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This past weekend I participated for the first time in the Audubon Society's Great Backyard Bird Count, in which ordinary folks spend at least 15 minutes observing birds in their own yards. Turns out you can also observe in other sites, but I opted to watch birds from my back deck. As my house backs up to a more or less wild arroyo, I decided to count the entire canyon as my backyard. I'm neither clever nor coordinated enough to take photos while trying to identify birds, so I have no pictures to share with you. I do, however, have data!

Saturday 13 February 2016, 16:51-17:18

Saw and was able to identify:

  • American robin (Turdus migratorius)
  • Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)
  • Oak titmouse (Baeolophus wollweberi)
  • Golden-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)
  • Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) - nesting in a eucalyptus tree across the canyon!
  • Fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca)
  • California towhee (Melozone crissalis)
  • House finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)
  • Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)
  • Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna)

Heard and was able to ID:

  • Western scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica)
  • California quail (Callipepla californica)
  • Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus)
  • American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)

Sunday 14 February 2016, 12:14-12:33

Saw and was able to ID:

  • Northern mockingbird
  • Red-tailed hawk (the same nesting pair)
  • Wrentit (Chamaea fasciata)
  • Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura)
  • Anna's hummingbird

Heard and was able to ID:

  • Chestnut-backed chickadee (Poecile rufescens)
  • Red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus)

Monday 15 February 2016, 16:57-17:27

Saw and was able to ID:

  • Red-tailed hawk (in nest)
  • Anna's hummer
  • Purple finch (Carpodacus purpureus)
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Chestnut-backed chickadee
  • American crow
  • American robins
  • Golden-crowned sparrow
  • Wrentit
  • Fox sparrow
  • Western scrub jay

Heard and was able to ID:

  • Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus)
  • Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus)

All told, in the three observation periods I identified a total of 20 birds from my backyard. Granted, what I'm calling my "backyard" is a lot bigger and more wild than most, which is why I love living where I do: I get to look down to watch birds in flight. I have no idea if 20 is a lot or a few bird species to see at one time in a single location. There are at least that many other species I see commonly or occasionally but that didn't show up this weekend.

This little project helped me validate my intuition by demonstrating that the middle of the day is not the best time to watch birds if your goal is to see lots of different birds. Clearly, more birds are active in the early evening than during midday. I intended to have a sunrise observation period but never managed to get my act together enough to pull it off. I would expect perhaps as many species as in the early evening, but not necessarily all of the same species. As I write this I can hear the hooting of a pair of great horned owls, audible even over the din of the chorus frogs. The owls hoot back and forth to each other, sometimes all night and into the hour or so before sunrise. Even though I've never seen one, it makes me happy to know that they're in my backyard, along with the raccoons, skunks, opossums, nesting hawks, deer, and the occasional bobcat (and who knows, maybe even a mountain lion every once in a great while). I am fortunate to have all of this nature literally right outside the back door. I do indeed live in paradise.

One of the best things about teaching is the opportunity to keep learning. Case in point: yesterday I attended an all-day teacher training session for the LiMPETS program, so that I can have my Ecology students participate in a big citizen science project in the rocky intertidal later this spring. In the Monterey Bay region LiMPETS is organized and run out of the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, where yesterday's training took place. LiMPETS has two ongoing citizen science projects, one looking at populations of mole crabs (Emerita analoga) on sandy beaches and the other monitoring population of several invertebrate and algal species on rocky shores. Of course, my interests being what they are I signed up for the rocky intertidal monitoring project.

We spent the morning learning about the history of the program and how to identify the organisms that are monitored, then after lunch went out to Point Pinos to collect some data and work through the process that we need to teach to our students. The day before we'd had a high surf advisory on the coast, and yesterday the swell was still big. We hiked out to the study site and set up the transect line, which runs from the top of a rock through the entire range of tidal heights to the low intertidal.

LiMPETS study site at Point Pinos. 6 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
LiMPETS study site at Point Pinos.
6 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong
One of our instructors, the intrepid Emily, sets the transect line. 6 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
One of our instructors, the intrepid Emily, sets the transect line.
6 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Where Emily is standing is about 10 meters along the transect line. The monitoring protocol calls for sampling at every meter on the transect. One of the other teachers, Phaedra, and I were the only ones wearing hip boots, so we volunteered to work at the lowest spot. We thought we'd start with the 10-meter quadrat and hopefully get down to the 11-meter quadrat once the tide receded a bit more. Then we got hit by a few big waves and decided that discretion is the better part of valor and gave up. It was a pretty easy decision to make, especially after the quadrat got washed away and we had to go fetch it when the waves brought it back.

Field gear. 6 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Field gear.
6 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

All told the group collected eight quadrats of data. We had a little time to poke around (i.e., take pictures) before heading back to the museum for data entry.

A gorgeous chiton! 6 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
A gorgeous chiton! I don't know which species it is.
6 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Codium fragile, a filamentous green alga. 6 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Codium fragile, a filamentous green alga.
6 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Codium is an interesting alga. These cylindrical structures are composed of many filaments, which in turn contain multi-nucleate cells. Yes, the cells contain multiple nuclei. Codium fragile has the common name "dead man's fingers," I suppose because. . . well, I actually have no idea. As far as I can tell they don't feel anything like a dead man's fingers, or the way I imagine a dead man's fingers would feel.

There were quite a few empty abalone shells scattered among the rocks. As we were hiking out I found this shell. When I tried to pick it up I found that it was still alive, and well stuck to the rock. This is a very good sign, as the black abs have been suffering from withering syndrome, in which the animal gradually loses its ability to hang on.

Haliotis cracherodii, the black abalone, wearing a few barnacle friends. 6 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Haliotis cracherodii, the black abalone, wearing a few barnacle friends.
6 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

All in all, this workshop was a lot of fun. If I have to give up an entire Saturday to do training, it couldn't get much better than spending at least part of it in the intertidal. And Point Pinos is such a fabulous intertidal site that I certainly wouldn't turn down an opportunity to explore there again.

Thursday is the day that our trash and recycling/green waste bins get emptied. This afternoon I was moving my green waste bin out to the curb and discovered three little creatures living under it. Two of the three guys were the same, and the third was something different. Fortunately none of them had been injured when I rolled the bin out of its spot next to the fence. The two little guys stayed put when I ran inside to grab my camera, but when I came out the largest guy had disappeared. I found it curled up next to the inside edge of one of the wheels on the bin and was able to coax it out for a few pictures.

A bit of research on the mighty Interwebs leads me to conclude that the larger of my new damp friends is a California slender salamander, Batrachoseps attenuatus. It certainly is slender, isn't it?

California slender salamander (Batrocoseps attenuatus) that was living under my green waste bin. 3 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus) that was living under my green waste bin.
3 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

If it weren't for the tiny legs, at first glance this guy would look like a snake. Here's a close-up of its front end (and the palm of my hand):

Head and forelegs of California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuates). 3 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Head and forelegs of California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus).
3 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

All told, the slender salamander was about 15 cm long. It fit very nicely in my hand.

California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus). 3 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus).
3 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The two other critters were quite small, about 3 cm long, and more typically salamander-shaped. I'm pretty sure they were the same species but juveniles can be difficult to identify. They were dark gray, almost black, with tiny yellow speckles that I thought at first were dust bits. Looking at the photos now I'm pretty sure at least some of them were speckles, though.

Little arboreal salamander (Aneides lugubris) that was living under my green waste bin. 3 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Small arboreal salamander (Aneides lugubris) that was living under my green waste bin.
3 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Arboreal salamander (Aneides lugubris). 3 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Arboreal salamander (Aneides lugubris).
3 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Cute little guys, aren't they? Aneides lugubris gets its common name from the fact that it can and does climb on trees. However, they are more commonly seen on the ground. Like all salamanders they must remain moist because they breathe through their skin, so they are found under wood piles or flower pots or other yard structures. Including green waste bins, apparently.

I had to remove these guys' shelter to the curb, so I gently scooped them up, handling them as little as possible, and transferred them to the flower bed. I hope they'll be happy and can find shelter there.

I love the serendipity of finding creatures when I didn't expect to! Especially when they're creatures I'm not familiar with. Any chance to learn about something new is fine by me!

1

Before Christmas I was invited to speak at one of the monthly public talks hosted by the Seymour Marine Discovery Center. I'm always happy to be asked to speak to students or the public, so my default answer to these requests is "Yes!" Usually for this kind of presentation I get to choose the topic, but this time my name came up because one of the Seymour Center staffers came up with "bees, banana slugs, and bat stars" so that's what I was given to work with. When my brain took hold of this topic and these very disparate animals, the common theme that came to mind was . . . wait for it . . . reproduction. So yes, this is going to be another sex talk.

What this means is that I need to provide some information on the talk and photos so that the Seymour Center can start publicizing the event, which is in March. Banana slugs are still in the mix, and I don't have any pictures of them, so this afternoon I took advantage of a break between storms to go hiking in the forest and look for slugs. I'd been feeling a little cabin fever for the past few days because of the rain and my own recovery from bronchitis which sapped all of my energy, so I was grateful for an excuse to leave my desk and get outside for a bit.

I headed out to the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, knowing that where there are redwood trees there should also be banana slugs, especially after all the rain we've had recently. You know how when you're looking for something you can't find it, and when you're not looking for it you see them all over the place? That's how this hike began. It turns out that looking for banana slugs under a deadline makes them very hard to find. And I did have a deadline, as I'd promised to have the blurb and photos for my talk ready today.

After about half an hour of slowly meandering along the trails and getting distracted by all the fungi that popped up after the rains, I did see a banana slug:

Banana slug (Ariolimax sp.) at The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. 7 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Banana slug (Ariolimax sp.) at The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park.
7 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

That is such a gastropod face! Banana slugs are really cool (and ectothermic, too) animals. One of my buddies in grad school kept one for a pet in our office bullpen; we called it Terry, because slugs are hermaphrodites and deserve androgynous names. Terry really liked eating mushrooms and lettuce.

Banana slugs, and all of the terrestrial snails and slugs, are pulmonate ("lung") gastropods. Most of their marine relatives, with whom I spend so much quality time in the lab and in the field, are prosobranch ("gill in front") gastropods. The nudibranchs and sea hares, which are so photogenic and conspicuous, are opisthobranch ("gill on back") gastropods. As these names imply, the prosobranchs and opisthobranchs possess gills (although they are very different kinds of gills) and thus live in water. The pulmonates don't have gills; they live on land and breathe air. [There are aquatic pulmonates, too. Only a few are marine, and most live in fresh water. They have to come to the surface to breathe.]

So, what is the lung of a banana slug? It's actually the mantle cavity, that oh-so-molluscan feature, that in prosobranchs contains the gill(s). In the pulmonates, the mantle cavity is highly vascularized, as you'd expect from any gas-exchange surface, and opens to the outside by a hole called a pneumostome.

Here's the pneumostome of my first banana slug of the afternoon:

Anterior region of a banana slug (Ariolimax sp.), showing the pneumostome on the right side of the mantle. 7 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Anterior region of a banana slug (Ariolimax sp.), showing the pneumostome on the right side of the mantle.
7 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The pneumostome is always on the right side of the animal's mantle. You can actually watch it open and close as the slug breathes.

I found a second slug about an hour into the hike.

Banana slug (Ariolimax sp.) at The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. 7 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Banana slug (Ariolimax sp.) at The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park.
7 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

See? No pneumostome on the left side.

If I'd had the time, I would have put the slugs together to see if they'd mate. It is a sex talk I'm prepping for, after all. Heck, what would be even better would be to find two slugs already in copulo. No such luck today, though. What's good about not finding everything that I was looking for today is that it gives me incentive to keep going out to search for it. And in the meantime, I've got to start studying up on local fungi. I saw so many different kinds of mushrooms today that now I'm motivated to fill in this particular gap in my knowledge. Might as well take advantage of the El Niño rains, right?

This past weekend I was in the San Joaquin Valley to celebrate my dad's 80th birthday. On a cold and rainy Saturday morning we gathered at my parents' house to take care of some last-minute things before the big party later that evening. We were in the backyard when I noticed a tiny lizard on the patio under a table. It was so still even as I approached that at first I thought it was dead, but when I touched it it turned its head away from my finger and twitched a leg. Amidst suggestions of "Pick it up" and "Don't squish it!" I coaxed the little guy onto my hand and held it out for pictures, hoping I'd have time to ID it after all the birthday festivities.

Small lizard found in my parents' backyard in Fresno, California. 19 December 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Small lizard found in my parents' backyard in Fresno, California.
19 December 2015
© Allison J. Gong

Cute little thing, isn't it? The entire body is only about 5 cm long. It didn't look like any of the native lizards or salamanders that I've seen, and a little research on the excellent website California Herps confirmed that it is indeed an alien species.

Hemidactylus turcicus, the Mediterranean house gecko, has been living in California since at least as early as 2007. It is a nocturnal gecko that is usually associated with human dwellings, as artificial lights attract the moths and other insects that the gecko preys upon. The predatory habits of this H. turcicus make it a welcome, if informal, house pet in its native range. I was unable to find how H. turcicus made it into California from the Mediterranean, but I bet the original "colonists" were escaped pets. Since they are small (no longer than 15 cm) and nocturnal, they are not considered to be a threat to native California lizards, although their distribution in California seems to expanding northward.

Like most other geckos, H. turcicus has vertical pupils and doesn't have eyelids. In this picture you can see the pupil. We watched our little guy lick its eyeballs several times, which is what geckos do to keep their eyes clean and moistened.

Head detail of H. turcicus, showing the vertical pupil. 19 December 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Head detail of H. turcicus, showing the vertical pupil.
19 December 2015
© Allison J. Gong

There's no way of knowing how long this little gecko has lived in my parents' backyard, or now long it will live after I let it go. Now that I know about them, I'm going to keep an eye out for them around here where I live. According to the California Herps species map for H. turcicus, there has been at least one verified sighting in Santa Cruz County. They don't seem to be particularly shy, but their nocturnal behavior and small size may make them difficult to see even if they are fairly abundant. If one makes it into my house, I'll welcome it and hope my cats don't catch it. I wouldn't mind another mouth in the house, if it's one that I don't have to feed.

Last night the moon was new, meaning that we are now in spring tides. The spring tides occur during the new and full phases of the moon and result in the largest swings between high and low tides; in the weeks between the full and new moons we have neap tides, during which the height difference between high and low tide is smaller. As an intertidal biologist I look forward to and make use of the spring low tides, and after a year of pretty intensive field work I can feel in my body when they should be coming around. I love being that tuned in to the rhythm of the tides.

Yesterday a very large northwest swell came through the region, combining with the late morning high tide to generate some awesome (in the literal sense of the word) waves. For example, huge waves broke over the pier in Ventura, causing officials to close the pier until further notice. Alas, I was in class all morning and didn't get out to the marine lab until early afternoon, at which time the tide had receded (yesterday's low was at 16:48) so I didn't get to catch any of the action.

Made up for it today, though. Knowing that high tide would be at about 10:00 I made sure to be out at the lab for my daily chores after breakfast. Patience was rewarded!

Here's the view from the cliff at Terrace Point:

Big wave at Terrace Point, Santa Cruz, California. 12 December 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Big wave at Long Marine Lab, Santa Cruz, California.
12 December 2015
© Allison J. Gong

The waves were at least twice as tall as I am. I could feel them crash into the cliff beneath my feet. There's nothing quite like being reminded that Mother Nature has home field advantage. Here's the action looking east towards Natural Bridges and Santa Cruz. Hard to believe that I spend hours crawling around on those benches, isn't it?

Out at Terrace Point there's a non-public-accessible platform that lab staff have access to for water sampling. Every day, conditions permitting, a technician goes down the steps and throws a bucket off the cliff to grab a water sample and take the temperature; it's a fun task that I've done a bunch of times. I don't think the outside water temperature is going to be taken today. Take a look at this sequence of photos, taken in a 5-second time span, and imagine yourself standing on that platform. Yeah, you don't want to be there.

Before:

The wave approaches 12 December 2015 © Allison J. Gong
12 December 2015
© Allison J. Gong

During:

12 December 2015 © Allison J. Gong
12 December 2015
© Allison J. Gong

And after:

12 December 2015 © Allison J. Gong
12 December 2015
© Allison J. Gong

The biggest splashes occur when a wave is reflected off the cliff and crashes back into a second oncoming wave. To see this I walked over to a different area of the lab and looked down onto Younger Lagoon. There's a rock island in the mouth of the lagoon that almost always has birds perched on it. Sometimes the birds are pelicans or pigeons. Today they were cormorants and gulls.

Pelicans and gulls at the mouth of Younger Lagoon. 12 December 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Cormorants and gulls at the mouth of Younger Lagoon.
12 December 2015
© Allison J. Gong

The west-facing cliff of Younger Lagoon is perfectly situated to reflect back these northwest swells. Watch for yourself:

Watching this reminded me of a passage from Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, in which he describes the waves that ultimately sank the fishing boat Andrea Gail in the North Atlantic. It's a visceral demonstration of the ocean's power. All of a sudden the adage "Never turn your back to the ocean" seems rather trite, doesn't it?

This morning I was teaching lab when three of my students in the back corner called me over to where they were working. "We have a problem," one of them declared.

Since they were making posters I assumed that the problem had to do with format or content or something related to the scientific papers they were analyzing. When I got back to them and asked what the problem was, they just pointed at the corner of one of the counters. "You've almost put your hand on it," one of them said.

I looked under my hand . . . nothing. "No," the student continued, "it's under the edge."

I looked under the lip of the counter and there was a tiny spider just starting to lower itself on an invisible strand of silk. And I do mean tiny: the entire body would have fit onto my thumbnail, with room to spare. Seeing that it was a jumping spider and nothing to be afraid of, I captured it in my hands and released it outdoors. Meanwhile, the students cowered and kept their distance.

Here's the only picture I was able to take before returning to the classroom. I was supposed to be teaching, after all.

Red-backed jumping spider (Phidippus johnsoni). 4 December 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Red-backed jumping spider (Phidippus johnsoni).
4 December 2015
© Allison J. Gong

Intrigued as I usually am by something I don't know much about, I looked up California jumping spiders after class. I knew it was a jumping spider because I've seen many of them before, and they really can jump. This little one, measuring maybe 1 cm in total length, jumped about 10 cm when I put it on the railing outside. Then it scurried to the edge of the railing and went overboard. Jumping spiders are super cute. If you don't believe me, ask the almighty Google to show you some mating dances of male jumping spiders. I dare you not to be impressed.

Jumping spiders belong to the appropriately named family Salticidae. They are little spiders, rather hairy, with shiny black eyes. Because of their small size they often don't provoke the knee-jerk "KILL IT!" response except from true arachnophobes. The one my students found today is, I think, a female red-backed jumping spider (Phidippus johnsoni). Both sexes in this species have a red abdomen; in males it is solid, while the females have a black stripe running down the center.

All spiders are hunters, capturing prey by various means and killing it with a venomous bite before slurping up the juicy insides. A little jumping spider could bite a human, but I've handled many of them and have never been bitten. The trick, I think, is not to make the animal feel threatened. If it perceives your hand as just another surface to crawl on, it won't waste its venom on you. Not that I would try this with a spider known to have a bite that is dangerous to humans, mind you. Jumping spiders often end up inside houses, though, and it's good to know that you can gently pick them up and put them outdoors where they will be happier. You might also be happier, knowing that the spider isn't inside with you!

I always find that autumn is a tough season for me, in terms of maintaining enthusiasm and fascination with the world around me. I feel, like most creatures, that autumn is a time to hunker down and take it easy until the winter solstice, after which we'll be gaining daylight again instead of losing it. Even if we get blasted by El Niño storms in January and February, it will be easier for me to feel energized simply because the days will be getting longer.

However, even though I really want to hole up with books, tea, and knitting (hi, Junkies!) life goes on and I can't ignore the siren call of the natural world. This morning I went whale watching with some of my students. It was a class trip organized by the other instructor for the course, and almost all of my students came along. If you know me, you probably know that I have a history of horrendous seasickness. As in so awful that none of the OTC meds even touch it, and although I have tried some of the prescription meds they all make me so drowsy that I can't drive or even really stay awake.

It has been a good year for whale watching in Monterey Bay. Humpbacks have been everywhere the past several weeks, showing off all their acrobatic skills and lunge-feeding right off the beaches in Santa Cruz. So it really is a fantastic time to go whale watching, and since I had to go with my class I asked my doctor about other seasickness drugs to try. She gave me something that has worked for other people, including the pharmacist who filled my prescription, and although I've been burned before by the words, "Oh, this will work. You'll be fine!" hope springs eternal and I tried it. And by George, I think it worked! Not that the seas were bad at all, but I think that if I'd gone drug-free I would have been substantially less happy out there.

We did see whales, but for the most part they were pretty far away. They didn't spend much time at all on the surface, just a breath or two and then a show of the flukes as they dove to deeper water. The only breaches we saw were way off in the distance. There were a lot of common murres swimming around, which were extremely fun to watch. They are ecologically similar to penguins in the southern hemisphere and even resemble penguins, with their "tuxedo" plumage.

I was trying to photograph some murres on the surface when this happened:

Pair of common murres (Uria aalge) and a humpback whale (Megaptera novaenagliae) on Monterey Bay 16 October 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Pair of common murres (Uria aalge) and a humpback whale (Megaptera novaenagliae) on Monterey Bay
16 October 2015
© Allison J. Gong

Most of the murres scattered when the whale surfaced, and I was lucky to get even two of them in the frame.

We also saw a lot of pelicans.

Adult (white-headed) and juvenile brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) in Moss Landing Harbor 16 October 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Adult (white-headed) and juvenile brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) in Moss Landing Harbor
16 October 2015
© Allison J. Gong

Those browning lumpy things in the water at the top left of the photo? Those are sea otters.

And look at this!

Assorted wildlife covering a dock in Moss Landing Harbor 16 October 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Assorted wildlife covering a dock in Moss Landing Harbor
16 October 2015
© Allison J. Gong

The rocks in the background are covered with adult pelicans. The upper dock is occupied by Brandt's cormorants (Phalacrocorax penicillatus), which appear to require more personal space than do pelicans, and one of what I think is a great egret (Ardea alba). The lower dock is almost submerged by California sea lions (Zalophus californianus).

I'm counting today as a minor victory, and I'm grateful to have been able to enjoy it. This is the first time I've been out that far on Monterey and not wanted to die. 'Tis the season for gratitude, isn't it?

2

Let's just get this out of the way: I live in a paradise of natural beauty. Sometimes I still can't believe that I get to call this gorgeous place my home. However did I get so lucky?

Case in point. For the last week or so a juvenile humpback whale has been hanging out in a small cove right off the road that winds along the coast in Santa Cruz. Several of my friends had shown me pictures and video of it, but every time I went out I got skunked. I saw lots of seabirds, though, and that itself was pretty amazing.

Mitchell's Cove in Santa Cruz, CA. 16 September 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Mitchell's Cove in Santa Cruz, CA.
16 September 2015
© Allison J. Gong

Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) and Caspian terns (Hydroprogne caspia) plunge-diving? Check. Common murres (Uria aalge) in the air and hanging out on the surface of the water? Check. Attempted kleptoparasitism by a gull on a tern that had caught a fish? Check. That was really cool. Oddly, though, I didn't see any sooty shearwaters today.

This past Saturday I went down to Mitchell's Cove and saw some amazing seabird behavior. The pelicans and terns were both plunge-diving, and then being mobbed by gulls and other hangers-on every time they came up with a fish. And in the background there was an unending stream of shearwaters flying from right to left.

I love how the pelicans fly along above the surface, then fold their wings and transform into arrows before shooting into the water. Good thing they don't have nostrils, isn't it? The terns do the same thing. Through the binoculars I watched the terns looking down for prey before committing to a dive; from what I could see they almost always came up with a fish.

The aforementioned humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) was putting on a show this morning for the local humans. I wandered down at about 08:45 on my way to the marine lab. There were about 40 people scattered on the beach and along the side of the road. I settled myself on a rock with my camera and binoculars at hand. It took only a couple of minutes to see this:

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) lunge-feeding at Mitchell's Cove in Santa Cruz, CA. 16 September 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) lunge-feeding at Mitchell's Cove in Santa Cruz, CA.
16 September 2015
© Allison J. Gong

Judging by size, this whale appears to be a juvenile. It was swimming just beyond the surf break, where the water was shallow enough that I could see the ripples just beneath the surface as the whale swam by. In this 2-minute video, the whale surfaces to breathe a few times and takes two lunging mouthfuls of fish and water before turning away and heading to slightly deeper water.

If I didn't have an actual job to do, I could have stayed out there longer, just to keep observing all the action. As it was, my arrival at the marine lab was delayed by about 40 minutes. Oh well. But I didn't have any time-crucial tasks or meetings this morning so nobody's schedule was affected except my own, and if I can't take advantage of serendipitous sightings like this then what's the point of living in paradise?

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Having read multiple news accounts of domoic acid (DA) events up and down the Pacific coast of the U.S., I decided to do my own informal survey of the culprit that makes DA. Domoic acid is a naturally occurring toxin that is produced by some (but not all) species of the diatom Pseudo-nitzschia during a plankton bloom. It is ingested by filter-feeding animals such as mussels and anchovies and gets passed to higher trophic levels as these animals are themselves preyed upon. The filter feeders are thought to be unaffected by the DA they ingest, but due to bioaccumulation the toxin occurs in higher concentrations in the tissues of the predators. Humans can be affected by DA also, when they eat contaminated shellfish, for example. This is why coastal states advise seafood foragers not to collect and eat bivalves (clams, mussels, oysters) when DA is detected in the water. When humans are sickened by domoic acid, the affliction is called Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning (ASP).

I had originally hoped to collect a sample from a boat over deeper water, but when those plans failed to materialize I did the best I could on my own:  I went out to the end of the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf and threw the net from there. As soon as I hauled the net back up I could smell the diatoms. Yes, diatoms have a smell, as does just about anything when you concentrate it enough. The diatom smell is rich and organic, but not at all unpleasant.

This is what the sample looked like:

All those clear needle-like things are chains of Pseudo-nitzschia cells. When they are reproducing quickly (a.k.a. "blooming") the cells remain connected by their tips (see below). Longer chains indicate favorable conditions for asexual reproduction in diatoms; I saw some chains that were 12+ cells long. The small whitish things zooming around are barnacle nauplii. Obviously barnacles are having lots of sex right now.

Pseudo-nitzschia is a pennate diatom, which simply means that the cells are pen- or boat-shaped. Some of the pennate diatoms have a raphe, or slit-like opening on the frustule through which a tiny bit of protoplasm can be extruded. These diatoms, of which Pseudo-nitzschia is one, don't swim but can actually scoot around on surfaces. Don't believe me? Then watch this long chain of Pseudos move back and forth like a train on tracks.

Here's a still shot at higher magnification:

Cells of the pennate diatom Pseudo-nitzschia sp. 21 August 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Cells of the pennate diatom Pseudo-nitzschia sp. 21 August 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

See how the individual cells remain connected to each other by their overlapping tips? Each of the cells is about 75 µm long and contains two roughly rectangular chloroplasts that are golden brown in color.

Pseudo-nitzschia wasn't the only diatom in the sample, either. I saw surprising numbers of Coscinodiscus, a genus of centric diatoms, ranging in size from 160-250 µm in diameter. Coscinodiscus frustules are beautifully sculptured, making the cells look like fancy buttons.

Cells of the centric diatom Coscinodiscus sp. 21 August 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Cells of the centric diatom Coscinodiscus sp. 21 August 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

That little bleb at about 10:00 on the larger diatom is a dinoflagellate, Peridinium or Protoperidinium, that came along for the ride. There is also a chain of Pseudos making a cameo appearance in the bottom of the photo.

The other unusual diatom in the sample was Chaetoceros. This diatom has a name that hints at the morphology of the cells:  "chaet-" is Greek for "spine" or "bristle". Indeed, the cells of Chaetoceros are box-shaped and have four long spines that link adjacent cells together to form chains.

Cells of the centric diatom Chaetoceros sp. 21 August 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Cells of the centric diatom Chaetoceros sp. 21 August 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

The intriguing question that came to my mind was "Why now?" Around here I've grown accustomed to a typical succession of phytoplankton in Monterey Bay, with diatoms (especially Chaetoceros) blooming in the spring and early summer, corresponding to our usual upwelling season, then giving way to dinoflagellates in the late summer and fall when upwelling abates. And yes, we did have a major Pseudo-nitzschia bloom back in April and May. Diatoms bloom in response to high levels of nutrients, especially nitrate, that occur when upwelling returns nutrients to surface waters. We did have a few weeks of decent upwelling in the spring. Then El Niño started to build and we went through several weeks of warm, clear water when diatoms were pretty much absent and we saw phytoplankters such as silicoflagellates and coccolithophores, which can thrive in waters that are too nutrient-depleted for diatoms.

And now the diatoms are back. Chlorophyll levels in nearshore waters are high right now all along the central California coast. These data are from CeNCOOS, an ocean observing system:

Chlorophyll concentrations along the central California coast, 17-19 August 2015. © CenCOOS
Chlorophyll concentrations (µg/L) along the central California coast, 17-19 August 2015.
© CeNCOOS

Assuming that the chlorophyll being measured is in the cells of Pseudo-nitzschia and other diatoms, it appears that we're having a return to springtime conditions. Bait fish are back in the Bay, and following them are dolphins and birds. I would dearly love to do some whale watching this fall; we may have another spectacular season for humpback whales. Whatever the cause for this apparent late-season rebirth, this autumn is shaping up to be interesting.

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