Trail Closure

At Kirby Park, the accessible trail remains closed due to storm damage.

Knee Deep in Mud

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Annual mudflat survey, January 2024.

byPaola Martin
onFebruary 20, 2024

It was a cold afternoon in early January. I jumped off the truck at Moss Landing and walked across the empty parking lot. I’d been looking forward to this day for more than a week. My colleagues greeted me and handed me some equipment to carry, and some chest waders. As I struggled to put them on, I felt the ocean breeze brush against my face. It was my first time wearing chest waders, and my first time participating in a mudflat survey.

I’m Paola Martin, ESF’s Development and Communications Assistant. Since joining the team last August, I’ve had many opportunities to learn about exciting projects taking place here at the slough. But the most memorable one to date has been getting to help conduct a mudflat survey alongside my colleagues from ESF and the Elkhorn Slough Reserve.

First, what is a mudflat? It’s an area of coastal land that is covered by shallow water during high tide and exposed at low tide. Mudflats are characterized by their muddy sediments (surprise, surprise), which serve as a playground for animals that live in the mud.

Every year, mudflat surveys are conducted by Research Biologist Susanne Fork, along with a small group of volunteers. The purpose of these surveys is to monitor eelgrass plants and key beach-dwelling animals living in the mudflats of Elkhorn Slough. Monitoring the conditions of the slough helps researchers assess the health of habitats, track the impacts of human activities, and understand environmental changes affecting the slough.

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Research Biologist Susie Fork, Elkhorn Slough Reserve.

As we walked along the narrow beach, I felt my boots sink slowly into the sand with each step. It was as if we were on an episode of Lost navigating our way through a jungle of trees and bushes at the edge of the water. In the distance, I saw an otter nestled in a bed of eelgrass.

Before I had time to think, I was knee deep in the mud. Is this what quicksand might feel like, pulling my feet into the earth? I reached for a thick branch and used it to pull my lower body from the grasp of the mud. That was the first lesson I learned that day—unless you’re wearing waders, avoid walking on mudflats because you’ll sink into the muck and your clothes will be covered in it. We continued walking, careful to avoid the mushy mud.

Susie counted the eelgrass plants and small burrows at each monitoring site. As we searched for gaper clams, fat innkeeper worms, and ghost shrimp, she pointed out that each of these burrowing critters has their own distinctly shaped opening in the sand, helping us to easily identify them. Susie dug her hands into the mud, and with each scoop, a tiny sea critter would appear. We all gathered around, excited, as she cupped each one in the palm of her hand for us to see. These animals are so small, yet they all have important roles to play in the ecosystem.

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For me, the highlight of our day was discovering the tiniest sea slugs, better known as Taylor’s sea hare, hidden away between stands of eelgrass. Although these slimy slugs are about the size of my pinky nail, their translucent bodies captured my attention. They, too, play an important role in the eelgrass meadows of the slough, eating up excess algae and helping the eelgrass access sunlight and nutrients.

We collected our equipment and wrapped up for the day, making our way back to the parking lot. I wanted to take a picture of the group walking along the beach, so I ran ahead of everyone. When I turned back around, the tail end of a rainbow peeked out from under the clouds. It was a great picture, but an even greater day at the slough.

Seal laying in salt marsh

Photo by Kiliii Yuyan

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