Sunday, July 31, 2016

Hiking the Shoreline at Estero Bluffs State Park

Date: May 2015 and April 2016
Place: Estero Bay State Park, Cayucos, California
Coordinates: 35.449825, -120.932640
Length: 2 miles
Level: easy

On May of last year my mother came with a close family friend to visit us. Naturally, we took them traveling around California. The beautiful Morro Bay was on our itinerary and as always, was a great boon. We visited the usual places, like the Morro Rock and the El Moro Elfin Forest, and took a boat on the bay water to see marine wildlife up close. But then, I was also looking to expand my knowledge the area, and so I lead everyone on a couple of trails that were new to us. One of them was at the nearby Estero Bluffs State Park.
Ester Bluff is right by Hwy 1, There are several pullout gravel parking areas along the road and we selected one randomly and looked around. Late in May, after a painfully short rainy season, the scenery was nearly all dry.

We took the shortest trail to the water. I didn't expect to see anything blooming but here and there, hidden in the tall dry grass, low morning glory was blooming, adding its beautiful color to the otherwise dormant view.
Morning Glory (Calystegiaw purpurata) 
The cliffs of Estero are nothing like the Big Sur, but are low, vertically-eroded alluvium soil. There are some rocks, too, leftovers of a harder, more primal past.

Many rocks are off shore, creating little islets that are safe haven for birds. Some of them are seriously white-washed, but others are low enough to be washed by the high tides.
Cormorants and Gulls at rest
The rocks also make a perfect nesting place for swallows. Cliff swallows, naturally.
Cliff Swallows
We stood at the edge of the cliff and looked down. The coastline there comprised of narrow strips of sandy shores separated by clumps of rocks. Some of the sandy areas are wide and deep where a creek flows into the ocean. A small gaggle of geese was wandering about on one of those sandy beaches. Papa Quail looked through his binoculars, exclaimed with excitement and raised his camera - those were Brant geese, not the Canada geese we're so used to seeing around the Bay Area.
We strolled along the cliff edge until we came upon a convenient place to descend to the beach. It was a hot day and we sat there for some time, mesmerized by the sound of the waves and the light spots dancing on the water.

The chikas didn't feel like sitting down. They had a ball exploring the tide pools. Within a few minutes I took off my shoes and joined them in the tide pools.
The little cove we were at featured a colorful display of algae. I didn't post all of them here but just the iridescent one that gleamed at me from the water.

The chikas were more into the animal life and they called me to check out the anemones and hermit crabs. There were plenty of them on the submerged rocks.

The off shore rocks are a safe haven for pelagic birds but also for seals to sleep on away from sharks and orcas.
Harbor Seals and Cormorants
The chikas were busy with the local wildlife, of which one of the most common were hermit crabs. These little crabs live inside vacated snail shells and replace them as they grow. It is funny to see what looks from above like snails running about quickly with legs extended out. Most of the shells there belonged originally to the turban snail.
Hermit Crab
After a nice tide pooling time we climbed back up to the trail and continued south.
While generally the Pacific Ocean lies west of the California coast, the Estero Bluffs shoreline actually faces south. And looking south, there is the view of Morro Rock standing guard at the mouth of Morro Bay.

Papa Quail focused his eyes on the sky. Many birds were flying here and there, nearly all of them over the water.
Pacific Brown Pelican
While the pelicans are impressive for their size and their flight patterns, the terns show beautiful aerobatics and sleep flight. And they are just plain beautiful, too.
Caspian Tern
But not everything in the air was a water bird. Turkey vultures also crossed the sky, lilting over the shoreline looking for goodies. On a subsequent visit I have found that they were particularly fond of dead seals that were stranded on the beaches of Estero Bluffs.
Turkey Vulture
Meanwhile, my eyes were on the ground. While most vegetation was bone dry there were a few wildflower species blooming, some of them in large numbers.
Coastal Tarweed (Deinandra corymbosa)
Another thing we found were little plastic-like ghosts tangled in the dry plants. Looking closer I recognized them as desiccated Valella valella - ocean invertebrates that were swept to shore in large quantities several months before. Their flake-light remains were carried on the wind over the cliff edge and some were trapped in the vegetation.
Vallela vallela
We strolled a bit longer to the south but eventually wrapped up our hike and went back to the car. We had planned to see the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas that day before going home.
I did, however, plan to go back there as soon as I could, and 11 months later I had the chance to go there twice - by myself and with a group.

Last April I took a group of Bay Area families on a camping trip to Morro Bay. Remembering how lovely my time at Estero Bluffs was, I added the park to the group's itinerary as well. In preparation to the camping trip I took a solo hike in that park and was amazed at how different it looked from my  hike there of the previous year.

Without a company attached I found myself roaming here and there on the alluvial flat that stretches from the hills to the ocean. I had my GPS on during my solo hike there and below is the path I took on that day, overlaid on a satellite image of the area (taken during the dry season, obviously).

The most striking thing I saw there during my April hikes was the greenery. Last April came after a long and blessed rainy season. It even rained on the day I was there.
And embedded in the green - wildflowers. Many, many wildflowers.
Sky Lupine (Lupinus nanus)
The most eye-catching flowers there are invasive weeds, originated from the old world. Plants I am very familiar with from the Middle East have been brought to California, some intentionally and others as hitch-hikers, and have made California their thriving home. Needless to say, this happened at the expense of California native plant species.
One of the best examples of this take over is the black mustard, the Brassica nigra. Brought overseas and intentionally sowed by the Spanish missionaries along El Camino Real - 'The King's Highway', the dense mustard bloom now paints the coastal hills and mountains with intense yellow every spring.
Mustard Patch
While mustard along with other invasive weeds dominate the bloom scene at Estero Bluffs, there are still many native California species to see and appreciate. Some of them are very local species, too, like this one below.
Obispo Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja densiflora sip. obispoensis)
My solo hike took place during high tide and I remained on high ground nearly the entire hike. On my group hike, about two weeks after, we timed our arrival with the low tide and although I hadn't planned it, we all went down to the tide pools almost immediately. It was a brilliant, sunny day. The water sparkled in the light and the colorful algae shimmered underneath the water surface.

The children in the group spread themselves on the rocks, searching for sea treasures. And they found them too - many, many treasures. They did, of course, leave everything where they had found it. Collecting is forbidden there.
Skeleton of a Sea Urchin 
There were a few other people there, and one of them had spotted an eel. Within seconds the man and the eel were surrounded by a group of excited children and I had to shove my way through the crowd to get a shot. It was the first time I've seen an eel in the wild.
The rocks didn't host as many birds as I've seen in May. Perhaps they were all busy foraging. The whitewash, however, stood witness for the ever presence of the pelagic avian life there.

It was completely overcast on my April solo hike there. I made my way on the criss-crossing paths along the edge, looking over the crumbling cliff and enjoying the greenery and the occasional spring sprinkle.

Then I came upon a wall of mustard. It is a good place for mustard to grow there, because the mustard was monstrous size. A narrow path was cut through the mustard thicket and I walked it, getting petal and pollen-yellow as I passed through, rubbing against the blossoms.
Mustard Tunnel (Brassica nigra, non-native, invasive weed)
There is a small hill standing near the pullout where I parked and as I was walking along the cliff edge I went around that hill until I had a clear view of the other side. A few separate rocks stood away from the hill. Red in color, they stood out against the green backdrop.
A small bird stood at the top of the most prominent rock. I couldn't see what it was but had no difficulty identifying it by its song: it was a male red-winged blackbird.

I approached until I was close enough to confirm the bird's ID by sight. As I circumvented the rock the bird rotated on its spot, constantly training his eye at me.
Red-winged Blackbird, male
Below, in the mustards, I spotted his mate. Drab and quiet, and holding a beak full of nesting material. I wished them both success and took my leave.
Red-winged Blackbird, female
From a little more distance I found that it wasn't only yellow painting the ground: I was happy to discover a decent patch of California poppy next to the dominant mustard. I can only imagine how the California coast springtime looked like before the mustard replaced much of the local flora. I got a hint of that on the following week when I traveled with my family to Figueroa Mountain.
A Poppy Patch
The spectacular broad views drew me in toward the poppy patch again. Looking down I saw there the little beauties that were hidden under the taller plants.
Red Maids (Calandrinia menziesii) and Alkali Heath (Frankenia salina)
Eventually I pulled away from the hills and rocks and made my way back to the cliff edge, moving south. Soon I came across the San Geronimo Creek where it meets the ocean. On the sand below I saw little dark dots moving here and there. I raised my binoculars: they were shore birds.

The trail lead me down to the sandy beach and I carefully approached the birds. They didn't fly away, just looked at me and moved a bit sideways.
Black Turnstone

And some allowed me to get quite close before moving out of my way.
Least Sandpiper

The path goes up again on the other side of the beach. There I got a good view of the rocks adjacent to the cliff edge and the cormorants that were roosting there.
Pelagic Cormorants
Not only pelagic birds I saw there. Another singer was in the low shrubs on my left - land side. A small savannah sparrow. It became silent as I turned my attention to it and resumed its song as soon as I went on my way.
Savannah Sparrow
Two weeks after, the cormorants were much further away. Down near the water I got to see more interesting plants that I had missed on my previous hike, like this milk vetch with balloon-like pods.
Milk vetch (Astragalus sp.) 
Growing so close to the ocean the coastal strand plants must have adaptations for saline conditions. The delicate Salt marsh sand spurry is a bit succulent and is covered by little hairs - adaptations for minimizing water loss in response to the saline wind and ocean spray.
Salt Marsh Sand Spurry (Spergularia macrotheca)
The group I was with on my last April hike there was walking slowly, enjoying the full coastal experience. And so was I. Although I was familiar with the place I was still seeing it as if for the first time. There were many things there that I did see for the first time that day. Like this dudleya below.
Blochman's Dudleya (Dudley blochmaniae)
And I wasn't the only one there that enjoyed the wildflowers. 
Common Buckeye
Eventually I arrived at the point where I had planned to turn back around. There I found a convenient path down to the beach and descended to the sand. I was amazed at the variety of pebble colors I've seen there. On my group hike I challenged the children to find as many pebble colors they could.
The ocean was very green in April. And it wasn't all that pacific. In fact, the waves were quite high. As my group made its way south to that colorful beach the tide was coming in. As we were sitting on the pebbles the waves came closer and closer until one rogue wave washed someone's shoes away. The shoes were eventually redeposited back on shore, completely soaked. We got the message and got up to leave. 

On my solo hike I had walked all the way back to where I had parked my car. On the  group hike, however, I had parked my car at the south parking lot. Some only had to take the quick path to Hwy 1 where everyone waited while I shuttled the drivers of each family to our starting spot. On the way to the car I took a final, longing look at the green field to the north: it was girdled with bright yellow mustard and dotted with blue-eyed grass. If I had any crafting talent I'd paint it or quilt it. Being who I am I simply photographed.
Blue-eyed Grass

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