One of my favourite places on the peninsula to hang out for an hour or two is Patricia Bay (Pat Bay to us local folk). For a small cove area with a roadway running right alongside it, there’s an astonishing array of wildlife and activity to be found at the water’s edge. Combine this with phenomenal sunsets, and the place pretty much can’t be beat. There’s also an incredible amount to be learned by taking the time to relax, sit a spell, and observe the goings-on of coastal life in the bay.
Sand Dollars – Surprisingly Remarkable Creatures
First of all, Pat Bay is one of the best places on the peninsula I’ve come across to find sand dollars. Something you might not know about these beach residents is that the white sand dollars that you find on the beach are actually skeletons. Sand dollars are ocean creatures most closely related to sea urchins and starfish, and while they are alive the ‘dollars’ are purplish-brown and kind of fuzzy-looking. So when you come across one of those, it’s not rotting, it’s alive! They look like this because they are actually covered in tiny spines, cleverly designed to help them move around on the ocean floor and filter plankton and other food particles toward their ‘mouth’ on the underside of their body. On the top side of the sand dollar, these little spines also serve as gills – talk about multi-functional! Sand dollars situate themselves just under the surface of the sand to help anchor themselves in the ebb and flow of ocean currents, and apparently the small young sand dollars actually ingest extra grains of sand to weigh themselves down. See – who knew there was so much sand dollar trivia!? I discovered these interesting tidbits and more at the Monterey Bay Aquarium site – it’s a great place to learn about all things ocean-y, so check ’em out if you’re interested.
Speaking of diminutive marine life, Pat Bay is also home to several shellfish species, including clams and oysters. Historically, shellfish were a staple food source for local First Nations, and ‘clam gardens’ consisting of carefully cultivated sandy beach areas kept clear of large stones and debris – and often demarcated by rock walls extending out into the bay – were held and managed by family groups. I’ll create a more detailed post about clam gardens, but Pat Bay is one easily accessible area where you can see evidence of these plots. Harvesting clams at this site is unfortunately no longer permitted, as fecal contamination has resulted in coliform bacteria counts that exceed the recommended levels for shellfish.
Patricia Bay Gull Colony
I know I’m a little biased in my fondness for gulls, but one of the best things about Pat Bay is the number of gulls that hang out on the rocky outcroppings at the water’s edge. Their antics are varied and incredibly entertaining if you take the time to sit quietly and observe. They’re wary guys, and if you walk casually along the beach, you might not get the full effect of their personalities and activities. This particular afternoon I took the time to relax on the beach, leaning my back against a log and enjoying the sunshine. I watched the gulls enjoying the sunshine too, preening their feathers, soaking up the rays, and snoozing en masse on a sandbank a little ways out in the bay. My absolute favourite thing to watch for is yawning gulls. Now I’m not sure if they’re really yawning in the same sleepy-on-a-warm-spring-afternoon way that we do, or if there’s some other biological explanation for what they’re up to, but it’s pretty charming!
I know people are sometimes put off by gulls, with their raucous calling and bold demeanour, but I love their style. Watching them interact is an endless drama in miniature, as they work to displace other gulls from prime basking rocks, covertly sidle up to each other in the hopes of stealing someone else’s hard-earned meal, and fly in for a noisy landing amidst a resting flock. Because of the abundance of clams in Pat Bay, a common sight is a gull poking among the rocks to find a fat clam, scooping it up in its beak and flying it high above the rocky shore. The gull then lets the clam plummet to the ground and smash on the sharp stones below. Sometimes it takes two or three tries to crack the shell, but the reward for their persistence and ingenuity is a delicious snack. If you haven’t taken the time to watch a gull flock in action, I definitely recommend it!
Other Well-Known Pat Bay Residents
In addition to the gulls, a common sight in Pat Bay is a Great Blue Heron perched on a rock out in the bay, patiently watching the shallows for an unwary fish to spear. The heron often sits at the side of a large rock in the middle of the bay, blending in remarkably well with the blue-grey stone. One of the coolest things about herons (and it’s kind of hard to pick the coolest thing – their lightening-fast strikes when hunting fish and their slow deliberate steps through shallow water are definitely close seconds) is their vocalizations. Their odd barking croak as they take off from the water to soar over head is hauntingly prehistoric – the perfect accompaniment to their regal but slightly bizarre appearance.
Okay, I’ve actually just changed my mind. In checking out what the ever-reliable Cornell All About Birds has to say about herons, this is the coolest thing about them: those long stringy feathers on their chest continuously grow and fray, and herons use the fringed claw on their middle toe to comb the frayed ‘powder’ through the feathers. They use this powder as a way to wash off fish oil and other debris from the feathers, and to protect those feathers from the slimy surfaces of bogs and swamps. Whoa!
Another resident, very shy and thus requiring a combination of patience and luck to spot, is a very handsome river otter. This day, as I sat watching the gulls, the otter made its way out from the shelter of a large pile of driftwood. Clearly heading toward the water, it paused every few minutes to check the lay of the land before proceeding. As I watched, it suddenly froze, then darted a few steps to the right, then the left, then dashed quickly back the way it had come. Puzzled as to the source of its fright, I looked around, expecting to see an off-leash dog approaching. Finding nothing of interest in either direction on the beach, I looked up just in time to see an eagle swooping low overhead. The gulls momentarily flew up in a frenzy, and the crows perched in a nearby oak tree vocally objected to the eagle’s presence. It carried on its journey, gliding in lazy circles over the point at the north end of the bay.
Access to Pat Bay
The southern end of the bay is part of Patricia Bay Park, a municipal park featuring a wheelchair-accessible pathway named ‘Scoter Trail’ after the showy seabirds that frequent the bay over the winter. There is a parking lot at the very southern end of the bay near Willingdon Road, and the area is often quite busy in the evening, as the bay faces full west and the sunsets are varied and spectacular. There are several access points down to the beach itself, and while at high tide the beach disappears almost entirely, at low tide there is a considerable rocky and sandy expanse available for exploring.
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