Take a picture: it will last longer

A stunning California quail, a leggy Whimbrel, a dazzling Allen’s hummingbird, a sly Western Fence lizard, a California Thrasher and an (endangered) California gnatcatcher. These are some of the nimble and lovely residents of Crystal Cove State Park I stumbled upon during a hike recently. My senses were exploding as I trained my eyes from the ground to the horizon with each twitch, flutter or song beside me. As I moved from coastal sage scrub high on the bluffs and down the steep path towards the salty marine habitat of the coastal stretch, I was astounded by the biodiversity in the small area I had covered. Rattlesnakes (though I didn’t see any), lizards, hummingbirds, songbirds, seabirds, tidepool tenants and pelicans sweeping the surf like clockwork. For a naturalist, a first time visit here is a “kid in a candy store” experience. I was overwhelmed….

That is what natural landscapes do: they overwhelm the viewer with their beauty. While some are content to visit and collect memories with a camera or a canvas, others want a more permanent collection. Landscapes like this one are threatened by developers who want to permanently corral a part of the panorama for a price; a devastating loss for the biodiverse communities that call these thriving ecosystems home. Wildlife need wild places. And they are a substantial part of the inviting experience we humans enjoy, so when we see wild tracts of land, it’s best to take a deep breath, and be mindful of the services these wild communities provide for us and reflect on how much we would also lose if those spaces became part of the urban landscape. Fortunately, dedicated community members are always advocating for wild spaces like these and in the case of Crystal Cove Park, an alliance was formed just in time to stop urban development.

My tips to get the most out of your premiere experience: stay hydrated (bring extra water for the hike down to the beach), check the calendar and time of day: if it’s low tide, take the opportunity to observe the tidepools, if it’s rattlesnake season, look down often and give our slithering friends some extra s-s-s-space if you encounter one, (sorry) and plan to spend several hours if not your whole day here as it covers a good amount of land and offers trails and beach access.

If you love this ecosystem let me know! Comment below….

Cali quailwhimbrelAllen's HummingbirdIMG_3729California Thrasher California gnatcatcher

If you want to do more than just ogle the wildlife, take in the Environmental Study Loop: a rich resource for students, families or anyone who just wants to immerse themselves in the natural history of this astounding ecosystem: Environmental Study Loop at Crystal Cove State Park.





Historical ecosystems

Hiking the trails down through the historical landscape of Crystal Cove to explore tidepools, finding an Allen’s Hummingbird (among others) along the way. Magical.

This park consists of hiking trails above bluffs (stay sharp during rattlesnake season!), restored coastal sage scrub habitat that provides a home to endangered species, like the California gnatcatcher, and miles of coastline that cradle tidepools full of protected marine life (keep your eyes open but your hands to yourself during low tide to appreciate the sea urchins, sea stars and solitary green anemones).

Be amazed…be very amazed.

I am a full on nature nerd. Surprise, right? When I travel, the first thing on my mind is finding pockets of local flora and fauna to observe. I seriously do * heart* ecosystems. I love everything about exploring and documenting new habitats, especially being able to relive the emotional frenzy of taking in every new sound, smell and sight when I return home and sift through albums of images. My camera connects me to these positive memories forever. It’s the therapy that aligns me at any given moment. The intensity of the natural experience may not be quite as restorative for everyone but…as I take in the saltwater spray on the top of historical bluffs, stopping to admire raptors, reptiles and songbirds, it’s honestly difficult to imagine the person unmoved by such magnificence. 

The juxtaposition of delicacy and heartiness in places like the protected tide pools of Laguna Beach and the urban wilderness that stands above on the bluffs is poetry. Flowering aloes, birds of paradise and fields of cacti invite tourists like me to ogle at will. And I do, as amazement washes over me much as the tides will wash over the inhabitants of the marine hollows doing nothing more than existing in their awesome ecosystem.

High tide: high five

Among the layers of kelp strewn along the edge of the beach in the shadow of high tide, miniature tide pools exist within the carved out innards of driftwood. The intertidal zone has many marine mysteries and I always feel fortunate when I come upon these treasures. Although larger residents like sea stars and anemones were absent from these micro tide pools, plenty of barnacles and crabs were happy to hang out.

Today was a good day for exploring even though it didn’t seem so early on. Rather, it seemed as if the universe might have been in on a good April Fool prank; a chain of unfortunate events unfolded as I started out on my morning exploration (dead camera battery, dropping a lens in the sand and so on). I was discouraged enough to turn back and head home. As I began walking away from the beach, I thought to myself, “I’m going to lean into this and take my day back…the joke’s on you, universe!” As I followed the wrack line (the trail of tidal debris washed along the shoreline), scanning the sand and rocks for my first shot, I looked up to see an eagle gliding above me, browsing the wetlands below. I turned again to see harbor seals playing just beyond the shore and when I looked down again, I was mesmerized by the surprise of subtle curves of exposed driftwood hosting pocket tide pools. It was as if these had been curated by the water just for me. I am in awe of the subtle variations of color, pool depth and slope.

The art of it all brought me back to center. That’s just one of the reasons I find comfort in nature: there is always a reward of beauty in even a small or simple step. A little moment becomes monumental and day changing. I hope you have had one of these moments in a wild space. If not, what are you waiting for?

Cacti, palms and pelicans: exploring a Southern California ecosystem.

Prickly pear cacti, king palms and brown pelicans were just some of the highlights of a recent trip I took to Southern California. In many ways, this coastal ecosystem is similar to what we see here in the Pacific Northwest (seabirds, bull kelp and hearty succulents dotting the landscape) and in others, it is vastly different. The consistent sunshine and lower humidity of Southern California create perfect conditions for succulents and palms that leisurely become giants there while struggle just to make it through a Puget Sound winter.

I was in awe of the massive personalities these gigantic additions to the landscape created. Just another ecosystem to add to my list of favorites….

Low Tide: a fascinating early morning ecosystem waiting to be explored….

Great Blue Heron waited patiently for hours to scoop up tasty marine treats further out as the gulls and crows snacked among the kelp beds.


Aggregating Anemone (Anthopleura elegantissima) or more technically, (according to my five year old), “donuts” dotting the sodden surface of Golden Gardens at low tide…some covered in sea lettuce. Lots of slimy goodness for little hands to explore!



After wading through the early morning tidepools, we also found a few rocks fitted with acorn barnacles, dungeoness and red rock crab shells (post molting) and collections of Turkish Washcloth (not pictured) or Turkish Towel (Chondracanthus exasperatus): a red alga that is knobby and has a weight like a wet towel).


We even got a peek at a Red beaded anemone (Urticina coriacea) snuggled into a tidepool. In Seattle, Aquarium beach naturalist volunteers roam the shoreline during designated days over the summer for low tide (one of the best ways you can spend an early summer morning in my opinion!) and are at the ready to answer your burning questions about how crabs molt, make new shells and which tidepools have the most activity. Check out the Seattle Aquarium blog for more details on what’s happening and start planning your low tide explorations for next summer!