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Remember that gull we rescued last week? After my husband took it to Native Animal Rescue here in Santa Cruz it was transferred up to International Bird Rescue's San Francisco Bay Area center in Fairfield. I e-mailed and asked how the gull was doing and whether I'd be able to witness its release back to the ocean. Yesterday I received this response:

Hi Allison,

This is Cheryl Reynolds, the Volunteer Coordinator for Bird Rescue. Thank you so much for rescuing the juvenile Western Gull and getting him into care at Native Animal Rescue. Hooks and fishing line can cause severe injuries but fortunately this guy is doing okay at this time. He/she had surgery yesterday to repair some of the damage the line caused to his leg and is being treated with antibiotics. He's not totally out of the woods yet but luckily gulls are pretty tough! I'm giving you his case number here at Bird Rescue #17-1887 but I will be happy to follow up with you on his progress. 
To answer your other questions.. We don't have a timeline yet on release, it depends on how he progresses. We don't usually send the birds back to Santa Cruz, we have so many young gulls we like to release as a group and in an appropriate location locally. 
If you would like to contribute to this birds care please go to our website at https://www.bird-rescue.org/. You can also sign up to receive our Photo of the Week and patient updates and also find us on Facebook. 
Thanks again for caring for this birds welfare. 
Kind regards,
Cheryl
We hadn't realized that the fishing line wrapped around the bird's leg had caused damage that would require surgery. This makes me doubly glad that we were able to rescue it from the surface of Monterey Bay before the injuries became more severe. It sounds like the prognosis is good for this juvenile western gull, and I hope it and several of its cohort can be returned to the skies and sea very soon.

2

This is the time of year when whales visit Monterey Bay and often come quite close to shore. Humpbacks, in particular, are commonly seen from beaches in the fall. Earlier in the summer they are out over the Monterey Canyon feeding on krill. In the late summer and early fall they switch to feeding on anchovies, which school in shallower water over the continental shelf. Last week they were putting on a show, to the delight of whale watchers who pay for whale watching trips out of Moss Landing and Santa Cruz.

Yesterday evening my husband and I borrowed a friend's little boat and went out looking for whales. A humpback had been seen from the beach around the cement ship at Seacliff State Beach, lunge-feeding and breaching. Even the Monterey Bay is a big body of water, and I'd rated our chance of finding a whale at about 50%. We did eventually find one swimming parallel to the shore. And I have pictures to prove it!

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) near Aptos, CA
17 August 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) near Aptos, CA
17 August 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits humans from approaching any marine mammals, so we kept our distance. The whale undoubtedly knew we were there and it did get a little closer than this, right around the time that we noticed a flock of ~25 pelicans fly overhead and start circling over an area a short distance away. It was starting to get dark and we had to turn around and head back, and on our way we ended up where the pelicans were hanging out.

As we approached we could see a bird flapping about on the surface of the water, but unable to get airborne. It didn't take long for us to see that it was somehow tied up with a dead common murre and a piece of kelp. We were able to pull the kelp toward the boat and grab the live bird. It appeared to be a juvenile gull.

Here's the dead murre:

Dead common murre (Uria aalge) tangled in fishing line
17 August 2017
© Alex Johnson

And here's the gull:

Injured juvenile gull tangled in fishing line
17 August 2017
© Alex Johnson

It had a hook in its right nostril and a hook in each foot. The hook in its beak was attached to line that went around its body, making the bird unable to raise its head. Fortunately Alex was able to cut the line while I held the bird. We didn't have the tools to try removing the hooks, so we decided to head back in. We wrapped the bird loosely in a towel to keep it from flailing around and held onto it for the long, wet ride back to the harbor.

When we back on land I called the Marine Mammal Center because: (a) I had the number programmed into my phone; and (b) I knew they'd have a live person to answer the phone, who would be able to tell me who to call about this bird. The person I talked to transferred me to Pacific Wildlife Care in Morro Bay. The recorded message told me to place the bird in a box or pet carrier on a towel and leave it in a warm, dark place until we could bring it in the morning. We weren't about to make a 2.5-hr drive to Morro Bay, but fortunately there is an organization right here in Santa Cruz that we've taken animals to before: Native Animal Rescue. We got home, dug out the kitty carrier, and tucked the bird in for the night. The only warm place we could think of that the cats couldn't get to was the pantry, so the bird spent the night there.

Injured gull
17 August 2017
© Allison J. Gong

I had a school meeting this morning, so Alex took the bird to Native Animal Rescue. The woman who met him said the bird was a juvenile western gull (Larus occidentalis)--another WEGU. She took the bird out, wrapped it in a towel, and calmed it by simulating a hood on its head.

17 August 2017
© Alex Johnson
17 August 2017
© Alex Johnson

Poor bird. Fortunately the hooks went through the webbing in the feet, so there wasn't any damage to bones or soft tissue.

Fishing hooks in the feet of a juvenile western gull (Larus occidentalis)
17 August 2017
© Alex Johnson

The woman pulled the hook out of the nostril pretty easily. To remove the hooks from the feet she had to first cut the barbs and then pull them back out. Alex said the whole thing took about 5 minutes. The bird seems otherwise uninjured. The folks at Native Animal Rescue will keep an eye on it for a few days and then release it back to the wild. I think I'll give them a call tomorrow and see if we can be there when the bird is released.

Update Sunday 20 August: We called Native Animal Rescue this morning and were told that the bird had been transferred to a wildlife care facility up in Fairfield. All of the seabirds that come into Native Animal Rescue get sent up there. So we won't get to see "our" gull be released back into the wild.

In biology, it is often the exceptions to the rules we teach that are the most interesting organisms. For example, every child knows that the sky is blue and the grass is green. With a few leading questions you can get a child to generalize that all plants are green. We all know this, right? Plants are green because they have chlorophyll, which allows them to perform the magic of photosynthesis. And yes, it really is magic. Harvesting the power of the sun to build complex molecules out of CO2 and H2O? Yeah, photoautotrophs are freakin' amazing.

But what about the plants that aren't green? How do they make a living?

I've already written about dodder, a parasitic plant that is commonly seen growing on pickleweed at Elkhorn Slough. A few weeks ago when I was at Lake Tahoe I encountered another plant that has a parasitic lifestyle: snow plant.

Snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea) near Carson Pass in the Sierra Nevada
26 July 2017
© Alex Johnson

Snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea) is a non-photosynthetic plant that has zero chlorophyll and thus zero green color, and is instead a rich blood-red color hinted at by its species epithet. It lives on the forest floor in close proximity to coniferous trees. The blood-red inflorescences shoot up from the ground, apparently out of nothing; the rest of the plant lives underground. If you break an angiosperm into its basic anatomical components you have: leaves, stems, roots, and flowers. Snow plant isn't photosynthetic, so it doesn't need or have leaves. And since stems are essentially support structures to hold leaves up to the light it doesn't have those, either. The roots and vegetative parts (rhizomes?) of snow plant are underground and for most of the year there's no indication that it's there at all, until it sends up an inflorescence in the late spring as the winter snow is melting.

Snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea) near Carson Pass in the Sierra Nevada
26 July 2017
© Alex Johnson

Since snow plant isn't autotrophic and doesn't fix its own carbon, it has to obtain fixed carbon from elsewhere. Snow plant lives under conifers, but is not a parasite on the trees the way that dodder is a parasite on pickleweed. The relationship is much more complex and involves a third player. And all of the action happens underground.

Enter the third player, a mycorrhizal fungus. This fungus's mycelium spreads through the roots of the conifers with which it has a mutualistic relationship. The tree shares photosynthate (i.e., fixed carbon) to the fungus, which in turn provides minerals to and enhances water uptake for the tree. These mycorrhizal symbioses are very common in Nature, but most often go unnoticed because they occur in the soil.

Snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea) near Carson Pass in the Sierra Nevada
26 July 2017
© Alex Johnson

Sarcodes sanguinea, the third partner in this unusual plant-plant-fungus ménage à trois, takes advantage of the intimacy between the conifer and the fungus. Instead of parasitizing the tree it targets the fungus, siphoning off part of the fungus's share of photosynthate. I suppose this makes snow plant an indirect parasite of the tree. The tree is doing all the work, as it is the only autotrophic member of the trio. It shares photosynthate with the fungus and gets something vital in return. Snow plant, on the other hand, doesn't contribute anything to either the fungus or the tree. Rather, it takes directly from the fungus and only secondarily from the tree.

It would be interesting to investigate the energetics of this three-way relationship. How do the fungus and tree react to parasitism by snow plant? On which of the mycorrhizal partners does snow plant have the strongest effect? The fungus, because its share of fixed carbon is being drained directly? Or the tree, which suffers because feeding the snow plant via the fungal intermediary means less photosynthate available to support its own metabolic activities? Does the tree have any way to stop the flow of fixed carbon to an area of the fungal mycelium that is being parasitized by the snow plant?

One last note. Many of the snow plants that we saw on the trail out of Carson Pass to Big Meadow had been surrounded by stones. We never saw any signs so aren't sure why, but I think hikers want to keep the snow plants from getting trampled. The species isn't endangered or threatened, although it is restricted to higher altitudes in California's mountain ranges.

Distribution of Sarcodes sanguinea in California

I think the stone rings were put there both to point out and protect the S. sanguinea inflorescences, although it would be hard to miss them. Nothing else is that bloody shade of red, and it really does stand out. Even small plants are very conspicuous.

Small snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea)
26 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

What a bizarre plant. It challenges our preconceived notions of what plants are all about. Ain't Nature grand, and weird?

Earlier this week I accidentally came upon a baby bird. I was on my way out to the cliff at the marine lab to dispose of a corpse (a fish that died of natural causes) when I noticed a western gull perched on the fence railing and allowing me to get unusually close. It was wary, though, and very alert. When I stopped to listen and watch for a while I heard a high-pitched "cheep-cheep-cheep" coming from beyond the shrubs on the other side of the fence. To get to the point where I could throw the dead fish off the cliff I had to pass closer than I wanted to the chick, which I could then see standing among the ground cover.

Western gull (Larus occidentalis) adult and chick at Terrace Point
2 August 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The western gull (Larus occidentalis), or WEGU in birders' parlance, is a California Current endemic species. It is a bird of the Pacific coast of North America, and is rarely found more than a few miles inland. So if you don't live right on the coast and have problems with gulls in landfills or parks, you cannot pin the blame on a WEGU. Western gulls are present year-round, feeding on whatever they can get. Like many gulls they are quite efficient scavengers and have a varied diet that often includes human refuse. They have become quite adapted to human presence, and have taken advantage of the fact that we tend to leave our garbage all over the place.

Western gull (Larus occidentalis) adult and chick at Terrace Point
5 August 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Yesterday the chick was in the same area, only a little more visible from directly above. I'd seen as many as five adults hanging around the chick, with no idea who the actual parents are. The chick is big and feathered enough to thermoregulate on its own but is still entirely dependent on its parents (and other cooperative adults) for food.

Being a gull, it is very vocal. It doesn't sound like a gull, though. The calls sound like they're coming from a much smaller bird. It cheeped continuously during the 20 minutes or so I was watching it, even with its parents standing right next to it. When this chick fledges, the only direction it can go is out over the water. Unless it can steer its flight well enough to land on one of the intertidal benches to the left of its present location, it'll end up in the water. I imagine it will be able to swim just fine, but the next thing it will have to learn is how to get up in the air from the water.

Western gulls do not migrate and, garbage notwithstanding, depend on the California Current for most of their food. And while it may seem that there are gulls all over the place with plenty to burn, the WEGU's restricted range makes this species vulnerable to perturbations in the ecology of the coastal ocean. Not only might their food supply be interrupted as prey species' distributions change, but their nesting sites on cliffs may be inundated as sea level rises due to climate change.

Western gull (L. occidentalis) in adult breeding plumage
5 August 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Gulls have a reputation as trash birds, but the adult WEGU really is beautiful. Their large-ish body size, pure white head and front, and pink legs/feet are pretty distinctive. WEGUs are the only gulls that I feel at all comfortable IDing in the field, and that's only when the birds are in adult plumage. This species, and many other gull species, takes four years to attain the adult coloration. The juveniles of many species all look very similar, which makes field identification a hazardous exercise. To make things even more complicated, western gulls are known to hybridize with the glaucous-winged gull (Larus glaucescens); fortunately for California birders, the hybridization zone is further north in Washington State.

Seabirds of all types depend on their feathers for insulation. Small-bodied endotherms like birds have an unfavorable surface area:volume ratio and would be unable to maintain their body temperature in cold water if they didn't have insulation. One of the adaptations that enables a life in cold water is a preen gland near the base of the tail. This gland secretes an oily substance that the bird spreads over its feathers as a waterproof coating, very effectively shielding the body from the cold water. Feathers themselves have water-shedding properties of their own, but augmenting this feature with oil is sheer genius. You've heard the phrase "like water off a duck's back"? We can say that because ducks and other water fowl have preen glands.

Feathers must be clean and lie properly for a bird to fly and thermoregulate, and birds at rest spend a lot of time grooming. All birds preen, but for aquatic birds this activity is especially crucial. Watching a bird preen is like watching a cat take a bath: the sequence of actions appears to be haphazard, but eventually the whole body gets attention.

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