Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Marvellous Discovery: Oso Flaco Lake State Park and Beach

Sanderlings in the Air
Date: August 15, 2015
Place: Osos Flaco Lake State Park, Arroyo Grande, California
Coordinates: 35.029038, -120.617459
Length: about 2.2 miles to beach and back.
Level: easy

The universe works its magic constantly. Sometimes I am fortunate to tap it too, and be aware of it in real time.

Last Saturday I made a wonderful discovery: the Oso Flaco Lake State Park and beach. I went there with minimal prior knowledge and preparation, and absolutely no expectations. And I found heaven.
We had spent the previous night at Santa Maria, after two failed attempts at camping. (Coming down from Mt. Pinos on Rte 166, we found Valle Vista Campground filthy with human trash and overrun with fire ants, and Aliso Park with people who were happily shooting firearms in the campground, where a clear sign stating 'No Hunting, No Shooting, was posted.  Attn. Los Padres National Forest!)

With Papa Quail on a personal tour overseas, it was me and the chikas on our way home from a week-long visit to Southern California, and I had promised them, and myself as well, some beach time. Wanting to avoid the weekend crowd of the popular beaches I continued west on Rte 166 from Santa Maria, and north on Hwy 1 past Guadalupe, to Oso Flaco Lake SP, which I found on a quick search online.

All I wanted was a couple of hours of quiet beach time before hitting the road on the long way home. Well, I got that, alright. And a lot, lot more.
Our hike at Oso Flaco Lake State Park 
The trail from the parking lot ($5 per car parking fee, or park outside) to the beach is about a mile long and it goes near and over the Oso Flaco Lake and a stretch of shore dunes. Prepared to view some wildlife, I took my camera along with both wide and zoom lenses. I also carried all the water, snacks, sunscreen, swimsuits and towels for all three of us.
The beginning of the trail didn't promise much. A boulevard of dune willows, interlaced with poison oak, blackberry and bull nettle (i.e. hostile vegetation), with wide pavement in between.
The Willow Boulevard
Oso Flaco means 'skinny bear'. The sign post at the trailheard had a note saying that bears have been sighted in the area.
I didn't see any bears. However, looking closer at the path side did show some interesting flowers:
Pacific Potentilla (Potentilla anserina ssp. pacifica)
My howk-eyed elder chika grabbed my attention: 'Look! A spider eating another spider!'
And indeed it was :-)
A spider eating another spider
 Further down the trail I saw the large primrose I was familiar with from city gardens. Beautiful, but doesn't belong in wild California.
Redsepal Evening Primrose (Oenothera glazioviana). Not native.
The pavement ended and the path continued on a dirt road. The willows parted and a bunch of tule marked the edge of the lake. To my right I saw water: the north lobe of the lake. Behind the water I could see the dunes.
Oso Flaco Lake, view north
The dirt road continues around the north lobe of the lake into the dunes area. I wanted to explore that area a little, but the chikas insisted on going directly to the beach, so we turned left to the boarwalk bridge across the south lobe of Oso Flaco Lake.  
Oso Flaco Lake, view south.
 Within two steps on the bridge, elder chika was pulling my shirt and pointing excitedly at the vegetation across the water, exclaiming: "Green heron!"
It took me a while to see that well camouflaged bird. In fact, it was only when it graciously hopped to a different branch that I could see it.
(The photo below I took on our way back: the heron stood there for the entire time we were at the beach!)
Green Heron
Small groups of ducks (mallards, most of them), were having a siesta near the lake's edge. Islands of fluffy white stuff separated them. Upon enlargement I could tell that this white stuff was feathers. Lots of feathers. These ducks were in the process of molting (shedding old feathers and growing new plumage).
Mallards, molting
 Not all the ducks were sleeping, though.A few were floating here and there, without much enthusiasm.
Northern Shoveler, female
A little more enthusiastic were the damselflies and dragonflies that were hovering over the murky water, some of them in pairs.
Damselflies, mating.
Going near a shallow area, I saw a group of energetic dowitchers, wading and poking the mud.
Long-billed Dowitchers
If I was alone there, these dowitchers would have been all I saw in that spot. However, my chika's supreme viewing skills came to play once more.
"A rail!" she exclaimed.
I pointed my camera and took a series of photographs. Sure enough - there it was - a rail. A very elusive, hard to see bird. It was my chika who also nailed the species down: "A Virginia Rail. It's smaller than the dowitchers," she said. She sure takes after Papa Quail :-)
Virginia Rail
My younger chika was bummed, feeling she was not making any sighting contributions. I encouraged her to find me some birds to photograph and, promptly, she pointed up to a turkey vulture that circled above our heads.
Turkey Vulture
Encouraged, she went on and directed my attention to a pair of cormorants that were having a discussion atop wood poles in the middle of the lake.
Double-crested Cormorants
That seemed to have satisfied my younger chika and she stopped searching for birds and for more aspects to compare herself to her older sister.
The water of the Oso Flaco Creek slow down at the dunes barrier and well behind them to form the Lake. A large area of the water was thickly grown with algae.
Algae in Oso Flaco Lake
The lake looks very shallow, but I suspect that its bottom is silt mud that a person could sink right through if stepping on it. Not that I cared to test this thought.
It reminded me of the end of 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader'.
There were fish in the shallow, murky water. Alive, by the small movements of their fins. Otherwise, very still.

The water was as calm as were its fish. The only ripples were made by a pair of dragonflies in procreation, the female dipping her hindquarters in the water, rippling it as she laid her eggs.
Dragonflies mating.
When we got to the other side of the lake the boardwalk stretched flat on the sand dunes, flanked on each side by coastal sand vegetation, much of it was silver lupine.

I didn't expect to see much bloom this late in summer. I was happy to find myself wrong.
I promptly replaced the high zoom lens with the wide angle lens. My neck thanked me.
Silver Lupine (Lupinus albifrons)
One of my first findings was a lovely milkvetch that looked as fresh as in springtime.
Nuttall's Milkvetch (Astragalus nuttallii)
My chikas were running ahead, eager to get to the water. I shouted to them to slow down: there were many flowers to photograph!
Blochman's Erigeron (Erigeron blochmaniae)
While there was a lot of bloom still, it was clear that for most plants it was nearing the end of season. The phacelia was a good example of it. Apparently I had a very good timing for this!
Branching Phacelia (Phacelia ramosissima)
The end of season for many plants, except for the sandaster. That was blooming everywhere. The sandaster there is much paler than its relatives in the Bay Area. Almost white.
Common Sandaster (Corethrogyne filaginifolia)
Wherever there are flowers, there are butterflies too. Moistly hyperactive, I managed to photograph only one that agreed to sit still for a moment.
Funereal Duskywing wisiting a sandaster inflorescence
The yellow ones were quite prevalent as well. And I'm happy to call them by name, rather than by the generic title, 'DYC'.
More at the beginning of the dunes trail: the dune ragwort, with inflorescences that look like someone has been playing, 'Love me, love me not' with.
Dune Ragwort (Senecio blochmaniae)
As we got closer to the beach the ragworts were replaced by the seaside wooly sunflower. Those shrubs, like many other coastal strand plants, lay flat on the ground (sometimes fined on other shrubs).
Seaside Woolly Sunflower (Eriophyllum staechadifolium)
At the end of the boardwalk: an observation deck. The view to the north was pretty blurry for the murky air. The view to the south wasn't very clear either, but it was easier to distinguish features on that direction.
The large dune on the horizon called 'Devil's Slide' looked very alluring. Another time I'd like to walk all the way there.
Oso Flaco Dunes, view to the south. 
Sand dunes propose some tough challenges to the plants that grow there. Along with the flat, crawling shape, other adaptations include a wide and shallow root system, and small and succulent, often hairy leaves.
Some of them also sport some very bright and beautiful flowers!
Beach Evening Primrose (Camissonia cheiranthifolia ssp. cheiranthifolia)
Evening primrose is common along the California coastline. This red sand verbena is much less common, showing preference to the coast of Southern California. I was very glad to see it bloom. 
Red Sand Verbena (Abronia maritima)
By the time it took me to finish photographing the flowers and go down to the beach, my chikas were already barefoot and busy collecting treasures. 
We often see the sand dollar tests strewn on beaches we go to. This time, however, I was surprised to see so many of them mounted with barnacles. 

The Oso Flaco Creek seeps under the sand and flows into the ocean a bit south of the trail end. And that is as far as I was able to drag my chikas along the shore. I dropped my stuff just out of the waves' reach and, equipped with my binoculars and camera, I walked along the creek to check out the area.  
Oso Flaco Creek and lagoon
That dot sticking out of the dune top is a great blue heron that apparently had been standing there since early morning. (Another hiker we met on the trail had seen it there before us). 
It was still there when we left, four hours later.
Great Blue Heron
The two black spots near the lagoon were turkey vultures. They did nothing but stare around. Later, when I checked on them again, I found them at the top of the dune, not very far from the heron (who didn't budge).
Turkey Vultures
The green spot (and some other non-fitting colors) were pieces of human trash. I didn't want to cross the barrier line and disturb the birds, but I do home that the park workers will get around to remove it.  

A funny-looking bug run on the sand below me. I aimed the camera and shot a series of photos. At home, upon enlargement, I found it to be two beetles in action.

The corner of the lagoon functioned as a busy spa. I saw there California gulls, western gulls, Heermann's gulls and ring-billed gulls. There might have been other gull species there, but gulls are on a higher level of birding which I and yet to achieve.
Seagull Spa
Looking nonchalantly over everything was a single osprey, standing peacefully on one of the barrier poles, keeping watch.
Looking Bold. Osprey.
"Papa already has pictures of osprey," called my elder chika. "And now the plover went away and you missed it!"
I assured my chika that the plover will return, and went back to the strand line. Across the stream, not far from where we chose to sit, was a large group of shore birds that were running in and out of the water line. Most of them were sanderlings but upon close observation of the photos at home, Papa Quail had identified some sand pipers among them.

I watched them for a long time, mesmerized by the graceful gliding motion of the little birds on the wet sand, and their perfect timing with the waves. It looked like a masterpiece choreography executed to perfection by a huge dance troupe.
The sanderlings were not doing this for joy alone. They were foraging. Their sturdy, straight beaks perfectly suited to pluck from the wet sand those bite-size morsels called sand crabs, or sand diggers.

When I turned my attention from the birds to my chikas, I noticed they were doing the very same thing: hunting sand diggers. And they too were very successful. (They did release the critters, though.)
Sand Digger
They got me into the water and showed me how to do it. You just have to stick your fingers in the mud as the water recedes back to the ocean, and when you feel the movement, close your hand around it. 
The captured sand diggers instantly try to burrow themselves between the fingers. Dribble some mud on tour hand and they'll dig right into it. Lay them on the wet sand, and they disappear from view in half a second. 
I walked further into the ocean, and when the water was knee-high I felt like the ground was crawling under my feet. These sand diggers were at an unbelievable density, and the feeling reminded me f a particularly gross scene from one of those Indiana Jones movies where the protagonists find themselves in a chamber swarming of cockroaches. 
I took my hat off and scooped the ground at my feet. Barely scraping the surface of an area less than 1 sq ft, I managed to scoop up over 20 sand diggers. No wonder there were so many sanderlings on that beach!
A hatful of sand diggers
For some time we were all engaged in catching and releasing sand diggers. At some point I lost interest and left my chikas to continue doing the very same thing for the next couple of hours, while I returned to my towel and tried to take a nap.
I didn't nap for long. The beach, which was almost deserted when we got there, started accumulating more people, and those kept scaring the birds into the air.
I kept observing, and then I saw the plovers return.
Snowy Plover
I knew that snowy plovers were a possibility on that beach, but shore birds can be very difficult to identify. Back at home, as I showed my photos to Papa Quail, he reached for the Sibley guide, but then he stopped and looked closer.
"It has leg bands," he observed. "That alone means it's a snowy plover."
We did compare with the book, of course. And indeed it was a snowy plover: an endangered shorebird species. There were two of these that I saw, and only one of them had the leg bands.
Papa Quail expressed his jealousy loudly. He had never seen snowy plovers. Well, he'll just have to come hiking with us more often, right?

Meanwhile, sanderlings that were scared off the spot across the creek had landed on our side, very close to where I was sitting. Finally I had a good look at them.
Sanderlings and a Heermann's Gull
Every few minutes, a group of pelicans flew over the water, due south. Always in a line, always hanging low over the waves, always southbound. I can never grow tired of looking at these graceful birds.
Pacific Brown Pelicans
But something else flying over caught my attention: the osprey had made a catch!
The Osprey with the Catch of the Day
The beach was crowded with birds of many species. But quite surprisingly, the only birds that weren't doing much (except for bathing) were the seagulls. I am used to having to defend my things from seagull raids on other beaches. Here at Oso Flaco though, the gulls were completely indifferent to people and their things, or to other birds and their things. Most gulls just stood or sat in place, unless a human scared them into the air (and they had to get really close to them to get that reaction).
Heermann's Gull, adult and 2 juvenile
I had originally planned to stay at the beach for a couple of hours, then go out and find a place to have a picnic lunch. Th chikas were so engaged, however, and I had not felt so tranquil and calm in such a long time, that I was in no hurry to get out of there. I assumed that at some point the chikas will remember they were hungry and that would be our cue to leave, but that didn't happen. Digging for sand diggers had them so engrossed that the simply forgot about lunch.
Eventually I had to get back into the role of the responsible adult. I also remembered I still had a 4 hours drive yet ahead of me. Luckily, by the time I told the chikas it was time to go they were ready and came along without any fuss.
The overgrown lagoon behind the dune. 
We still had to hike all the way back. This time I took much fewer photos. One of them was the indian paintbrush I had missed on our way to the beach. 
Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja affinis)
And then there was the scrub jay that landed on a silver lupine and gave me the eye. 
Western Scrub-Jay
We made it quickly back to the car and drove off. It was too late to think of a picnic: it would be an early dinner at a restaurant in the town of Arroyo Grande. Then the long way home.

Oso Flaco Lake State Park is located south of the renowned section of Hwy 1, therefore out of the way for the regular crowd of tourists. The mile-long hike to the beach also serves to deter most beach goers whose only interest is the ocean itself. Other than a toilet (vault) near the beach, there are no amenities there at all. No life guard, no trash receptacles, no drinking water, no picnic tables or sitting benches. The beach is a s wild as could be. As it should be. But if coastal wilderness is your thing, it is the best that can be. I have no doubt I will revisit that place. And next time I'll be bringing Papa Quail along. I just hope the plovers will wait for him :-)

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying the verbena!


  1. Amazing variety of flowers and birds! This is a good surprise...
    The best picture for me is the osprey with the fish :)

    1. That photo is my fav too :-) And it is a very nice beach just to relax and enjoy the ocean as well!

  2. well, first I have to comment about the camp sites... 2 unusuable camp sites? dirty campsite and one with loud annoying people that don't follow regulations? are you sure this was in the US?! ;-)
    as for the beach - such a delightful find! so many things to see! so many birds and flowers!
    your chicka has really sharp eyes - so many great findings!
    kisses to all you quails!

    1. It happens. Sadly, people who don't give a hoot about the environment exist here as well. The state of these campgrounds is a combination of lack of education and lack of funds for the National Forest rangers to keep a close eye on these places :-(
      The beach was a spectacular find for me. I plan to go there again in November, and take Papa Quail there as well!

  3. Another nice beach nearby is Guadalupe dunes park. Free to enter and park. I just discovered your blog and will keep the address since I just moved to Central california and am looking for hikes in the area.

    1. Thank you, Sandy! I definitely plan to explore that area more and pretty beaches are always high on my plans list!

  4. I also wanted to share this one since it's not on your blog yet : Jalama Beach. it's a beach hike.This is my blog post in French but you just need to look at the pics ;-)

    1. Thank you! I'll add it to my plans for next time I go to SoCal :-)