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At the end of August I got to play animal wrangler for a film production. Back in the late winter I had been contacted by an intern at KQED in San Francisco, who wanted to shoot some time-lapse footage of anemones dividing. We went out and collected anemones, I got them set up in tanks at the marine lab, and then COVID19 hit and everything went on shut-down. The intern finished her internship remotely and went on to her next position, and in the meantime the anemones stubbornly refused to divide.

The KQED lead videographer for the Deep Look video series, Josh Cassidy, who would had recorded the anemones dividing if they had divided and if the marine lab were not closed, asked me over the summer if we could somehow arrange to meet up to film something else. He had heard of some research that showed the emergent property of sea stars bouncing as they walk along on their many tube feet. Is there any way, he asked, that he could film some of the stars at the lab?

Well, filming at the lab was out of the question. Only essential personnel are allowed in the buildings, and there was no way I could sneak in Josh and all of his gear. We discussed options such as meeting up at a beach but I decided that I needed more control of the site to keep things safe for the animals. We ended up borrowing some friends' back yard for the day, which worked out pretty well. They have a covered pavilion, which was ideal because of course it turned out to be hot the day we filmed. I had several bags of frozen seawater to keep things cool-ish, two coolers for the movie stars themselves, a battery-operated air pump, and 30 gallons of seawater on hand.

Filming for production purposes takes a really long time. Even for a short film, we were working most of the day. Because of course most of the stars were uncooperative. They don't have anything even remotely resembling a brain, but damn if they can't bugger things up. I was feeling kind of bad that my animals were being such troublemakers; Josh, fortunately, was much more patient with them.

And here's the film! You'll see my right hand for about 1.5 seconds.

I didn't realize this at the time, but Josh also writes an article for each episode of Deep Look, for the KQED website. For this episode the article describes the research into the biomechanics of sea star bouncing. I'm quoted at the end.

So watch this short film. I hope it helps put a little bounce in your step.

Still more or less under quarantine shutdown due to COVID19, I haven't been doing much outdoor stuff over the past several months. What with the pandemic and horrid air quality due to wildfires throughout the state, spending time in places I would normally like to hang out simply hasn't been possible. We're still getting too many out-of-the-area visitors for me to feel comfortable being around people, and weekends are especially bad. But last weekend I went to Moss Landing to take pictures of birds and other wildlife—I needed visual aids for a virtual lab my students will be doing in a few weeks.

It's the time of year for birdwatchers to get excited about winter visitors. I've had golden-crowned sparrows in the canyon behind the house for almost a month now, but I hadn't been down to a beach in a while. Moss Landing is a great place for birdwatching, because you can explore the estuarine habitat of Elkhorn Slough, the sandy beach, and the harbor during a 2-mile walk. That's three distinct habitats for very little effort!

Starting at the tidal marsh, I always keep an eye out for the long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus). They have the largest beak-to-head ratio of any bird.

Long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus) in salt marsh
Long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus)
© Allison J. Gong

One of my favorite winter visitors to the marsh area is the willet (Tringa semipalmata). Unlike most shorebirds that are speckled or mottled, willets in winter plumage are a beautiful soft gray-ish brown color. Every time I see a willet I ask myself, "Willet, or won't it?"

Willets in marsh at low tide
Willets (Tringa semipalmata)
© Allison J. Gong

And when they take off in flight, willets show these striking black and white wing patterns. They always take me by surprise, even though I know to expect it.

Willet in flight, showing white flashes on wings
Willet (Tringa semipalmata) in flight
© Allison J. Gong

A whole flock of willets taking off at once is quite an impressive sight!

Flock of willets in flight
Willets (Tringa semipalmata) in flight
© Allison J. Gong

From the marsh it's a short walk over the dune and onto the beach.

I always look forward to walking this beach because of the dead things. Don't get me wrong, the living things are fun to see, but in some ways the dead critters can be more informative. For every species there is always some baseline level of mortality in the ocean, so you expect a certain number of dead things to wash up. However, an unusually high number of corpses could indicate that something is going on at sea. This trip I didn't see very many dead critters: just a few grebes that had been there for a while, nothing out of the ordinary.

Oh, and an otter pup. At least, I'm pretty certain it was an otter.

Yes, we came across a dead sea otter pup, my first ever.

Dead sea otter pup on the beach
Dead southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis) on the beach
© Allison J. Gong

The body was missing a head, but the parts that remain were a bit longer than my booted foot. Although most of the soft tissue had been scavenged, the carcass had distinct paws, meaning it wasn't any kind of pinniped (seal or sea lion). Also, pinnipeds don't have fur like this, as they rely on blubber for thermoregulation. Sea otters, on the other hand, have the densest fur of all mammals, with the oft-cited 1 million hairs/in2.

But let's be honest. I like the beach because I like photographing birds, and there is always interesting bird life at this beach. I'm not one of the crazy bird people who keep a life list and need to be the first person to spot a particular something-or-other. And, unlike the idiots I saw tramping through the pickleweed in pursuit of a Say's phoebe that day, I don't climb over fences and trespass where I'm not supposed to be. Besides, even the everyday backyard birds are fun to watch. Whoever says that familiarity breeds contempt certainly is not a naturalist!

And who doesn't love a snowy plover or two?

Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus)
© Allison J. Gong

The snowies aren't nesting at this time of year so the upper part of the beach isn't roped off. They do still get disturbed by people wandering around, who probably don't even know the birds are there. They (the snowies, that is) are so tiny that when they hunker down behind a divot in the sand they disappear completely. If you sit or stand quietly, they will pop up and make short dashes from hillock to pile of beach wrack and back again, feeding on the insects and crustaceans they find.

In addition to the snowy plovers, another tiny "peep" bird runs around on the beaches, often in large groups. These are the sanderlings, Calidris alba. I've only ever seen them in nonbreeding plumage, as they nest in the high Arctic.

Sanderlings (Calidris alba)
© Allison J. Gong

Sanderlings are the little birds that run back and forth from the waves. As a wave recedes the sanderlings frantically stab their stout beaks into the sand, grabbing up small mole crabs and other crustaceans that are right at the surface. When the next wave arrives the sanderlings run back up the beach. They have short legs and don't swim, so getting swept out to sea would be a very bad thing for them.

Sometimes even the long-legged shorebirds forage on the beach. I've seen the curlew there, as well as whimbrels and godwits. This day the godwits were stealing the show.

Marbled godwits (Limosa fedoa)
© Allison J. Gong

The godwits, with their longer legs, are able to stand their ground when the waves wash up. They can catch food that is buried more deeply into the sand. On mudflats they pick their way over the flat at low tide, digging for worms, clams, and crustaceans. They can feed on a mudflat only at low tide. But on the beach they can feed at any time, just moving with the tide as it floods and ebbs.

And my friend the long-billed curlew was there on the beach, too!

Long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus)
©Allison J. Gong

The curlews are not as eager to forage in the waves themselves as the godwits seem to be. The curlews might wander down to where their ankles are swashed by the waves, but do not seem to like getting wetter than that. But that bill can probe very deeply into the sand or mud. I've watched them feeding on mole crabs on the beach, and on worms on the mudflats.

Autumn and winter are good times to watch birds around here. There's a bit of a lull in bird activity once the swallows leave depart for the south and before the winter residents show up. For me, autumn begins when the golden-crowned sparrows arrive in the neighborhood, which this year was September 25. I'm listening to them now as I write this! Being located on the Pacific Flyway means we get lots of birds resting for a bit on their migration even if they don't winter here. I'll try to get out to Moss Landing during the winter months, to keep track of the avian comings and going.


Another guest blog entry by my husband, Alex Johnson

22 September 2020
Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park, Montana

Thirty four years ago I worked as a seasonal employee in Glacier National Park. My first job - and my most favorite - was Information Desk Clerk. I found I loved sharing my enthusiasm for the park with all the other visitors.

However, as with any job, it wasn’t always rosy. One of my tasks was to book trips for the famous open-top Red Bus tours. Of course being in the mountains, the weather wasn’t always cooperative. (We had snow in the park on the 4th of July both seasons I worked there!) On those days I would often hear from disappointed passengers: “We couldn’t see anything”, or “It was cold and rainy the whole day”, they’d complain.

I never fully understood this. Of course I know that some of the grand vistas can be obscured and the postcard-blue skies are hidden at these times. But in my experience, some of the most magical and transcendent moments happen during mountain storms, and particularly as those storms clear. The clouds dance amongst the peaks, the waterfalls come alive, the colors become vivid, and the wind sings. And the light can be incredible. Yes, it can be cold and sometimes uncomfortable, but when the storms clear, there’s no describing it.

Today I was back in Glacier again, this time alone. I’ve been back only twice since my employee days, and that hasn’t been nearly enough. It was one of those stormy days, with a steady rain and slate grey skies. It wasn’t too cold (for September), there was very little wind, and the clouds were doing their dances through the peaks. So, on the spur of the moment, I decided to take a hike on the Highline Trail out to Haystack Pass and back, a walk of about 8 miles. The Highline is a spectacular trail, starting at Logan Pass and traversing for miles along a gigantic glacial arête know as the Garden Wall all the way to Canada.

The walk out was beautiful, if a bit wet. I took my time, looking for sheep and mountain goats, and pausing to take lots of pictures. At Haystack Pass, I stopped to have a bite to eat. There’s not really any shelter there, so by the time I was finished I was starting to get cold. My fingers were suffering most, and were pretty well numb by the time I got going again. However, with a vigorous start to the hike back and keeping my hands in my pockets for a while, I gradually warmed up.

As I went along, the rain started to intensify and a chilly wind began to blow down from the Garden Wall above me. I picked up my pace, both to stay warm and to hasten my return. Then, after some 20 minutes, the clouds started to loose their grey, the wind began to die down, and the sun started to peek through the clouds above Mt. Oberlin to the west.

As the sun started to shine through the trees in front of me, an image of my best friend from those Glacier days, Chis Wall, came into my mind.

Chris was the Front Desk manager at East Glacier Lodge where I worked, and was technically my boss. However, he an I hit it off and did lots of hiking and climbing together. After Glacier, Chris went on to work at Sequoia National Park with his girlfriend Ellen (whom he also met in Glacier). I visited them there several times. One summer they managed the Bearpaw Meadow High Sierra Camp, and I hiked in the 11 miles to spend a week with them. I kept in contact with Chris and Ellen for number of years. I even recall traveling to Tuscon for their wedding. Later, they moved back to Massachusetts where Chis was from, and we fell out of touch.

Some time ago I ran across Chris’ obituary online. He had died too young of brain cancer, I believe.

When the sun came out today, I remembered another time like this, with Chris singing the Beatles song, Here Comes the Sun.

“Here comes the sun, doot-n-do-do. Here comes the sun….”

I could picture him, with his infectious grin, his happy voice, the bandana he always wore on his head, as well as his out-of-tune singing. I could even see the four tube socks he wore with his hiking boots, two on each foot, none of which matched any other. (This was a particular point of pride with him.)

The rains stopped. The air warmed. The clouds danced and swirled. The waterfalls came alive. The colors were vivid. And the light was incredible.

It was a perfect day for a walk in the mountains.

Thanks for meeting me up there again today, old friend.

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