Sunday, June 25, 2017

Campground Spotlight: Gold Bluffs Beach, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

The summer camping season is well underway, and what better way to escape the heat of California's Central Valley than to head for the north coast?  The northern "Redwood Coast" of California offers a cool, foggy, forested respite for those of us who reside in the warmer and drier parts of the state.  Redwood National and State Parks offer a selection of campgrounds and a network of hiking trails to suit all types of outdoorsy folk, from tent campers and backpackers to day hikers and sightseers.  If you're into rugged coastline, lush redwood forests, wildflower meadows and herds of roaming elk, then Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, located about an hour north of Eureka on Highway 101, is the place for you.

During a recent trip, Eric and I spent several days at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, hiking and observing the local flora and fauna.  We camped for two nights at Gold Bluffs Beach campground and two nights at Elk Prairie campground, both of which exceeded all expectations.

The small campground at Gold Bluffs Beach is nestled among dunes just a couple hundred yards from the breaking surf.  Above the campground are the "gold bluffs," which prospectors mined (with little success) during the late 19th and early 20th century.  The campground is accessed by Davison Road, 5 miles of steep, winding, rough unpaved track through the forest.  To add one extra element, the road was wet and muddy when we drove in, which greatly added to our adventure (and Eric's trepidation).  Even so, our little Corolla managed just fine, and we saw plenty of other small two-wheel drive cars at the campground.  (No trailers of any kind are allowed on the road, and vehicles must be no wider than 8 feet and no longer than 24 feet.  Trust me, this rule is in place for a reason!)  One mile from the campground is the trailhead to the popular Fern Canyon, so despite it all, the road is heavily trafficked.

The view from the Gold Bluffs Beach campground can't be beat.  Choose a site facing the ocean (reservations are required May through September) and you'll have an unobstructed view of the mighty Pacific all to yourself.  Provided the weather cooperates, the sunsets here are phenomenal.  (In the event that the weather does not cooperate, be prepared for heavy, misting fog that has the penetrating capability of a soaking rain.  Put the rain fly on your tent regardless of the weather, and bring a raincoat and waterproof footwear.  We were certainly glad we were prepared!) 

Rain, fog or shine, the sea is always magnificent, and falling asleep to the sound of breaking waves is an experience you'll not soon forget.

In the morning, don't be surprised if you find large (very large) elk tracks in the sand not too far from your tent!  Roosevelt Elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti) roam the campground freely, browsing as they move across meadows between the forest and coastal strand.  They may look tame, but they are very much wild; like all other wild animals, do not approach the elk and never feed wildlife

Because California's redwood forests are home to the endangered Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) Prairie Creek Redwoods and all other redwoods state and national parks have adopted a serious policy for protecting these special birds.  Marbled Murrelets are small sea birds; they belong to a group known as alcids, which includes puffins, murres and auklets.  While they spend most of their lives at sea, Marbled Murrelets nest high in old growth redwood trees (a curious habit that is unique among seabirds, and was not discovered by scientists until  1974) and both eggs and young are vulnerable to predation by corvids - that intrepid group of birds that includes crows, ravens and jays.  Predatory corvids are drawn to campgrounds and picnic areas by the food scraps and garbage that people leave behind.  With a virtually unlimited, unnaturally rich supply of food at their disposal, crow, raven and jay populations have experienced significant growth, resulting in artificially high numbers of these individuals.  This translates to an artificially high number of murrelet predators, and a decrease in the already threatened murrelet population. 

To combat this problem, parks require that visitors watch a short video on keeping campsites "crumb clean," as well as sign a statement acknowledging that you understand the rules and will be responsible in keeping your campsite free of garbage, food scraps, unattended food and anything else that might attract corvids, down to the very last crumb!  It may sound extreme, but it's really common sense and good practice to follow anytime you are anywhere in nature, in keeping with the "Leave No Trace" ethic.  The campgrounds also require that you store your food and other scented items (like toothpaste, deodorant, etc.) in the bear-proof lockers provided, or out of sight in your vehicle. 

The campsites at Gold Bluffs Beach are equipped with picnic tables, fire rings and bear-proof lockers.  The campground has potable water spigots, flush toilets and hot showers (a real luxury!)  And of course, don't forget the incredible views!

For more information, visit Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park's website:

Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Flora of California's North Coast: Beyond the Redwoods

The magnetic draw of California's North Coast has a lot to do with its stunning forests of towering Coast Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens).  But as is always the case, there is more to this ecosystem than a cursory glance would indicate.  High rainfall and fog-drip allow a lush understory of ferns and forest wildflowers to thrive among the redwoods.  May and June are good months to visit the redwoods and experience the spring wildflower show.  The following collection of photographs are wildflowers of the redwood forests, found in Prairie Creek Redwoods, Grizzly Creek Redwoods and Patrick's Point State Parks on our recent trip north.

Western Azalea (Rhododendron occidentale)
These shrubs are absolutely stunning in full bloom, along with the similar Coast Rhododendron, pictured below. 
Western Azaleas are also found in the Sierra Nevada.
Coast Rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum)

Columbian Windflower (Anemone deltoidea)
These beautiful white Anemones brighten up the forest floor and are one of my favorites!

Columbian Windflower (Anemone deltoidea)

Pacific Starflower (Lysimachia latifolia)
These small flowers grow close to the ground and may be easily over-looked.  A few moments to look more closely is
time well-spent.

Andrew's Clintonia (Clintonia andrewsiana)

Douglas Iris (Iris douglasiana)

Buttercup (Ranunculus sp.)
In damp, creek-side locations, look for the shiny, glowing flowers of Buttercups.

Western Wakerobin (Trillium ovatum)
Unfortunately, the lovely white blooms had already dropped from the Trilliums by late May. 

False Lily of the Valley (Maianthemum racemosum)

Claspleaf Twistedstalk (Streptopus amplexifolius)
A quick glance down at this plant won't reveal its flowers; peek underneath the leaves to
find the delicate bells.

Salal (Gaultheria shallon)
A member of Ericaceae, the same family as heath, heather and our familiar Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos sp.), Salal
is synonymous with the Pacific Northwest. 

Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana)
This photo doesn't do this plant justice: a green, "clovery" carpet of Redwood Sorrel in bloom beneath towering
redwoods is a beautiful sight indeed!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Pacific Giant Salamander at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Recently, Eric and I spent several days camping and hiking in the redwood forests of Northern California, visiting Prairie Creek Redwoods, Grizzly Creek Redwoods and Patrick's Point State Parks.  In four days, we hiked just over thirty miles of absolutely stunning terrain, always alert for interesting flora and fauna.  The temperatures were cool and ideal for hiking, the forest wildflowers were in bloom, and the birds were not entirely uncooperative: in the depths of night, a pair of Barred Owls caterwauled for a solid 45 minutes from the redwoods above our tent, and many other diurnal species enchanted us with their songs.  Very few birds actually showed themselves, though, instead remaining hidden in the dense verdant undergrowth and high above in the redwood canopy.  Quick glimpses of thrushes and warblers were all we were allowed.  The gulls at Gold Bluffs Beach were obliging, as they typically are, and I was excited to spot a very far-off flock of Pacific Loons rafting beyond the surf.  The Roosevelt Elk, for which Prairie Creek Redwoods is famous, were bold and unconcerned by the presence of gawking tourists. 

But the most exciting discovery I made during our explorations was that of a humble salamander.

But this is not just any salamander: this is the Pacific Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon tenebrosus), the largest terrestrial salamander in North America.  One may wonder why finding a salamander was so exciting for me, as a naturalist whose interests more commonly lie in plants, birds and mammals.   At the most basic level, I was excited because not everyone who visits the redwoods gets to see a salamander.  The redwoods are a given sight for anyone driving highway 101; the wildflowers bloom in predictable seasons.  The elk are almost guaranteed to be seen at Elk Meadow and Elk Prairie.  And the birds of the redwoods, while elusive, make themselves known through song.  But it's not every day one gets the privilege of observing a salamander!

Pacific Giant Salamanders measure from 7 to 11 inches long, their bodies mottled browns and grays to perfectly blend in with the damp forest floor.  Salamanders are amphibians, and as such their reproduction depends on water.  Adults are terrestrial, though never far from rivers and their tributaries.  Terrestrial adults spend their days hidden in damp retreats beneath logs, rocks and leaf litter on the forest floor.  They emerge to forage most commonly during rainy nights, though the overcast and foggy days which grace California's northwest coast favor some diurnal activity. 

Pacific Giant Salamanders, recently earning distinct species-hood after being separated from the similar California Giant Salamander (D. ensatus), inhabit cool, humid forests of California's North Coast Range, north of the Gualala River in Mendocino County.  Their range extends north to the border of Washington and British Columbia.   (California Salamanders are found in similar habitat from approximately the northern border of Sonoma county south through Santa Cruz county.) 

After spring breeding has occurred in clear streams, larvae of the Pacific Giant Salamander hatch in late fall or winter.  Larvae metamorphose into adult salamanders during the second summer after hatching.  Pacific Giant Salamanders feed on insects and other invertebrates (like Banana Slugs) as well as small snakes, lizards, other salamanders and rodents.  Prey is hunted by the sit-and-wait approach, the salamander sitting quietly before lunging out to capture whatever happens by.  They are not particular, provided the prey item can fit in the salamander's mouth! 

Pacific Giant Salamanders rely on clear, shallow water for reproduction.  Clear-cut logging and the erosion that follows severely degrades this habitat by allowing previously clear streams to become silted, or filled with sediment.  Though there is no official protection for this salamander, it luckily shares habitat with Steelhead Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and Coho Salmon (O. kisutch), two species of considerable concern.  The creeks in which these two endangered fish species breed are protected, and as a result, salamander habitat is also preserved.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Common Loons: The Spirit of the North Woods Visits California

For whatever reason, I have long been fascinated by loons.  Like the mournful call of the Gray Wolf echoing across a frozen wilderness, there is something in the cry of the Common Loon that embodies the very essence of wilderness, inspiring a sense of adventure while also instilling a feeling of peace and tranquility.

Or at least, that's what I've led myself to believe, having never heard the call of the loon in person.  (It's on my to-do list.) 

Common Loons visit coastal California during the non-breeding winter season.  As it would happen, loons are generally silent during this time of year, and cry their eerily beautiful and plaintive song primarily during the breeding season (i.e. when they're not in California).  Common Loons are synonymous with wilderness lakes of the north woods, breeding across Alaska and Canada, as well as the very northern reaches of the United States.  (Minnesota seems to be known for its loons, and breeding loons also reside in Glacier National Park.)  During the winter, Common Loons wear drab non-breeding plumage; this is how they are typically dressed in California.  But in the spring, just before they migrate north to breed, they change into the classic and elegant breeding plumage typically associated with Common Loons.

During the breeding season, loons prefer quiet, open lakes sheltered by conifer forests, but may also breed on tundra ponds beyond the treeline.  They are particularly sensitive to human disturbance, and tend to favor remote stretches of wilderness.  In the winter, Common Loons migrate to ocean waters, typically staying in shallow, nearshore areas where they are usually solitary.  The loons in these photos were seen at Moss Landing, in the vicinity of Elkhorn Slough
Loons are designed for fishing.  They have dagger-like bills and their streamlined bodies are propelled through the water by large webbed feet set far back on the body.  The feet are set so far back that these birds are very awkward and top-heavy on land (picture a duck, standing or walking with its body balanced over its legs, then imagine the legs moved back toward the tail).  Loons very rarely come ashore other than to breed and nest.  Loons are excellent divers, submersing silently and without a splash to pursue fish.  When fish are scarce, loons may also feed on invertebrates like mollusks, crustaceans and insects.
Common Loon in drab winter plumage
Loons are highly submersible; unlike other birds, they have dense bones that allow them to be less buoyant and better suited to swimming underwater great distances in pursuit of fish.  Like grebes, loons can submerge themselves in the water, leaving just their head exposed above the surface.  They frequently dip their head below the surface to look for fish.

Loons require large, open lakes, as they need a sort of "runway" before taking flight.  Up to a quarter of a mile of unobstructed water is required as the loons flap their wings and run along the surface of the water before takeoff.  Like many other species of wildlife, loons also depend on clear, unpolluted water. Acid rain reduces the fish populations loons depend on, and oil spills, especially common in ocean waters where loons spend the winter, are death sentences for loons.  Lead poisoning is caused when loons ingest lead fishing sinkers along with pebbles from the lake bottom (necessary for grinding food in the gizzard), and has caused a significant number of loon deaths.  Human activity on lakes and along their shores - particularly the use of motorboats - has led to the abandonment of numerous historic nesting sites.  Climate change is also a major threat to loon populations.

If you plan on visiting the northern woods and lakes that are home to breeding loons, consider your impact on local wildlife.  Create as little disturbance as possible.  Whether you're camping, hiking, fishing or boating in the north woods, along coastal waters or anywhere else, always always practice "Leave No Trace" ethics and clean up after yourself - and others!
Since I've talked so much about it, listen to the call of the Common Loon at Cornell's All About Birds: 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Sanderlings: Arctic Swashbucklers

Sanderlings (Calidris alba) are smallish sandpipers of the swash zone, perhaps the "peeps" seen most commonly on the beaches of central California.  They stick together in flocks as they run up and down the beach, chasing the waves as they forage in the swash zone.  (The swash zone is the part of the beach that is covered with each incoming wave, and uncovered again to reveal potential tasty morsels beneath the sand.)

The rather cute, gentle appearance of Sanderlings belies their amazing life strategy.  These birds may not look it, but they are truly daring, swashbuckling adventurers, flying thousands of miles between overwintering grounds around the world and breeding grounds high above the Arctic Circle. 

Sanderlings are one of the most widespread shorebirds in the world, found during the winter on most temperate and tropical beaches.  For most of the year, they can be found in California, though numbers are lowest in June when they return to the Arctic to breed.  A few nonbreeding adults may stay behind during the summer, saving themselves the energy required to migrate. 

After incredible long-distance migrations, Sanderlings breed on the tundra far above the Arctic Circle.  They nest on dry tundra with low growing plants, such as lichens and mosses, building nests on the ground.  These nests are little more than shallow scrapes, perhaps lined with small leaves.

A favorite food of Sanderlings is sand crab (Emerita analoga), thumb-sized crustaceans that spend most of their time buried in the sand.  Sanderlings also eat other invertebrates, such as amphipods (shrimplike crustaceans with laterally compressed bodies, sometimes called beach fleas or sand hoppers) and isopods ("pillbug"-like crustaceans with dorso-ventrally compressed, or flattened, bodies), as well as marine worms and small mollusks. 

Aside: If you happen to be interested in the dazzling array of invertebrates that inhabit California's enchanting coastline, I highly recommend Ed Ricketts' classic book, Between Pacific Tides.  It has yet to be surpassed in breadth and depth in the nearly 80 years since its original publication in 1939, and I find it to be very readable and enlightening.

Sanderlings in May, beginning to show colorful breeding plumage

Sanderlings are pale most of the year, gray above with extensive pure white on chest and bellies.  Most commonly, this is how we see them during the winter months in California.  During the summer breeding season, Sanderlings' backs and heads become flecked or spangled with black, white and red.  The birds we saw at Moss Landing recently, during the second week in May, were beginning to show their brighter breeding plumage (see photo above).

Sanderling in March, much paler in color as they appear through the winter.
Though this is a common and widespread species, its future is not considered entirely certain.  According to Cornell's All About Birds website, between 1959 and 1988, the number of Sanderlings in California decreased by 3.7% each year.  This decrease is likely due to development of shoreline habitat as well as exposure to toxins.  Pesticide runoff from nearby agricultural fields, oil spills, municipal runoff (chemicals, oils, etc. from cities' storm drains) and ever-increasing plastic pollution on our beaches and in our oceans pose very real threats to shorebirds and the greater ecosystem.  Overwintering habitat is critical for migrant shorebirds like Sanderlings, and in California much of that habitat is protected by California's State Beaches.

Next time you visit the beach, pay special attention to the small shorebirds chasing the waves in the swash zone.  Learning to identify Sanderlings is the first step in decoding the sometimes mystifying group of sandpipers and other shorebirds.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Caspian Terns at Moss Landing

Terns are a neat group of birds, and Caspian Terns (Hydroprogne caspia) are particularly eye-catching with their bright bills and dark caps.  They are in the same family as gulls, Laridae, though unlike gulls, terns seem to be generally free from the stigma that is usually attached to those ubiquitous birds of the coast.  While visiting Moss Landing recently, I spotted (and heard) quite a few terns swooping overhead; I was excited to see a few on the ground, within range of my camera!

The Caspian Tern is the largest species of tern in the world; it is as big as a large gull, and is frequently seen in mixed flocks with gulls.  They occur on every continent except Antarctica. 

Terns are known for their aerial dives, and Caspians are no different.  They fly over bodies of water while looking down to spot fish.  When they see potential prey, they dive steeply and plunge into the water in hopes of nabbing a fish.  Earlier this spring, at Elkhorn Slough, I watched several smaller Forster's Terns (Sterna forsteri) dive into the water repeatedly after their quarry.  It's quite a sight to see!

Caspian Terns breed in colonies, which they defend fiercely.  Breeding colonies are found on island beaches in rivers, salt marshes, lakes and other protected bodies of water.  Nests are shallow scrapes in the ground, lined with vegetation, shells and other debris. 

During the winter months and migration, terns roost on islands and isolated spits of land.  Caspian Terns can be found along the coast of central California year round, though their numbers seem to be highest from spring through fall.  They prefer protected waters to the open ocean.

Look for Caspian Terns, and other terns, flying high over the water, head angled down searching for fish.  Their plunging dives are spectacular and unmistakable.  Also listen for terns; like their gull relatives, they can be boisterous and make rather grating calls.  You might hear them before you see them!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Western Snowy Plover: A Threatened Species

Western Snowy Plovers (Charadrius nivosus nivosus) are small, sparrow-sized shorebirds, found up and down the Pacific coast in decreasing numbers.  They are cryptically colored and easy to overlook, as they blend in perfectly with the sand and bits of driftwood and sea wrack of their beach habitat.  Like other plovers, Western Snowy Plovers belong to the family Charadridae, along with our more familiar and conspicuous Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous).  I personally think Snowy Plovers are one of the cutest birds around. 

Ranging from Washington to Baja California, Western Snowy Plovers forage on beaches and foredunes for very small crustaceans, invertebrates and insects.  The breeding season lasts from March through September, which unfortunately coincides with the period of heaviest use of beach habitat by tourists.  These diminutive shorebirds nest on sandy beaches and shores, at stream mouths and on coastal dunes, laying three very tiny, perfectly camouflaged eggs in small nests made of seaweed, driftwood pieces, pebbles and sea shells.  Chicks leave the nest a few short hours after hatching, and adults lead them to suitable feeding sites where they teach the young plovers to forage in the sand among washed-ashore kelp and dune vegetation. 

The sad irony is that the same defense that protects the nests from predators, cryptic coloring, makes them vulnerable to trampling and crushing by uninformed and unaware beach-goers.  Tourists, vacationers, equestrians and frolicking dogs pose a large threat to nesting snowy plovers; a child or adult can easily step on and destroy a whole nest and never know.

Each time a nesting adult is disturbed and frightened off of its nest, the parent bird loses precious energy in running or flying away.  The abandoned nest is left vulnerable to predators, burial by blowing sand, and cooling off or overheating (both of which kills the developing chicks inside the eggs after just a short time).  Human activity near nest sites can cause adults to remain away for long periods of time; a kite hovering above a plover nest is perceived as a predator (such as a hawk) causing distraught parents to abandon the nest.

In 1993, the federal government listed Western Snowy Plovers as a threatened species due to low population numbers caused by habitat loss and destruction, loss of nesting sites and increased predation.  Development and human activity along the coast has led to a precipitous decline in suitable coastal strand habitat.  Introduced species that become invasive, such as European Beachgrass and iceplant, further compound the problem by crowding out native vegetation on small fragments of remaining dune habitat.  Dunes choked with non-native vegetation lack the open spaces plovers need for nesting, and thick plant cover provides hiding places for plover predators.

Natural predators of the snowy plover include falcons and owls, along with opportunistic mammals like raccoons and foxes.  However, humans have increased the number of plover predators by intentionally introducing animals, such as red foxes, dogs and feral cats, and by unintentionally attracting animals that thrive alongside humans, like crows and ravens.  Ruthless nest predators, these corvids scavenge the wake of garbage that follows wherever humans tread, receiving an unnatural nutritional boost that leads to greater reproductive success.  More hungry corvids in the area means fewer eggs and young of threatened birds, like Western Snowy Plovers and Marbled Murrelets (Brachyramphus marmoratus )in the north, hatch and grow to maturity.

The Wild Bird Rehabilitation program at Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the main shorebird rehabilitation facilities in Northern California, and these dedicated wildlife workers have had success with Western Snowy Plovers.  The following is a quote from their website:
"We work with local and regional parks and avian conservation groups to rescue abandoned, threatened or damaged eggs, chicks and adults during the breeding season. These are incubated and reared for release. Since 2000 we've reared and released 123 plovers at Monterey Bay beaches, including 80 that hatched from eggs."

Prior to release, Snowy Plovers are banded by Monterey Bay Aquarium.  The tiny, colored bands allow the birds to be tracked over the course of their lives.  Snowy Plovers typically return to the same beaches every year to breed, and the bands are vital to the data collection process.  California State Parks works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and bands plovers as well.  If you do see a Snowy Plover on the beach, it will most likely be sporting several colored identification bands on its tiny legs.

California State Parks estimates that Snowy Plovers nest at just over 20 sites in California, a number that has been cut in half in the last several decades.  Less than 1,500 breeding plovers are left in California, and about 2,500 along the entire Pacific Coast.  To help ensure the survival of the species, California State Parks monitors Snowy Plover numbers and breeding efforts, and closes portions of beaches from spring through fall to protect nesting habitat.  Much of the remaining habitat suitable for Snowy Plovers is on California State Parks beaches.

By following a few basic rules, you too can help the Snowy Plovers this breeding season!

Never approach plovers, nests or eggs.  Even if you don't see the birds (which you probably won't), obey posted signs and stay away from designated areas.

When you see roped off sections of beach, please, please, please respect the plovers' habitat and stay out.  Snowy Plovers, as well as their nests, eggs and chicks, are all very small and well-hidden; you probably won't see any birds or nests in the roped off area, but that doesn't mean they aren't there.  Even well-meaning people can accidentally destroy nests by stepping on them and crushing the eggs.   

Please obey posted signs and keep your dogs leashed!!

Never, ever feed wildlife.  This includes cute, innocuous-looking squirrels, bold gulls and everything else that is wild.  Feeding wildlife causes myriad problems; in this case, it attracts nest predators, like gulls, crows and ravens, that eat plover eggs.

Please clean up after yourself!!  Clean up all of your trash - and while you're at it, pick up a few extra pieces of garbage on the beach.  Human trash invites plover nest predators, like ravens, crows, foxes and raccoons; it draws them to the area, then creates an artificial source of energy, allowing them to be more reproductively successful which compounds the problem each season.  Plastic and other refuse is also dangerous and deadly for all manner of sea life (including birds).

Do not remove pieces of driftwood, sea weed, rocks or shells from California beaches.  This "junk" on the beach is part of the ecosystem and provides cover and nesting materials for Snowy Plovers.  Feel free to remove garbage: plastic bags, balloons, Styrofoam, broken flip-flops.  Help yourself!

An informative brochure from California State Parks about sharing the beach with Snowy Plovers can be found here:

Share this with fellow beach-goers!

An important postscript:  These photos were taken with a zoom lens from behind a barrier a respectful distance away from the birds.  I stayed just a minute or two.  If you see Snowy Plovers this summer, take just a minute to get your fix of cuteness and maybe snap a couple of photos.  Don't hang around the birds or try to get closer.  And for goodness sakes, don't ever chase or pursue a plover for a better photo!  You may do more harm than you will ever know. 

Appreciate these little guys from a distance, then let them get back to the task at hand, which is, hopefully, raising a small brood of young: just one part in ensuring the survival of this species.