Editor’s Note: Michele Roest’s Coast Lines columns returns to The Cambrian this week and will appear quarterly.
Some people say coastal California has no seasons. I would beg to differ, and argue that while seasonal changes are subtle, they are no less rewarding for those who witness them. One of the greatest gifts I’ve gained from my training as a naturalist is learning to observe changes in the ecosystem and have some understanding of their meaning. Sharing this information is a joy and a privilege, and for these reasons I’ve returned to writing my column for the Cambrian four times a year.
October serves as a transition period from the long golden days of late summer to autumn and winter. Starting at Equinox on Sept. 21, when day and night were both about 12 hours long, the days subsequently got shorter throughout the month of October. By early November, the days are only about 10 hours in length, a loss of two hours of daylight. The “time change” on the first Sunday of November adjusts the clock to maximize our use of daylight hours. The changing angle of the sun in our part of the world causes more glare, which can be problematic when driving in the early morning and late afternoon.
Coastal areas are heavily influenced by the marine ecosystem, which also experiences significant change at this time of year. In November, the California Current moves farther offshore and the Davidson Current moves closer to shore, causing a change in coastal ocean flow. Shorter days mean less solar radiation, and ocean surface temperatures drop.
In November, the first of the storms from the Gulf of Alaska arrives, marking the beginning of the rainy season. Strong, deep ocean swells break up the nearshore kelp beds. Disconnected kelp fronds are washed onto beaches, providing food and habitat for kelp flies and beach hoppers. These, in turn, are eagerly gobbled up by migratory shorebirds that fill our beaches throughout the winter.
Birdwatchers are seeing a variety of migrating birds in local fields and feeding stations. Many of the pelicans who rested and fed here during the summer have left for sunny beaches to the south. Gray whales are passing along our section of the coastline as they get nearer to their winter resting and calving grounds in Baja California, Mexico. Nighttime fishing boats use bright lights to attract spawning squid, scooping them up with seine nets. It’s a good time to order fresh-caught calamari from local restaurants.
Monarch butterflies are also arriving along the Central Coast, where they will spend the winter. These delightful jewels of the skies feed on winter-blooming flowers and shrubs, while using stands of tall trees, often eucalyptus, for warmth and protection from winter storms. One of California’s largest wintering areas for Monarchs is just south of Pismo Beach. Plan a field trip to see them sooner rather than later – they will be gone before the spring.
As I watch these subtle but significant indicators of autumn, I take a moment to marvel at the abundance and beauty of where we live. The Central Coast of California does indeed have its seasons, and they are worthy of appreciation and awe.
Michele Roest’s quarterly column is special to The Cambrian.