I won’t bore you with my spring vacation stories and photos, but I will say that I think my luck has changed. Wherever my family travels there is always one iconic animal that I hope to spot. I have searched for moose in Maine, beavers in Oregon, and California Condors in Arizona. Oh yeah, there’s also the Big Horn sheep who have eluded me more times than I can write. On this recent spring break the creature I had zoned in on was the West Indian Manatee and I was absolutely determined to see one in the wild. So, the power of positive thinking won out and on this incredible holiday to the gulf coast of Florida I was rewarded with a twofer: the animal that we had gone to see and one we had not. We swam with the endangered manatee in Crystal River, and kayaked with alligators (a big one, about 9 feet and plenty of little ones along the shore.) To make things even better, we saw mating Bottlenose dolphins (evident by the prominent male body part that kept surfacing in the watery commotion,) came face to face with a juvenile bobcat, and added six birds to my lifetime list. It was a vacation to remember.
But I don’t have to leave home for a memorable respite. Just the other morning when I walked onto my deck at 6:30 I felt like I was in the jungle. The birds were singing, the birds were calling, and the birds were humming. It was a joyful melodic concert and a beautiful way to begin my day. Once I got to work I had a very challenging time attending to administrative tasks because at each turn I was presented with another interesting occurrence in the park and was compelled to investigate. First I was shown a photo of a yellow Pacific seahorse that had washed ashore (still alive, but barely) near Pelican Point. This foot long seahorse is usually found from central Baja down to northern Peru, not in these parts. Then I was told by Chelsea from the Park Store how the day before a Common kingsnake had slithered up a wicker display cabinet on the store’s deck into the nest of a house finch and ate the mom and one of the chicks. The nest was built behind one of the speakers and the birds were “sitting ducks,” I guess, for the kingsnake. Apparently the other chick flew (or fell out) of the nest and was then picked up by Chelsea and put in the house finch nest located behind the other speaker on the deck. Finally, I was told about a decaying ocean sunfish, or Mola mola, on the beach at the bottom of the Pelican Point #1 ramp. It was a wild and unusual specimen. When born, these fish are about the size of a pinhead, but grow to be the heaviest bony fish in the ocean, with large specimens reaching 14 feet vertically and 10 feet horizontally and some weighing nearly 5,000. These creatures resemble big round heads with enormous, deep eye sockets and a wide, always open, mouth with fused teeth (they prey on sea jellies.)
The day before my husband and I had the joy of watching a foursome of gray whales; two adults and two juveniles, swimming very close to the shore past Bluebird beach as some mother gray whales and their babies are still making their migration north from the winter calving lagoons in Baja Mexico to their feeding grounds in the chilly Arctic waters. How do I know there were two adults and two juveniles? Because of their blow, of course. Migrating gray whales have a predictable breathing pattern, generally blowing 3-5 times in 15-30 second intervals before raising their flukes and submerging for several minutes. Each time they surface they spout a heart shaped plume and it was clear, due to the height of the blow, who were the adults, and who were the calves. Newborn calves average 16 feet in length and weigh close to 1,500 pounds and are weaned at about eight months, after they have journeyed with their mothers back to the northern feeding grounds. We can only hope that these gentle giants will make their way safely, along their approximately 6,000 mile trek, without being hit by a boat, or encountering a killer whale, or a large shark, their only known predators.
Springtime is the season when we see mama and baby animals of all kinds. From the migrating gray whales, to bobcats nursing their kittens, to a covey of California quail, a familial unit which can contain up to 75 birds. Recently I saw a newly dead male quail by the Ranger Station. It was still warm and so beautiful and I knew his crew would be searching for him. So, in honor of this quail and all the other families of animals in the park naturalist Alex and I are designing an exhibit for cottage #46, the Rotating Visitor Center, called Nature’s Families. With photos, fun facts, and matching games we will showcase some of the more interesting and unusual families found in the park. I’ll give you a sneak peak: Opossums, for example, are the only North American marsupial and so, like their Australian sisters, female opossums keep their babies snug and safe inside their pouches. The wild thing is that these little jelly bean size babies are born blind and hairless after a mere 13 day gestation period. The babies crawl from the birth canal along the mom’s belly to burrow into the pouch where they find a teat from which to suckle. However, opossums can give birth to up to 20 babies per litter (and she can have as many as three litters a year,) and she only has an average of 13 teats in the pouch and they may not all be producing milk. So, if more infants are born than the number of functional teats available, the excess infants will die. That’s called “survival of the fittest.” We hope you will check out the exhibit, which will run for about three months in the cottage across from the Beachcomber Café. There will be lots more cool facts about opossums, ravens, and harbor seals.
It’s always exciting to observe animals engaged in their natural behaviors. We don’t see mating or nursing much, but we do observe feeding and the interaction of predator and prey. Many visitors around the Historic District have observed one of our local Osprey flying with a fish in its mouth, and many people have the pleasure of catching sight of the comical Roadrunner running with a lizard in its beak. Every walk in the park makes for potentially different encounters. Because of that, I, for one, like to hike in silence so I can be attuned to the sounds of nature; the call of a California gnatcatcher (sounds like a kitten) or the low gurgling croak of a raven, or the high-pitched howl of a coyote. One day I was hiking along No Dog’s Trail in the backcountry and passed two sets of young women hiking, both had hand held radios and were blasting music. I thought if an animal called or a bird sang these visitors would have missed it. I know that part of the mission of California State Parks is to “create opportunities for high-quality outdoor recreation,” but for me, the part of our mission that resonates is to “provide for the health, inspiration, and education of the people of California” and for me, inspiration comes from immersing myself in the experience. I’ll now descend from my soapbox.
Speaking of the backcountry, next week park staff will be working on the Irvine Gate access road in preparation for the delivery of a new 30,000 pound pre-cast concrete ADA restroom which will be placed at the Lower Moro Ridge campground. Preparation includes road repairs and the excavation for the restroom vault itself which because of its size and weight, requires heavy equipment, including an all-terrain vehicle and a 100 ton crane, to set the restroom in place. With generous assistance from CCA and REI, this new, contained pit toilet will undoubtedly be the “nicest toilet in the park.” The pre-engineered, pre-plumbed, pre-wired model has a steep roof pitch and unique texture that resembles the old California Conservation Core buildings. But most exciting is that this vault employs “smell sweet technology” The restroom is coming all the way from the state of Washington and will be delivered mid- May. So plan on a hike, a jog, or a bike ride to Lower Moro to check out this new, cool, facility which is a long overdue improvement to the backcountry experience.
Last weekend along with 26 other California State Parks, we celebrated Earth Day at Crystal Cove. With nearly 200 volunteers, many from Edison International who funded our event, we accomplished multiple maintenance and beautification projects. It was a hot and windy morning, but volunteers spent 3 hours cleaning the beach, painting the green entrance gates, weeding the Los Trancos islands and Fat and Lazy’s pen, painting the white picket fence by the Visitor Center and pruning and planting in the Historic District near the Park Store, CCA headquarters, and along the slope near the stairs. PEETS donated coffee and goodies, The Fruit Guys delivered three boxes loaded with apples, oranges, and bananas, Chipotle offered cards for a complimentary burrito, and Subway delivered 200+ sandwiches. From a quantifiable perspective, volunteers planted about 275 plants in the HD as well as 200 cactus near the Ranger Station, used about 5 gallons of paint, removed 70 bags of weeds and exotics, and picked up 41 bags of trash from the beach. As always, Earth Day is an “all-hands-on-deck” event and park staff from maintenance, natural resources, interpretation, visitor services and even from our southern service center joined with long term volunteers and one timers to make this Earth Day a fulfilling and successful day. Coming up next week we will follow with another Earth Day event with Van’s who has partnered with us for the past four years. On Friday our awesome staff and their hardworking crew will install nearly 800’ of symbolic fencing along the trail above the campground, trim the Environmental Study Loop trail, and like last year create a tile mural to be placed by one of the picnic areas at the Moro day-use area. I have seen the preliminary art work and love the “animal evidence” theme they designed. It’s going to be fabulous!
Today is Earth Day, the 46th year that Mother Earth has officially been celebrated in the United States. It seems fitting and timely that our Nature’s Families exhibit will debut at the same time we celebrate Mother Earth and Mother’s Day. So as I end this missive I give tribute to the Earth, to my own wonderful mother, and to all the animal mama’s in the park for as Anthony Douglas Williams wrote:
“Every animal on Earth is a living being with feelings, emotions, and a family, just like you and me.”