What a great week for wildlife sightings. Three days last week I led 5th grade students on hikes in the backcountry and on Friday went bird watching with a class of 3rd graders on the trail in the Moro day use area. We saw (and heard) an angry rattlesnake, soaring turkey vultures (almost close enough to touch,) a mule deer browsing on coyote brush, and a scorpion. We saw stink beetles with their “tushes” in the air, funnel web spiders, a mother and calf gray whale, and a seal leaping in and out of the water.
The scorpion was a big hit with the 3rd graders, and me too, I must admit, since they are nocturnal and rarely seen and this was a great big specimen. Scorpions are carnivores who use their large front pincers to grab their prey and then inject venom from their tail stinger to subdue the meal. Like other arachnids, scorpions wait patiently for their prey which they sense with their legs from vibrations in the soil. They then grab it, sting it, tear it apart, and suck up the liquid remains. Those pincers and that wicked tail are also used in the scorpion mating ritual. Once they find each other, the pair will circle one another with their tails up while the male clasps his mate with his pincers. They proceed to dance, for possibly hours, by walking backward and forward, all the while entangled. Once the mating is complete and the male has served his purpose, the female often eats him, head first.
Snake season has arrived and they are presenting themselves both visually, by warming stretched out in the sun, and audibly, by rattling. Throughout the week, I saw at least four snakes in the backcountry, and heard several reports of sightings on the multi-use trail on the coastal side of the park. I saw one gopher snake, and the rest were rattlers. According to Steve Bledsoe of the Southwestern Field Herping Association there are actually eight venomous snakes in Orange County: California Lyre (mildly venomous, one of the larger rear-fanged snakes, but considered harmless to humans,) San Diego Night (mildly venomous, but not considered a concern to humans), Western Black-headed (mildly venomous uses a mild form of venom to immobilize insect/centipede/millipede prey,) Pacific Ring-necked (the mild venom may help to incapacitate prey), and possibly the Coast Patch-nosed (some researchers believe that this snake is mildly venomous, but presently, little is known) plus three species of rattlesnake – Southern Pacific, Red Diamond and Southwestern Speckled. Rattlesnakes, however, are the only native California venomous snakes that are dangerous to humans. The others as noted, are considered mildly venomous, and their venom is generally aimed at their prey and not harmful to humans. Steve also mentioned that studies have found that the bite of some species of garter snakes may have an irritating or swelling effect on some people. It’s believed that this may not be the product of an actual venom producing capability, but may be the result of the toxins secreted by the toads and other toxic amphibians that garter snakes prey upon and lingers in their saliva. Ultimately, it is important to remember that snakes do not aggressively attack humans, and only do so in self-defense or when feeding.
On Monday I was schedule to lead a 5th grade hike, but it was blowing so hard we cancelled. When I stepped out of my office and felt the force of the wind pushing against me (making it somewhat difficult to walk) I got to thinking about birds and wind and the relationship between energy efficiency and wing physiology. We often see birds catching a “free ride” on windy days as they glide with wings outstretched rather than flapping them and using a lot of energy. But as I was being pushed around I wondered if heavy winds could be detrimental to birds rather than beneficial. When soaring, a bird uses no energy of its own and instead depends on thermal currents. When the wind exceeds 14kph these rising masses of air are blown horizontal and birds soar in a straight line. By soaring into the wind birds are able to gain altitude, whereas they gain distance by losing altitude. The marvel is that the birds control both speed and altitude by spreading or pulling in their wings to increase or reduce lift. Larger birds tend to soar (since constant flapping is exhausting for all birds but more so for those with tremendous wing spans) using a technique called dynamic soaring which takes advantage of the varying speeds of different air masses, thus allowing the birds to remain airborne with very little effort. Smaller birds, on the other hand, don’t benefit from the winds in the same way as their larger cousins. So, rather than waste energy going against the wind small birds will hunker down until the wind subsides and the calm returns.
On my hikes I carry a back pack full of tricks. One of my favorite jars to produce houses two (dead) male hummingbirds, one an Anna’s and one an Allen’s. These specimens provide a perfect opportunity to discuss animals and color. Animals may use their unique coloring for protection, for aggression, for attracting a mate or for finding a meal. Many species of insects, birds, fish and reptiles have highly developed systems that recognize and use color differentiations. For example, male Red-winged Blackbirds, have brightly colored shoulder patches to advertise their territory ownership to potential mates as well as to rivals. Bright coloration is often a mechanism used by creatures to announce that they are foul smelling, poisonous, or bad tasting including Monarch butterflies who are poisonous to many hungry would-be-predators and boldly boast the fact with their striking orange and black. Stinging insects like wasps and bees use similar color patterns of yellow and black to advertise their arsenal. Apparently many larger mammals are unable to distinguish colors which would indicate that they have other heightened senses or abilities instead. For example, contrary to popular belief, a bull can’t see red or any other color, but charges the red cape because it is a moving target. With regards to the hummingbirds in the jar, they are amongst the many male birds who are much more brightly colored than the females. While this fact also makes them more likely targets for predators, it also assists them in attracting a mate and reproducing. The duller colors of the female help protect her during the times in which she must sit on her eggs and care for her young.
For the first time ever, Crystal Cove State Park will offer a Junior Guard summer program for youth ages 9-16 at Moro Beach. In addition to developing an increased comfort level in the ocean this six-week program will teach participants the fundamentals of lifeguarding and first aid, about ocean hazards and beach safety. Jr. Guards will participate in many outdoor recreational activities including swimming, bodysurfing, paddling, kayaking and snorkeling. Additionally, because of the unique environment, being in a state park with a wilderness area, kids will have the opportunity to engage in activities such as hiking and Jr. Ranger interpretive presentations that teach about Crystal Cove's natural and cultural resources. For information or to register see http://www.crystalcovejg.com
This past weekend a crew of Trail Assistants, headed by the dynamic duo of Robin Lemonds and Brad Larkins, managed to tackle a project that state parks staff has dreamed of for years; removing much of the old unsightly cattle fencing along the perimeter of the backcountry trails. In several hours two teams managed to snip, roll, and bundle 3000 feet of rusty fencing, pull out approximately 200 supporting stakes, toss the refuse in a truck, and dispose of it in the dumpsters. They worked on No Name ridge and Fenceline trail. There is still a lot left, primarily along Moro Ridge, but Robin, who is serving as a camp host in addition to a trail assistant volunteer, intends to remove as much as possible during his tenure in the park. Robin, Brad, and the other eight hard workers deserve brownie points, gold stars…you name it, this is big.
Right when I was ready to leave my house this morning after a typical frenzied morning I saw two mourning doves sitting on my deck railing. I paused and observed these beautiful and peaceful creatures. I know it sounds crazy, but I truly felt as if I entered a meditative state. My blood pressure lowered and I felt a sense of calm all from stepping outside my crazy self and observing these two marvels of nature. Over the years I’ve watched these birds aplenty. Loving qualities, those attributed to human nature, have also been attributed to mourning doves including mutual preening, “kissing,” pairing off, and staying together throughout the nesting period. I listened for their soft cooing and remembered a comment I’d read from Ted Andrews in his book Animal Speak “The dove’s song is its most distinctive characteristic. The voice of the dove is the rain song. Out of its mourning, it invokes new waters of life. Its song should remind us that no matter what our life conditions, new waters and new life are still possible…It is a bird of prophecy and can help you to see what you can give birth to in your life.”
A perfect quote for a lovely spring day in the park - - -Winter