Monday, February 16, 2015

Monarch Trail: butterfly viewing in the Eucalyptus Grove of Natural Bridges State Beach

Monarch butterfly next to Monarch Trail
Monarch butterflies return from as far as southwest Canada to the California coast in October. Here, many of them spend the winter. The Eucalyptus Grove in the Natural Bridges State Beach park is a great place to watch overwintering monarchs. Monarchs thrive in the mild climate of this seaside grove. To stay protected from wind and rain and away from ground dwelling predators, monarchs often roost in clusters in trees—in eucalyptus trees at Natural Bridges and in Monterey pines further south.

Monarch Boardwalk and seasonal pond in Eucalyptus Grove
The Monarch Trail leads visitors through the Eucalyptus Grove around a seasonal pond, where Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) can be viewed and studied [1-3]. At the trailhead, a board illustrates the various stages occurring during their complex life cycle from egg to larva, pupa and adult. Another trailhead board welcomes visitors to the wheelchair-accessible boardwalk:
Illustration of a monarch caterpillar
Monarch caterpillar illustration

The boardwalk before you winds into a tree-filled canyon where thousands of monarch butterflies spend the winter each year. This sanctuary shelters the butterflies from chilly coastal winds, capture warmth from filtered sunlight and supplies nourishment to sustain them during their stay. The migratory monarchs are usually here during fall and winter months.
Follow the boardwalk to the viewing platform to discover what makes this a sanctuary that attracts people, monarch butterflies and other wildlife.
From the boardwalk you will get plenty of opportunities to zoom into butterfly anatomy. The wings of adult monarchs show tawny-orange patches separated by black veins. The black wing margin features small white spots. Not every butterfly with an orange-brown-black color palette is a monarch. The brown-and-black west coast lady and the red admiral are also common at Natural Bridges.

The Monarch Trail curves around the seasonal pond and then turns into a semi-perimeter trail of the eastern section of the park. Leaving the grove and pond behind, the trail passes through a small pine forest. The path turns left (north) near Delaware Avenue and crosses grassland and chaparral. At the T-junction in the chaparral area, you have the option of turning west and returning to the visitor center or of taking Moore Creek Trail straight ahead and hike downhill into a wetland area and to the lagoon next to the beach. 

The visitor center provides—indoors and outdoors—a nice selection of educational exhibits about monarch butterflies, their metamorphosis, habitat requirements and migration pattern. The monarch butterfly is scientifically classified as a milkweed butterfly (subfamily Danainae in the family Nymphalidae). As the name indicates, butterflies of this subfamily depend on milkweed flora. They lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Monarch females place their eggs under milkweed leaves. The caterpillars and adults feed on milkweed, which contains poisonous substances. These cardenolides undermine the well-being of a predator after eating a monarch. Monarchs absorb the milkweed poison without being affected and so stay a better chance of survival since potential predators learn to avoid a diet of "poisoned monarchs." By closely inspecting the stems and leaves of the milkweed plants in the Demonstration Garden, you may be able to find eggs, caterpillars and chrysalides. You may catch a glimpse of the evolved stages of the monarch life cycle.

Populations of monarch butterflies tend to decrease and increase depending on weather patterns, logging activities and pesticide applications. The Xerces Society—commited to invertebrate conservation—frequently releases updates on the number fluctuations and changing states of Monarch populations [4].

Getting there
The trailhead of Monarch Trail is located at the south side of the visitor center, across the Demonstration Garden with its various milkweed plants. See the section "Getting There" in my post "A multi-activity park in Santa Cruz: Natural Bridges State Beach" on how to get to Natural Bridges. The visitor building is in the center of the park, a short walk uphill from the beach. If you decide to drive into the park, you will find parking between the picnic area and the visitor center.

References and more to explore
[1] Let's Cruz: Monarch Magic at Natural Bridges State Beach [].
[2] Sierra Club Trails: Natural Bridge [].
[3] EcoTopia: Natural Bridges State Park [].
[4] The Xerces Society []: Monarch Numbers Up Slightly, But Butterfly Still at Risk of Extinction. January 27, 2015 [].

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A multi-activity coastal park in Santa Cruz: Natural Bridges State Beach

Seabird-populated rock island with natural tunnel
Natural Bridges State Beach is a day-use park at the outskirts of Santa Cruz in California [1-3]. Although relatively small, the park has much to see and explore. The park has hiking trails, bike trails and coastal vista points offering spectacular views of its eponymous rock structures. Your nature & wildlife experience at Natural Bridges will go beyond ocean viewing and whale watching: the park with its mild seaside climate includes the Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve, where monarchs find a temporary home in the eucalyptus grove—typically between mid-October and mid-February. All year round, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish can be viewed in the Moore Creek Wetlands, a sheltering salt and freshwater marsh with productive plant communities.

Natural Bridges with tunnel and missing arch
The visitor center provides educational exhibits featuring the park's wildlife and history.  A panel describes how the seaside cliffs are getting sculptured by waves:

Several natural processes erode the coastal cliffs. Sand carried by waves acts like sandpaper, slowly grinding away at the rock. Higher up, expanding salt crystals loosen tiny particles of stone. Some kinds of clams act like drill bits, boring holes in the rock to make their home. And finally, the pressure of water forced into cracks by he waves acts like a hydraulic jack, pushing apart chunks of rock.

Under the title “Going, Going...”, the history of the natural bridges is traced by photographs from between 1900 and 1994. One photograph captures the rocky three-tunnel peninsula in 1900. The other pictures demonstrate how the rock-tunnel structures grow into bridge-like architectures. In the 1994 photograph, the long arch of the “main bridge” is gone, leaving a one-tunnel island behind, resembling what we see today. Nobody knows how many bridges formed and collapsed along the California coast. Their number is growing; the coastal evolution is continuing on.

With the remaining arch as a scenic backdrop, locals and visitors come to enjoy the beach. And surfers hope for nice waves next to the arch.

Getting there
The official address is Natural Bridges State Beach, 2531 West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 (phone: 831-4234609).
From Highway 1, turn west on Swift Street. Stay on on Swift until you reach the coast. Then turn right on West Cliff Drive, which takes you into the park.
If you want to avoid the entrance fee, try to find parking on the northside of  Swanton Boulevard, from where you can walk into the park. Going west on Swift, turn right on Delaware Avenue and then turn left on Swanton Blvd.

References and more to explore
[1] Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks: Natural Bridges State Beach [].
[2] California State Parks: Natural Brides State Park [].
[3] Quest: Geological Outings Around the Bay: Natural Bridges [].

Friday, February 13, 2015

Bird Island Trail in the Point Lobos Reserve, California

Cormorants dotting the slopes and cliffs of Bird Island

Bird Island Trail is a 0.52-mile-long soil-and-boardwalk trail in the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve [1,2], located at the Central California Coast a few miles south of Carmel. This trail follows the rocky coastline between open Monterey pine woods with views of China Cove, Gibson Beach, the Carmel Highlands and the churning waters around rock islands. The cluster of islands has been and still is shaped by pounding waves, which enlarge existing cracks in the brittle granite and turns them, over time, into caves and then into arches. If such arches collapse, they leave behind islands such as Bird Island.

The long set of stairs descending the cliffs to the small sand beach and cave in China Cove are closed in spring when harbor seals are nursing their newborn pups in the cove. But your cliffside hike will pass various points with magnificent views into the channel-shaped China Cove with its sparkling jade-green waters.

The jade-green waters of China Cove
China Cove with beach, cave and jade-green waters
Crescent-shaped Gibson Beach, between Pelican Point and the Carmel Highlands, can also be accessed by descending a long flight of steps. Continuing on the Bird Island Trail, you will soon reach the natural platform of Pelican Point—your Bird Island overlook. There, the trail loops between coastal scrub and takes you close to the ocean-spray-exposed islands populated by birds such as cormorants.

Cormorants belong to the family Phalacrocoracidae. This scientific name is derived from the Greek words phalakros, meaning “bald,” and korax, meaning “crow” or “raven.” From a distance, a careless viewer may take cormorants for “seacrows.”

Bird Island is known for its nesting colonies of Brandt's cormorants [3]. There will be good chance that you may spot other seabirds around, including Pelagic Cormorants, pelicans, Black Ostercatcher, Western gulls and Black-crowned night herons [4]. Sea otters and harbor seals frequently visit the waters between the islands  

Getting to the Bird Island Trail
See the section Getting to the Bird Rock Parking area and trail in my Gibson Beach post. If you don't want to pay the entrance fee of $10.00 per vehicle, you may succeed in finding a parking lot next to Highway 1 and walk into the park. Hike southbound on the South Plateau Trail, which connects the area of the reserve entrance with Gibson Beach and the Bird Island Trail.

References and more to explore
[1] Point Lobos Foundation: Bird Island Trail [].
[2] Point Lobos State Natural Reserve: Bird Island Trail [].
[3] Nature Photography by Pam & Richard: Point Lobos: Nesting Brandt's Cormorants [].
[4] Point Lobos Foundation: Birds [].

Monday, February 9, 2015

Between Sea Lion Point and Bird Island: Weston Beach

Splashing waves near Weston Beach, Point Lobos Reserve
In contrast to nearby sandy Gibson Beach, Weston Beach is a pebble beach. It is surrounded by spectacular bluffs, fractured rock formations and rock islands. Weston Beach is located next to the South Shore Trail—halfway between Sand Hill Cove and China Cove in the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California.

Weston Beach: pebbles and sedimentary formations

Sandstone rock and conglomerates
The Weston Beach area is an excellent place to explore the local Carmelo Formation—a trace-fossil-containing sedimentary rock at least 50 million years old [1-3]. The beach is south-facing and open to storm surf. The frequent sounds of splashing waves, competing with the screams of seagulls, get coined into the memory of most Weston Beach visitors.

Wave action has eroded the Weston Beach rocks into interesting shapes and patterns. You will find large pebbles eroded from the rocks of the Carmelo Formation. The Carmelo consists of sandstone and mudstone including pebble and cobble stones. The sandstone deposit formed on top of the older Santa Lucia Granodiorite basement. Over the last 50 million years further sedimentation onto the submarine Carmelo formation took place. What we see today is a result of tectonic, marine and weather-related activities—lifting, sea level change and erosion—sculpturing these layers and their inclusions.

Intertidal-zone Carmelo Formation patterns
Weston Beach is named in memory of Edward Weston (1886-1958), who photographed life, forms and textures around Point Lobos for 20 years.

Getting to Weston Beach
Turn west at the signed Point Lobos State Reserve entrance next to Highway 1; about two miles south of Carmel and 24 miles north from the Big Sur Ranger Station. Currently, the entrance fee is $10.00 per vehicle. Continue on the park road from the entrance station past the Sea Lion Point Parking Lot. Continue until you see the Weston Beach signpost. To save the entrance fee, you want to find a parking spot along Highway 1 and hike into the park with various options of reaching Weston Beach. I like the long, scenic variant via South Plateau Trail, Gibson Beach overlook, China Cove, Bird Rock Trailhead & parking area, from where you want to continue northwest-bound on South Shore Trail. Walk past Hidden Beach to get to Weston Beach

References and more to explore
[1] Ed Clifton: Trace Fossils in the Carmelo Formation. September, 2013 [].
[2] Jeff Thomson: Natural history of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve [].
[3] Sierra Club: Point Lobos State Reserve [].

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Staircase hiking to Gibson Beach, surrounded by granite cliffs in Point Lobos State Park, California

California Central Coast: Gibson Beach in Point Lobos State Park
Gibson Beach below the Carmel Highlands

Gibson Beach in the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is accessible via long staircases descending from granite cliffs downhill to a crescent-shaped beach. This “hidden” stretch of pure sand compliments the list of soft-sand beaches along the California Central Coast such as Asilomar State Beach and Carmel Beach, with sand derived by the erosion of Santa Lucia Granodiorite rocks.

Gibson Beach is reached from the Bird Rock parking area by hiking on Bird Island Trail along the granite cliffs for about a quarter of a mile to its T-junction with South Plateau Trail. From there, follow the direction given by the signpost (shown above) until you get to the posted beach access after a few yards. A long set of wooden stairs on the east side descend from the cliff edge to the sandy beach. Be aware that strong waves, especially during high tides, can sneak up on beachcombers and may briefly flood the whole beach. The long steep staircase is your only reasonable escape route towards higher grounds.

When a low surf line and a mild shorebreak promise a safe stay, Gibson Beach reveals itself as a peaceful place with a beautiful scenery. The pure sand, clear water and tall rocks turn this south-facing cove into a world of its own.

Getting to the Bird Rock parking area and trail
The signed Point Lobos State Reserve entrance next to Highway 1 is about two miles south of Carmel and 24 miles north from the Big Sur Ranger Station. From Highway 1 turn west to the entrance kiosk. Currently, the entrance fee is $10.00 per vehicle. Continue on the park road from the entrance station past the Sea Lion Point and Weston Beach parking lots to the road's dead-end, which is the Bird Rock parking area. The Bird Island Trail begins at the southeast end of the parking and picnic area.

More to explore:
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve: Bird Island Trail [].

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Pacific Grove's refuge-by-the-sea: enjoying Asilomar State Beach

Intertidal zone with rocks and fine sand, Asilomar Beach

Granodiorite rock fissure
The word Asilomar is derived from the Spanish words asilo, meaning retreat or refuge, and the word mar, meaning sea or ocean. Hence, Asimolar means refuge-by-the-sea [1]. For scientists around the world, Asimolar also means a conference-center-by-the-sea, located on the Monterey Peninsula, California, where top-notch meetings bring together outstanding researchers and think-tank tinkerers.

On the beach or during a sand-dune boardwalk hike, conference discussions often continue on for some time until the refreshing sea breeze may stimulate minds into a different direction or encourage a meditation session. The Asimolar State Beach is just a short boardwalk away from the Asimolar Conference Center. Other visitors—bicyclists and motorists—usually find a convenient point along Sunset Drive, from where they walk or climb down to the rocks and the sand-dune-framed beach.
Beach lovers

Like the fine, silvery sand of Carmel beach, “Asilomar's white, luxurious powder comes from offshore rocks, Santa Lucia granodiorite” [2]. Most of the coastal rocks you see at Asimolar Beach are based on Santa Lucia granodiorite, from which fine white sand wears down over time by erosion [3].  Past and current tectonic activities most likely cause the cracks and fissures, which beachcombers like to explore and which provide a natural habitat for intertidal wildlife. Low tides are the best time to carefully walk over or between the slippery rocks and wade through tide pools. And sunset is the time for romance—or for beginning your next-big discussion.

Sunset seen from Asilomar State Beach

References and more to explore
[1] Asilomar Conference Grounds: Asilomar is Born [].
[2] Carolyn Rice: Flesh & Earth. Muir Press [].
[3] Asilomar State Park Guide [].

Friday, February 6, 2015

Walking on Santa Lucia Granodiorite sand: the white sand of Carmel Beach

South of Pebble Beach on the Monterey Peninsula: Carmel Beach
Carmel Beach with Arrowhead Point
Carmel Beach interfaces California's Carmel-by-the-Sea with the Pacific Ocean. A sandcastle contest is held annually at this beach, during which amazing architectures and sculptures are constructed from its white sand. The public beach arc between Pebble Beach and Carmel Point attracts locals and tourists on sunny as well as foggy days for relaxing shoreline walks—combing over silvery white Santa Lucia Granodiorite sand.

Granodiorite is a rock rich in quartz. It is similar to granite, but granodiorite contains more plagioclase feldspar (calcium and sodium feldspar) than orthoclase feldspar (potassium feldspar). Granodiorite is an intrusive igneous rock that forms in magma chambers underground and slowly cools, resulting in the formation of visible crystals—visible to humans once the rocks rise to the surface. Santa Lucia Granodiorite formed more than 80 million years ago along the west coast of North America. It then rose to the surface over millions of years. Granodiorite rocks that became available to the erosive action of marine waves were and are transformed into gravel and sand. 

The Shifting Sands of Carmel Beach originate from Santa Lucia Granodiorite. An interpretive panel at the western end of Carmel's Ocean Avenue explains:

Carmel's unique white sand comes from offshore rocks called Santa Lucia Granodiorite. Ocean waves pound these rocks into fine sand granules that wash onto the beach. The power of the waves changes with the season, alternately removing and replacing the sand.

The shifting of the intertidal-zone sand by the seasonally changing activity of ocean wave is enhanced by the foot traffic of beachcombers and beach volleyball players. Overall, the sand shifting is naturally balanced: High-energy winter waves scour sand from the beach and lower-energy summer waves return sand back to the beach. However, severe winter storms sometimes remove so much sand that underlying bedrock is exposed. Therefore, sand is artificially redistributed. The panel labels this process as Beach Housekeeping, performed in the following way:

Carmel's beach sand is essential for protecting the shoreline from erosion. Bulldozers push sand uphill every spring to cover exposed rocks and counteract the downhill movement of sand from foot traffic. By mid-September, the sand is returned to the lower beach, ready to absorb the impact of winter waves.  

Keywords: California coast, granodiorite erosion, destructive waves, constructive waves, beach engineering.

More about granodiorite
[1] National Park Service: Granite and Granodiorite FAQ [].
[2] Encyclopaedia Britannica: Granodiorite [].
[3]: World Heritage Encyclopedia: Geological History of Point Lobos [].

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A shooting star ballet next to Gabilan Trail in Garland Park

Shooting stars seen next to Gabilan Trail In Garland Park, California
A cluster of shooting star flower heads

Shooting stars (Dodecatheon spp.) of the Primulaceae family are among the first flowers to appear on montane meadows and forest opening as the snow melts or some rain water trickles through. Species such as the Sierra shooting star (D. jeffreyi), alpinum shooting star (D. alpinum) and Padre's shooting star (D. clevelandii) are native to California. For the latter, which is also called the Lowland Shooting Star, the flower season is winter and early spring. This year, in Garland Ranch Regional Park east of Carmel, Padre's shooting stars were already in bloom in January. The shown flowers were found on January 25, 2015, next to Gabilan Trail—on a small meadow about half-way between Gabilan Trail's junction with Spring Trail (upper end) and with Saddle Trail (lower end).

Open and closed shooting star flower heads
The five-fold symmetry of the flower heads is not always immediately recognized since the petals often take on curly or helical forms. The petals have a purple base. Above the base appears a yellow band. The petal color above the yellow area towards the petal tip is sometimes white, but often changes from white to pink. The open flower heads typically nod—base sidewise or completely down—such that the soft, streamlining petals give the appearance of the trailing tail of a shooting star. The calyx is light-green colored.

At the Garland Park's visitor center, we found a shooting star specimen at display with the following introduction:

Padre's Shooting Star
(Dodecatheon clevelandii ssp. sanctarum)
A native of Western California, this striking flower is one of the first to appear in Spring. It derives its name from the backward-facing position of the petals, giving it the appearance of a shooting star. Its common name of is “Padre's”comes from its subspecies name of  “sanctarum”, meaning holy in Latin.

I guess, January is a spring month in California. January 25 of this year, indeed, was a day with spring-like weather, on which shooting stars were shining at their selected spots in Garland Ranch Regional Park.

Keywords: Carmel Valley, botany, flowering plants, Dodecatheon (doh-dek-ATH-ee-on), shooting stars, mad violets, sailor caps.

References and more to explore
[1] The American Southwest: Dodecatheon Clevelandii, Padre's Shooting Star [].
[2] Calflora Taxon Report 2753: Dodecatheon clevelandii [].
[3] Calflora:
[4] Native Plants: Padre's Shooting Star [].
[5] Natural History of Orange County, California: Padre's Shooting Star [].