Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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To the many mysteries of winter and animal survival techniques, you can now add colonies of ladybugs clustered on trees like holly berries on a frosty December morning. Each year from November through February, thousands, if not millions, of the kids’ favorite red bugs converge to Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, CA, surfing the right winds to the exact spot their folks converged to in previous years. And then, they throw massive “pajama parties.” Spoon position, everyone! This winter, you can schlep the kids to Oakland and guarantee they’ll see something unique–handfuls of ladybugs. Here is how I found them on this ladybug hike.
I’d heard about Redwood Park’s ladybugs but didn’t want to disappoint my young hikers. After all, it’s a 3-mile round trip to see these little creatures and I had to get the info right. A ranger at the East Bay Regional Park District suggested I check the junction of Stream Trail and Prince Trail, starting from the Skyline Gate. That’s exactly what I did.
Equipped with my “hot cocoa” kit (thermos of hot water and tiny marshmallows), I hit the trail with 3 girls between 6 and 8 years of age.
From the Skyline Gate parking lot, Stream Trail gently goes down as a wide dirt path into the canyon surrounded by oak and pine woodlands.
Playing nature bingo and checking off boxes with nature icons, the girls walked effortlessly though one element wanted to know if we were close. “Soon,” I said, “but not yet – keep looking for ladybugs.” I looked at my trail map but since there’s only one trail, it was hard to get sidetracked.
Just before Eucalyptus Trail, we saw our first ladybug colonies. “Where are they?” asked the girls. It’s like when you look at a pointillist painting up close. You don’t know what the painting is all about until you step back and take a second look.
With ladybugs you look at a regular stump surrounded by dried grasses and blink twice before you realize the grasses are swarming with ladybugs.
Yes, swarming is the right word – they are literally everywhere you look. Our ladybug hike was getting interesting!
The girls giggled and couldn’t believe their eyes. They started singing “Ladybug, ladybug, oh lady-ladybug” and scoured the area to find more bugs. Good, I had their attention now. “Wait, we are going to find more. Keep walking!”
We just had another half mile to go to the junction of Stream Trail and Prince Trail so that was easy. Plus, now we were thick in redwood forests by the creek and the girls were chasing each other on the trail. Oh, it was so pretty.
Finally we reached the promised junction. At first, we didn’t see anything. “Where are they?” OK we might be candid but we were really expecting to find them waiting for us with a big ladybug banner at the junction.
That’s when we looked towards the creek. The fence posts and gate had a reddish coloration. We stepped closer. Bingo!
Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. Passing hikers told me this was just the beginning, that there would be much more as the winter got colder. I was dumbfounded.
This was way more than the square foot patch I had anticipated. Wow! The girls were going “ooh” and “aah” and “ooh” and “aah” again, pulling on my sleeve to show me their findings. Ah the excitement!
To celebrate, we popped the “hot cocoa” kit and sat on the bench (at the junction) to refuel before our hike back. Rare are the opportunities you can go in nature and expect to see wildlife at a given point. It makes you appreciate the Bay Area even more.
For our hike back, we opted to go the ridge route to add variety to our scenery. We turned left (north) up Prince Trail, spotted mushrooms on the way up – including a really cool orange jelly fungus called Witch’s Butter – and at the top turned left (north-west) on East Ridge Trail.
The views were beautiful and a few well thought benches provided perfect vista points on the redwood mountains. Our ladybug hike was proving to be more than we anticipated.
As winter afternoons go, the day was getting darker and I knew the sun would set in less than an hour. I encouraged the girls to hurry up and after they found pine cones to kick, it was a literally a walk in the woods.
“Mom, I know what I want to do on hikes – kick pine cones!” said the 6-year old who kicked the same pine cone on the last quarter mile.
We made it back to the car just around twilight, making the ladybug hike a 2-hour affair including hot cocoa and ladybug breaks. Not bad to uncover a winter mystery.