Audubon Docents Head South

By Cindy Hardin, Director of Outdoor Education; Photos by Leslie Davidson

January is a great time to purge the last of the usual holiday excess, get outside and be inspired by the natural world. On January 3rd docents from the Los Angeles Audubon’s Kenneth Hahn and Ballona Education Programs did exactly that on a group field trip to Crystal Cove State Park. The park, located just north of Laguna Beach, is a huge expanse of open land that includes miles of pristine beaches and bluffs, and multiple hiking trails through canyons and foothills. Formerly part of the Irvine Ranch holdings, this State Park contains many diverse and beautiful habitats, from tidepools and off-shore reef to the chaparral sage scrub of inland canyons.

Eighteen people met in the Ballona parking lot on Saturday morning. Carpools were organized off we went to the depths of Orange County. Upon arrival we were greeted by beautifully clear sunny weather and a sweeping view of California coastline.

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The view from the upper bluffs of Crystal Cove State Parl. Once covered in introduced grasses that fed the cattle of the Irvine Ranch, it is now a thriving example of Coastal Sage Scrub habitat. The end result of this massive restoration effort by the state is a thriving ecosystem, full of upland species like lizards, gophers and birds, including the California Thrasher.

The group commenced our hike along the bluff trail. Due to calm seas, the waters below were nearly transparent, and the extensive reef system that is part of the park was clearly visible from the bluffs above.

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The waters of the park are part of a Marine Protected Zone, which has allowed fish stocks to multiply and increase in huge numbers. The Cormorants are one of the many species that have benefited from this designation.

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This Harbor Seal also uses this area as a fishing ground, and is taking a much-needed nap after a morning of foraging.

The vegetation along the bluff was lush and bursting with life. Our group enjoyed the sense of rejuvenation that the recent rains had brought. The path winds through the native plants, and up to the edge of small gullies that have been carved out by years of run-off from the adjacent foothills.

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A view of the sea from one of the many small canyons that edge the bluff.

At the terminus of the bluff trail we dropped down to the beach, where new sights and species awaited us. Dragonflies hovered above a pool of freshwater and its accompanying cattails and rushes nestled at the base of the cliffs, and Royal Terns roosted on the sand.

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An entirely different ecosystem-freshwater habitat at the base of the cliffs.

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Royal Terns relaxing on the beach.

We continued to head down the beach, and then turned inland to explore El Moro Canyon. This was formerly the site of a trailer park, whose tenants leased the land from the Irvine Company. Once the land was ceded to the state, and hiking trails, bathrooms, picnic facilities and parking replaced a privatized stretch of coastline. Although the term “Eminent Domain” can at times have negative connotations, in this case it was a huge win for both California residents and visitors to our state. There is now an extensive network of hiking trails throughout the foothills that link the park to the Laguna Coast Wilderness. One can literally spend days exploring the area, and primitive campsites are available at several spots along the trails.

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Cindy Hardin, Joe Zell and Carol Babeli examine hiking options offered at one of the several map signs that are found throughout the backcountry.

As the group headed up the canyon we were surrounded by Riparian habitat. Although the streambed was dry on the day of our visit, it was obvious that water had recently coursed between its banks. Elderberry and Willow trees were sprouting fresh growth, and the Coyote Brush was sending out plumes of seeds in preparation for a fresh round of spring flowering.

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Coyote Brush in all of its fluffy glory.

The canyon portion of our day was brief, as appetites had been whetted by all that fresh air, and lunchtime was upon us. We returned to picnic tables located at the mouth of the canyon, and shared a feast of salads and desserts. The setting was incredible, and included two Education Stations, which delighted our crowd of nature interpreters. One focused on birds of the area, and came complete with permanent telescopes. The other invited visitors to survey Harlequin Beetles on selected Bladderpod plants, and provided pencils, data sheets and a drop box for amateur entomologists to leave their findings.

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Linda Rose, Cindy Hardin and Jonathan Hardin help to ready the comestibles as Jamie Lowry looks on. How about that for a “view restaurant”!

After lunch was over it was time to take the beach route back to our starting point. There was a minus tide that afternoon of -0.9, thanks to seasonal King Tides, which made for the perfect opportunity to check out the tidepools along our way. Seagrass, coralline algae, mussels, snails, sea anemones and the like were on full display, as the ocean continued to recede before our very eyes.  The birds were out too, and our sharp-eyed crowd spotted a Loon in the water and a Snowy Plover on the sand.

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This Loon was keeping her eye on us!

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You can see why the common name is sea anemone-they really do look like underwater flowers, don’t they?

After a full day of sea, sun and fresh air we walked through the tunnel that passes under Pacific Coast Highway and returned to our vehicles. All agreed that it was a day well spent. Surprisingly, most of the group had never visited Crystal Cove before. One participant said that “he felt like he had just been on vacation”. It is a true getaway, and a mere hour’s worth of driving from our starting point in Playa Del Rey. Although the $15.00 entrance fee raised a few eyebrows, it was pointed out that this was about the cost of a movie ticket, and the entertainment value was far more lasting than two hours in a darkened cinema. If you haven’t had the chance to see this beautiful piece of California, Crystal Cove awaits, and is worth the effort any time of year. Bring the family, bring a friend, and come down and visit this special place and support our fabulous State Park System. You will be richly rewarded!

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Our intrepid group of explorers. Back Row, l-r: Jonathan Hardin, Brian Young, Okoy Dillon, Jamie Lowry, Morgan Edel.  Front Row, l-r: Catherine Ronan, Cindy Hardin, Anne Kurosumi, Linda Rose, Carolyn Canterbury, Ellen Zell, Joe Zell, Leslie Davidson, Carol Babeli, Christi Nash  Kneeling: Maura Estrada


Published Western Tanager Vol. 81 No. 4 March/April 2015

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