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The oldest and most powerful skill of all

For as long as sentient humans have walked across the surface of the planet, they have observed the world around them. Quite often these observations had direct life-or-death consequences, as most of survival had to do with finding food while not becoming someone else's dinner. Fast forward a few million years and we find ourselves mired in technology, often interacting with the outside world through some sort of digital interface. And yes, I totally get the irony of writing that statement in a blog. Be that as it may, I've found that people generally don't pay much attention to what's going on around them. My job as a biology professor is to teach some of the forgotten skills of the naturalist, including the practice of observation.

Today I took my Ecology students birdwatching. We looked at other things, of course, but birds were the primary focus of today's observations. We started the day near the mouth of Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, where we were immediately challenged to identify some shorebirds. Fortunately we had a guest lecture from a seabird biologist yesterday, and she gave us some important clues to help us with our field IDs.

Some shorebirds are fairly easy to identify, such as this long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus). It was foraging in a stand of pickleweed just off the road, which is the only reason I was able to take a decent photo of it.

Long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus) at Elkhorn Slough. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus) at Elkhorn Slough.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

We also saw marbled godwits (Limosa fedoa), willets (Tringa semipalmata), as well as the flocking "peeps," which we never got a really good look at but all agreed might have been sanderlings (Calidris alba).

One of the things we had been warned about was the difficulty of identifying gulls. There are some features that help when the birds are in adult breeding plumage, but gulls go through several juvenile plumages before attaining their adult colors and there's a lot of phenotypic overlap among species. Case in point:

Gulls (Larus spp.) on Moss Landing State Beach. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Gulls (Larus spp.) on Moss Landing State Beach.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Some of these adults are western gulls (Larus occidentalis) but some look different (smaller bodies, different beak coloration). They might be sub-adult westerns or another species entirely. And even the birds in juvenile plumage varied a lot; some were speckled or mottled while others were more uniformly colored. Several birds (not in this photo) had pale gray backs and pale tan flanks. According to my field guide, National Geographic's Field Guide to the Birds of North America, there are several species that have this plumage in their second or third winter. We kind of gave up on the gulls, but to be honest we didn't have a lot invested in identifying them.

The highlight of the beach part of the field trip, at least for me, was seeing snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus). These tiny birds are perfectly colored to hide in the sand, and unless they move they are almost impossible to see. I found them because we unwittingly wandered too far up the beach towards the dunes and accidentally flushed them from their divots in the sand.

Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) at Moss Landing State Beach. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) at Moss Landing State Beach.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Can you spot all four plovers in this photo? Here's another quartet:

Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) at Moss Landing State Beach. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) at Moss Landing State Beach.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This morning I saw my first humpback whale of the season. A couple of whale watching boats were lingering around the mouth of the harbor, which should have clued us in that there was something going on. However, it took a kayaker to tell us that there were breaching humpbacks just off the jetty before we realized. And I call myself a naturalist? Sheesh.

This bird is, I think, a third-winter western gull (L. occidentalis).

Western gull (Larus occidentalis) at Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, CA. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Western gull (Larus occidentalis) at Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, CA.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This species is endemic to the California Current, which means that it is found nowhere else. The pink legs are characteristic of western gulls, and the black on the tip of the bill indicates a third-winter bird. Adults have a red spot towards the end of the bill but not on the very tip. If you look closely you can see that this bird has a tiny bit of red immediately proximal to the black smudge.


After lunch we convened at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve visitor center, across the highway and inland a bit from our morning site. The students got a 30-minute orientation to the history and geography of the Slough, then we went on a hike.

Orientation to the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Orientation to the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The first leg of the hike was a short walk to what is appropriately called the overlook. This is where I gave the students their only real assignment of the day. They had to spend 10 minutes in silent observation. They could write in their notebooks and look around with binoculars, but they were not allowed to talk at all. With some groups this is a nigh-impossible feat, but these students did a fantastic job. After the 10-minute observation period we discussed what they had seen and heard. One student said he heard 26 bird calls, but didn't know how many of them were the same bird making different calls. Others mentioned the sounds of human activity--traffic on the highway, planes flying overhead, the beep-beep-beep of a truck in reverse--as well as the buzz of insects and birds. I asked if anyone else had noticed the shadow of a turkey vulture that flew directly over us.

Silent observation period at Elkhorn Slough. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Silent observation period at Elkhorn Slough.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I think this is a very valuable exercise and would like to extend this period of silent observation to 15 or 20 minutes for future classes. In a lot of ways class always feels a little frantic, and to slow down and simply be a part of nature is a luxury of time that many of us don't have. Alas, we had other places to visit on the hike and needed to get moving again.

Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) in flight over Elkhorn Slough. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) in flight over Elkhorn Slough.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Much of Elkhorn Slough used to be a dairy, and the Slough is still surrounded by agricultural fields. There are two barns on the Reserve, named Big Barn and Little Barn. Little Barn is used for equipment storage and isn't open to the public, but you can walk into Big Barn. There are two barn owl boxes in Big Barn. We searched under them for owl pellets; we didn't find any intact pellets but did see some that had been dissected by previous human visitors.

Little Barn (foreground) and Big Barn (background) at Elkhorn Slough. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Little Barn (foreground) and Big Barn (background) at Elkhorn Slough.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I don't think I've ever seen this much green at Elkhorn Slough. All of the El Niño rains have brought forth a lot of wildflowers and grasses. We hiked past a large stand of non-native poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) on our way to Big Barn. That stuff is going to be difficult to eradicate, as it spreads quickly and outcompetes native species. And yes, this plant is highly toxic to mammals and was, in fact, used by the ancient Greeks for human executions (including that of Socrates).

When we returned to the visitor we asked the Reserve's naturalist, Jane, to take our picture. So this is class photo #1 of the semester. It's not complete, as three students were absent today. I hope to get a picture of the entire class another day.

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I wanted to take the students to the woodpeckers' acorn granary, but we didn't have time to hike that far. Spring break is coming up week after next, and I think I'll go back to the Slough to say "hello" to the family of acorn woodpeckers. I'm looking forward to having more time than I do at the moment to play outdoors. I want to do some drawing, too!

2 thoughts on “The oldest and most powerful skill of all

  1. Eric Ettner

    Allison,
    Before I started at UC Santa Cruz, I did their "Wilderness Orientation", where we went hiking in a small group for 8 days in Kings Canyon National Park. One entire 24 hour period of this was dedicated to being completely alone in a small area, where the guides dropped us off each in our own spot in the morning and came back the next to get us.

    It was an amazing experience. A great time for introspection, but also for observation. We were well above the timberline, so all that was around were small grasses and wildflowers nestled in the rocks. I was lucky enough to get a small pond with my plot, and got to watch some nymphs of some kind graze on the algae in the bottom of the water. I will always remember that small area and how life worked there probably better than many places I lived for years!

    It is very worthwhile not being distracted sometimes. Your exercise just reminded me of that day. Cool birds too!

    Reply

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