Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Intensely Fabulous: The Coastline of Point Lobos State Reserve

May 2015

Date: May 25, 2015 and many times before
Place: Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Coordinates: 36.518707, -121.949786
Length: about 3 miles round trip from Headland Cove to China Cove and back
Level: easy

Point Lobos was one of the first California parks I visited, even before I came to reside in the Golden State. I visited this park many times since, always taking there visitors from out of town. Together with Yosemite, Point Lobos State Park stars at the top of the list of tourists in California, and rightly so. In this fairly small area is one of the most stunning Pacific coastal segments and it's mind-blowing rich with wildlife year-round.
On my latest visit there last month I also witnessed the splendor of coastal wildflowers that were still at blooming peak while their inland relatives have already dried up and gone to seed.
The photos I present here are mainly from that last visit, plus a few more from two other visits to this park on July and October of 2011. Do click on the photos for a larger view.
Headland Cove, May 2015
Point Lobos State Reserve is located just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, and the park's entrance is well marked by the lines of cars parking on the roadside. Parking inside the park requires paying a fee and finding a parking space can sometimes be challenging, particularly on a nice weekend, therefore walking in is a very reasonable choice.
There are several hiking trails in Point Lobos but so far I only hiked one of them, again and again. When time is limited we go straight to the best - the Shore Trail.
We usually drive directly to the small Headland Cove parking lot and, with some patience, manage to get a parking space that someone else had just vacated.
There, floating on the kelp that fills the cove, are sea otters. Once on the brink of extinction, now they made a wonderful recovery. The best place to see them is at Headland Cove, but they can also be spotted on other places along the coastline.
Sea Otter, July 2011
On our last visit we were a bit surprised to see a vulture, which isn't waterfowl, roosting on the water right in the middle of the cove. A glance through the binoculars showed that the vulture was standing on a carcass of, probably a seal. While we were watching, a second vulture swooped down and fought the first one off the carrion. And Papa Quail got it all on camera.
Turkey vultures fighting over a floating carcass, May 2015
The sound that welcomes hikers at Headland Cove is the distant barking of sea lions that hang around on the rocks just off-shore. We normally go down the trail to to Headland Point for a closer look at those sea lions and of seals that sleep quietly on other rocks, separate from the noisy sea lions. On our last visit though, we found that the trail leading down to the cove had been blocked: apparently the sea lions have reclaimed the beach, so we had to settle for observing them from above.
Sea Lions at Headland Cove, May 2015
On nearby flat rocks some harbor seals take a nap.
Harbor Seals, May 2015
They are always there. All around the year we see seals strewn on the rocky beds.

Harbor Seals, October 2011
From Headland Cove we took the coastal trail southward. The sheer cliffs are covered with coastal scrub.
May 2015
At any time around the year something is blooming along the coast. Last May though, it seemed that everything was blooming at once.
Sticky Monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus), May 2015
Quick to catch the eye are the Indian Paintbrush shrubs, like bright flames leaping from the backdrop greenery.
Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja affinis), May 2015
It was a bit early for the dudleya, but the rusty-gray leaf rosettes add their own color and texture to the rock face.
North Coast Dudleya (Dudleya farinosa), May 2015
This season though, one may not have to wait until July to see dudleya in bloom. Everything was blooming way too soon this year.
North Coast Dudleya (Dudleya farinosa), July 2011
One of the most common and most beautiful succulent plant that decorated the cliffs of Point Lobos is the common ice plant, an invasive, and very aggressive weed that immigrated from Africa. Some rock faces were literally carpeted with this plant.
Common Ice Plant (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum), May 2015
Despite the presence of invasive plants the native species dominate the scene. Some of them are very unique to that coastal area, like this coastal gumweed:
Coastal Gumweed (Grindelia hirsutula var. maritima), May 2015
Another plant that can be seen only in that part of California is the beautiful Ocean Bluff Milkvetch:
Ocean Bluff Milkvetch (Astragallus nuttallii var. virgatus), May 2015
The plant that is most identified with this area, however, is the Monterey Cypress. There are many of them along the coastline of Point Lobos. On one of them my little chika found a very hungry caterpillar.
Catterpillar on a Monterey Cypress, May 2015
The cliffs are home not only to plants. The cormorants were busy procreating on every rock ledge they could land on.
This pelagic cormorant moved to adjust herself, revealing a new, shiny egg :-)
Pelagic Cormorant, May 2015
Down in the water below other oceanic birds are looking for food or just enjoy a swim.
Pigeon Guillemont, July 2011
The trail slopes mildly down closer to the water. Small groups of Pacific Brown Pelicans fly over the water in low formations, almost grazing the waves.
Pacific Brown Pelicans, May 2015
All along we were looking primarily west - to the ocean side of the trail, where interesting rock formations and the rhythm of the waves create an unmatched dynamic Nature work of art.
"The Slot", May 2015
There, on the rock, we spotted a sole turkey vulture standing next to what appeared to be a severed pinniped limb. It was only at home, enlarged on the computer screen, that we noticed that the 'rock' was the carcass of the pinniped itself - a dead sea lion.
Turkey Vulture on a dead Sea Lion, May 2015
there,too, the rocks are carpeted with wildflowers this time of year.
Coastal Tarweed (Deinandra corymbosa), May 2015
 A long arch of shoreline is readily accessible to people. On our last visit we didn't take the time to go down there but on previous visits we did go to explore the tide pools.
May 2015
Sea Palm - the pretty kelp that decorates the coastal rocks in its small green groves, swaying back and forth with the rush of the waves.
Sea Palm (Postelsia palmaeformis), July 2011
A melange of sea creatures fill the tide pools. One should really watch where to place the feet.
Purple Sea Urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus), July 2011
Some of these creatures take the low tide time to rest from activity. For others - it is a high time for activity. The table is set and fresh sea food is served.
Rock crab cannibalism. July, 2011
We enjoy tide-pooling for fun. Others take tide-pooling way more seriously. They live by it.
Black Oystercatcher, October 2011
On some occasions the sea creatures come to check us out. On that one time a big sea lion bull hopped out of the water and onto the rocks where a number of people, including myself, where standing. He didn't do much other than swaying its head at us and barking.
I wonder what it told its friends after going back to sea.
Sea Lion, male, July 2011
Other creatures can be more interactive than that. Gulls are always on alert for any morsel left behind by humans. I should reiterate here that people shouldn't feed wildlife. It leads to dependence on human food and that can be detrimental to them.
This particular gull didn't appreciate the rule of no feeding wildlife. This photo was taken after it hopped off a car where it had left a souvenir.
Western Gull, October 2011
On a couple of visits to the park I was sent back to Headland Cove parking lot to get the car to the south end of the trail. Having been trained to look right I would then focus on the land side of the trail, where savannah-like grass dotted with wildflowers cover the area between the trail and the asphalt road.
Bicolored Lupine (Lupinus bicolor), May 2015
Some of these flowers don't look like much but they are unique and worth a closer inspection, and not just by botanists.
California Horkelia (Horkelia californica), May 2015
The beautiful Golden Brodiaea was all over the place, dotting the dry grass with brilliant yellow.
Golden Brodiaea (Triteleia ixiodes), May 2015
More hidden in the tall grass - it's cousin, the Harvest Brodiaea.
Harvest Brodiaea (Brodiaea elegans), May 2015
The closed white inflorescence buds of a composite caught my eye. Checking my archives later revealed that when blooming, these are not much more opened than the buds. I wonder who gave this plant its common name. It is certainly not the first thing that comes to my mind when I look at it.
Ladies' tobacco (Pseudognaphalium californicum), July 2011
A quick movement in the grass grabbed my attention: it was a gopher, and it was stuffing its face with vegetation that was within rich of its hole. As much as it could get in 5 seconds, then a quick withdrawal into the burrow. And then all over again. Papa Quail came from behind me and aimed his camera:
Pocket Gopher, May 2015
At the south end of the Shore Trail there is a small parking lot and a picnic area shaded by a grove of wind swept pine trees. There are plenty of scrub birds hanging out in the trees and bushes, singing at the top of their lungs and doing their best to avoid being seen. Whenever there, Papa Quail takes the time to find them.
White-crowned Sparrow, juvenile, July 2011
Like a good bird watcher, Papa Quail has patience. When other Quails aren't vying for his attention, that is.
Oak Titmouse, July 2011
Last May that parking lot was the end of my hike. I went back to fetch the car from Headland Cove while my mother stayed in the picnic area with my elder chika and Papa Quail took the younger chika and our friend up to the China Cove loop and Overlook.
Say's Phoebe, October 2011
Not before he managed to photograph the woodpecker that knocked about the pine trees.
Hairy Woodpecker, May 2015
China Cove, named after the emerald color of the water, is hidden in the southmost end of the park. The trail goes up the hill to overlook the cove and loops around the hill before leading back down to the parking lop.
China Cove is gorgeous to look at, but it is also accessible via a steep staircase. On previous visits in warmer weather we had gone down and spent some time at the beach. On our last visit Papa Quail and his company settled for the overlook and stayed up.
China Cove, July 2011
More often than not we would see farther in the water one a great egret standing on the water. Like the vulture in the beginning of this post - egrets aren't swimmers. It was standing on a knot of floating kelp, bobbing up and down with the swell.
Great Egret, May 2015
In contrast to the peaceful egret, the rocks off the coast near China Cove were bustling with cormorant activity. That place is always a hangout for the cormorants, as evident from the perfect white-wash on the rock. This time of year though, they are nesting.
A large colony of Brandt Cormorant, beautiful with their iridescent blue throats, were very active building nests, mating and taking turns sitting on the eggs.

Brandt Cormorant, May 2015
A crowded neighborhood can crate disputes, and while the nests are strategically located just outside of the neighbor's pecking reach, some disputes can pull the disputers out of their comfort zone to a full-fledged fight.
Brandt Cormorants at each others' throats, May 2015
While Papa Quail documented the cormorants social life, I was walking briskly on the asphalt road back to Headland Cove. The view from the road is less spectacular, but still I found good reasons to stop, appreciate, and take photos.
Bugle Hedgenettle (Stachys ajugoides), May 2015
I also kept looking at the trees, hoping to see deer. I didn't see the deer there, but the trees themselves merit a shot.
Monterey Cypress (Hesperocyparis macrocarpa), May 2015
And the flowers under the trees, too :-)
Seaside Fleabane (Erigeron glaucus), May 2015
With all my stops I was sure everyone will be waiting for me when I returned. When I came back with the car I was surprised to find from my mother that Papa Quail and company were still up the hill looking over China Cove.
Both my mother and my elder chika were hungry and impatient so I started up the hill to call the others down. I didn't have to go too far - they were already on their way back. But then I spotted a bee plant embedded in the poison oak at the trail side.
Bee plant is very difficult to photograph. I was never able to get a good quality photo of the flower with all parts in focus. And I mentioned that to Papa Quail. He removed the big zoom lens from his camera and handed me the heavy cylinder to hold while he borrowed the macro lens from our friend and installed it on his camera. With that setup he took some shots of the flowers which, of course, came out fabulous.
Bee Plant (Scrophularia californica), May 2015
Whenever we visit Point Lobos State Park it is always combined with other plans. And we always end up hiking  the same Shore Trail, in the same direction. It is always beautiful (and chilly most of the time), but on my last visit I had the feeling that it's about time to plan a different type of visit to this park - a visit with no out of town visitors to show off to. Just us. A visit with ample time to explore, not only the Shore Trail, but all other trails in this park as well. That shouldn't be difficult - the park is small and not far away from my home. I wonder what other treasures of Nature we would discover there next!

Many thanks to members of the California Wildlife Appreciators group for their help in identifying the gopher!


  1. delightful! I really enjoyed Point Lobos on the time we were there, and with all those flowers it's even better :-)

    1. :-) I knew you would! And I had to take your mom there too!

  2. It is a beautiful place and I'm happy that I visited there (thank to you...)

    1. Thanks! I'm happy you got to be there too :-)