Saturday, February 1, 2014

Coast to Coast

We flew from coast to coast recently, from Jacksonville, Florida to Santa Cruz, California. And what a difference a continent makes! But it's not an "in your face" difference. It's gradual. Whether you drive or fly, you have time to get used to the blending of one area to the next, and then there you are. Other than on maps and at official borders there is no real indication that you've suddenly crossed into new territory. It's all relative. If you look at things on the microscopic level, the change from one square foot to the next can be startling. Or from city to city or state to state, or continent to continent. But if you look from a distance, say outer space, you can see how small and similar everything is. The oceans are all connected when it comes down to it. But you get off the plane in California and you know that you're not in Florida anymore.

Usually the difference when we travel is that we're going from subtropics to everywhere else. We're usually coming from a warm and humid place. But this time, when we left Florida, it was just starting to warm up from the Polar Vortex. The rest of the country was still freezing, but not California. As we flew across the middle of the country, the ground was covered with snow and every body of water was frozen into shining ice, glistening in the muted winter sun. After a few hours the terrain turned rougher and whiter as we approached and crossed the Rockies. And then as we eased over Nevada and the Sierras, there was less snow, brown earth, and the mountains were more rounded as they eased towards the ocean. We could definitely see the result of the severe drought in the West. In California, the January weather was reaching into the balmy 70s and 80s by afternoon, in contrast to the frozen middle and east.
The first morning, I woke up at 3:30, as one tends to do when jet lag hits. I tossed and turned, trying to sleep until sunrise, but finally couldn't stand it any more. Even though it was 7am and dark still, my brain said it was 10am and I had to get outside. So I watched the sunrise and went exploring at a Water Reclamation Park (Neary Lagoon) that was a few blocks from where we were staying. It was quite nice, with a couple of miles of paths and boardwalks winding through wetlands. Most of what I saw walking around felt very familiar, with the usual freshwater marsh and pond denizens. Some animals and plants are more ubiquitous. Ducks and coots, grebes and blackbirds were happily enjoying the sunrise as they would in Florida. California flora and fauna, I saw, is in many ways very similar to Florida. Yes, they have Redwoods and Eucalyptus, but both coasts have palm trees and pine trees, citrus and flowering shrubs. But then the little birds showed up and confounded me. They looked vaguely familiar, but to identify them I had to look in my field guild--Dark Eyed Juncos, California Towhees, Black Phoebes, Anna's Hummingbirds. Close to what I know, but so different!
Good Old Familiar Coot

Townsend's Warbler

Dark Eyed Junco

Black Phoebe

California Towhee
The next day we walked along the coastal cliffs, and here is one of the biggest differences between N. California and Florida. The peninsula of Florida is essentially a big sandbar, rising up out of the ocean. Millions of years ago when seas were higher, Florida was ancient sea bed. People can find great fossilized shark's teeth in creeks and river beds all over the state because of this. During the ice age, thousands of years ago, sea levels were lower and Florida was twice as big because more land was exposed. Seashores slope gradually into the sea. Florida is flat! Northern California is high and mountainous with coastal ranges that drop off right into the ocean, the cliffs jutting out over the sea. Parts of the coast are on the edge of the San Andreas Fault. When the plates shift and adjust, earthquakes result and the edges push up just a little higher. Wave action further erodes the cliffs. The shores are rocky, and the water is cold and rough. One website I consulted described the Florida coastline as "a coastline of submergence" and the N. California coast as "a coastline of emergence". The cliffs seem to pop right out of the sea.
The Coast at Big Sur
Looking out over the cliffs you can see the huge waves that attract surfers and dolphins. The height gives you a vantage point from which to see whales, sea lions and seals. We happened to be there during the Gray Whale migration and saw many spouts and tails. That was a thrill of a lifetime! These mammals are so immense, and yet they look so tiny out there on the vast ocean. The cold deep water of the Monterey Bay is home to the great kelp forests. The ocean in California smells different than the ocean in Florida. It's the smell of the kelp. You can see the tops of the kelp beds from the cliffs, and in them you're likely to see Sea Otters floating on their backs, anchored to the kelp with one foot, cracking clams and crabs on their bellies with rocks. Opportunistic Seagulls wait and steal from the otters when they can. Egrets appear to be walking on water when they stand on the kelp and hunt.
Gray Whale Spouts and Fluke

Sea Otter and Opportunistic Seagull
You don't get the full effect of the kelp forest unless you see it from below. The best place to do this (without scuba diving) is to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They have created a kelp forest in a huge tank in the aquarium where you can see the amazing diversity of the Bay. All of the ocean life that they display is brought in right from the Bay, with occasional exhibits of exotic jellyfish and tropical fish. It's the best aquarium I've visited. I can spend hours watching the kelp forest swaying with the waves, with the Sea turtles, Sharks and schools of Tuna. Their permanent jellyfish exhibit is incredible. And I can never get enough of the Anchovy tank! They're located right on the Bay, so during lunch or after your visit at the Aquarium you can step outside and watch the wildlife right on the water. During our visit we saw Pelagic Cormorants gathering seaweed to build nests on the piers of the Aquarium, Monk Seals and lots of Sea Otters.
Kelp Forest

Nettle Jellies

Swimming Anchovies

Pelagic Cormorant with Nest Materials
Another day we took a trip to Año Nuevo State Park to see the Elephant Seals. This was a really special place, located between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay on a coastal highway. We took a 2 hour tour on boardwalks over the dunes. Access to the Elephant Seals is restricted, both for their safety and for the safety of visitors. Our docent guide led us to carefully, knowing that the giant Elephant Seals might move around a lot and could be anywhere on the trail. At one point he walked ahead of us and stopped. Then he told us that he had crossed the San Andreas Fault and if an earthquake happened, he'd drop into the sea and we'd be on our own. Little joke. The Elephant Seals are enormous (14-16 feet long and weighing over 2 tons) and they come to this beach to give birth and to mate. They get their name from the flappy trunk-like proboscis found on the mature males. We were told that the proboscis helps the males project sound to assert their territory. The females give birth in December. They find a good place on a safe, high beach that won't flood with the tide, because the pups won't be able to swim for the first month while they nurse and grow. The mother will need to stay with it to keep it warm, protect and feed it. We didn't actually see any being born, but we saw many, many pups. The pups are born with lots of baggy skin to accommodate the quick growth that will be necessary for them to live independently, swimming great distance and keeping warm in the cold ocean water. They grow from 75 pounds at birth to up to 350 pounds in ONE MONTH! Their mother's milk is 55% fat. After the pups are weaned, they are on their own! The males will mate with the females about a month after they give birth. The males fight among themselves to determine dominance and the right to mate. They are pretty aggressive! After mating, the fertilized egg takes a few months to implant, giving the female a chance to build her strength again at sea before beginning gestation, and to be back onshore again to give birth a year later. Our guide told us that the Elephant Seals don't defecate or urinate while they are onshore because they don't eat while they are there. They only feed at extreme depths (2000-5000 feet) when they are far out to sea. They spend most of their lives in the ocean, coming to land only for short periods to mate and give birth. Strange and amazing animals.

Our Docent Guide

Young Male Elephant Seals Dozing

Mother and Wrinkly Pup--They Grow Fast and Change Color in a Month
She's Not That into Him--There Was Another Dominant Male Nearby and This Guy Didn't Stay Around Long
Mothers and Pups Keeping Cool with Sand in the Hot Sun--Note the Transmitters on this female.

We saw 3 species of pinnipeds in California--Elephant Seals, Monk Seals and Sea Lions. Florida has no seals, as the last Caribbean Monk Seals were hunted to extinction. Florida has manatees, which California does not--too cold. California also does not have alligators, and I have to admit that it was nice to walk through the Neary Lagoon and not wonder if an alligator would be sunning itself on a bank. They have snakes, coyotes, mountain lions and foxes, although I didn't see any. I did find the mummified remains of a raccoon on the cliff rocks.
Mummified Raccoon
A trip out on the Santa Cruz Wharf gave me my first view of Western Grebes, which are stunning birds with long necks, red eyes and sharp bills. I also saw a Murrelet, some Whimbrels, Surf Scoters and a big cluster of hungry Sea Lions.
Western Grebe

Surf Scoters--They All Dive and Reappear in Unison


Sea Lions at the Wharf

I have no idea what this bird is. It was pretty, though. A kind reader has ID'd this as a Female Brewer's Blackbird!
Our trip was very short, only a couple of days, and one of the things I wanted to do was go visit Natural Bridges State Beach on the Santa Cruz Bay. We were almost there but ran out of time. Monarch Butterflies come there to overwinter, like they do in Mexico, though in much smaller numbers. I saw numerous Monarchs flying around Santa Cruz, enjoying the nice warm weather. Another thing we missed was the tide pools along the rocks. They are a lot of fun and I don't know of a place in Florida that has anything like them. Next visit to California I will have a lot more exploring to do.


  1. That sounds like a spectacular trip. I've visited the Oregon coast twice and I always look forward to flying back home- it's so cold and windy and wild!

    1. Hi Andi,
      It really was wonderful! I have not been to the Oregon coast for many years, but that is high on my list of upcoming adventures. It's great to have so many beautiful places to visit. Thanks for reading!

  2. Your unknown bird is a female Brewer's Blackbird.

    1. Thank you, Samuel. I should have figured that it would be a blackbird. The female redwing blackbirds here trick me all the time. My friends in the butterfly watching crowd have a saying--"When in doubt, it's a female whirlabout." I need a similar saying for blackbirds. :)