Friday, April 17, 2015

Santa Cruz, Part 1--How Much Nature Can We Fit into One Week? (A Lot!)

After all the upheaval in the past few months, I feel like things are starting to settle down. I'm getting comfortable with the idea of a big move. In fact, I have to admit that I'm looking forward to it! Things are moving smoothly into place and now I have a little time to think, so I am tidying up loose ends and taking care of things like unposted blogs! So let's take a trip back in time...

At the end of December, my family converged on Santa Cruz, California for a holiday reunion. When we arrived in California, the weather was cool but dry. It had been rainy the week before, but it cleared up while we were there. We were happy that the rain cleared for us because we had outdoor plans. Unfortunately for Californians, who are in the worst drought on record, the rain hasn't returned. One selfish benefit of the rain was that we were allowed more showers and toilet flushes than we had originally expected. Drought is serious business. But we were still stingy with water and practiced the old "if it's yellow, be mellow, if it's brown, flush it down" rule of water conservation and limited showering (probably a little "TMI").

When I awoke the first morning I was still on East Coast time, so I took advantage of being an early riser (a rarity for me) and walked down the street to the Neary Lagoon Park before the rest of the group was ready for our day's excursions. I wrote about visiting this wonderful urban wetland park last January. I just never tire of finding sanctuaries like this in the center of busy cities. Everyone needs a little refuge. I read that this one was visited by a Mountain Lion last fall, so next time I'm in Santa Cruz, I'll keep my eyes open for big paw prints! Neary Lagoon runs right through the middle of Santa Cruz and when I visited it was bustling with birds ready to greet the morning. In the course of a half hour walk along boardwalks, I saw, among other things, a Townsend's Warbler, a Bushtit, a Black and White Warbler, a Western Scrub Jay, Pied Billed Grebes, many Robins and Mallard Ducks, and an Anna's Hummingbird. It was a great welcome back to Santa Cruz!

Townsend's Warbler, right where I left him last year!

Puffy Bushtit

Black and White Warbler

Western Scrub Jay

Robin Redbreast

The Noble Mallard

When everyone was dressed, fed and ready, we headed to Wilder Ranch State Park, just a short drive away. What I really want to do when I visit a new place is check out the wildlife and plants. I haul my backpack full of camera gear everywhere and I want to use it! Luckily for me, my family is interested nature and hiking too, so it didn't take much convincing to get them to go to state parks and take other active outings during our week. My sister-in-law is a huge geocaching enthusiast, so she quickly found that there was one hidden on the trail to the ocean cliffs. And while everyone else was exploring the geocache and signing the log sheet, I was examining the neat pile of innards that was lying on the trail. I don't know what they came from, but I figure some predator tossed them aside, opting instead for yummy flesh. There were no other bits lying around to give hints about what, when or why.

The Geocache


After a short walk, we reached the cliffs and looked out over the water. The ocean is so big and it always makes me feel so small. The warning sign on the edge reminded us that change here is constant. The fault slips a little here and a little there and the waves pound unceasingly, re-forming the coastal landscape. A few days later when we visited another beach, someone actually fell off of one of the cliffs. We didn't see it and were never able to figure out exactly what happened or if the person survived, but the helicopter, ambulances and emergency teams let us know it was a serious accident.

View from the Trail

It's a Long Way Down

I scanned the horizon for spouts from whales or jumping dolphins. No whales or dolphins (that day!) but I could see hundreds of birds, mostly Cormorants, Seagulls and Brown Pelicans out on the rocks. Nearby there were big, fat Harbor Seals, enjoying the morning sun. Surf Scoters bobbed in the waves and Oystercatchers patrolled the rocks looking for shellfish morsels. On the way back to the car I heard a funny sound and found a pair of Meadowlarks popping up and down in a bush. Our best find of the day was the White Tailed Kite hunting overhead. I had no idea what it was but its fluttering actions seemed familiar somehow. I should have recognized it as a kite, but I just wasn't thinking that way. I thought at first it was a gull, but my mom kept insisting that it was some sort of raptor. She was so right! Proof, once again, that you should always listen to your mother.

Mostly Cormorants

Brown Pelicans

Seals and Gulls

It's a Rough Life--Harbor Seals Sunning
White Tailed Kite

Pop Go the Meadowlarks!

When my parents moved to Santa Cruz, I was surprised to learn that there was a major Monarch Wintering spot right down the road from their house. I had thought (incorrectly) that the Monarchs all wintered in Mexico. Over the years I have learned that there are several populations of Monarchs (even some in Florida) and the ones that live West of the Rockies overwinter in the Eucalyptus trees of coastal California. The Monarch Watch website says that the California Monarchs make up over 5% of the world population, so these are important sites. In boom years, Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz has had as many as 100,000 Monarchs sheltering there. So, one day we took a trip to Natural Bridges because we heard that there were still some butterflies clustered in the trees. Sadly, the numbers were very low this winter. Drought, deforestation, lack of habitat and many other factors contributed to the low numbers (I read that the local Steller's Jays have developed a taste for them). I saw the one cluster in the park and it was still breathtaking. But we were told that we were seeing only a fraction of what would normally be roosting there. Numbers in the park were up to 7500 after being even lower in years past. I can't imagine what the world will be like if we lose these wonders.

Wintering Monarchs
Next up, part 2--Giants...

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