Red and green pickleweed grows from cappuccino colored mud flats at Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing on the Monterey Bay. At low tide, when the murky green water pulls back to the sea, walk out over that rickety wooden boardwalk traversing an old oyster bed. Look down. How many animals were here before you? The raccoons and herons must be heavy – they leave deep tracks. That milky gelatinous blob with the indigo stripe really is a jellyfish, or at least, it was. If you are there early in the morning, at low tide, you may get very lucky and see a mountain lion track, or maybe it’s a bobcat?
Be very still for several minutes. Listen. Creaking and sucking in the mud give clues as to the variety of life underneath. Imagine you can see right through those nickel-sized holes in the mud right into the belly of a gaping clam. Now that you have been still for several minutes, the shy mud crabs will come scurrying out again from those folds in the mud. Perfectly camouflaged in rich brown and taupe, they are tough to spy at first.
Now take a deep breath. Smell the salt air mingling with the lemony wild sage growing on the trails?
Is it spring? Go ahead and taste the tiny green tips of pickleweed. Did you expect it to be so salty? Native Americans used to harvest it and eat it like asparagus. If you could stay and watch all night, you would find mice, invisible by day, breakfasting on pickleweed tips.
Summertime? Silvery anchovies are swarming in the water. That’s an easy meal for both those huge brown pelicans and the tiny terns. The pelicans put on quite a show for you as they fish, gliding in circles high above the water, slowing down slightly, then diving straight down and hitting the water with a splash. Watch their beaks when they surface. Did you see the metallic glint of lunchtime anchovy?
Fall? Look for the rounded black fin of the bat ray, which comes into the slough to give birth. You may also see the dorsal fins of small sharks enjoying the warm autumn days.
Winter? The sandpipers have arrived and are sticking their long slender beaks in the mud to retrieve a mid-day snack of some tiny crustacean. They leave just the faintest impression in the mud. They all appear to be the same at first, but look closely. Some have downcurled bills, while others turn up. They perch elegantly on their long legs, nibbling on tiny insects and fish in the shallows.
In every season, at any time of the day, the unassuming mud flats at Elkhorn Slough are full of surprises.
This originally appeared in the Fall 2015 edition of Travelsearcher