Point Reyes Walkabout

Wildlife Scenes from Marshall Beach, Point Reyes

October 23, 2012

Marshall Beach Trail. October 12, 2012

“Life is a journey, not a destination.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

The  trailhead to Marshall Beach begins after driving a couple of miles along the L Ranch Rd., out through the northern edge of the bishop pine forest, across some open pastureland. Just beyond the forest edge the sandy soil is riddled with badger burrows and diggings. In this driest season—more than four months since the last significant rain— the open grasslands farther along the road are grazed to nubbins exposing extensive swaths of bare ground. During October,  “ground-gleaning” birds gather in large flocks in such habitat. In the feedlot around L Ranch hundreds of tricolored blackbirds forage amidst the Holstiens. “Trics” (pronounced like “trikes”) are California endemics and nearly a quarter of the world population arrives on the peninsula in the fall and remains through the winter months. Intermixed with the tricolored flock are other barren-ground specialists—Brewer’s and red-winged blackbirds, American pipit, western meadowlark, brown-headed cowbird, European starling, Eurasian collared dove. These all forage on the ground, but other species roost on the fence posts and wires above, ever vigilant for insects on the open ground—American kestrel, black phoebe, Says phoebe, even northern flickers.

Eurasian Collared-Dove
Eurasian Collared-Dove (Streptopelia decaoto). First introduced to the New World in the 1970s (in the Bahamas), this rather large dove spread rapidly across North America, colonizing California by the late-1990s. The spread of this species tends to follow human-altered landscapes such as road and agricultural areas. This invader seems to be displacing our smaller native Mourning Dove in our area. Sexes look alike: easily recognized by the neck collar and a squared-off tail with broad white band at the end.
Tricolored blackbirds
Tricolored Blackbird (Agelaius tricolor). The blacker birds with the white median wing coverts are males; in the spring the males will develop red epaulets on the upper wing, offset by the white feathering above. Male Red-winged Blackbirds do not have that distinctive white wing stripe. The browner, duller birds are females or young (first winter plumage) males. Female Trics are darker overall than Redwings and have more pointed wings due to the length of the outer flight feathers.

I pull over near the L-Ranch feed lot to check for some of the rarer species that tend to be attracted toward exposed soil. Suddenly, a merlin slices past, flushing a large flock of pipits. Dozens fly off and then I hear the distinctive wheezy rattle of a Lapland longspur overhead. Farther along, some green-winged teal flush from a stock pond and a flock of short-billed dowitchers forages along the shoreline. After dawdling along the road for an hour or more, I arrive at the trailhead for a short hike (1.4 mile) down the old ranch road to Marshall Beach. The trail cuts through grazed pasture before forking and heading downhill through recovering northern coastal scrub. The coyote bush is in peak bloom this time of year and both the female and male plants are in full flower. The air is redolent with the sweet, ambrosial smell of the male pollen, which it pumps out vigorously all fall.

coyote bush
Coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis) is dioecious, that is male and female flowers on separate plants. Here, both sexes are growing side-by-side: the fluffy, the shorter, flat-topped yellow male flowers (left, background), the longish white female flowers (foreground, right). The silky fertilized seeds are called pappas (or “fuzzy-wuzzy”), adapted for wind dispersal.

In fact, coyote bush will blooms from July through November, another example of the protracted “spring” we experience in this equable piece of the planet. This shrub is deep-rooted, drought-tolerant, and moderately fire-tolerant. Plants sprout from the root crown and roots after top-kill by fire. It is also a generous host to wildlife. A plethora of insects forage on the pollen and various mammals, birds and reptiles seek shelter under its cover.

Alligator lizards (Elgaria spp.) are one of the more common reptiles in the coyote bush forest. We have two similar species on the peninsula: the southern (E. multicarinata) and the northern alligator lizard (E. coerulea). The light iris shown here indicates that it is the southern species; the northern one has a darker eye. The broad head is characteristic of the male.

Along the side of the path are numerous ground spider webs that have caught the morning dew.

webs of a funnel weaving grass spider
Webs of a funnel weaving grass spider (family Agelenidae) The spider waits in the central hole then darts out to grab ensnared prey, then retreats back into the hole with its victim.

After descending the east-facing slope the trail comes to the mouth of the drainage and a forest of Monterey pine and Monterey cypress. The bird activity id concentrated here, with dozens of Violet-green Swallows pirouetting overhead, Purple Finches and Chestnut-backed Chickadees foraging through the pines. But most of the activity is in the dense understory—elderberry, thimbleberry, coyote bush, blackberry, poison oak, bracken— where shrub birds are busy chattering amongst themselves.

Pacific wren
A diminutive Pacific wren (Troglodytes pacificus) peering out from a blackberry bramble. About four inches from beak to tail, with a rather nondescript brown plumage, this inconspicuous bird of the understory compensates for its plainness with its summer song, which has been described as “the pinnacle of complexity.” But this time of year, it simply calls from the undergrowth, a distinctive double-chip note.

The trail daylights along the eastern shore of Tomales Bay, on a lonely beach in a calm cove. The empty cabin on the far end of the beach reminds me of the sculptor, envelope artist, fisherman, and raconteur and who once lived out here, Clayton Lewis (1915-1995). He was a peaceful soul in a peaceful place. May it always be so. (Learn more about him at claytonlewis.net.)

Looking South from Marshall beach to Laird’s Landing
Looking South from Marshall beach to Laird’s Landing.

Trail notes: An easy to moderate walk on a gravel road, 2.8 miles round-trip. The approach to Marshall Beach is rather steep and may be slippery in the rainy season. Check out the mapped version of this hike on our Trailfinder.



About the Author

Naturalist and writer Jules Evens has lived near Point Reyes for over 30 years. He is the founder of Avocet Research Associates and the author of The Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula and An Introduction to California Birdlife (both UC Press).

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