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Monday, January 23, 2012

Where to find Banana Slugs in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Until two days ago I had never seen a banana slug even though I've lived in Northern, CA for over two decades. So hubby and I headed out with my friend Carl and his family to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in search of banana slugs.

The Anatomy of a Banana Slug

The weather couldn't have been better for slug hunting. It had been raining in the Bay Area for several days which all but guaranteed we would see the large, bright yellow slugs on our morning hike.

The rain did necessitate making a DIY rain cover for my camera. It was a good thing I did because it sporadically sprinkled throughout the morning and the cover kept my camera nice and dry. On a budget? CLICK HERE for the tutorial about how to make this inexpensive cover for your camera.

We entered though the South Border in Santa Cruz (the main entrance is in Felton) off Graham Hill Road. Parking is free. To get there just take the Graham Hill/Sims Road Exit off HWY 17. We then headed down the south leg of the Powder Mill Trail that runs along Powder Mill Creek.

We chose Henry Cowell  Redwoods State Park because I'd learned from friends that the best place to see the slugs is hiking in a redwood forest.

Aperture 4.1 - Shutter Speed 1/30

We had barely walked 30 feet into the park when hubby spotted our first banana slug of the day!

Aperture 4.0 - Shutter Speed 1/40th of a second

It was also the largest one we saw all day. I'm guessing it was at least 8" long. YAY!

Can you see the slug's teeny tiny eyes? They sense light and darkness.

It was larger and more yellow than I thought it would be. I was so excited and hoped it would be the first of many. Here's the thing, I love snails and slugs. I think they're super cool. In fact, I think they're pretty darn amazing. With such soft bodies and tiny eyes that sense light and movement on the ends of their long, flexible, optical tentacles they just seem too fragile to be able to survive. But somehow they do.

Aperture 5.8 - Shutter Speed 1/15th of a second

We knew it would be wet so both Carl and I wore rubber boots we thought would be waterproof. The thing is neither of us had worn them in years. . .

So imagine our surprise when we both split our boots open on the hike! Carl's was worse than mine. Not only did the leather split from the lower section of rubber on the upper, his rubber sole fell straight off! My upper cracked near the left ankle. Pitiful. LOL

Aperture 5 - Shutter Speed 1/60th of a second

We followed the Powder Mll Trail walking deeper into the forest. Photographing in a redwood forest is an exercise in constantly resetting your ISO, aperture and shutter speed. It's dark with small areas where light filters through the trees. But just inches or feet away nearby spaces are recessed in shadow. I often had to reset my camera even if I moved just a few inches in a different direction.

When we arrived at the creek the water was a bit more deep than ankle high so we turned back.

On our way back up we spotted banana slug #2. It was much smaller than the first one and very shy. It kept it's body contracted and kept drawing it's retractable, light sensing eyes back beneath its mantle.

As we walked along I couldn't stop taking pictures of everything. There were lichens, moss and mushroom growing everywhere.

This beautiful Eurhynchium oreganum moss was vibrantly green because it was soaking wet from the rain showers earlier that morning.

Every now and then I'll read something that uses the word "verdant" to describe lush greenery. It was the only word I could think of while walking through the park.

Aperture 4 - Shutter Speed 1/80th of a second

I love this picture. I'm not sure what causes lens flare but the emerald shades of the sun spots were unique (to me).

After arriving back at the trailhead, Carl and his family departed and hubby and I continued on exploring the northern leg of the Powder Mill Trail.

There was also an abundance of powdered ruffle lichen.

Aperture 2.8 - Shutter Speed 1/40th of a second

This was the fourth banana slug I saw. It was a beauty. In this photo you can see the breathing hole on its mantle which connects to a single, primitive lung. The hole, called the pneumostome, is also used for going to the bathroom and reproductive access. Talk about multi-tasking!

Aperture 2.8 - Shutter Speed 1/60th of a second

This slug wasn't shy and didn't seem to mind at all that I was only inches from its face using my macro lens to capture these close ups.

The challenging thing about slug photography is that the forest is dark and they are covered in mucus that creates shiny highlights along their bodies. Set your camera settings too bright and you'll get white "blown out" areas. Too dark, and you lose the vibrancy of their unique yellow color so even when photographing the same slug for just a few minutes I was constantly making small shutter adjustments as it moved along.

Aperture 2.8 - Shutter Speed 1/50th of a second

The optic (eye) tentacles and mantle.

Aperture 2.8 - Shutter Speed 1/50th of a second

Here you can see the striped "skirt" also known as the "fringe" that runs along the bottom length of the slug. It helps to propel it forward as it's foot, the back section of it's body, contracts and ripples. Though covered in mucus, I didn't notice any visible slime trail while watching the slugs move across the forest floor.

Aperture 2.8 - Shutter Speed 1/60th of a second

Here you can clearly see the sensory tentacles (below the eye tentacles) pointing forward towards the camera. They are used for feeling and tasting. The mouth is on the underside of the slug and isn't visible when the slug is upright.

If you look closely as you walk along the trail you can see a multitude of mushrooms both on the ground and growing off the sides of trees and stumps.

At times it seemed more like we were walking through a tropical rain forest than a redwood forest in Santa Cruz. I kept imagining this must be what Costa Rica looks like, only it would be much warmer and more colorful. The sound of running water breaking the quiet and solitude made me get why people like to hike. I just wish I enjoyed the process more. I couldn't stop worrying about twisting my ankle and picking up ticks. LOL

Here you can see the slug's "keel," the ridge going down the center of its back. 

This was the seventh slug. He was curled up on a bed of redwood pine needles. I say he but really should say he/she because slugs are hermaphrodites meaning they carry the sexual reproduction organs of both the male and female. The odd thing is they are able to self fertilize and mate in pairs. Sometimes the slugs are unable to separate leading to a process known as "apophallation" the amputation of the male sex organ, which is large and resembles a ruffled jelly fish tendril. After apophallation the slug becomes a "female" for the rest of its reproductive life.

More than the typical ground mushrooms, I really thought the bracket mushrooms growing off the sides of trees and stumps were stunning. They reminded me of corals growing off rocks in the ocean.

Aperture 5.8 - Shutter Speed 1/60th of a second

I couldn't resist photographing this fallen branch covered with beard and powdered ruffle lichen. So gorgeous!

The striped fringe (aka skirt) is clearly visible along the bottom of this slug.

And this was the last slug I saw. Number eleven. It kind of looks like I used a flash to take this picture but I didn't.

We were there for around four hours and I can't wait to go back again. If you've never seen a banana slug and live in the Bay Area you should go too. Just remember the slugs are nocturnal and need moisture so they're most likely to be out after it rains and/or early in the morning just after daybreak before the morning mist and dew evaporate.

Hubby was hungry so we headed back to the car to have lunch in downtown Santa Cruz.

There were a few traumas that day, like the tick I spotted crawling on my bare wrist and I think I pulled a groin muscle when my back foot slipped as I was crouching on an incline to photograph one of the slugs. My right leg hurt the rest of the day but was fine the following morning.

Huevo's Rancheros for Brunch at Saturn Cafe

I really wanted to go to the Saturn Cafe for lunch. It's a vegetarian and vegan diner. Hubby wanted to go to a place across the street called Surf Dog so he could get a beef hamburger. So, at his suggestion, I went to the Saturn Cafe and he went to Surf Dog and we met up again after lunch and walked down the street until it was time for hubby's afternoon, cafe mocha break.

Cafe Mocha with Soy Milk at Hoffman's

We decided to try the mochas at Hoffman's Bistro and Patisserie on Pacific Ave. because we'd just seen them on an episode of Chef Robert Irvine's Restaurant Impossible. I'm happy to report that we received very good customer service, the mocha's were delicious and I got an apple strudel made from scratch. It was definitely the best strudel I've ever had! I want to go back and try out the restaurant for lunch sometime soon.

Henry Cowells Redwoods State Park
Operating Hours
Day Use Area
Sunrise to Sunset

Day Use (Main) Entrance Address
101 North Big Trees Park Road
Felton, CA 95018

South Boundary Entrance
Graham Hill Road at Nepenthe Drive
Santa Cruz, CA

Saturn Cafe
145 Laurel St
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Hoffman's Bistro and Patisserie
1102 Pacific Ave
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Technical Photography Details: I was shooting with my Lumix GF2 camera body and had brought along the LUMIX G VARIO HD 14-140mm / F4.0-5.8 (zoom lens) and LEICA DG MACRO-ELMARIT 45mm / F2.8 (macro lens). By the end of the day I realized I need to get a small monopod. There was no way I was going to lug around a tripod in the rain while hiking but shooting freehand in an area with as much shade as a redwood forest, that requires longer shutter speeds than normal, made it ultra challenging to take clear shots without any sort of support to steady the camera against. Most of these images were shot using ISO's of 400 and 800.

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