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Every year we are fortunate to watch a pair of red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) raise young in a tree across the canyon. We're not always sure if the parents are the same birds every year, and I think this year's female is a different bird from last year. Her mate may be the male who has used this nest site for a couple of years now, but again, we don't know.

This year the parents raised three youngsters, who have just begun leaving the nest. They prepare for their first flights by making their way to the edge of the nest and flapping their wings to exercise the flight muscles. This is usually fun to watch, as they don't seem to care whether or not a sibling is in the vicinity. This flapping activity begins before the bird is fully feathered, and they look like awkward punk-rocker teenagers, trying to be cool and not even close to pulling it off.

The hawk nest is in a eucalyptus tree. As the time to fledge approaches, one or both of the parents often perches at the top of a nearby cypress tree. Usually the youngsters' first flights are to the cypress tree. Cypress trees may be the ideal location for fledging, because they have lots of soft-ish branches to fall on when the birds biff the landing. The first flights don't go far from the nest, and the birds end up hopping along branches as they flap their wings. So they are called branchers.

With raptors, the females are bigger. Males tend to leave the nest before their sisters, who have more growing to do, so we always assume that the first one to depart is a boy. This year the females lagged by only a day or so behind their brother. And all three of them seem to be progressing pretty quickly, compared to cohorts we've watched in previous years. Good little branchers!

Pair of sibling red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), or branchers
2020-06-12
© Allison J. Gong

We watched these two for a while in the early evening. I don't know where the third one was. The branchers watch their parents soar around effortlessly. Here they are at the very top of the cypress tree:

Pair of sibling red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), or branchers
2020-06-12
© Allison J. Gong

Okay, my digiscoping skills need work. I did, however, get lucky enough with the spotting scope and my phone to catch a few video clips.

You can see them trying to maintain their footing as the wind blows the tree around. They're able to use their wings for balance, but then they catch a little lift and get knocked about. In the second clip one of the birds is hanging out when its sibling crashes into it. If they were human teenagers, you'd hear one yelling "Look out below!" while the other hollers "Get off me!" Yeah, landing is toughest part of flight!

Over the next few weeks the branchers will get better and better at landing, and their flights will get longer. They will learn how to find thermals and soar. Their parents will continue to provide food for them, but at some point the kids will learn how to hunt on their own. Rodents of the neighborhood, look out! Eventually the branchers will be as badass as their parents. Then they'll disperse to find territories of their own.

Every year, in June, my big whelk lays eggs. I have a mated pair of Kellettia kellettii living in a big tub at the marine lab. I inherited them from a lab mate many years ago now, and they've been nice pets. They've lived together forever, and make babies reliably. As June rolls around I start looking for eggs. This year I want to document the entire process, from egg-laying to larval development. Fortunately, I had the foresight to photograph the parents in May, as I didn't want to disturb the female once she began laying.

The female is significantly larger than the male. I know the big one is the female because that's the one that lays the eggs. I've never managed to catch the whelks copulating, but given the female's track record they either copulate regularly or she is able to store sperm for a long period of time.

In any case, she started laying eggs today. I went in to check on them and there she was!

Female whelk laying eggs
Female whelk (Kellettia kellettii) laying eggs
2020-06-12
© Allison J. Gong

I know from previous years that it can take over a week for the female to lay her entire clutch of eggs. Each of those pumpkin seed-shaped objects is an egg capsule, containing a few dozen embryos. The newly lain capsules are white, as you see above, and will gradually get darker as the embryos develop into larvae. The mother will lay the eggs and then depart. When the larvae are ready to leave the capsule, a small hole will wear through in the top of the capsule and the larvae will swim out. More on that later, hopefully.

I took some time-lapse video of the female, and was able to record her moving over the egg capsules and then leaving. I'd also put some food in the tub, and I think she got distracted.

I think it's really cool to see how well the snail can swivel around on her foot. Snails are attached to their shell at only a single point called the columella, the central axis around which the shell coils. Some snails can extend quite far outside the shell, and they can all pull inside for safety. The dark disc on the back of the foot is the operculum that closes up the shell when the snail withdraws into it.

Tomorrow when I check on things at the lab I'll see if she has resumed laying.

2

I've always known staurozoans (Haliclystus 'sanjuanensis') from Franklin Point, and it goes to reason that they would be found at other sites in the general vicinity. But I've never seen them up the coast at Pigeon Point, just a short distance away. At Franklin Point the staurozoans live in sandy-bottom surge channels where the water constantly sloshes back and forth, which is the excuse I've always used for my less-than-stellar photographs of them. Pigeon Point doesn't have the surge channels or the sand, and I've never seen a staurozoan there. I'd assumed that the association between staurozoans and surge channels indicated a requirement for fast-moving water.

Turns out I was wrong. Or at least, not completely right.

California coastline from Waddell to Pigeon Point

A few weeks ago I was doing some identifications for iNaturalist, and came upon some sightings of H. 'sanjuanensis' at Waddell Beach. I thought it would be a good idea to check it out--to see whether or not the staurozoans were there, and to see how similar (or not) Waddell is to Franklin Point.

Photos of the sites, first Franklin Point:

Rocky intertidal at Franklin Point
Rocky intertidal at Franklin Point
2020-06-06
© Allison J. Gong

And now Waddell:

Rocky intertidal at Waddell
Rocky intertidal at Waddell
2020-06-09
© Allison J. Gong

They don't actually look very different, do they? But I can tell you that the channels at Franklin Point get a lot more surf action, even when the tide is at its absolute lowest, than the channels at Waddell. When we were at Waddell yesterday the channels were more like calm pools than surge channels. It sure didn't look like staurozoan habitat to me.

Which just goes to show you how much I know. It took a while, but we found lots of staurozoans at Waddell! And since the water is so much calmer there, picture-taking was a lot easier. The animals were still active in their own way, but at least they weren't being sloshed around continuously.

Staurozoan attached to red algae at Waddell
Staurozoan (Haliclystus 'sanjuanensis') at Waddell
2020-06-09
© Allison J. Gong

And a lot of them had been cooperative enough to pose on pieces of the green algae Ulva, where they contrasted beautifully.

Staurozoan attached to green alga at Waddell
Staurozoan (Haliclystus 'sanjuanensis') at Waddell
2020-06-09
© Allison J. Gong
Staurozoan attached to green alga at Waddell
Staurozoan (Haliclystus 'sanjuanensis') at Waddell
2020-06-09
© Allison J. Gong

I was even able to capture a few good video clips!

Staurozoans at Waddell
2020-06-09
© Allison J. Gong

So, what have I learned? Well, I learned that I didn't know as much as I thought I did. And that's a good thing! This is how science works. Understanding of natural phenomena increases incrementally as we make small discoveries that challenge what we think we know. With organisms like these staurozoans, about which very little is known anyway, each observation could well reveal new information. The observations I made at Waddell have been incorporated into iNaturalist to join the ones that were made back in May, so little by little we are working to establish just where staurozoans live and how common they are. Maybe they aren't quite as patchy and ephemeral as I had thought!

2

This weekend we have some of the loveliest morning low tides of the year, and fortunately the local beaches have been opened up again for locals. The beaches in San Mateo County had been closed for two months, to keep people from gathering during the pandemic. For the first time in over a year I was able to get out to Franklin Point to check on the staurozoans. These are the elusive and camera shy animals that we don't know much about, except that they are patchy in both space and time.

Yesterday the beach at Franklin Point was quite tall, as a good meter or so of sand had accumulated. This is a normal part of the seasonal cycle of sand movement along the coast--sand piles up in the summer and gets washed away during the winter storms. The rocks that you can see only the tops of in this photo would be much more exposed in the winter.

Beach and rocks at Franklin Point
2020-06-06
© Allison J. Gong

It took a while to find the staurozoans. Every time I visit Franklin Point it takes my search image a while to kick into gear, but each time I find the staurozoans my intuition gets a teensy bit better calibrated. As usual, the staurozoans were very patchy. I'd not see any in the immediate vicinity, then I'd move a meter or so away and see them all over. Part of that is due to usual honing of the search image, but part of it is that the staurozoans really are that patchy.

Staurozoan (Haliclystus 'sanjuanensis)
Staurozoan (Haliclystus 'sanjuanensis') at Franklin Point
2020-06-06
© Allison J. Gong

They are always attached to red algae, often the most diaphanous, wispy filamentous reds out there. And they don't seem to like pools, where the water becomes still for a few moments between save surges. No, they like areas where the water sloshes back and forth constantly.

You can see why it's so difficult getting a decent photo of these animals! They're never still for more than a split-second. Staurozoans may have a delicate appearance, but they're very tough critters. Their bodies are entirely flexible, being made out of jelly, and offer zero resistance to the force of the waves. It's a very low-energy way of thriving in a very high energy environment. Who says you need a brain to be smart?

Trio of staurozoans (Haliclystus 'sanjuanensis')
Trio of staurozoans
2020-06-06
© Allison J. Gong

And, of course, they are predators. Being cnidarians they have cnidocytes that they use to catch prey. The cnidocytes are concentrated in the eight pompon-shaped tentacle clusters at the ends of the arms. To humans the tentacles feel sticky rather than stingy, similar to how our local anemones' tentacles feel. Still, I wouldn't want to put my tongue on one of them. The tentacles catch food, and then the arms curl inward to bring the food to the mouth, which is located in the center of the calyx.

The natural assumption to make is that animals tend feed on smaller and simpler animals. Somehow the predator is always considered to be "better" or at least more complex than the prey. I'm delighted to report that cnidarians turn that assumption upside-down. In terms of morphology, at least, cnidarians are the simplest of the true animals. Their bodies consist of two tissue layers with a layer of snot sandwiched between them. They have only the most rudimentary nervous system, and a simple network of fluid-filled canals that function as both digestive and circulatory system. That said, they have the most sophisticated and fastest-acting cell in the animal kingdom--the cnidocyte--which can inject prey with the most toxic venoms in the world.

They don't look like deadly predators, do they?

Staurozoan (Haliclystus 'sanjuanensis')
Staurozoan (Haliclystus 'sanjuanensis') at Franklin Point
2020-06-06
© Allison J. Gong

Cnidarians use cnidocytes to catch prey and defend against their own predators. The cnidocytes of Haliclystus are strong enough to catch and subdue fish. Anything that can be shoved even partway into a cnidarian's gullet will be digested, even if it isn't quite dead yet. This fish was long dead when we saw it, but its tail is still sticking out of the staurozoan's mouth.

Imagine being shoved head-first into a chamber lined with stinging cells. Death, inevitable but perhaps slow to arrive, would be a blessing. Although perhaps less horrific than being digested slowly feet-first.

Speaking of fishing, I caught one of my own yesterday. I saw it fairly high in the intertidal, above the reach of the surging waves. At first I saw only the pale blotchy tail, and even though I recognized it I didn't think it was alive.

Monkeyface prickleback in a tidepool
Hmm, dead or alive?
2020-06-06
© Allison J. Gong

I poked it with my toe. No reaction. Then Alex found a kelp stipe, and I poked it again. It seemed to move a little bit. I'm a lot less squeamish about live things than dead things, so I picked it up to see how alive it was.

It was a monkeyface prickleback (Cebidichthyes violaceus)!

Monkeyface prickleback (Cebidichthyes violaceus)
Monkeyface prickleback (Cebidichthyes violaceus) at Franklin Point
2020-06-06
© Allison J. Gong

Monkeyface pricklebacks are common enough around here that people fish for them. They (the pricklebacks) hide in crevices in the intertidal. Like other intertidal fishes, they can breathe air and are well suited to hang out where the water drains away twice daily. I put this one in a deeper pool and watched it slither away into the algae.

Staurozoans found always mean a successful day in the intertidal. Day after tomorrow I'm going to look for them at a different spot. iNaturalist says they're there, and I want to see for myself. I'm not sure exactly where to look, but I know the habitat they like. And even if I don't find them, it'll be a nice chance to explore a new site. Finger crossed!

It's the time of the year for students to graduate from one stage of their education to the next. We don't have students of our own at home, unless you count the cats, but we graduated some 10,000 or so bees! Let me explain.

Since the car accident and head injury in 2016, my activities as a beekeeper had been limited to advising from far away and helping with the honey wrangling. I didn't trust myself to: (1) not freak out; (2) be able to think calmly and carefully while surrounded by thousands of stinging insects; (3) be able to read a hive and intuit what needed to be done; and (4) not do something stupid, like drop a frame of bees, and piss them all off. It has taken me four years to feel confident enough to dig through a hive again. Yesterday I helped, and it wasn't like cat help--my help actually made things go faster.

At one point we had bees in three separate apiaries. Over the years we've been consolidating, and now all of our hives are in one spot. This makes it a lot easier to keep track of everything and to know where all of the equipment is. Even so, over the past year or so we had let our attention lapse and become rather dismal beekeepers. At the end of calendar year 2019 we had lost all of our hives.

We became beekeepers again when a swarm moved themselves into the Purple hive, which was still set up because we were too lazy to dismantle it. So hey, free bees! That was pretty cool. And the same day, Alex got a swarm call, so we went from zero hives to two hives in the course of an afternoon. That swarm went into the Green hive. Within the next few weeks we got two more swarms, one of which went into the Rose hive and a tiny one that went into the nuc. A nuc is a small 5-frame box for little colonies; some beekeepers sell nucs as starter colonies. Our nuc happens to be painted the same color as the Rose hive.

Four, count 'em, four hives!
2020-04-18

Fast forward a month of strong nectar flow, and the established colonies (Purple, Pink, and Green) are all putting up lots of honey. Even the swarm in the little nuc was growing; they probably had a virgin queen that needed to get mated, so it would take about three weeks for the number of bees to begin increasing. Yesterday we went through the hives to check on things and provide space. We also took nine frames of honey, fully capped, out of Green. In the next couple of weeks there might be two more full boxes of honey that we can take. All told, there will be close to 100 pounds of honey for us to extract soon. And the early season honey that the bees make at this location is really good--light and buttery, slightly floral but not pungent. We call it popcorn honey because when it's warm the hives smell like buttered popcorn.

Four bigger hives!
2020-05-16

You'll notice that Green now has two brown boxes? Those are honey supers, boxes where we want the bees to put honey stores. Rose also has two more boxes, one blue and one brown. The blue box is also intended as a honey super. The little nuc, which has grown to about 10,000 bees now, has graduated into the Yellow hive. They now have lots of space to expand into. We left the empty pink nuc on top of Yellow, so any returning foragers can recognize that the home they left is still there and find their way into their new residence.

And yes, we name our hives by color. I don't remember that it was something we planned, it just sort of happened. In addition to the four established hives, we also have equipment for Blue, Aqua, and Orange hives. In a perfect world we'd be able to keep each hive in one color of boxes in addition to the brown honey supers, but as time goes by we end up swapping boxes as needed and things get jumbled. The bees don't care, after all.

Today was the first time I've gone out on a low tide since before the whole COVID19 shelter-in-place mandates began. Looking back at my records, which I hadn't done until today because it was much too depressing, I saw that my last time out was 22 February, when the low tides were in the afternoon. At the time I made what seemed to be the not-too-bad decision to stay away from the remaining afternoon lows and wait until the spring shift to morning lows, which I like much more. And then then COVID hit and we all had to stay home and beaches were closed. So yeah, it has been much too long and I really needed this morning's short visit to the intertidal.

Pair of black oystercatchers (Haematopous bachmani) at Mitchell's Cove
My companions for a short while this morning, a pair of black oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) at Mitchell's Cove
2020-05-08
© Allison J. Gong

Beaches in Santa Cruz County are closed between the hours of 11:00 and 17:00, except that we are allowed to cross the beach to get to the water. This means that surfers, kayakers, SUP-ers, and marine biologists can get out and do their thing. Of course, my particular thing took place hours before the beach restrictions began, so I was in the clear anyway. I didn't venture too far from home, as I wasn't quite certain how easy it would be to get down to the beach.

Spring is the prime recruitment season for life in the intertidal. The algae are coming back from their winter dormancy, and areas that had been scraped clean by sand scour or winter storms are being recolonized. Many of the invertebrates have or will soon be spawning. And larvae that have spent weeks or even months in the plankton are returning to the shore to metamorphose and begin life as an adult. Just as it is on land, spring is the time for life in the sea to go forth and multiply.

For several decades now, marine ecologists have been studying barnacles and barnacle recruitment. Barnacles are a nice system for studying, for example, recruitment patterns and mortality. The cyprid larva, the larval stage whose job it is to find a permanent home in the intertidal, readily settles and metamorphoses on a variety of man-made surfaces; this makes it easy to put out plates or tiles and monitor who lands there. The fact that barnacles, once metamorphosed, remain attached to the same place for their entire lives means an ecologist can measure mortality (or survivorship, which is the inverse) by counting the barnacles every so often.

These are young barnacles (Chthamalus sp.), about 4-5 mm in diameter. I don't know how old they are, but would guess that they recruited in the past couple of months. These individuals all found a nice place to set up, because as I've written before, barnacles need to be in close proximity to conspecifics in order to mate.

Young acorn barnacles (Chthamalus dalli/fissus) on a rock at Mitchell's Cove
Small barnacles (Chthamalus sp.) on a rock at Mitchell's Cove
2020-05-08
© Allison J. Gong

This is a mixed group of Chthamalus sp. and Balanus glandula. Balanus is taller and has straighter sides and a more volcano-like appearance. Larvae of both genera recruit to the same places on rocks in the intertidal, and it is not uncommon to see assemblages like this.

Mixed assemblage of Balanus and Chthamalus barnacles at Mitchell's Cove
Barnacles Balanus glandula and Chthamalus sp. at Mitchell's Cove
2020-05-08
© Allison J. Gong

Both species of barnacles are preyed upon by birds, sea stars, and snails. Predatory snails use their radula to drill a hole through the barnacle's plates and then suck out the body. Some of the barnacles in the photo below are dead--see the empty holes? Those are barnacles that were eaten by snails such as these.

Small barnacles and predatory snails at Mitchell's Cove
2020-05-08
© Allison J. Gong

What was unusual about this morning was the number of snails of the genus Acanthinucella. I don't know that I've ever seen this many of them before.

Large group of Acanthinucella snails at Mitchell's Cove
2020-05-08
© Allison J. Gong

Lots of Acanthinucella means that lots of barnacles are being eaten. And empty (i.e., dead) barnacle tests are more easily dislodged from the rock than live ones are. A lot of dead barnacles could result in bare patches. And guess what? That's what I saw this morning!

Bare patches in barnacle population
Bare patches in barnacle population at Mitchell's Cove
2020-05-08
© Allison J. Gong

And those aren't just empty spaces where nobody settled. Notice the clean edges. These empty spaces formed because barnacles were there, but died recently and fell off. The abundance of Acanthinucella may have indirectly caused these patches to form--by eating barnacles and weakening the physical structure of the population. Bare space is real estate that can be colonized by new residents. See?

Newly settled barnacles
2020-05-08
© Allison J. Gong

These brand new recruits are about 1 mm in diameter. No doubt more will arrive in the coming months, and this patch will fill up with barnacles again. Vacant space is a limited resource in the rocky intertidal, and the demise of one generation provides opportunity for new recruits. And if the barnacles themselves don't occupy all of the space, then other animals and algae will. That's one of the things I love about the intertidal--it is a very dynamic habitat, and every visit brings something new to light. No wonder I missed it so much!

4

I'm willing to bet that when you think about coral, what comes to mind is something like this:

Great Barrier Reef
A Blue Starfish (Linckia laevigata) resting on hard Acropora coral. Lighthouse, Ribbon Reefs, Great Barrier Reef
© 2004 Richard Ling

The reef-building corals of the tropics are indeed spectacular structures, incredibly rich in biodiversity and worthy of a visit if you ever get the chance. These coral colonies come in many shapes, as you can see in the photo above. Each colony consists of hundreds or thousands of tiny polyps, all connected by a shared gastrovascular cavity, or gut. The living polyps secrete a skeleton of CaCO3, which grows slowly over decades or even millennia as successive generations of polyps live their lives and then die. It's this slow accumulation of CaCO3 that makes up the physical structure of the reef.

Reef-building corals are members of the Scleractinia, the so-called stony corals. The stoniness refers to the calcareous skeleton that they all have. But not all corals live in the tropics. We actually have two species of stony corals in Northern California. The brown cup coral, Paracyathus stearnsi, lives subtidally, and I think I've seen maybe a handful in all my intertidal explorations. The orange cup coral, Balanophyllia elegans, extends up into the low intertidal, and can be very common at certain sites I visit regularly. When I see them at low tide they are emersed and look like orange blobs. But if you touch one with your finger, you can feel the hardness of the calcareous base.

Orange cup corals growing among coralline algae
Orange cup coral (Balanophyllia elegans) at Asilomar
2015-10-26
© Allison J. Gong

Stony corals they may be, but Paracyathus and Balanophyllia are both solitary; that is, they aren't colonial. Each polyp developed from its own larva and lives its own life independent from all other corals. Its bright orange color makes Balanophyllia pretty conspicuous, even though most of them are less than 10 mm in diameter. They do occur in patches, which makes one wonder. If they're solitary rather than clonal or colonial, how do these patches arise?

To answer this question we need to venture into the lab and examine the biology of Balanophyllia more closely. Fortunately, they grow in the lab quite happily. Years ago my friend Cris collected a bunch of Balanophyllia and glued them to small tiles so they could be moved around and managed in the lab. Cris has since moved on to other things, but the corals remain in the lab to be studied. They are beautiful animals, and can't really be appreciated in the intertidal because at low tide they're all closed up. But look at how pretty they are when they're relaxed and open:

Group of adult cup corals, Balanophyllia elegans
Cluster of orange cup corals (Balanophyllia elegans)
2020-05-01
© Allison J. Gong

Like all cnidarian polyps, these corals have long tentacles loaded with stinging cells, or cnidocytes. See the little bumps on the otherwise translucent tentacles? Those are nematocyst batteries, clusters of stinging cells.

Orange cup coral, Balanophyllia elegans
Orange cup coral (Balanophyllia elegans)
2020-05-01
© Allison J. Gong

Let's get back to the biology of this beast and how it is that they seem to live in groups. Balanophyllia is a solitary coral with separate sexes--each polyp is either male or female. They are also brooders. Males release sperm, which are ingested by a nearby female. The female broods fertilized eggs in her gastrovascular cavity. After a long period, perhaps several months, a large reddish planula larva oozes out of the mother's mouth and crawls around for a while, generally settling and metamorphosing near its parent.

Planula larva of Balanophyllia elegans
Planula larva of Balanophyllia elegans
29 April 2020
© Allison J. Gong

This planula is a very squishy elongate blob, and can measure anywhere from 1-4 mm in length. It is an opaque red color, has a ciliated epidermis, and lacks a mouth or digestive system. Instead of feeding, it survives on energy reserves that its mother partitioned in the egg. You might surmise that not being able to eat would necessitate a quick metamorphosis into a form that has a mouth, but you'd be wrong. While some of them do indeed settle and metamorphose very close to their parent, others crawl around for several weeks, showing no inclination to put down roots and take on life as a sessile polyp. Perhaps they can take up enough dissolved organic matter from the seawater to sustain them through a long period of fasting.

At some point, though, the larva settles and metamorphoses into a little polyp. In the lab at least, Balanophyllia larvae settle on a variety of surfaces--glass, various plastics, even the fiberglass of the seawater tables.

Juvenile cup coral and three planula larvae of Balanophyllia elegans
Recently metamorphosed coral and three planula larvae of Balanophyllia elegans
2020-04-29
© Allison J. Gong

The little coral measures about 2 mm in diameter and has 12 tentacles. It feeds very happily on brine shrimp nauplii and should grow quickly. Those three larvae, though, may hang around forever. I got tired of waiting for them to do something and released them into the seawater system. It might or might not have been an accident.

So there we have it. Our local cold-water coral, which doesn't form reefs or live in colonies. Balanophyllia may seem atypical for corals, but what it really demonstrates is the diversity within the Scleractinia. It reminds us that generalities do indeed have some value, and that for the discerning mind it is the exceptions to the generalities that are most interesting.

We have all heard about hummingbirds and their ability to hover and fly backwards. These tiny feathered jewels are a delight to observe. They are birds of the New World, and I feel sorry for people living in parts of the world that don't have hummingbirds. Where I live, on the coast of Northern California, the resident hummers are Anna's hummingbirds (Calypte anna). We get the occasional Rufous and Allen's hummers (Selasphorus rufus and S. sasin, respectively) passing through on their migrations, but the Anna's are here year-round. We have front-row seats to watch their mating displays, and I know they must be nesting nearby even though I've never managed to locate a nest.

The other day, while sheltering in place at home, I went outside to photograph birds. The Anna's hummers were putting on quite a show. The males have been displaying since February, flying straight up-up-up and then plunging into a J-shaped dive near an observant female. At the bottom of the dive the male uses his tail feathers to create a sharp and very loud chirp. When this occurs about a meter from your head, it sounds like a pistol shot. Trust me on this.

Anyhow, that day I was lucky and captured some shots of a male Anna's hummingbird hovering in place. These aren't National Geographic quality photos, but then again I'm not a National Geographic-caliber photographer. For anyone who is interested in such details, here are the EXIF data:

  • Nikon D750
  • 300mm f/4 lens
  • 1/2500 sec at f/4
  • ISO 900

At a shutter speed of 1/2500 sec, you can freeze even the movement of a hummingbird's wings. You can see very clearly that although the bird's wings are moving, his head remains perfectly skill and his position doesn't change at all.

Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna)
2020-04-03
© Allison J. Gong
Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna)
2020-04-03
© Allison J. Gong
Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna)
2020-04-03
© Allison J. Gong
Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna)
2020-04-03
© Allison J. Gong

A hovering hummingbird moves its wings in a figure-8, similar to the sculling motion of a skilled rower. If you use your imagination a bit you can see the rotation of the wings in this set of photos.

Given the mandate to shelter in place at home, I don't know how many of the upcoming morning low tides I'll be able to explore. On the one hand, I'd be by myself, not risking exposing anyone to any germs I might be carrying. On the other hand, staying home means, well, staying home. The tidepools are calling to me, but this year I might not be allowed to accept the invitation. All for the greater good, right?

1

We Californians are all under a state-wide mandate to stay at home, to minimize the spread of COVID-19 this spring. School hasn't been cancelled, but all classes have converted to distance learning. I had four days to figure out how to deal with that. Fortunately we are in spring break this week, which gives us all a little bit of a breather. I'm going to use the time to catch up on grading and plan for the second half of the semester.

The marine lab is also closed for business. Only essential personnel are allowed to be there. The term 'essential personnel' includes people whose responsibilities are animal husbandry. Since animals will die if I'm not there to feed them, I have met that criterion for essentiality. That's not a word, but you know what I mean. With so many fewer than usual people at the marine lab, there's a lot more wildlife activity. A few days ago I saw a long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata) chase down and capture a young brush rabbit. I just barely had time to catch a quick shot with my phone.

Long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata) capturing a young rabbit
2020-03-17
© Allison J. Gong

The most noticeable thing, though, is the increased birdsong. The sparrows, finches, red-winged blackbirds, mallards, doves, towhees, and hawks are all making a lot of noise. The barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) returned to the lab on the 21st, right on time! Maybe this year they'll have a more successful nesting season than they did last year.

Yesterday I witnessed something I'd never seen before: a territorial dispute between a black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) and a barn swallow. The fact that I had never seen it before in no way implies that it happens only rarely; maybe I've just never paid that much attention to these things before, or they've never happened while I've been around to watch.

Here's the story, in a series of snapshots.

Prologue. The barn swallow (H. rustica) is perched on one of the outdoor light fixtures. The phoebe (S. nigricans) swoops up from below.

Perched barn swallow (H. rustica) turns to face a black phoebe (S. nigricans) approaching from below
2020-03-23
© Allison J. Gong

The swallow takes to the air, only to be divebombed by the phoebe.

Black phoebe divebombing a barn swallow
2020-03-23
© Allison J. Gong
Black phoebe divebombing a barn swallow
2020-03-23
© Allison J. Gong
Black phoebe divebombing a barn swallow
2020-03-23
© Allison J. Gong
Black phoebe divebombing a barn swallow
2020-03-23
© Allison J. Gong
Black phoebe divebombing a barn swallow
2020-03-23
© Allison J. Gong

The swallow retreats. . .

Black phoebe divebombing a barn swallow
2020-03-23
© Allison J. Gong

. . . and the phoebe perches, triumphant, on the rain gutter.

Black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans), victorious at last
2020-03-23
© Allison J. Gong

The entire altercation lasted maybe as long as four seconds. I didn't see where the swallow flew. The phoebe remained on the rain gutter for about a minute or so, then took off over the meadow. Perhaps it has a nest somewhere nearby and was defending it. Both species build mud nests on cliffs and buildings, so these birds could be competing for nest sites. Or maybe phoebes just don't like swallows. Either way, this was the sort of interaction that I don't notice when there is a lot more human activity at the marine lab. Nature has a way of re-asserting herself when humans are removed from the scene for even a short period of time.

Stay safe and be well, friends!

2

Back in 1994, the U.S. Army base at Fort Ord was closed in one of the base closure events that occur every once in a while. UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) acquired some 600 acres of the former base to establish the Fort Ord Natural Reserve, which serves as an outdoor laboratory and teaching space for students of all ages. University students from UCSC and California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB) take classes and have internships on the Reserve. Kindergarten students visit the Reserve for what may well be their first experience of Nature. And I take my community college students there every year.

Coastal scrub habitat at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
2020-03-06
© Allison J. Gong

This year, Joe Miller, the reserve manager, had a lot of things for us to learn about, and we were kept busy all day. The first thing we did, after an introduction to the reserve, was hike to the first of several areas where Joe had set some rodent traps the night before.

There were 30 of these Sherman traps to check.

Sherman traps at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
2020-03-06
© Allison J. Gong

They are live traps, baited to lure in a rodent. The doors shut on the rodent once it ventures inside to grab some seed.

There's a super high-tech method to getting a live rodent out of a trap without hurting either the rodent or the human. You hold the trap vertically, open the top end, slip a plastic bag over the open end, make sure there are no escape openings, then flip the trap over so the rodent falls into the bag. And voilà, instant mouse in a bag!

Students observe Joe's mouse in a bag at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
2020-03-06
© Allison J. Gong

Then you work the rodent head-first into a corner of the bag with one hand, and reach into the bag and approach it from the back end. Follow the backbone forward, then grab the rodent by the scruff of the neck.

Joe holds a scruffed California deermouse (Peromyscus maniculatus)
2020-03-06
© Allison J. Gong

Holding a rodent by the scruff of the neck allows the biologist to handle the animal safely and minimizes the probability of getting bitten.

Scruffed rodent at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
2020-03-06
© Allison J. Gong

We caught three or four deermice, but the cutest rodent we saw was a pocket mouse (Chaetodipus californicus). Joe didn't bother with gloves because, as he said, these guys are really mellow. And it really was! He handed it to us and we took turns holding it.

Pocket mouse (Chaetodipus californicus) at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
2020-03-06
© Allison J. Gong

Cute little guy almost fell asleep on a student's arm.

Pocket mouse (Chaetodipus californicus) at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
2020-03-06
© Allison J. Gong

I think it's called a pocket mouse because it's so cute you want to put it in your pocket and take it home.

We had to let the rodents go because Joe had other things for us to do. In addition to the rodent traps, Joe had set up pitfall arrays to catch herps (reptiles and amphibians). A pitfall array consists of two strips of aluminum flashing set up in the shape of a capital T. At each end of the T there is a pitfall trap. The critter runs or slithers along the flashing and then falls into the trap, which is a small bucket buried so the lip is just at ground level.

Joe shows us a pitfall array at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
2020-03-06
© Allison J. Gong
A student checks a pitfall trap
2020-03-06
© Allison J. Gong

We got skunked on the pitfall traps--all of them were empty. We did, however, get to see herps. Joe showed us a couple of tiger salamanders, which he had permits to keep as teaching animals. These two animals are hybrids between the native tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense) and a salamander that was introduced from Texas into California to be used as bait. As happened quite often, the bait species took hold in its new habitat and is proving to be a nuisance. In their larval stage they are voracious predators, gobbling up the larvae of other amphibians including those of endangered species such as the red-legged frog. In the area of FONR, pretty much all of the tiger salamanders are hybrids to some degree.

Joe's two "pet" salamanders are very cute!

As with all other amphibians, tiger salamanders require a variety of habitats to complete their life cycle. They reproduce in water, and the larvae live in water. California has distinct wet and dry seasons, and the salamanders must find vernal pools where the water will last long enough for their larvae to metamorphose into the terrestrial adult form. Sometimes the pools don't persist long enough, and in very dry years the pools may not form at all. During the dry season, tiger salamanders may estivate underground, waiting until the weather gets cool and damp enough for them to emerge from burrows and forage on insects and small vertebrates.

One of the students had her heart set on seeing horned lizards, and her wish came true. Some UCSC interns working on the horned lizard mapping project caught a couple of small lizards for us to see. The larger adults aren't coming aboveground yet.

Horned lizard (Phrynosoma blainvillii) at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
2020-03-06
© Allison J. Gong

Like the tiger salamanders, the horned lizards face an uncertain future of their own. Their main prey are native ants. California has been invaded by Argentine ants--those are the little black ants that get into houses. The Argentine ants are extremely competitive and form supercolonies, wherein two or more adjacent colonies will merge underground and function as a single colony with multiple queens. They can and do outcompete the native ant species, and predators don't seem to like them. Unfortunately, the horned lizards don't eat the Argentine ants. If the lizards' food source is threatened by the ants, then the lizards could be in big trouble.

One of the things Joe wanted to show us was a plant with a tiny purple flower, that is just now starting to bloom.

Gilia tenuiflora ssp. arenaria at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
2020-03-06
© Allison J. Gong

This little plant, called greater yellowthroat gilia or sand gilia, is a California endemic species, found nowhere else. The State of California lists it as threatened, and the federal government lists it as endangered. It's a pretty plant, growing low to the ground because although it's March, we haven't had any rain for about eight weeks. And this is supposed to be our rainy season. Joe showed us some Gilia plantlets that were grown in greenhouses and had plenty of water, and they were three or four times as tall as the ones we saw in the field.

There is a lot of very interesting work going on at FONR these days, and it's exciting for me to see how many students are involved. Some of my students said they would contact Joe about internship opportunities, and I hope they do so. If I'm teaching Ecology again next spring, we're definitely coming back to Fort Ord, and I think we'll do an overnight camping trip. I'm sure the reserve is a completely different place once the sun goes down!

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