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New kids zone at Dana Point Interpretive Center makes nature fun


DANA POINT Brothers Asher and Isaac Bates gave the Spin and Win Wheel a good whirl.

Isaac’s spin landed on the photo of a weasel, one of the 175 animal species found around the Dana Point Interpretive Center in the Headlands Conservation area.

Now it was up to Isaac, a 2-year-old from Aliso Viejo, and his 5-year-old brother, to find a weasel in an exhibit at the center to claim his prize.

Together, the two crawled through a tunnel and popped up to look through a bubble into a terrarium that showed what a Pacific pocket mouse might see in its coastal sage scrub habitat.

“I found the weasel,” Isaac called out to his mother, Erica Bates. “It looks kinda like a long and skinny mouse.”

The Bates family was among dozens of visitors Tuesday who checked out some of the center’s new attractions, such as the Kids Fun Zone, an interactive area with a sandbox full of animal tracks and burrows, replicas and skulls of animals found at the Headlands and several hands-on displays.

While the interpretive center, perched high over the ocean, was bare bones in the early years, efforts by the city have turned it into a popular venue that educates the public about the natural resources found on the Headlands and the marine life in the tidepools and ocean below.

The fun zone was introduced earlier this month. Last fall, simple signs were replaced with more elaborate displays, such as a three-dimensional chart showing the San Juan Creek’s watershed and taxidermied animals found only on the Headlands, along with new signs explaining the area’s geological formations and history.

The Dana Point Historical Society provided historic photos that show the history of the Headlands and Dana Point.

From plain to high-end

When Jeff Rosaler, the city’s parks manager, took over in 2009, it was his dream to turn the center into something state-of-the-art. He applied for a state grant and got nearly $100,000 to make those improvements.

“It’s really brought the center to what I envisioned,” he said. “It’s elevated it. The exhibits are hands-on and equivalent to the best science centers around here.”

Some of the money was also used for trail signs along the protected open space that sits next to the center.

The 60-acre Headlands conservation area is home to rare and endangered plants and animals. There are 110 native plant species – 15 of them on the California Native Plant Society rare plant inventory. Of the 175 animal species, two of them – the Pacific pocket mouse and the Coastal California Gnatcatcher – are on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Threatened and Endangered Species List.

The Pacific pocket mouse – the smallest mouse in North America first seen along the Headlands in the 1930s – and the California gnatcatcher have thrived in the area, Rosaler said.

“We monitor the nests and fledglings of the California gnatcatcher and we have always had succesful broods,” Rosaler said. “The Pacific pocket mice are really doing well and continue to be a healthy population of about 100.”

Thought to be extinct in the 1980s, the Pacific pocket mouse was rediscovered in 1993 by Sanford Edward when he began plans to develop the exclusive Strand community at the Headlands. It was added to the federal endangered species list the following year as part of an emergency ruling.

The Dana Point mouse population was preserved, and subsequent surveys found two other groups at Camp Pendleton.

The Dana Point Interpretive Center was built in 2008 by Edward and Headlands LLC as part of an agreement to develop the Strand community.

In all, Edward said he spent more than $43 million on the Strand public improvements including parks and opens space, water quality improvements, restored environmental habitat, public trails, beach access and the nearby Veterans Memorial.

Edward had entitlements to build a 500-room hotel and 35 homes on what is now the conservation park.

Plans to complete Hilltop Point Trail and create a bluff-top overlook are moving forward and will be the conservation area’s final pieces. The finished trail and overlook – two years out – are being funded through an April settlement agreement with the city, the California Coastal Commission and Surfrider Foundation.

Must-see hangout

On any morning, as early as 7 a.m., dozens of people can be found hiking the 3-mile trail loop around the center.

About 30 docents now staff the center. On the first three Saturdays of the month they take visitors on hikes. They also lead visitors on the Whale Walk and Talk as well as history and nature tours.

One night a month, the docents offer a science night at the Dana Point Community Center. They also collaborate with the Ocean Institute on their tidepool program.

For Alan Harkness, who retired from a job at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Center four years ago and has a background in biology, the center is the perfect place to volunteer.

After hiking the Headlands area, he became hooked when he saw and heard whales in the nearby waters. He decided to give back.

On Tuesday, he gave Asher and Isaac their prizes from the Spin to Win Wheel and shared some facts about weasels. He also was there to greet 30 visitors in the center’s first hour of being open.

“People are always interested in what animals live here,” said Harkness. “The birds of prey are the most popular and, of course the gray whales now during their migration season. This is the premiere spot along the entire coast to see the whales.”

Diane Linderman of Mission Viejo walks the trails and visits the interpretive center at least six times a year. On Tuesday, she brought Dana Cline, a friend who had just moved to Lake Forest for San Diego.

Linderman described the area to her friend – telling her about the 360-degree view of the ocean – just as a juvenile whale and its mother passed by.

“I’ve been a lot of places along the coast and this is the only place where you have a view of so much water,” she said. “This is a great place to bring binoculars. If you’re patient, you’ll see a lot of animals.”

Contact the writer: 714-796-2254 or eritchie@scng.com or on Twitter:@lagunaini

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