Limantour Beach, and a complete hike of Point Reyes

by on January 23, 2013

 
Limantour Beach looking south toward Coast Camp. The European beachgrass (Ammophila arenaria) covering the dunes was planted here to stabilize the dunes, which are drifters by nature. Though picturesque, beachgrass is barren of life—even arthropods are absent.
 

 
 

On the Map

 

Limantour Beach, hiked on December 17, 2012

This post is the final one in Jules Evens’s yearlong quest to hike and write about every trail at Point Reyes National Seashore, which turned 50 years old in 2012. Learn more

 

. . . to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable . . . it is advisable to look from the tide pool  to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.

—John Steinbeck, (1951), Log of the Sea of Cortez.

To Mr. Steinbeck’s sage advice, I’d add the beach and the marsh to the tide pool and the stars. Limantour Beach and Estero is one of the places on earth where the known and unknowable come into sharp focus.  It seemed a fine choice for the last trail of my 2012 “walkabout” on the Point Reyes Peninsula. I’ve been to Limantour hundreds of times, but each visit is a singular experience.  The trail along the ridge of the dune that runs parallel to the beach, is only a mile long, but there are many side spurs and deer trails to follow, and beyond the trail, the walk along the beach to the end of the spit is a spectacular two miles more— a gentle stroll unless a winter storm is roiling in off the Pacific. Drake’s Bay is relatively calm with the energy of the northwest swell broken by the outer headlands, so those sneaker waves that find the north shore of the peninsula are only the slightest possibility on this gentler coastline.

Beach wrack

Tangles of wrack deposited by the tide provide nutrients to the wave-swept outer beach, supporting teaming populations of decomposers, especially “beach hoppers,” which are in turn food for shorebirds, phoebes, and pipits.

Sanderlings and Dunlin

The most common shorebird of the outer beach is a small, pot-bellied wave-chaser, the Sanderling (the whitish birds in the foreground of this image). The darker shorebirds behind are Dunlin, another common wader that spends the winter along these shores before returning to its Arctic nesting grounds.

Limantour, inner estero

The trail that traces the spine of Limantour dunes affords an excellent view of the inner reaches of Limantour Estero. Those barren alder trees in the center of the picture mark the old berm at the mouth of Muddy Hollow Canyon.

The outer spit shelters the inner Limantour Estero from the Pacific swells, creating one of the most dynamic estuaries on the Pacific coast.  The tidal marshes of the inner estuary, sheltered from the wave energy of the outer beach, are productive habitats, filtering runoff from uplands and fueling the marine food webs that find sustenance and shelter here. The semidiurnal pulse of the tidal prism pushes-and-pulls nekton, plankton, fish and waterbirds in-and-out of the estuary—a circadian throbbing of life. Occasionally leopard sharks or bat rays, salmon or sturgeon, wander in to explore, forage, or even to breed.

Slough with great blue heron

Vegetation that can tolerate salinity finds its place along the sinuous route of tidal sloughs that feed the tides through the marsh. The vertical zonation of these marsh plants is determined by microelevations and the frequency of tidal inundation. Tall emergent monocots (cordgrasses, tules and cattails) occupy the lower elevations, each species finding its own salinity threshold. The marsh plain, flooded by the highest tides, is covered in pickleweed and salt grass. Inset: The Great Blue Heron is a creature of habitat. Although the estuary is ever-changing, this stalwart fellow is a dependable presence. During my visits I noticed the same heron standing on the same bend of the slough (pictured above) for nine years in a row. He’s probably there right now.

Feathers

The tidal marsh in the inner estuary is fed with detritus from the estuary–dead blades of eelgrass, feathers of birds, carcasses of fish, cast off carapaces of bivalves–whatever the tides deliver.

Tidal marsh panne with greater yellowlegs

Tidal marsh pannes, like the one shown here, are shallow pools or seasonally drying flats in poorly drained portions of the marsh plain. Though surrounded by pickleweed and salt grass, they are unvegetated because they tend to be highly saline. Some shorebirds, long legged waders like yellowlegs, tend to favor these panes. Inset: Greater Yellowlegs.

Dune path

The footpath wends its way through the dune scrub toward the outer reaches of the Limantour Trail, disappearing then reappearing amidst the vegetative cover which provides cover for the reptiles, birds, and mammals that are sparse, but can be found here.

Areas of the inner dunes that are not dominated by a monoculture of beachgrass are more botanically diverse and, in turn, support a more diverse community of animals. In winter, small landbirds forage through the coyote bush and lupine. On warmer days, fence lizards and garter snakes scurry across the sand. Deer mice and voles spend their frenetic energy crisscrossing the undergrowth of shrubbery. On occasion we’ve flushed short-eared owls and burrowing owls from the dune scrub, or a northern harrier that has quarried a quail. Coyote, gray fox, Stripped Skunk, Black-tailed Deer, and the occasional bobcat venture to the outerdunes, revealed by their tracks and scat, and probably prowling the wrack line of the outer beach for whatever carrion has washed ashore on the last flood tide.

Beyond the dunes, the spit changes into what it must have looked like before the newcomers “stabilized” dunes with beachgrass. Here, the wind, waves, and salt is too much, even for the hardiest colonizing plants, and the sandscape freely expresses its graceful wind-sculpted geometry—advancing slip-slopes, parabolas, arbelos, soft-edged polygons, crescents, ovular and elliptical curves.

It takes a certain intrepid sort to choose this mercurial landscape as its place on Earth, and here we find the signature —the Western Snowy Plover, the plump little feather puff of the barren beaches.

And so ends the 2012 Walkabout . . . Onward!

Snowy plover

Western Snowy Plovers find the most remote stretches of the peninsula’s beaches to try to survive forces more daunting than the elements–ravens, foxes, dogs, and humans. Ironically, the footprints of the latter provide some shelter from the prevailing winds, and plovers are prone to hunker down in these little foxholes for protection.

Acknowlegements

Many thanks to the companions who joined me on the trail this day to conduct the Point Reyes Christmas Bird Count (Area 30): Scot Anderson, Len and Patti Blumin, Bonnie Felix, Gayanne Lathrop, Jan Langdon, and Claire Peaslee. Also, all the friends and colleagues who sponsored me on the 2012 Point Reyes Walkabout to raise funds for the Point Reyes National Seashore Association and the folks at Bay Nature, especially editor Dan Rademacher, who posted all 30 Walkabout contributions.

CRITTER LIST

Dec. 17, 2012-Christmas Bird Count: Limantour Area

Birds

unusual species in BOLD
Brant
Gadwall
American Wigeon
American x Eurasian Wigeon
Mallard
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Surf Scoter
Bufflehead
Common Goldeneye
Red-breasted Merganser
California Quail
Red-throated Loon
Pacific Loon
Common Loon
Pied-billed Grebe
Horned Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Eared Grebe
Western Grebe
American White Pelican
Brown Pelican
Brandt’s Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
Pelagic Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Turkey Vulture
Osprey
White-tailed Kite
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Virginia Rail
Black-bellied Plover
Snowy Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Killdeer
Greater Yellowlegs
Willet
Long-billed Curlew
Sanderling
Western Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Dunlin
Wilson’s Snipe
Ring-billed Gull
California Gull
Western Gull
Glaucous-winged Gull
Common Murre
Ancient Murrelet
Great Horned Owl
Anna’s Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Black Phoebe
Hutton’s Vireo
Common Raven
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Bushtit
Bewick’s Wren
Marsh Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Western Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Wrentit
American Pipit
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Townsend’s Warbler
Hermit Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Spotted Towhee
Savannah Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
House Finch

Mammals

Black-tailed Deer
Bobcat (scat)
Brush Rabbit
California Gray Whale
California Sea Lion (dead on beach)
California Vole
Coyote (tracks)
Dusky-footed Woodrat (nest)
Gray Fox (tracks)
Harbor Seal
Raccoon (tracks)
Tule Elk

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2 comments:

Scott on January 30th, 2013 at 10:45 am

Thnks for the post, love the bird count.

Deb Callahan on February 5th, 2013 at 12:18 am

Congratulation on completing your Walkabout Jules. You were an inspiration. Thank you for what you do for the Seashore – you’re a treasure.
BTW, what do you do for an encore???

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