From Seals to Monarchs: A Winter Animal Safari

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In the Bay Area, we are lucky to have examples of creative overwintering species and even better, they’re easily accessible. Get the kids out and discover overwintering animals before they come back home in the spring!

Monarch Butterflies
If you’ve never seen clusters of monarch butterflies looking like hundreds of leaves in eucalyptus trees and then suddenly flying away to follow a gust of wind, you’ve got to find the nearest monarch butterfly colony, like yesterday. The kids will love it. East of the Rockies, monarchs migrate to Florida and Mexico for the winter. West of the Rockies, they migrate to the California coast in winter and until the end of February, you can find them at these three Bay Area locations:

  • Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz – Besides the sandy beach for picnics, Natural Bridges SB offers a unique opportunity to watch large colonies of Monarch butterflies. Begin at the milkweed patch and show cocoons (and caterpillars, if you find any) to the kids. Then move on to the boardwalk and walk down to the eucalyptus grove. Look up in the sky and wait to see some “leaves” fly away from a tree. BYO binoculars for better viewing. Tours of the Monarch Grove take place every weekend.
  • Ardenwood Historic Farm in Fremont – Not only is Ardenwood a historic working farm where children can see animals and learn about the seasons, but naturalists will lend you a spotting scope so kids can see what’s eating the eucalyptus leaves. Check the calendar for weekend and week day Monarch programs.
  • Monarch Grove Sanctuary in Pacific Grove – Close to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Monarch Grove Sanctuary offers a chill walk through a eucalyptus grove in gorgeous Pacific Grove. The overwintering site is located on Ridge Road off of Lighthouse Avenue in downtown Pacific Grove and during the overwintering period, docents are on site to help every day from 12:00 pm to 3:00 pm.

If it looks like a big rusty patch on the side of the trail or on logs, stop right now and open your eyes. Each year, ladybugs fly in by the millions to winter in the East Bay’s Redwood Regional Park. Waiting for day temperatures to reach 55 degrees so they can fly home, ladybugs cozy up by sticking together under leaves or on ground litter. Anything to keep warm! To see them, all you need to do is hike along Stream Trail around the junction with Prince Trail (check the map here for trails) and keep your eyes peeled. More than likely, you’ll find ladybugs next to the creek. Once you see them, take lots of pictures so you can relive the moment once you get home.

Elephant Seals
Known as the best deep divers in the world, elephant seals travel thousands of miles from the North Pacific Ocean to Ano Nuevo State Reserve each winter so they can breed away from winter storms. Just below Pescadero, Ano Nuevo is one of the few places in the world to see these mighty giants, whose males sound like gurgling pipes when they threaten each other. Since they are protected, the only way to see them during the breeding season (late December until early March) is on guided tours and you can book your walk here. The good news? Children three years and younger are free and they’ll learn ton of fun facts about sea mammals. Get ready to sing Baby Elephant Seal to the tune of Baby Beluga on the way home. The bad news? The walk is 2.5 hours long, 3 miles in sandy dunes and you can’t bring any snacks. If you can make it, expect amazing photo opps. The seals are anything but photo shy.

Last but not least, the Bay Area is a favorite stop for many birds who migrate to warmer climates during the winter. The list is too long to include here but to whet your appetite, wintertime is a great season to see ducks, western sandpipers, golden crown sparrows or whimbrels. The best birding spots are so easy to access you won’t believe your luck:

  • Lake Merced in San Francisco – Hike the paved path around the lake and look for waterbirds in the winter.
  • Heron’s Head Park in San Francisco – Better known for herons (hence the name), this park on the bay can count as many as 100 different bird species. Bring your binoculars and look both along the shore and in the grasses.
  • Hayward Regional Shoreline in Hayward – Come at high tide to observe migrating birds on the low-lying islands (and layer up, it’s windy!)
  • Point Reyes National Seashore on the Point Reyes peninsula – Abbotts Lagoon is a great place for winter ducks and raptors. Plus, it’s a perfect excuse to grab some yummy cheeses and snack at Point Reyes Station.

Clearly, “the dead of winter” doesn’t apply to migrant animals who love the Bay Area to bits.

Where’s your favorite place to spot animals in the winter?

— Laure Latham

All photos courtesy of Frog Mom

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