Friday, September 30, 2016

The Ultimate Treasure Hunt: Tidepooling at Crystal Cove State Beach


Date: November 25, 2015
Place: Crystal Cove State Park, Laguna Beach, California
Coordinates: 33.578670, -117.849422
Length: 0.6 mile in and out from lot 2
Level: easy

We finished our hike at Crystal Cove State Park with time to spare before we were due down at the beach for the low tide, and the family vote was to go and have lunch before going tide pooling. That lunch ate up all of that time and a bit more, so by the time we arrived at parking lot #2 the tide was past its lowest. Still, it was pretty low when we finally made it down to the pools and we had a wonderful time wandering along the beach and enjoying its treasures.

The little walk we had to take to the restaurant also had its surprises, It started with this little towhee strutting his stuff by the parking lot.
California Towhee
We had to walk a good quarter mile down to the beach eatery. Between the path and the Pacific Coast Highway there was a wide trench with water and vegetation. One of the trees above it had a woodpecker perched on it's branches.
Nuttall's Woodpecker, female
As I was leading the chikas down to the restaurant Papa Quail stayed behind a little longer: a beautiful, majestic osprey was sitting on a pole in the middle of the trench.
The restaurant was packed. We were fortunate to get a seat fairly soon but the rest took a loooong time. As a result we arrived at the park's parking lot #2, the one nearest to the tide pools we wanted to explore, only at around 4:00 pm. The tide was rolling in for a whole hour already. Moreover, being in daylight saving time regime, we had a little over an hour of daylight left.
So we grabbed our cameras and not to lose any more time, hurried down the path to the beach. 
Our tidepooling wanders as captured by Papa Quail's GPS
That we were going to explore tide pool wildlife didn't mean I ignored the flora on the way, even on such a short walk.
California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum)
The path starts as a boardwalk through the fragile coastal plant community. At the cliff edge the boardwalk stops and the trail becomes a convenient sandy path that leads to the beach in a gentle slope almost all the way. And then it suddenly turns into a steep rocky step that requires care of footing.
The trail down to the tidepools
The cliffs of Laguna Beach are gentle, and not all that high. Much more tame compared with the sheer, dark rocks of the Bay Area coastal cliffs. Wherever there was a depression in the cliffs, a sandy beach was formed. The line of sandy beaches is separated by rocky areas, including the one we were going down to - where the tide pools were.
Crystal Cove State Beach
Papa Quail didn't need to go all the way down to make his first observation - pelicans were gliding gracefully up the coast in small groups or individually. They are quite impressive birds, and very pretty when wearing their breeding plumage.
Pacific Brown Pelican
Once down, my chikas and I immediately took our shoes off and went into the tide pools. Papa Quail held on to dry land a little longer but eventually even he shelled off his footwear and joined us in the water. 
As always when we go out together it is Papa Quail that takes the big zoom lens and look for the birds.
Marbled Godwit
I, on the other hand, take the wide-angle and/or macro lens and focus on less fidgety organisms, plantlike mostly, and other sessile beings such as sea anemones.

Much of the tidal zone wildlife is sessile. The rock faces were covered with mussels and other mollusks, shut tightly inside their shells until the coming tide covers them with water once more.
Mussels and other shellfish make excellent feed for shorebirds and, as expected, the shorebirds prowled the tide-exposed rocks and send, looking for morsels.
Black Turnstone
We expected to see shorebirds there but were surprised by the variety and diversity of species we saw there, some of which were rare encounters for us, and one that we have not seen until then - the ruddy turnstone in the photo below.
Ruddy Turnstone
One of our rare sightings there was the snowy plover. I had seen them only once before - at Oso Flaco State Beach. For Papa Quail it was the first time seeing snowy plovers and that sighting was just the right thing to set his mood right for the rest of our trip.
Snowy Plover
The ocean was quiet and gentle waves lapped at the beach. The water level was slowly rising and I kept rolling my pants higher to avoid getting soaked by the surge.

Large fields of sea grass grew on the wave-polished rocks and on the thin layer of sand that covered the large flat slabs. The grass, I soon found out, was very slippery. I had to tread very carefully around that watery meadow. 

Not all of it was green - other algae grew there as well, although largely dominated by the seagrass. 

My chika found a starfish. I carefully waded to the rock she was next to so I could get a close-up. Starfish are always a star find when tide pooling. 

Later she had found a tiny-wincy baby star too. This tiny starfish was detached from its rock and tumbling in the gentle waves. My chika scooped it from the water to show me, then laid it gently in the little pond she and her sister made for the hermit crabs that they found there.

Snail shells were all over the place, but my chika found a really large one. It was vacant - apparently no hermit crab was big enough to lay claim to this beautiful house.

Hermit crabs are always fun to watch. They remain trapped in the tide pools and they keep active until the tide comes in again. While in the closed tide pool the water remains still and the sand doesn't shift with any wave. This is the time when a small crab can make its mark, leaving a trail of footprints underwater.
Hermit Crab
Meanwhile Papa Quail came near, telling me of all the birds he'd seen so far. He also paid attention to the various gulls that were on the beach, as common birds as they are. There were several gull species there. Some were actively feeding, but most seemed to just sit there and take in the scenery.
Ring-billed Gull
I wasn't all that interested in the gulls. Instead, I tried to get a decent photo of the fish that were swimming in the tide pool near my legs. Some of them were quite large. Enough to make a good meal for the snowy egret that was foraging a few yards away.

There was a single snowy egret in the entire tide pools area. That bird was busy fishing throughout the time we were there. Papa Quail photographed it and moved on to other, less common birds. I regarded it every now and then, seeing that it didn't mind me or other people around. Occasionally it would catch a fish and swallow it quickly. On one of these occasions a Heermann's Gull swooped over and tried to wrestle the fish from the egret. The egret wasn't ready to give up its catch and a short battle ensued. My camera was on serial photo mode and the birds were close. I photographed the whole thing.
Heermann's Gull challenging a Snowy Egret that caught a fish
The fight involved a lot of screaming (of the gull), jumping and wing-flapping (of both). The egret had its crest all puffed up.
"Give me that fish!" 
There wasn't any physical assault - no pecking or clawing. I think the gull was trying to intimidate the egret into dropping its catch. I report with satisfaction that the egret held on to its fish and eventually managed to swallow it, leaving nothing for the gull to hang around for.
"Mine! Mine! Mine!" 
So now I know why the gulls were just sitting there and what they were waiting for. 
The egret, completely unphased, flattened its crest and continued on fishing. 

The sun was getting low and the air was cooling down. Papa Quail started voicing his wish to go back to the car but he was still distracted by the birds that showed no intention to leave the beach.
Most of the tide pools were already covered by the incoming tide by then. The chikas were playing in their little hermit crab pool but elder chika was shivering slightly and younger chika had goosebumps. I called them to break open their pool so the crabs could go away and instructed them to dry off and put on their shoes.
Black-bellied Plover, non-breeding 
The shadows lengthened. Papa Quail had had enough and sat down to put on his own shoes but I wasn't ready to go just yet. I wanted to stay for the sunset.

Papa Quail wasn't enthusiastic about it but didn't argue. Besides, there was still enough light left to photograph the birds that still hanged around at the beach. 
Western Gull
As the sun was setting many of the birds were leaving too. Ocean, sunset, and seagulls make a perfect image isn't that so?  

Papa Quail was more interested in the actual birds than the scenery or the beauty of the image. But he certainly appreciates the beauty of a tern in flight.
Royal Tern
Yes, another photo of pelicans. They make the best embellishment to the sunset sky.

It was getting dark. The chikas were complaining loudly now that they were cold and hungry, and papa Quail started herding them toward the trail. I took a few steps in that direction and then turned and shot another series of sunset stills.

And who would blame me? Every few minutes the image would change into something even more spectacular. The clouds enhance the sunset's beauty so much.

Eventually the only people left on the beach were a couple of professional sunset photographers that came down specifically for that and had their camera mounted on a tripod. An me, retreating ever so slowly towards the trail.

The camera adjusts the capture according to the light it perceives, therefore when photographing the sun directly, everything around looks dark.

But high on the cliff (yes, I did make it up there eventually), when I photographed the coastline, the photo looks less dark although it was taken after the photos above.

It was there at the edge of the cliff that I caught the last rays of the sun as it sunk into the Pacific Ocean. (Yes, I know it doesn't really sink and it's all just a perception, but the heck with it. The sun sinks and it's right that it sinks into the ocean. No land sunset can match with that. And please ignore the outline of Santa Catalina Island, it still counts as ocean sunset :-) )

It was almost dark when we made it back to the car and I found out that I had left my water bottle at the beach where I had put my shoes back on. Horrified at the though that I(!) would leave an artifact like that in nature I grabbed a flashlight and run all the way down to retrieve it. I made it back with no time to spare - the park's gate are closed on sunset. I guess that the attendant is familiar with the practice of sunset viewing because she had waited for us to leave before closing the beach.

It was the perfect ending of a long and very rewarding day. And it was our last day before I'd have to face that big monstrosity in Anaheim that we promised we'd take the chikas to.


  1. another beautiful walk with great pictures. I really enjoied the sunset.

    Shana Tova!