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The busy-ness of life

In a desperate attempt to escape from the heat yesterday afternoon I went down to the marine lab and vowed to find something to do that would keep me there for a while even though I had only a few minor chores to take care of. Fortunately there was a lot going on in the ocean. The tide was high, almost completely covering the intertidal benches where I spent so much time this spring and summer. And there, right up against the cliff, were hundreds of seabirds, squawking and squabbling over fish. Pelicans, terns, gulls, and cormorants were all mixed together in a big scrum of activity.

Pelicans 20 September 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Pelicans, Caspian terns, assorted gulls, and cormorants at Natural Bridges State Beach.
20 September 2015
© Allison J. Gong

The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is described by the Cornell Lab or Ornithology as a "comically elegant bird" and it's hard not to agree. However, watching them in flight over the ocean makes me reconsider. When I see them in the air I find them to be not just elegant, but graceful as well.

Brown pelicans in flight over Monterey Bay off Terrace Point. 20 September 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Brown pelicans in flight over Monterey Bay off Terrace Point.
20 September 2015
© Allison J. Gong

While the birds were making a fuss over anchovies that had been pushed close to shore, six harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) were lounging lazily just off the point. They would roll around at the surface, diving underneath waves as they broke onto the rocks. Because the tide was high the seals were floating over intertidal benches that I explored during the spring and summer. They didn't seem to be feeding on anything at the time.

As you might expect with all the feeding frenzy going on, a couple of humpback whales came to the show. They were out beyond the kelp bed, far enough away that I could have missed them if I didn't have my binoculars with me. I didn't see any lunge-feeding from this pair, which left more food for the birds.

After I'd been watching the feeding activity for about an hour and a half, I heard the familiar high-pitched 'cheep-cheep-cheep-cheep-cheep' of one of my favorite local seabirds, the black oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani).

Black oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) at Natural Bridges. 20 September 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Pair of black oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) at Natural Bridges.
20 September 2015
© Allison J. Gong

I love these birds for a couple of reasons: (1) I have NEVER seen a single oystercatcher, I have seen them only in what I assume are mated pairs (there is no sexual dimorphism in this species so it's impossible to distinguish between males and females); and (2) they almost always show up to keep me company when I'm in the intertidal, especially at Davenport Landing. They are also noisy birds, both in flight and while walking around on mussel beds. They have a dark sooty brown body and a long, stout, bright red beak that contrasts nicely and is the perfect tool for prying open mussels or flipping limpets off rocks. This particular pair didn't join in the hullabaloo over anchovies, since oystercatchers don't eat fish. I watched them prowl around on the rock bench, where the tide was really too high for them to have access to the mussels.

I remain grateful for a cool place to retreat to when it gets hot in Santa Cruz. We are in strange times, weather-wise, and I don't think anybody really knows what to expect over the next few months. All I know is that I hope we don't get any more of these blazing hot spells.

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