Over the past couple of weeks I've rented two super telephoto lenses, to see what all the hype was about. I mean, do I really need 500 or 600mm of reach? I had read up on the specs of such lenses, and one major drawback is the weight—1900 grams or more. Would I be willing to lug a beast like this around, and would I be able to use it effectively? You never know until you try, so I rented them. And, of course, it was foggy both weeks so I didn't have much opportunity to take decent photos. But since the entire point of renting the lenses was to see if I could use them at all, that was fine.
As part of the test-drive for the second lens, I went up to Waddell Beach to see if there would be any birds to photograph. It is migration season, and our winter residents will be arriving soon. Some of them, such as the red-necked phalarope, have shown up at Younger Lagoon over the past four weeks or so. It was really foggy at Waddell, remember, and I didn't have much hope of seeing anything remarkable. There were some gulls and whimbrels off in the distance. But it turned out that the stars of the show were blackbirds!
They were hard to miss, because there were 50-60 of them and they were hopping up and down like jumping beans.
This is a mixed flock of Brewer's blackbirds (Euphagus cyanocephalus) and red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoenicius). The glossy greenish-black birds are the male Brewer's blackbirds, and most of the brownish birds are female Brewer's blackbirds. Since both sexes were doing the hopping, I didn't think this behavior had to do with courtship or mating.
So yes, while most of the birds seemed to be Brewer's blackbirds, I did hear the liquid gurgling of the red-winged blackbird's song coming from somewhere in the flock. When I got home and looked at the photos on the big monitor, I did see some red-winged blackbirds. Here's a male, surrounded by other males red-wingeds and both female and male Brewer's blackbirds.
In this photo above the black birds are male Brewer's blackbirds. The brown birds without faint wing bars are female Brewer's blackbirds, and the brown birds with the wing bars are male red-wingeds. There were no female red-winged blackbirds in any of my photos. According to an article from Cornell's Bird Academy, the males spend the weeks leading up to springtime competing for territories, and when the females return from their winter migration they will choose mates based partly on the quality of the territory. Mid-September is too early for this kind of competition, though. We are just about up to the autumn equinox, but not near winter quite yet.
Back to the hopping. There's a clue in this photo about what I think was going on:
See that little fly? There were many such flies, most of which were lower on the beach gathering around the kelps and other wet detritus that had washed up. There were fewer flies up where the driftwood accumulates, though. Once again, it wasn't until I saw the pictures on my big monitor that I could figure out what those blackbirds were doing. They were hopping up to eat flies!
Here's a series of shots showing one of the male red-wingeds in mid-hop.
Looking up, just before the hop:
Up he goes! See the very edge of the red epaulette on his right wing? And all those flies?
Is he going to catch something?
After all that, I'm not at all sure if he actually got anything!
I don't have any hard evidence that the blackbirds (both Brewer's and red-wingeds) are catching flies. And while I was at the beach watching them hopping up and down I had no idea what they were doing. However, now that I've seen the flies in the photos, it makes sense that the birds would be hopping up to catch and eat them, especially since both sexes of the Brewer's blackbirds were doing the same thing.
One year ago today a lightning storm settled over the Santa Cruz Mountains and dry lightning ignited a bunch of wildfires. Given the drier-than-normal conditions at the time the fires took off like crazy and eventually merged into one megablaze that CalFire dubbed the CZU Lightning Complex fire. The CZU Lightning Complex fire burned over 80,000 acres in Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties before being contained by CalFire on 22 September. It raged through Big Basin Redwood State Park and destroyed the buildings at the park headquarters up in the mountains. Several mountain communities were threatened, with over 1400 structures destroyed. I personally know two families whose homes were lost, and many others who evacuated. We were also ready to evacuate, with bags packed and a place to flee to.
To commemorate the first anniversary of the CZU Lightning Complex fire the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History and the Santa Cruz Public Library put together a series of events called "CZU and You" to teach the public about this particular natural disaster. This past weekend we attended a walk through Rancho del Oso, led by Richard Fletcher, who is one of the California State Parks interpretive rangers. Rancho del Oso sits in a little valley that I think of as the "bottom" of Big Basin Redwood State Park. It ends at Highway 1 directly opposite Waddell Beach. In previous years I have taken my Ecology class to Rancho del Oso for the first field trip of the semester. Rancho del Oso was cleared to reopen for visitors on weekends only just a few weeks ago.
The Nature and History Center at Rancho del Oso is housed in the building that was the residence of Hulda Hoover McLean, who was the niece of President Herbert Hoover. Hulda and her husband, Charles, raised a family in the Rancho; Hulda taught her children about the natural history of the area. She sold her 40 acres of land and her home to the Sempervirens Fund in 1985, with the intent to create a place where people could visit and learn about this part of the natural world. There was one ranger on site on August 16, 2020 when dry lightning ignited the fire on the hillside directly across Waddell Creek from the nature center. He managed to flag down a single fire truck and crew. Working through the night this handful of people built a backfire to burn up the hill towards the flames that had sped around the house and were approaching from the other side, and sweeping off the burning embers that landed on the roof
The first things that Ranger Fletcher showed us were some cones from Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) trees. He described this species is being moderately serotinous, meaning that seeds don't fall out of the cones until they are exposed to the heat of a fire. Heat dries and opens up the cones, allowing the seeds to fall and be dispersed.
In the area this backfire burned, literally across the driveway from the nature center, we could see some of the fire followers. These are the first plants to show up after a fire. Some of them may have arrived by seed, but many are regrowth from underground roots or bulbs.
The naked lady lilies (Amaryllis belladonna) are non-native ornamental bulbs that have been planted in gardens all over the region. They are called naked ladies because their leaves die back completely before the stalk blooms in late summer; you can see all the brown leaves at the bases of the flower spikes. In this first bloom season after the fire they seem more vibrantly pink than usual. The other foliage in the foreground is a blackberry (Rubus sp.) that could be either native or not. In the background you can see some bracken fern (Pteridium sp.).
After a disturbance such as a fire the process of ecological succession is reset. Given the European colonizers' habit of suppressing all fire, it had been at least 100 years since the Waddell Valley burnt. In the many decades since the previous fire the homesteaders and ranchers had planted all sorts of non-native ornamental plants in their gardens. The naked ladies and invasive blackberries are examples of plants that are well suited for our Mediterranean climate, and they certainly made a showy return after the CZU Lightning Complex fire.
Fortunately it's not just the non-natives that are coming back. The ranger was excited to point out that one yellow bush lupine (Lupinus arboreus) had popped up on this same slope. Lupines are good plants to have on burnt slopes because they help stabilize the soil. They are also nitrogen fixers, which makes the soil more hospitable to other, hopefully native, plants.
One plant that I hadn't expected to see in this location is Equisetum, the horsetail. There is a lot of Equisetum along the Marsh Trail, and I associated this plant with wetlands. So why was it growing on this particular slope, which is measurably drier than the Marsh Trail? It was growing really well, too!
And see how lush it is growing along the Marsh Trail?
We hiked the Marsh Trail—how could there be so many mosquitos when we're in such a bad drought??—and crossed Waddell Creek to where the Skyline to the Sea trail ends (or begins, if you were to start at the beach and hike uphill). This is where Ranger Fletcher told us more about the fire itself and its ongoing effects.
We were hiking at Rancho del Oso on a foggy morning. It was so very different last year, when the marine layer abandoned us early in the summer and left us to dry out just in time for the dry lightning in mid-August. But this is the area where the first lightning strikes hit ground:
Once the fire was extinguished this hill was covered with black, burnt vegetation. Anything green is vegetation that has grown since then.
CalFire declared the CZU Lightning Complex fire contained on 22 September 2020 and controlled on 23 December. What nobody knew at the time was that the fire remained burning underground. Considering their great height, redwood trees don't have deep roots. But they have lateral networks of roots that entwine with those of neighboring trees (which are likely to be clonemates) and form a more or less solid mesh that holds all of the trees up. The fire travelled along this root network and continues to burn. One of our group asked "What is there to burn, if the roots have already burnt?" and Ranger Fletcher explained that now there are tons of charcoal buried in the ground, and we all know how well charcoal burns, right? Not being able to detect where roots are burning underground means it's difficult to evaluate trails and know when they are safe. Just last week a ranger was working up at Big Basin and stepped into what turned out to be a cavern containing burning embers. CalFire estimates that the fire will continue to burn underground for another four years. Trees that were weakened or killed by the fire will also be falling. It will be several years before the Skyline to the Sea trail opens again. But in the lifespan of a redwood forest, five or even ten years would be a blink of the eye. And I'd just as soon not step into a burning hole while hiking, thank you very much.
On this side of Waddell Creek you can see the meadow that acts as a buffer zone between the mountains and the ocean. When wildfires burn through hilly areas, we worry about winter rains causing mudslides. This past winter we got hardly any rain at all, so at least the mudslides didn't materialize. But even when there aren't mudslides, a lot of nutrients wash downhill towards the ocean. The meadow is a biological sponge that soaks up these nutrients and keeps them from creating problems in the marine habitat. This is one of the reasons that wetlands are such important players in the health of coastal ecosystems. I took this photo from the Highway 1 bridge that crosses Waddell Creek. Just on the other side of the highway the creek spills onto Waddell Beach.
From a fire behavior perspective the CZU Lightning Complex fire was unusual. Fires usually burn up hills, but this one burned downhill towards the ocean. Waddell Beach is almost always foggy, and the marine layer can be felt away from the beach, as it was on our most recent visit to Rancho del Oso. This marine influence should have acted to keep the fire from racing downhill as fast as it did. Alas, the marine layer was not doing its job last summer. If it had been, we wouldn't have seen so many lightning strikes in the first place. The paucity of rain from the previous winter didn't help things, either. Climate change is coming back to bite us in the ass. Around the world we are seeing extreme weather events, from severe drought to equally devastating floods to heat records tumbling by the wayside. We are living in the era of anthropogenic climate change, and we will not be alive when an equilibrium returns to Earth's climate. In the timeframe of a human lifespan, however, it is nice to see and document how this small part of the landscape is recovering from last year's fires. Now that Rancho del Oso is open again I'll try to get up there every so often to record changes in my nature journal.
The rocky intertidal is coming into its full summer glory right now. The early morning low tides have been spectacular in May, and they'll get better for the remaining few days of the month. This morning I went out to Franklin Point to poke around. Low tide was -1.8 feet (yippee!) at 06:13. And for once the swell was also down, so the ocean seemed very far away from the mid-tidal zone. See?
One thing that's nice about Franklin Point is that despite its exposure, especially on the north side of the point, all those boulders provide a lot of protection from the incoming waves. It's amazing how they serve to dissipate the water's energy. Of course, that doesn't prevent the inevitable rise of water in the pools, but at least when it arrives it just floods boots instead of knocking down a distracted marine biologist.
Here's a 20-second video I shot from the same spot.
Just as in any terrestrial habitat, summer is when the photosynthetic organisms come to dominate the rocky intertidal. Even a cursory glance shows that every surface is covered with algae and/or surfgrass. So why not showcase some of these organisms when they look their best?
In terms of biomass, Egregia is by far the most abundant alga along our intertidal coast. Individual fronds can be 5+ meters long, and several fronds arise from each holdfast. Higher up in the mid tidal zone the Egregia was forming curtains hanging down along vertical faces.
But Egregia does know how to share the spotlight. Here it is posing with a couple of other low tidal denizens:
That's Egregia on the left, of course. One of the laminarian kelps, Laminaria setchellii, is taking center stage in this shot. When it lives in the subtidal Laminaria setchellii is an understory kelp; it gets to about 1.5 meters tall and can form dense stands. In this species each holdfast gives rise to a single stipe that in turn opens into a wide blade that is deeply divided, as you can see. The surfgrass Phyllospadix torreyi is on the right. There is a lot of surfgrass in the rocky intertidal these days. It's pretty treacherous stuff, too. It's very slippery and likes to cover pools that are deeper than you'd expect. I've learned the hard way that it cannot be trusted at all.
My favorite seaweeds are always the reds. And my favorite of the reds is Erythrophyllum delesserioides, looking so lush and pretty this time of year. It is a low intertidal species, and can be locally abundant. Some years it seems to get beat up and look ratty, but this year it looks great. Here it is, surrounding a couple of Laminaria setchellii.
Here's a grouping of Erythrophyllum and some other reds. I can see two species of Mazzaella, and of course there are Egregia and Phyllospadix mingled together on the right. So pretty!
When the tide is as low as it was this morning, a marine biologist has a lot of time to explore. I had just about exhausted the batteries in both my camera and my phone and was getting uncomfortably cold when I decided to head in. On the way back I stopped to take a look at the rockweeds, which live in the high intertidal. Franklin Point isn't a hotspot for rockweed abundance or diversity, but I did see this nice thallus of Fucus.
Fucus is the seaweed with the bifurcated branch tips. The tips are starting to swell up, which means this thallus is getting ready to spawn. Of all the algae, rockweeds are unusual in that they have what phycologists call an "animal-like" life cycle. They don't have sporophytes or gametophytes. They just have bodies, or thalli. Some thalli are female and some are male. Instead of releasing multiple kinds of spores and whatnot, they release eggs and sperm. The resulting zygote develops as you would expect, only instead of forming a young animal it grows into a baby seaweed.
I do love that olive green color of the rockweeds, which belong to the phylum of brown algae (Ochrophyta). Notice that there's a bit of similarly colored sheetlike seaweed right below the Fucus. That seaweed has the same color, but is in the red algae (Phylum Rhodophyta). Once again, we are reminded that the algae cannot be reliably sorted into phyla based solely on color. Mother Nature can be very tricksy!
So there you have it, my trip report for this morning's excursion to Franklin Point. The tides are excellent for the next several days, and I will be out there for most of them. This is my favorite time of the year.
A week ago I snagged a stint with a traveling nature journal that is making the rounds. It's a nature journal that is being sent to whoever wants to take it. Each user keeps the journal for five days or until five pages are filled, then sends it on to the next person. I was lucky enough to be the first person to respond when it became available, and the journal arrived chez moi this past Monday.
I gotta say, thumbing through the journal and looking at the work of the folks who had it before me was both thrilling and a little intimidating. But it was so exciting to get to study other people's nature journal pages. Just seeing the different styles and focuses was a fantastic learning experience for me. At first I wondered how the heck I would find five pages' worth of stuff to write/draw about in five days. However, something about having the book in hand released the mental block and stuff just flowed onto the pages. Oh, there was a lot of erasing and a little trepidation the first time I put pen to paper, but overall it was a lot of fun.
Anyway, here are my pages.
Monday 2021-05-17 I found the not-so-secret nesting spot for the Brandt's cormorants. This is apparently a new site for them. I had a lot of fun with the cormorants on the rock—all those postures to study and draw! And I'm very pleased with the larger pair in the corner. They actually look like cormorants!
Tuesday 2021-05-18 The journal has both white paper and tan toned paper. Nobody had used any of the toned pages yet. I decided to use it for these sketches of blooming sand plants. My favorite sketch on this page is the California poppies.
Wednesday 2021-05-19 While flipping through the photos I had taken at Asilomar over the weekend, I decided to draw some of the molluscs. My favorite on this page is the turban snail. And octopuses are really hard to draw!
Thursday 2021-05-20 I used my last two pages to diagram sea urchin larval development. The difficult thing about this page was getting the layout to flow the way I wanted. I used about half an eraser, trying different arrangements of text and drawings! The sketches themselves were not that difficult, as I've drawn these larvae many times before.
So there you have it—a week's worth of nature journaling. It was an immense honor and pleasure to participate in this living document of nature observations. I've sent the traveling journal up to Anchorage, Alaska, and am excited to see what the next person does with it.
As we speed towards the summer solstice the days continue to get longer. The early morning low tides are much easier to get up for, as the sky is lightening by 05:30. Even so, when traveling an hour to get to the site, it's nice when the low is later than that. This past Saturday the low wasn't until 08:00. My parents were in Monterey for the weekend, so I decided it would be a good day to work the tide at the southern end of Monterey Bay, and then visit my parents. The Monterey Peninsula has some of the most spectacular tidepooling terrain in the region, and if I lived closer you can bet I'd know those sites better. Not that there is anything at all wrong with the sites on my end of the Bay and up the coast. But sometimes it's good to get out of one's comfort zone and explore the less well known.
So explore we did. It was cold and windy. The tide wasn't all that low and the swell was up, so we didn't get beyond the mid-tidal zone. My hip boots have deteriorated to the point that I have pinprick leaks at the seam where the boot part meets the leg part. Usually the tiny leaks don't bother me, but when the water is cold I definitely feel the trickles. What all this means is that I didn't get down into the low zone, which is fine. Biodiversity is highest in the mid zone anyway. The mediocrity of the low tide meant that I had to keep an eye out for sneaker swells, so less heads-down poking around and more scanning from above and then zooming in on individual items of interest.
One thing we noticed right away is that groups of Tegula funebralis, the black turban snail, were clumped together above the waterline of the high pools.
I'm trying to decide whether or not this is noteworthy. The pattern did catch my eye, but that might be only because it's unusual (although not particularly interesting). It was a cold and drizzly morning, so the snails didn't have to worry about desiccation. Was the clumping together benefiting the snails in any significant way? Hard to say.
The T. funebralis were also clumping together in the water! Here's a large clump of Tegula shells in a pool.
Almost all of these are snails, but can you see the one that is a hermit crab?
Poor Tegula funebralis. It is so common that it is invisible and vastly underappreciated. I find them quite charming, though. There's something about a grazing snail's slow way of life that is very soothing. Not that you might not fall asleep waiting for them to do something interesting, but it is good to slow down to the pace of nature. Anyway, Tegula is one of my favorite animals, precisely because it is so unassuming and ignored. One of delightful things about Tegula funebralis is when it plays host to Crepidula adunca. I've written about the biology of C. aduncabefore and don't want to rehash that here. I just wanted to show off my favorite photo of this trip to Asilomar:
I don't know why I like this photo so much. It certainly isn't the best shot I've ever taken. There isn't any vibrant color at all. The subjects are the same color as the background. But it works for me.
When it comes to a snail's pace, you can't find anything slower than Thylacodes. That's because Thylacodes squamigerus is the snail that lives in a calcareous tube. Much like a barnacle, or the serpulid worms that have similar tubes, Thylacodes makes one decision about where to live and lives there for the rest of its life. I see Thylacodes at places like Pigeon Point up north, but they are much more abundant on the Monterey Peninsula.
And the snail winners in the Most Likely to be Overlooked have got to be the littorines. These little snails (most of which are smaller than 15 mm) live in the highest intertidal, where they get splashed by the ocean just often enough to keep their gill sufficiently moist. They are never entirely submerged, but they do tend to gather in cracks, even the tiniest of which will hold water longer than a flat rock surface.
If you look closely at the photo above, you might see pairs of mating snails. Given where they live, high up in the intertidal where they are rarely covered by water, broadcast spawning isn't a viable option for the littorines. They have to copulate. There are, I think, eight copulating pairs in this group of ~30 snails.
Because Littorina's habitat makes broadcast spawning an unfeasible option, the snails must lay eggs. But the splash zone isn't a very friendly place for the eggs of marine animals. The littorines lay eggs in gelatinous masses in crevices or depressions where water will remain. After a week or so of development, the egg mass dissolves as it gets splashed, and veliger larvae emerge. They recruit back to the intertidal after spending some period of time in the plankton.
When all is said and done it's difficult to make the claim that snails live exciting lives. Nonetheless, they are interesting animals. The diversity of morphology and lifestyle we see in the intertidal snails makes them eminently worthy of study and appreciation. I like to think that, as biologists once again "discover" the usefulness of natural history, students will be encouraged to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of these and other abundant animals.
A few weeks ago I went out to Franklin Point and saw that the sea lettuces (Ulva sp.) were spawning in the high pools. I revisited the site today, with a lower tide to work with, and spent a considerable amount of time looking for and photographing the staurozoans. I did find some, too! But they are not the focus of this post.
As the tide came back in, I spent more time working my way through the higher pools. At Franklin Point there are very few places where the water is still. Even in the high regions the intertidal terrain is more surge channels than pools. But if you go high enough up the beach there are some quiet areas where the water, if it moves, does so very slowly. It is in these areas where the algal spawn forms those beautiful patterns that I photographed at the beginning of the month. Today there was much less algal spawn accumulating in the calm areas. It was also windy (and cold) this morning, so the patterns were not as crisp as they had been in early April. Still pretty, though!
On my way back up the beach I saw something that looked like an iceberg viewed from the air.
This is an accumulation of foam being pushed ashore. I didn't have any way to collect a sample to bring back to the lab for closer observation, but foams like this are usually due to algal particulates. Surface agitation whips up the organic matter, which act as surfactants and produce tiny bubbles. I'd be willing to bet that the Ulva spawn is at least partly responsible for this foam.
I watched the foam for several minutes, and was rewarded for my vigilance. I found an area where the highest reach of the incoming tide was gently washing back and forth.
I found the slow swirling to be rather mesmerizing. Maybe that was due to the early morning, the brisk sea air, or hunger pangs. But when I saw this I thought to myself, "I've seen that somewhere before." You might be able to guess where.
To validate my intuition, when I got home I looked up some images and found that I was sort of right after all.
Okay, so maybe the resemblance isn't as strong as all that. But I can still imagine the streams in van Gogh's painting swirling and flowing the way the algal foam does. What do you think?
I had seen the sea lettuces (Ulva spp.) spawning in these high pools at Franklin Point before, and usually cursed the murkiness of the water. But today the water was dead calm, with the tide low enough that there were no waves to slosh into the pools. The result was a gorgeous marbled swirl in the water. The patterns were stunning.
What these photos show is the Ulva releasing either spores or gametes. Without microscopic examination it's impossible for me to know whether these tiny cells are spores or gametes. What I can say is that the spawn is released from the distal ends of the thallus, making the body of the alga look ragged.
The parts of the thallus that have already spawned are now clear. The tissue itself will soon disintegrate, leaving behind only the healthy green parts, which should be able to regrow.
All of these photos were taken in pools where the spawning itself had either completely or mostly stopped. Obviously when the tide comes back all of this yellow spooge will get mixed up. It's only when the water is perfectly still that these streams would form. It was hard stepping around the pools to take the photos, as the last thing I wanted to do was stomp my big booted foot into a pool and disrupt the beautiful patterns. Fortunately the sun angle was a little cooperative this morning, and I was able to find a pool where active spawning was happening.
What appears to be an act of destruction—the alga's brilliant green thallus being reduced to yellow streaks that drift away with the tide—is really an act of procreation. This is terminal reproduction, literally the last thing an organism does before it dies. Salmon do this, as do annual plants. The sheer amount of algal spawn in these tidepools is astounding. Imagine the number of 2-micron cells needed to color the water to this degree. But if reproducing is the last thing you're going to do in your life, you might as well go all in on your way out, right?
The other day I was on a field trip with a couple of students in the Natural History Club, at Younger Lagoon. We had permission to go down into the lagoon itself, where we chased tiny red mites around rocks in the intertidal without getting caught by waves, observed a very interesting interaction between a coyote and assorted water fowl, and witnessed killdeer mating. Did you know that in killdeer the actual copulation is preceded by about half a minute of massage? Neither did we! The purpose of the field trip, other than merely to be outdoors looking at cool stuff, was to spend some time doing focused nature journaling. As a result I didn't have my big camera with me. But I did have the good binoculars, and got to watch all of the action closely.
Nature journaling should be part of any natural history club. Over the years I have seen an increase in the tendency to equate nature journaling with science illustration or other types of art. This conflation is what causes people to believe that they can't keep a nature journal because they don't produce museum-quality works of art. While I appreciate a beautiful science illustration as much as anybody else, a nature journal serves a completely different purpose. A nature journal's job isn't to be beautiful. Its job is to be informative.
If you were to compare my nature journal entry with a photograph of the site, you would see that my sketch is nowhere near realistic in the sense of looking exactly like the real thing. I've compressed the entire lagoon into a short stretch that I could fit in these two pages. But I think the sketches and notes do convey the fascinating things what we saw that day. And even if I were not familiar with Younger Lagoon, I would be able to look at these pages and remember them. That's the job of a nature journal.
I returned to Younger Lagoon two days later with the camera in tow, hoping that some of the birds we'd seen on Monday would still be there on Wednesday. In addition to the usual Canada geese and mallards, I hoped to shoot a couple of water birds that I didn't recognize.
Let's start with the obvious:
All told, there were a couple dozen Canada geese, in the water, in the air, and on the sand. They were a noisy bunch, as usual. Except for when the coyote showed up. Read that little story in my nature journal.
Now take a look at these geese:
See the one goose that doesn't belong? That was the mystery goose I saw on Monday, and was fortunate enough to see again on Wednesday. From the photos in my bird field guide—National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America—I thought it might be a greater white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons), although I couldn't be entirely certain. I knew I hadn't seen one before, but a consultation with Cornell's All About Birds verified the ID. iNaturalist shows only a handful of observations of A. albifrons in the Monterey Bay region. The greater white-fronted goose is a long-distance migrator, breeding on the tundra of the high Arctic and overwintering in California's Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys and the Gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana.
A third goose, and another winter-only bird, is the snow goose. It is a little bigger than the greater white-fronted goose. While the word "snow" implies white plumage, snow geese also come in a blue form, which is a dark blueish gray with a white head. The blue coloration is due to a single gene, and the allele for blue is incompletely dominant over the allele for white. The blue and white morphs are the same species and interbreed freely. The offspring of a pure blue bird and a pure white bird will be dark, but may have a white belly. Goslings from pure white parents will be white, and those from pure dark parents will be mostly dark but may have some white.
Of the two snow geese in the photo, the one in the front is all white except for the black wing tips of the species, while the one in the back has more dark coloration. In the photo the beak looks dark, but in better light it's as pink as on the bird in the front.
So that's three species of geese. Now whose butts are these?
These tails belong to American wigeons (Mareca americana), a male and female pair in the background and a lone male in the foreground. As you might guess from the behavior, wigeons are dabbling ducks, foraging on aquatic vegetation. Like the greater white-fronted goose and snow goose, these are also winter visitors to California's waterways, and will soon be headed north.
In their winter plumage, the wigeons are rather dull. The breeding male has a brilliant green patch extending backwards from his eye and a broad white streak from the top of the bill over his head. During the winter the green patch becomes is much less conspicuous, although the white streak remains.
Three species of waterfowl. I couldn't get the snow geese to cooperate and make up the quartet.
Living as we do along the Pacific flyway, we find that spring and autumn are great times for watching birds as they migrate between summer breeding grounds and wherever they overwinter. Sometimes I think it's rather unfortunate that I don't get to see these birds in the glory of their breeding plumage, but that's okay because I get to see them in the winter. And the birds that left here for the winter are returning: I saw the first barn swallow of the season right after the vernal equinox! Soon they and the cliff swallows will be building their nests on the buildings at the marine lab. At home, the first of the season's hooded orioles flew past the back deck. He may have been on his way to a nesting site in a palm tree down the street. There is so much going on right now. I do love the spring!
Intact shells are a limited resource in the rocky intertidal. Snails, of course, build and live in their shells for the duration of their lives. A snail's body is attached to its shell, so until it dies it is the sole proprietor of the shell. Once the snail dies, though, its shell goes on the market to whoever manages to claim it. Empty shells tend not to remain on the market for long.
Hermit crabs also live inside snail shells. They are the ones that compete for empty shells when they do become available. Here in California, at least, the hermit crabs can't kill snails for their shells; they have to wait for a snail to die. And once a shell comes on the market, it will have a taker even if it's not the ideal size for the crab. It's not at all uncommon to see hermit crabs that can fit only their abdomen into the shell, leaving the head and legs exposed and vulnerable. On the other end of the spectrum, many hermit crabs are so small that they can pull into the shell and not be seen by an inquisitive tidepool visitor. Anybody taking a snail shell home as a souvenir—where such takes are allowed, of course—must be certain that there is no tiny hermit crab hiding deep in the depths.
From a hermit crab's perspective, the best shell is one that is big enough to retreat into but light enough to be carried around. Snail shells come in a variety of shapes and corresponding internal volumes. Turban snails, with their roughly spherical shape, have a large interior space and are coveted by larger hermit crabs. For example, the grainy hand hermit crab (Pagurus granosimanus) seems to really like both black and brown turban snail shells.
Original inhabitant and builder of the shell:
And opportunistic second inhabitant of the same type of shell:
Other snails are not even remotely spherical. Olivella biplicata, for example, is shaped like the pit of an olive. Unlike Tegula, of which both intertidal species are found in rocky areas, O. biplicata burrows in sand. Note the shape and habitat of this olive snail:
These olive snails have a smaller internal volume, and thus tend to house smaller hermit crabs. Young individuals of P. granosimanus can be found in olive snail shells, but they quickly outgrow the cramped quarters and need to find a larger home. Smaller hermits such as Pagurus hirsutiusculus, though, are often found in olive shells.
Any hermit crab that finds itself robbed of its snail shell has a short life expectancy. The front end of the hermit resembles the front end of any crab, with the familiar armored legs, claws, eyestalks, and antennae. But the abdomen is soft and unarmored, covered by only a thin cuticle. The abdomen is coiled to follow the coiling of the snail shell, which allows the crab's body to curl around the columella, the central axis around which the shell spirals. In this way the crab can hang onto its snail shell and resist a tug by a would-be predator. A strong enough tug, though, will rip the crab's front end (head + thorax) away from its abdomen. So if you ever find yourself with a hermit crab in hand, do not be tempted to remove it from its shell by yanking it out!
The next time you encounter gastropod shells in the tidepools and want to know whether the inhabitant is a snail or a hermit crab, watch to see how it moves. Hermit crabs scuttle, as crabs do, while snails glide along very slowly. You would also notice a difference as you pick up the shell: snails stick to the rock with their foot, which you will feel as a suction. Hermit crabs don't stick at all, so if the shell comes away easily it likely houses a crab instead of a snail. See? Easy peasy lemon squeezy!
Sometimes even a well-known site can present a surprise. Here's an example. Yesterday I went up to Davenport to scope things out and see how the algae were doing. This is the time of year that they start growing back after the winter senescence. I also took my nature journal along, hoping to find a spot to sit and draw for a while.
The first thing I noticed was the amount of sand on the beach. Strong winter storms usually carve sand off the beaches, making them steeper. And during the calmer months of summer the beaches are flatter and less steep. Yesterday the beach was very thick and flat. It makes trudging across the sand in hip boots much easier!
The accumulation of sand meant that I could walk around the first point. Unless the tide is extremely low, such as we see around the solstices, the water is too deep for that. But yesterday I walked around it, and it wasn't until I got to the other side that it occurred to me that: (1) hey, I walked around the point; and (2) I could do that only because there was so much sand. See, a thick beach with a lot of sand makes a mediocre low tide feel lower because the water isn't as deep as it would be if the beach were thinner. When the tide isn't low enough for me to walk around the point, I have to clamber down a cliff. The cliff height varies depending on how much sand has built up, obviously, but is about head height for me. Getting down usually involves scooting on my butt and hoping my feet land on something that isn't slippery. As with most climbing, up is easier and less scary than down.
It's hard to imagine the amount of sand there was yesterday. Look at this picture.
See how the rocks in the foreground end? Usually that's the edge of the cliff. Yesterday I could have just taken a tiny step off the top of the cliff onto sand. That's over 1.5 meters of sand in that one spot! If the couple in the background were visiting this area for the first time, they'd have no idea of the conditions that made it so easy for them to get out onto the reef.
There was a lot of sand in the channels between rocks, too.
Normally those channels are deeper. You can see that some anemones were able to reach to the surface of the sand, but many more are buried, along with any other critters and algae unfortunate enough to be attached to the lower vertical surfaces. And while some of them will either suffocate or be scoured off as the sand washes away, many will survive and be ready to get on with life.
The second surprise of the day was a bright orange object. What I could see of it was about as big as my thumb, and at first I thought it was a nudibranch. Then when I crept closer for a better look, what popped into my head was "snailfish". Which was an odd thing, because I'd never seen a snailfish before. But something about the creature's posture looked somehow familiar.
Fortunately I had the presence of mind to take photos before trying to draw this little fish, because this is all I had time to get:
When I spooked the critter it took off really fast, confirming that it was no nudibranch. It was, indeed, a snailfish! It came to rest in a small hole in a rock, from where it looked out at me.
The snailfishes are a very poorly studied group. As a group they are related to the sculpins. There are snailfishes throughout the northern temperate and polar regions, from the intertidal to the deep sea. iNaturalist shows 43 observations of L. florae, eight of which are in California. Before yesterday, none had been recorded at Davenport Landing.
So there you have it, a snailfish! We don't know much about any of the snailfish species, even the intertidal ones. They apparently have pelvic fins modified to from a sucker, similar to the clingfishes, but I didn't have a chance to examine this specimen closely enough to confirm that. I don't know why they are called snailfishes, either. They're not snail-shaped at all.
Now, about that thing up there where I said "snailfish" came to mind even though I'd never seen one before. That happens quite a bit—a name will jump into my head before I've had a chance to think about it. Sometimes I'm wrong, but often I'm right. I know I hadn't seen a live snailfish before, but obviously I'd seen photos of them or I wouldn't have been able to recognize this orange creature as being one. It's fascinating how the brain forms search images, isn't it?