Look for Banana Slugs at Sam McDonald County Park

Loma Mar, Ca – Sam McDonald County Park is a gem located just an hour Southwest of the Silicon Valley. The park is split into two habitats: grassy hills and shrubbery to the Northwest and redwood stands to the Southwest.

Species to Look Out For

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Coast Redwood

About the Park

Loma Mar, Ca – San Mateo County Park

Science Spotlight: Banana Slugs

When the forest floor is damp at Sam McDonald County Park, it’s common to encounter large, yellow slugs. These slimy sights are banana slugs – one of the largest species of terrestrial mollusks.

Banana slugs can grow up to the incredible length of 10 inches, and live up to 7 years. They are found in forests along the West coast of North America from Alaska to California.

Although it’s tempting, if you find a banana slug along your journey, be sure not to pick it up! Contact with our skin can dry them out. Check out these cute critters with just your eyes, and watch your step for others as you continue on the trail.

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A banana slug enjoying the damp forest floor at Sam McDonald County Park.

Park History

Born the descendant of slaves in Louisiana, Sam McDonald settled down in Palo Alto, CA in 1903. While in California, he began what would become a long career with Stanford University as the superintendent of athletic grounds and buildings. He was well-loved by the Stanford community throughout his lifetime.

McDonald acquired the park and a small property on the grounds in 1917. After his death, he granted the land to Stanford, requesting that the park be used to enrich the lives of young people. San Mateo County acquired the land in 1958. It remains named in Sam’s honor, with a total of 867 acres of land.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is a parking fee. Dogs are not allowed.

Our love for trees brought us to the Heritage Grove Trail to Hiker’s Hut. However; regardless of the trail that you take or its length, you are guaranteed to get beautiful views of the Coastal Redwoods and the animal communities that live there.

Here are some helpful resources to help plan your visit:

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Hike in San Jose at Santa Teresa County Park

San Jose, Ca – Santa Teresa County Park is located just 10 miles outside of bustling San Jose, CA. With its rolling hills and gorgeous views of the Bay Area, this location is definitely worth the short drive.

About the Park

San Jose, Ca – Santa Clara County Park

Science Spotlight: Red-shouldered Hawks at Santa Teresa

Dan and I were making our back after finishing up the hike to Coyote Peak when suddenly a blur of a bird rushed past us on the trail. Looking in the direction of its landing, we were met with an awesome sight: a red-shouldered hawk perched up on a nearby tree. I was surprised when I noted the beautiful red streaking across the belly and shadowy-looking eyebrows of the bird – a surprising sight when you’ve grown used to glancing at perching raptors and seeing red-tailed hawks.

Red-shouldered hawks are typically birds of the forest. Their meals of choice include small mammals, amphibians, small birds, and reptiles. These hawks prefer intact forests – a habitat that has been lost in many places out east, resulting in a decline in local populations.

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Red-shouldered Hawk; © Ferd Brundick, 2014, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

The red-shouldered hawk, like many other raptors (or birds of prey), has ties to conservation initiatives in the Bay Area. The Department of Fish and Wildlife conducted a study on rat poison’s effects on predators, and found that poisoned rodents can cause the secondary deaths of hawks, owls, foxes, and bobcats. The red-shouldered hawk is among the list of species affected. Concerned about the loss of predators, the Raptors Are The Solution (RATS) organization is using posters in a campaign to educate the public about the secondary effects of rat poison. You can help, too – when faced with a rodent issue, leave the killing to the raptors or humane alternatives to poisons.

Park History

For over 6,000 years, the park was occupied by Native American tribes (most notably, the Muwekma Ohlone tribe). The park was visited by Juan Bautista de Anza during his explorations for mission locations in the 1770’s. In 1825 the area was settled by José Joaquin Bernal, a member of the expeditions. The area was primarily used as a ranch, vineyard, and orchard under Bernal. In 1956, the county purchased land for the park, thus beginning the accumulation of acreage for Santa Teresa County Park.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is a fee for parking. Dogs are allowed on leashes.

We recommend making the trek up to Coyote Peak (3.8 Miles) while visiting the park. When walking along the grassy hills, be sure to look out for birds of prey such as the red-tailed hawk and the turkey vulture. When in more forested areas, keep an eye out for red-shouldered hawks and songbirds.

Here are some helpful resources to help plan your visit:

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Enjoy Scenic Bluffs at Wilder Ranch State Park

Santa Cruz, Ca – Winding trails which offer spectacular views of coastal bluffs and beaches make Wilder Ranch an unforgettable hiking spot. Plus, there’s incredible birdwatching to boot.

Species to Look Out For

Western Snowy Plover Circle

Western Snowy Plover

About the Park

Santa Cruz, Ca – State Park

Science Spotlight: Snowy Plovers Nesting at Wilder Ranch

Wilder Beach Nature Preserve, visible from the trails of Wilder Ranch State Park, is closed to the public from entry. The closure is for good reason – down on the beach sand, a threatened species of shorebird nests.

The western snowy plover requires sandy beaches with low vegetation to allow them to camouflage and see predators. These plovers prefer the beach zones that are also most popular to humans, and their breeding season (March – September) coincides with the period of highest beach use by humans. Disruption of western snowy plovers by human activities can result in decreased breeding success and nest site abandonment. This, along with the loss of healthy beach habitats, has resulted in the decline in western snowy plover populations.

Snowy Plovers
© Mike Baird, 2010, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

While it is estimated that their populations once numbered in the thousands, approximately 2,000 individuals are estimated to remain on our coasts today. The species was listed as federally threatened in 1993, and several initiatives on California’s beaches are actively working to restore their populations.

Park History

Wilder Ranch State Park was originally home to the Ohlone Native Americans. Their centuries of living on the land was cut short by the 1776 expeditions of Gaspar de Portolá, who transformed the area under Spanish control.

In the mid-1870’s, a portion of the land was purchased to be made into a creamery. From there, it transitioned to the control of the Wilder family. The land remained under the Wilder family’s control until 1969, when their financial circumstances resulted in a loss of the property. The land was considered for housing development, but a vote by the citizens of Santa Cruz resulted in its acquisition by the California State Park system in 1974. Thus, the area’s natural areas and rich history remain protected.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is a $10 vehicle day-use fee. Dogs are not allowed at the park.

We recommend taking the Old Landing Cove Trail (2.0 Miles), which winds easily along the coastline, offering spectacular views of coastal bluffs to the left and shrubbery to the right. If you take this trail, be sure to be on the lookout for shorebirds – especially at the viewing platform towards the beginning of the Old Landing Cove Trail.

Here are some helpful resources to help plan your visit:

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Go Tidepooling at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

Moss Beach, Ca – Access to some of California’s amazing Pacific tidepools is an incredible opportunity, and it’s only a 1-hour drive from the heart of the Silicon Valley. Check the tide schedule and grab your waterproof boots – it’s giant green anemone time.

About the Park

Moss Beach, Ca – Marine Reserve

Science Spotlight: Giant Green Anemones

Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is host to hundreds of species of animals and algae – making the reserve’s tidepools some of the most species-diverse and accessible tidepools in the state.

In the midst of this amazing diversity, one tidepool creature is especially eye-grabbing: the giant green anemone. When fully outstretched, they look like beautiful sea flowers basking in the sunlight. Even when closed they are fun to look at, as they resemble olive-colored, slimy donuts.

The giant green anemone’s captivating exterior actually represents the symbiotic relationship between two organisms: the anemone itself and algae. The algae gain the benefits of a shelter from predators, whereas the anemone gains some extra food and oxygen produced by the algae. Sounds like a good deal to me.

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Sunburst anemone at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

Park History

From as early as 1911, scientists and naturalists have been visiting these tidepools to witness the amazing diversity of invertebrates/vertebrates. As collections from visits began to deplete the natural resource, the county of San Mateo proposed that the area be acquired by the state for protection. The reserve is now protected under the Marine Resources Protection Act of 1990.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is no entrance fee to enter the park. Dogs are not allowed within the park.

Before hiking, be sure to check the tidal chart for the area. The tide pools are best when viewed at a tide of 1′ or less. Plan your trip around these times. During your visit, please be sure to respect the area and its future patrons. Do not harm any wildlife or remove any artifacts during your visit.

Here are some helpful resources to plan your visit:

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See Wintering Monarchs at Lighthouse Field State Beach

Santa Cruz, Ca – From mid-October to mid-February, the trees in this park are shelter to thousands of migrating Monarch butterflies. Any other month of the year, this park offers beautiful sunset views and a glimpse at Santa Cruz’s radical surf history.

Species to Look Out For

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Monarch Butterfly

About the Park

Santa Cruz, Ca – State Beach

Science Spotlight: Wintering Monarch Butterflies

Just like birds, there is one butterfly that make an annual migration to warmer temperatures. Each year, the monarch butterfly makes its way south to escape freezing temperatures.

Monarchs use environmental cues such as shortened days and colder temperatures to signal that the migration is ready to begin. Two populations of monarch butterflies migrate: one population east of the Rocky Mountains, and one to the west. The eastern population travels all the way down to Central Mexico, with some individuals traveling as far as 3,000 miles.

The western population has an overwintering site right in Santa Cruz at Lighthouse Field State Beach. There, in down the path in an unassuming field, hundreds of monarchs congregate together to stay warm.

Yet this amazing phenomenon faces a sad reality: monarchs have faced declines over the past 20 years, and 2018 marked the lowest count in 5 years for the California population. Factors such as loss of flowers, degradation of stopover sites along their migration, and the loss of overwintering habitat in Mexico contribute to their decline. For more information on the monarch butterfly migration and their decline, check out our article.

Overwintering Monarch Butterflies
© 2011, Photo Library (Flickr), some rights reserved.

Park History

Aside from being an incredible beacon for California natural history, the state beach is home to California’s first surfing museum in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse.

Visit the Park

Before visiting, please note that the monarch butterflies are only present from mid-October to mid-February.

During your visit, we recommend checking out the monarch butterflies in the grove of trees out in the field. We also recommend stopping by the lighthouse and surfing museum across the street from the parking lot, as well as scenic views of surfers catching waves off the coast.

Here are some helpful resources to help plan your visit:

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Enjoy a Beach Day at Natural Bridges State Beach

Santa Cruz, Ca – Home to thousands of migrating monarch butterflies from mid-October to mid-February, Natural Bridges State Beach offers an amazing view into an important piece of California’s natural history.

Species to Look Out For

About the Park

Santa Cruz, Ca – State Beach

Science Spotlight: State Marine Reserve at Natural Bridges

California was the first state in the nation to implement an expanse of Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s) along its coastline following the California Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) of 1999. Similar to a National Forest or National Park that protects areas on land, MPA’s work to protect marine areas from the effects of humans. MPA’s work to protect entire habitats from harm – rather than protecting just a single species.

Implemented in September of 2007, Natural Bridges is 1 of 29 protected marine areas along California’s Central Coast, and 1 of 124 areas in the state. It spans 0.25 square miles, spanning 4.1 miles along the shore. Natural Bridges is a State Marine Reserve, meaning that it is restricted from the recreational or commercial removal of all marine resources. The MPA was put in place primarily to protect the intertidal zone of the area.

Park History

Spanish colonization of the Natural Bridges State Beach area brought an era of changing ownership to the land that was once home to the Ohlone Native Americans. From the arrival of the Spanish onwards, the land was a brussel sprout farm, the site of a movie set, and an unfinished housing development. The ownership ceased changing hands in 1933, when the land was purchased by the state of California.

In 1983, the park also set aside the monarch grove as a natural preserve so that the area remains protected for future generations of monarchs and human patrons.

Visit the Park

Recommended Hike: Monarch Trail (0.6 miles)

Please note that there is a $10 vehicle day-use fee. Dogs are not allowed on beaches or trails. Please also note that the monarch butterflies will only be present from mid-October to mid-February.

When visiting during the monarch migration season (mid-October – mid-February), we recommend taking the Monarch Trail to experience the amazing sights of the migrating butterflies. You have the option to connect to the Moore Creek Trail after viewing the monarchs, which ends at the beach.

Here are some helpful resources to help plan your visit:

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