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Yesterday I had some time to kill before getting a COVID test, and, as usual, wandered down to the ocean. This time I was at Seacliff State Beach. It was pretty crowded, so I walked onto the pier to see if the fishermen were having any luck. They weren't, really. One man kept catching jack silversides (Atherinopsis californiensis) that were too small to keep. There was a lot of banter about sharks and bait and crabs, but what I witnessed yesterday confirms my hypothesis that a lot of what people call "fishing" is merely an excuse to get outside for a few hours. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

As for me, I have nowhere near enough patience to make a decent fisherman. I did, however keep myself amused by eavesdropping on their conversations and writing snippets in my nature journal. I did also find myself mesmerized by the anchovies. Watch for yourself.

Northern anchovies (Engraulis mordax) at Seacliff State Beach
2021-11-23
© Allison J. Gong

Like sardines, anchovies are planktivorous filter feeders. If you watch the video again and can focus on an individual fish for a while, you'll see that as it swims forward, the front end becomes white and bulbous for a few seconds. That's sunlight reflecting off the fish's jaws. Anchovies have metallic silver coloring, which is a defense against predators. For fish that live in surface waters that are brightly lit, all of those glinting flashes of light make it difficult for a predator to zero in on a single fish to pursue. There is safety in numbers, and for anchovies the silvery coloring combined with schooling behavior means that if a predator manages to catch some of the fish in the baitball, most will avoid being eaten. This works against predators such as larger fish, squid, and birds, which generally capture one or a few fish at a time. But if the predator happens to be a humpback whale, which is capable of engulfing the entire school, then the anchovies are SOL. Think about it, though. For any anchovy, the probability of encountering a larger fish, squid, or bird is much higher than encountering a humpback or blue whale. Thus the selective advantage of schooling!

Okay, now back to the feeding. Anchovies have really long jaws for their size and can, like snakes, open their mouths very wide. This allows them to filter as much water as possible as they swim. Food, mostly plankton, is caught on the gill rakers, which are bony or cartilaginous structures projecting forward (i.e., towards the mouth) from the gill arches. Some fishes' gill rakers are nothing more than short nubs. Filter feeding fishes such as anchovies have long thin gill rakers. Water enters the mouth as the fish swims forward, and plankton is caught on the array of gill rakers. The water then passes over the gill filaments, where respiratory exchange occurs, and then out from underneath the operculum. Anchovies cannot suck water into their mouths, and thus can feed only while swimming forward, or ramming water into the mouth. This is a type of feeding called ram feeding.

These anchovies were very close to shore. They were feeding, so obviously there was plankton in the water. I haven't done a plankton tow in a while, as I generally assume that fall/winter plankton isn't as interesting as spring/summer plankton. However, given the presence of feeding anchovies inshore, it might be time to test that assumption.

I go to Natural Bridges quite often, to play in and study the rocky intertidal. But at this time of year, before the low tides really get useful, there is another reason to visit Natural Bridges—to see the monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). Natural Bridges State Park is a butterfly sanctuary, providing a safe overwintering spot for migrating monarchs.

Yesterday morning, while it was still cool enough for the butterflies to be hanging in clusters, I went out and photographed them. Last year's count was only 550 for the winter, but I'd heard that there were more butterflies this year and it was definitely worthwhile going out and looking for them.

Monarch butterflies clustered in eucalyptus tree
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) at Natural Bridges State Park
2021-11-06
© Allison J. Gong

The butterflies rest with their wings up, so when they are hanging like this you see the duller underside of the wings. A few of them were starting to warm up their flight muscles and showing off the more brilliant orange of the dorsal wing surface.

Monarch butterflies clustered in eucalyptus tree
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) at Natural Bridges State Park
2021-11-06
© Allison J. Gong
Monarch butterflies clustered in eucalyptus tree
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) at Natural Bridges State Park
2021-11-06
© Allison J. Gong

I am really not good at counting things like this, but my guess is that there were hundreds of butterflies, all told. Based on the 2020 season, when I didn't see any monarchs at all at my house and only a few scattered individuals at Natural Bridges, this year's population seems to be doing much better. 2020 was an awful year in California in general, and in the Santa Cruz region in particular. The CZU August Lightning Complex fire put air quality into the unhealthy-for-everybody range for several weeks. Much of the rest of the western U.S. also burned, with much habitat loss for nature. Maybe that's part of why there were so few monarchs last winter in Santa Cruz. Of course, the monarchs' populations have been declining for years, so last year's population crash may be only a dip in the grand scheme of things.

Whatever the cause, it really was good to see even this many butterflies at Natural Bridges.

Oh, and before starting my butterfly hunt in earnest, I spent about an hour watching and listening for birds. I wanted to get the birdwatching in before human activity drowned out the birdsong. Unfortunately, most of what there was to hear was the cawing of crows.

Nature journal page of birds seen and heard
Page from my nature journal

Next time I'm at Natural Bridges, I'll try to remember to check in with the visitor center to see what the official count for monarchs is. Fingers crossed the number is a lot higher than 550!

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