree heat of summer, and the rainy, even snowy cold of winter... and spring wins every time!)  Eric and I just returned from a week in the Colorado desert, exploring the imperiled, accidental Salton Sea (more on that coming soon), the vital wetlands of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, and the desert washes, badlands, canyons and palm oases of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

To describe all of this in one word?  Beauty.  Absolute beauty, everywhere we looked.  Many people don't see the appeal of the desert (or understand my fascination with it), speeding through in air conditioned vehicles as most tend to do.  And even I must admit that from the highway, miles of sand and spindly creosote bush doesn't look like much to entice visitors. 

But after a night under the stars and waking to a desert sunrise, you might begin to think differently.  And after putting boots to earth and hiking into the desert wilderness to get up close with wildflowers of every description, prehistoric-looking chuckwallas, and more hummingbirds than you can count, I assure you, the desert will absolutely come alive!

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

When one thinks of wildlife in the desert, I imagine what comes to mind for most people are the reptiles - the snakes, lizards and tortoises that are perfectly at home in arid environments.  And it's true that the deserts of California hold the greatest number of reptile species in the state.  What is perhaps surprising, though, is the number of bird species that also call the desert home.

The low-elevation Colorado desert is home to such intriguing species as the Cactus Wren, which builds its nest in the protective spiny arms of cholla cacti, and Greater Roadrunners, which prey almost entirely on lizards and snakes. 

Cactus Wren

Black-tailed Gnatcatchers are also true desert denizens, living year-round in dry washes and areas of desert scrub.  The territory of one individual included the indigo bush behind our tent, so the chatter of the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher formed a happy soundtrack to our week!  While several hummingbird species migrate through the desert, the dazzling Costa's Hummingbird stays year-round.

Male Costa's Hummingbird

The lively little Verdin is another true resident of deserts, a diminutive species you are likely to both see and hear while hiking through washes of mesquite and palo verde.  Verdins seem to get all the water they need from the insects they eat, and have reportedly never been seen drinking.  I did watch several Verdins eating palo verde blossoms and/or nectar, though!


In the Colorado Desert, Gambel's Quail and Abert's Towhee replace California Quail and California Towhee; Ladder-backed Woodpeckers replace Nuttall's Woodpeckers, and Crissal Thrashers replace California Thrashers.

Gambel's Quail

Colorful White-winged Doves and small Common Ground Doves cohabitate with the more familiar Mourning Dove, and the recently introduced (and much larger) Eurasian Collared Dove.

White-winged Dove

Common Ground Dove

Phainopeplas and Hooded Orioles are typical desert species, though both of these birds can also be found in Northern California as well.  While hiking up Borrego Palm Canyon, I spotted a few clumps of desert mistletoe in some catclaw acacia trees growing along the wash.  I commented to Eric that this would be the place to see Phainopeplas, since they love mistletoe berries, and just as the words were coming out of my mouth, a gorgeous male flew into a nearby tree and perched.  This illustrates just how closely some birds are associated with certain plants!


Brewer's Sparrows and Black-throated Sparrows are two little brown jobs likely to be encountered year-round in the desert, though other species, like the common White-crowned Sparrow, behave like true snowbirds and spend winters in the desert.

Brewer's Sparrow, taking shelter from the heat in a creosote bush

While Great Horned Owls and Burrowing Owls make their home and breed in the desert, a few Long-eared Owls spend the winter here.  Any encounter with an owl is special, and we were lucky enough to spot this roosting Long-eared Owl napping quietly in a grove of introduced Tamarisk (Salt Cedar) trees.

Long-eared Owl

In addition to the birds that make their living in the desert year-round, a large number of species pass through during the spring and fall migrations.  Warblers, vireos, flycatchers, goldfinches, Western Tanagers, Lazuli Buntings and several hummingbirds species are common spring migrants through the desert, often encountered near palm oases and washes with lush vegetation.  (I saw several Nashville Warblers, a beautiful Warbling Vireo, a couple of flycatchers - Gray and Hammond's - and Black-chinned Hummingbirds!) 

Warbling Vireo

What may be inhospitable to migrant birds during the summer months becomes a vital stopover and refueling ground during the spring, after winter rains have brought plants (and insects) to life.

Like so many things, the desert is much more than it seems.  It is not, in fact, a barren wasteland, by any stretch.  It is a delicately balanced ecosystem filled with amazingly well-adapted species of plants and animals that live on the edge of extremes, perfectly in tune with the seasonal rhythms of life.  Hopefully this very brief overview of the desert's rich birdlife begins to illustrate the great value of this bioregion - and encourages you to first explore and discover, then come to know and love, and finally appreciate and advocate for our deserts! 

"I want YOU to help protect my home!"
- Mrs. Costa

Friday, March 30, 2018

Birds of the Desert: Black-throated Sparrow

A bird of the arid southwest, the Black-throated Sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata) is a fairly common inhabitant of desert scrub.  As Eric and I prepare for our annual springtime pilgrimage south to scope out desert wildflowers and birds, it seems only fitting to review a species we are likely to encounter!  (The following photos were all taken in 2016 at Joshua Tree National Park.)  

Unlike some birds, the Black-throated Sparrow doesn't seem to have adapted well to suburban environments.  As a result, numbers may be decreasing in areas where development and suburban sprawl are eating up large chunks of desert wilderness. 

The diet of the Black-throated Sparrow consists largely of seeds, though they consume more insects during the summer months (which also contributes to their water intake).  These striking little birds forage on the ground, but like many birds, the males perch conspicuously and sing to defend their territory (as the fellow in these photos was doing), especially during the breeding season.

Now... it's time to pack up the tent and all those field guides, and head for the desert!!

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Red-breasted Mergansers

While birding at a couple of my favorite places along the coast last weekend, I was able to get a few decent photos of one cool duck: the Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator).
Male Red-breasted Merganser in the harbor at Moss Landing
Found along the Pacific Coast during the winter months, the Red-breasted Merganser keeps to salt water (unlike its freshwater kin, the Common Merganser) and catches fish by diving; they are powerful underwater swimmers.  Birds, by definition, lack teeth, but Mergansers have sharply serrated bills that allow them to keep a tight grip on wriggly prey items.
Female (or non-breeding male) Red-breasted Merganser, Pacific Grove
Like so many of our waterfowl species, Red-breasted Mergansers are most abundant in California during the winter months.  They are often found in bays, estuaries and harbors, and I've had luck seeing them in the Monterey-Pacific Grove area as well as in the harbor Moss Landing.  
Red-breasted Merganser pair, Moss Landing harbor
Red-breasted Mergansers are migratory birds, and spend the warm, breeding season farther north, in the boreal forests of North America.  Unlike cavity-nesting Common and Hooded Mergansers, which both nest in tree cavities, Red-breasted Mergansers construct shallow feather-lined nests on the ground, sometimes beneath an overhanging rock or shrub, near freshwater lakes and rivers.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Birds Among Us: Learning to Bird Along the Coast

I am fortunate enough to live within about a two-hour drive of the Pacific Coast (which is far enough away to avoid the traffic and potential earthquake damage, but close enough for day trips!).  Some of my earliest and fondest childhood memories involve days spent on the beach at Carmel, and entire weekends and weeks spent along the rocky shore in Pacific Grove with my dad, building sandcastles and poking around in tide pools. 

Until I began birding seriously a few years ago, most of my time along the coast was spent like this:

Following in the footsteps of "Doc" Ed Ricketts:
tide-pooling in Monterey's Great Tide Pool area

... Looking for things like this:

Hermit Crab

... And this:


... And this:

California Sea Hare (found already dead, washed up on the beach)

I was aware of "seagulls" and "sandpipers," maybe even vaguely aware of that mystical group known as the "sea birds" which exist somewhere out there beyond the breaking waves.  But I had no concept of the richness and diversity of bird life that is found along the Pacific Coast of Central California.  Too busy looking down, running in the waves and peering in tide pools, I missed even the most common birds. 

Suffice it to say, it was with great excitement that I learned there are around a dozen species of gulls found along our coast, probably about nine that I'd call fairly common. 

Western Gull, our most common coastal species

And that flock of black birds roosting out on the rocks?  Those are cormorants - though they could be one of two, maybe even three different species! 

Brandt's Cormorant

Shorebird species abound, and they really don't look all that much alike, once you start to learn how to tell the plovers from the sandpipers! 


Imagine my delight at seeing my first male Surf Scoter, a sea-going duck with an ornately-colored face, and how thrilled I was to discover that several species of loons overwinter along our shores!

Surf Scoter

I must have scrambled over rocks and gazed into tide pools countless times right alongside Black Turnstones and Black Oystercatchers, without ever noticing them!  Both birds make their living by foraging along the rocky shore and are darkly colored to blend seamlessly into their habitat of seaweed-covered rocks.  Now, I see them (and hear them) every time I visit the coast - often as soon as I get out the car!

Black Oystercatchers

The amount of birdlife along the Central Coast is staggering!  Some species, like Heermann's Gulls, visit during the winter and breed in the Gulf of California; others, like Sanderlings, overwinter here and breed as far north as the Arctic Circle!  And many remain here year-round.  Some prefer sandy beaches, others mud flats, and still others require rocky shores.  A good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope even brings some of those mysterious sea birds closer.  Point Pinos in Monterey is a great place for spotting sea birds with a powerful scope (scoters, auklets, murres, shearwaters, jeagers, even albatrosses!) and the harbor at Moss Landing often brings a few seabirds closer to shore, providing a quiet place for them to rest and fish.  (The harbor at Moss Landing is a reliable place to see loons, scoters, murres, terns, and lots of gulls!)

The harbor at Moss Landing: it may not look like much, but it's a favorite of mine, and birders come here from around
the world!

Of course, I still love tide pools and the magical creatures that live there, making a life at the intersection of two extreme places.  Within the tide pools of the rocky shore lie one of the greatest secrets of life: things are always more than they appear at first glance, and it behooves us all to pause for a closer look.  A cursory glance at a tide pool reveals little; it is only after careful observation one will begin to notice the abundance of life hiding just beneath the surface.  A purple-striped crab scuttles by; a minute, sand-colored sculpin keeps still to avoid detection; flower-like anemones wave their brilliant tentacles.  Bustling hermit crabs, secretive limpets and tiny, brightly colored nudibranchs all carry out their lives in tide pools, beautiful microcosms of life that offer a glimpse into an enchanted world, to those willing to look.

A glittering tide pool in Monterey

But now, I have also learned to look up! 

The tide pools along California's rocky coast, along with its stretches of gorgeous sandy beaches, tidal mud flats and estuaries (like Elkhorn Slough), vibrant dune and coastal scrub habitat, and kelp forests beyond and beneath the waves, are all intrinsically linked together in a biologically rich and diverse ecosystem.  And the birds, perhaps more than any other group of living things, serve to bind these habitats together: the dunes and the Snowy Plover, the kelp forests and the Sea Otters (and the gulls that hang out with them), the beaches and the Sanderlings, the mudflats and the shorebirds, and of course, the rocky shores with their tide pools and the birds that depend on them are all smaller parts of the greater system, and all are precious!

A Black-bellied Plover searches for a meal along the rocky shore

Peering into the pools is mesmerizing, as surf grasses and colorful algae (which seaweeds really are) move gently with the rhythm of the sea and strange creatures emerge from rocky crevices.  But always remember to be respectful and tread lightly while visiting these special places: many species have suffered considerably from over-collecting.  Take nothing but photographs and place all animals back exactly as you found them.  Watch your step so as not to crush the little rock-dwelling animals that live here.  They have valuable roles in the ecosystem - not least of which is feeding our newly discovered oystercatchers and turnstones!

In the vicinity of Point Pinos and The Great Tide Pool of Monterey.  In this photo are cormorants, oystercatchers and turnstones (though they aren't visible) to say nothing of the thousands of tide pool creatures among the rocks and the vast kelp forest beyond the waves!