It is spring season and the park is BUSY. From construction work at Moro day use, the Visitor Center, and the Historic District, to the mating and birthing frenzy enjoyed by many of the park’s critters, to the influx of out of town visitors. The backcountry is filled with large groups of hikers and bikers (more so than ever before) and the beach is swarming with bikini clad (tis true) revelers. The Los Trancos lot is filled even on this Monday and although I don’t know the wait time for a table at the Beachcomber, the number of cars indicates to me that a lot of people are enjoying the warm sun on their faces while waiting for their buzzers to signal that their table is ready. Just like watching my kids get older (Alex is now taller than me) I feel a similar sense of nostalgia, melancholia, and excitement about the changes in the park.
And, many changes are in progress. State Parks and Crystal Cove Alliance (CCA) are working quietly to begin the planning for restoring the last 17 cottages on the north beach of the Historic District. Just last week CCA received $1.6M, as part of a Coastal Commission mitigation project, that will be used for architectural and engineering planning and permitting for Phase III, the last and final phase of the Historic District renovation. We’re not yet certain of the project’s actual costs, but are currently estimating it to be approximately $20M. Both State Parks and CCA are committed to completing the restoration of the entire Historic District and providing overnight experiences for over 25,000 additional visitors per year. When complete, the project will be a model within State Parks for both preservation of historic resources and for making that preservation sustainable into the future with a popular overnight program.
The Visitor Center at El Moro has never had so much attention lavished on it. This small area has become the focal point for Park Aides Rick Connella and Tim Denton to work their magic. It seems as if each time I go to the Ranger Station some new, professionally designed exhibit awes me. They have spiffed out the space with mood lighting, fresh paint, photo exhibits, and a scenic portal at the entrance. The new displays are a welcome improvement for the gateway to the backcountry and the two mighty men responsible for it are worth their weight in Park Aide gold.
Near the Visitor Center attached to the free standing bathroom building is an old bird box. The other day I heard the relentless chirping of baby birds and saw an American Kestrel perched on the box at the entrance. At first I was horrified and assumed that the Kestrel wanted to eat the chicks, but then realized that the Kestrel didn’t intend to make a meal of the hungry babies, but instead planned to feed them. Kestrels, the smallest and most widespread of the North American falcons, are one of two falcons that hunt from a perch including power lines where they patiently wait before plunging down on unsuspecting prey. In fact, it is quite common to spot a hunting kestrel, watching for small birds, mammals, large insects, and lizards, on the utility line leading up the road to the Ranger Station. Falcons usually lay three to four eggs in early spring after a courtship spectacle which includes bold diving displays. Once the chicks have hatched, and are old enough to fledge, the adults continue to provide them with food and help supplement their potentially meager diet while they learn to hunt.
The day-use area below the campground is being prepared for some innovative and exciting changes. Soon construction will begin on what will be called the “Berns Environmental Study Loop.” The Berns ESL will consist of an improved amphitheater, new fire pit, and small pavilion for student staging and a new ½ mile ADA accessible study trail. Along the ESL, there will be six mini-field stations that will help visitors interface with the interesting science necessary to manage Crystal Cove State Park. The Berns ESL will offer a new facility to conduct exciting interpretive and educational programs targeting general visitors, campers, after-school groups and K-12 students. Visitors can expect new campfire programs, Junior Ranger Programs, Citizen Science hikes, and a range of natural history presentations. In addition, visitors walking along the ESL will enjoy new outdoor interpretive panels and immersive experiences including observing birds from an operable Bird Blind station, managing an active tracking pit to study animal movements, and measuring the movement of Moro Canyon’s cliffs in a new Shifting Earth geology station. The Amphitheater area will be fenced off for construction from the middle of May through most of September. The Berns ESL is scheduled to open at the end of October.
This year we celebrated Earth Day with about 50 employees from Vans who spent a few hours working with our AMAZING staff including maintenance, Resource Management, and Visitor Services on multiple projects including: scrubbing the monument signs along the Pelican Point bluff area so that the wording is once again legible, planting natives near the pump stations along the Pelican Point bluff, and spray painting the posts leading down to the beach at P-3 & P-4. As always, these are beautification projects that our staff just wouldn’t have time to address so we are grateful for this partnership with a company as environmentally conscious as Vans.
My favorite part of teaching children is the unfiltered and innocent comments that come out of their mouths. I got quite a chuckle from a kindergarten girl who, in response to my question as to why we don’t feed wild animals, replied “they may get cavities.” Later her teacher confided that they had been studying teeth and even had a dentist visit on a field trip. Then, in a “Thank you Ranger Winter” letter, one child thanked me for vacuuming the floor prior to their arrival. I also recently hosted a class of 1st grade students from a school in San Bernardino. I would estimate that more than 90% of those children had never seen the ocean. In fact, when we got down to the beach, they were so mesmerized by the glimmering blue that they stood transfixed in a row along the rope and had to be pulled away to eat lunch.
Speaking of lunch, oftentimes I speak to students about the dangers of feeding wild animals. I remind them that in addition to our human food being unhealthy, animals have their own natural hunting techniques that they forego when humans feed them. Then I come in with the dagger and emphasize how animals defend themselves when they are frightened and often do so by biting which would then necessitate getting shots. California Ground Squirrels, frequently the lunch bag bandits, are carriers of both bubonic plague and rabies. Last week I heard about a squirrel that had tested positive for the plague on Palomar Mountain. Plague is a bacterial disease of wild rodents that can be transmitted to humans through the bite of infected fleas. According to Environmental Scientist Dave Pryor, plague is more commonly found in squirrels living in mountainous habitats or near the foothills, but the occurrence of plague in Orange County is extremely rare. Furthermore, Steve Bennett from Orange County Vector Control said that the agency has tested more than 300 ground squirrels from coastal areas over the years and all were “plague free.” Nonetheless, it is concerning and a good reminder to allow the squirrels, gulls, rabbits, snakes, and any other park inhabitant to find their own food.
A few weeks ago the gulls and other scavengers were treated to a perfectly putrid feast when a rare cetacean washed ashore after having clearly been decaying in the ocean for a long while. Lifeguard Chris Heinrich came upon a large rotting unidentifiable creature on an early morning patrol which was later identified by researchers from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles as a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale. Not much is known about these short beaked, bulbous headed ziphiids who live in deep offshore waters around the world. Our specimen appeared to be about 20’ and once studies, including genetic sampling, have been completed, will be added to the research collection at the museum.
Along the nature path to the Historic District and in certain spots in the backcountry the sweet subtle scent of elderberry flowers signifies spring. Blue Elderberry is a pretty and useful shrub. Birds and other animals love eating its fruits. Its soft-woody stems and leaves provide high-quality browse for deer, rabbits, and small rodents. Native Americans used Blue Elderberry plants for a variety of medicinal purposes including treating swollen limbs, relief from headaches, and as an antiseptic wash. They also called it "tree of music" because they made flutes, whistles, and clapper sticks from the shrub's branches and stems. The entire flower clusters and berries are edible, and the lovely aroma is a testament to the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote “The earth laughs in flowers.”
To read April’s Words from our Naturalist, click here