Nature Notebook, December 20, 2018


It feels like winter already, with cold temperatures and misty days, but the official first day of winter is Friday, Dec. 21. The winter solstice, marked by many communities around the world, occurs when the earth’s North Pole leans farthest away from the sun, creating the fewest hours of daylight in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Celtic calendar, it is Yule, a festival of light that was introduced by invading Norse traditions. Candlelight and crackling fires mark the holiday. There is also a full moon over the solstice, with extreme daylight high tides—peaking at 6.9 feet on Sunday, Dec. 23 at around 10:15 a.m.—and corresponding low tides in the late afternoons. Plan your beach visits carefully, as rainstorms can also bring higher-than-usual waves.

Christmas berry is providing pops of color, especially around Platform Bridge. This tall shrub, with its sprays of bright red berries, is also known as toyon and California holly (Heteromeles arbutifolia). The berries were roasted and eaten by Coast Miwoks. Mexican-rooted Californios of the early 19th century adapted the recipe and added sugar to the roasted berries for a cider-like drink.

It wouldn’t be winter without Northern elephant seals returning to the outer beaches of Point Reyes. Typically, males arrive first, and pregnant females are soon to follow. In recent years, males have been hauling out close to the public areas at Drakes Beach. They need their rest, as it takes tremendous energy to move 2,000-plus pounds of blubber and muscle around. Give them a wide berth and if they appear to move or react to you, you are too close.