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This morning I went on a solo trip to one of my favorite intertidal sites up the coast a bit. I've been busy with stuff at the marine lab and my house is a construction zone this summer so it was really nice being alone in nature for a couple of hours before most people had gotten out of bed.

I didn't find what I was looking for but did see some great stuff that I wasn't looking for, which is just as rewarding.

The approach to the beach over the dunes is always spectacular even on a gloomy morning. I find this color palette very soothing.

The hike over the dunes, 5 June 2015. © Allison J. Gong
The hike over the dunes, 5 June 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

The site itself is rocky with a sandy bottom. Depending on the severity of recent storm action there can be more or less sand. Winter storms wash sand away, while in the summer the sand tends to accumulate and can bury the rocks to surprising depths.

Surfgrass bed (Phyllospadix sp.) and rocks at Franklin Point, 5 June 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Surfgrass bed (Phyllospadix sp.) and rocks at Franklin Point, 5 June 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

It may be an optical illusion, but when I'm scrunched down in amongst the rocks it appears that the waves are breaking at heights quite a bit above my head. Most of the water's force is dissipated as the waves wash over the rocks, and unless I've wandered out too far, by the time it gets to me all I need to worry about is whether the surge will overtop my boots. Which has indeed happened and makes for a cold squelchy morning.


And now for some happy snaps!

A small mid-intertidal pool at Franklin Point, 5 June 2015. © Allison J. Gong
An example of intertidal biodiversity at Franklin Point. The most conspicuous organisms are Ulva (sea lettuce), coralline algae (the pink stuff), small acorn barnacles, the tube-dwelling worm Phragmatopoma californica, and small anemones in the genus Anthopleura. 5 June 2015.
© Allison J. Gong
I love my hip boots!  © Allison J. Gong
I love my hip boots!
© Allison J. Gong
Pagurus hirsutiusculus hermit crab in shell of the snail Olivella biplicata, 5 June 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Pagurus hirsutiusculus hermit crab in shell of the snail Olivella biplicata, 5 June 2015.
© Allison J. Gong
A beautifully camouflaged kelp crab (Pugettia producta) hiding in plain sight, 5 June 2015. © Allison J. Gong
A beautifully camouflaged kelp crab (Pugettia producta) hiding in plain sight, 5 June 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

Because, really, doesn't everybody have a favorite red alga? This is mine. It presses gorgeously and is so damn beautiful!

Erythrophyllum delesserioides, 5 June 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Erythrophyllum delesserioides, 5 June 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

At one point I saw a worm-like thing thrashing around in a shallow pool. Turns out it was a polychaete worm, probably in the genus Nereis, doing epic battle with a predatory nemertean worm (Paranemertes peregrina). By the time I figured out what was going on and stuck my camera in the water the interaction had more of less come to an end. The polychaete did get away without apparent damage, but it was moving pretty slowly afterward. In this video Nereis is the segmented worm that's doing all the wiggling, and Paranemertes is the purple and beige unsegmented worm that you can sort of make out in the top of the frame. I wish I had been swifter on the uptake with the camera.


And the pièce de résistance for this trip:  A little sea hare! This guy was so small (about 2.5 cm long) that at first I thought it was a clump of red algae. Then I saw the little rhinophores (those ear-like projections that give them their common name) and recognized it as a sea hare. Amazingly cute!

A little sea hare (Aplysia sp.), 5 June 2015. © Allison J. Gong
A little sea hare (Aplysia sp.), 5 June 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

I was lucky enough to capture some video of this critter crawling around.

Aside from the rhinophores it doesn't look hare-like at all, does it? I wonder about common names sometimes.

All in all, it was a great morning. An early morning low tide is the best reason I can think of to crawl out of bed at 04:30!

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Early this afternoon the clouds at the marine lab were very interesting, so I took some photos:

© 2015 Allison J. Gong
© 2015 Allison J. Gong

These thin wisps are a subset of cirrus cloud called cirrus uncini clouds, commonly referred to as mares' tails and characterized by the hooked formation ('uncinus' is Latin for 'hook'). They occur high in the atmosphere, at altitudes around 5500 meters (18000 feet) and above, and consist of ice crystals rather than liquid water or water vapor.

© 2015 Allison J. Gong
© 2015 Allison J. Gong

Alas, cirrus clouds do not produce precipitation at ground level. Nor does their presence necessarily indicate a change in prevailing weather conditions. However, a large gathering of cirrus clouds may be a sign of an approaching storm front. The cloud formations I saw today dissipated within a few hours to a vague high-altitude haze. Meanwhile, my old friend the low-altitude marine layer appears to be re-forming over Monterey Bay, which means we'll probably have an overcast night and a drizzly morning tomorrow--typical summer weather for the central California coast. It shouldn't be very windy, and if the pattern holds for the next several days I might not freeze or get swept away when I go out on the low tides towards the end of the week.

© 2015 Allison J. Gong
© 2015 Allison J. Gong

Sometimes clouds are just so pretty!

Yesterday afternoon when I got home I checked out the red-tailed hawk nest across the canyon and didn't see anybody home. Then I started scanning the trees on both sides of the canyon to see if the parents were around. While I was looking the dad flew in with prey and perched on the top of one of the trees. But he didn't start eating right away so I thought he might have been showing the prey to the kids. Sure enough, we found one of the juveniles perched just a short distance away.

Buteo jamaicensis (red-tailed hawk) father (left) and newly fledged offspring (right), 14 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Buteo jamaicensis (red-tailed hawk) adult male (left) and newly fledged offspring (right), 14 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

The adult male's plumage is nice and sleek, and he perches quite easily on a branch that sways dramatically in the afternoon wind. The juvenile's feathers are rumpled and its head looks small, probably because it hasn't been feathered very long, and it had some problems with balance.

At some point the juvenile managed to hop over to its dad, who then shared some of his food.

So we knew for a fact that at least one of the juveniles had fledged; however, we didn't find the other juvenile anywhere. We did see the adult female perched atop a tall snag on our side of the canyon; she was looking around but didn't seem worried so we figured that the second juvenile at least wasn't on the ground or in some other danger.

And lo and behold, as the sun was beginning to set and light the other side of the canyon, we found both juveniles and the adult female perched on trees across the way. So both of the kids had fledged successfully!

Buteo jamaicensis (red-tailed hawks), newly fledged juveniles (left and lower right) and adult female (upper right), 14 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Buteo jamaicensis (red-tailed hawks), newly fledged juveniles (left and lower right) and adult female (upper right), 14 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong

I don't know what the juvenile on the left is doing and why it appears not to have a head. We still haven't actually seen either of the juveniles flying, but by the time it was getting dark both had returned to the nest for the night. I imagine they slept well after all the day's exertions!

 

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Our red-tailed hawk chicks are sooo close to fledging now! I've been told that the tree-nesting raptors usually first leave the nest to hop around on branches; hence they're called "branchers." This afternoon I watched the chicks and was able to catch some of the maneuvering, which included hopping around the edge of the nest.

One of the chicks seems more adventurous than the other. I know that female raptors are larger than males, so I think that males reach their fledging size sooner than their sisters. Which would mean that this earnest almost-brancher is a boy. He'll be flying soon!

This morning I took a small group of Seymour Center volunteers on a tidepooling trip to Point Piños (see red arrow in the photo below). Point Piños is a very interesting site. It marks the boundary between Monterey Bay to the right (east) of the point and the mighty Pacific Ocean to the left (west).

Map of Monterey Bay. Red arrow indicates Point Pinos.
Map of Monterey Bay. Red arrow indicates Point Piños.
Point Pinos, 9 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Point Piños, 9 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

As is my usual habit, we began our exploration on the Pacific side of the point. Almost immediately, Victoria found an octopus! And a couple of meters away, she found another one!

Octopus rubescens at Point Pinos, 9 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Octopus rubescens at Point Piños, 9 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

As we approach the summer solstice, the algae and seagrasses are at their most lush. Point Piños is a fantastic site for algal diversity; every time I come here I want to take some back with me so I can study it at the lab. Alas, collecting at Point Piños is not allowed even for someone (like me) who holds a valid scientific collecting permit.

Beds of Phyllospadix scouleri at Point Pinos, 9 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Beds of Phyllospadix scouleri (surf grass) at Point Piños, 9 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong
Macroalgae at Point Pinos, 9 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Macroalgae at Point Piños, 9 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

And yes, that log-like object towards the upper-left corner is a harbor seal (Phoca vitulina). A handful of seals were hauled out on the rocks.

However, I was much more interested in the invertebrates. I wasn't looking for anything specific, but in the back of my mind I was keeping track of certain nudibranchs and looking for small stars.

We did see many Patiria miniata (bat stars) in the 1-2 cm size range. Most of them were a bright orange-red color, but some were beige, yellow, or blotchy. There was one large (bigger than my outstretched hand) Pisaster ochraceus that was intensely orange. And Point Piños is always a good spot to see many of the six-armed stars in the genus Leptasterias.

Patiria miniata (bat star), about 1.5 cm in diameter, 9 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Patiria miniata (bat star), about 1.5 cm in diameter, at Point Piños, 9 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong
Large healthy Pisaster ochraceus (ochre star), 9 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Large healthy Pisaster ochraceus (ochre star) at Point Piños, 9 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong
Leptasterias sp., one of the six-armed stars, 9 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Leptasterias sp., one of the six-armed stars, at Point Piños,  9 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

In terms of nudibranchs there were many Doriopsilla albopunctata, a yellow dorid with tiny white spots. We saw quite a few of them crawling around on the emersed surf grass, as well as in pools. And of course Okenia rosacea (Hopkins' rose) was there, although not in the huge numbers I was expecting.

Doriopsilla albopunctata at Point Piños, 9 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Doriopsilla albopunctata at Point Piños, 9 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong
Okenia rosasea (Hopkins' rose nudibranch) at Point Piños, 9 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Okenia rosasea (Hopkins' rose nudibranch) at Point Piños, 9 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

In the low zone I saw a few thalli of the intertidal form of Macrocystis pyrifera, the giant kelp that forms the forests that the California coast is famous for. I'd seen this intertidal form named Macrocystis integrifolia, but it appears that now the two forms (intertidal and subtidal) are both considered to be M. pyrifera. To my eye, the intertidal form differs morphologically by having rounder pneumatocysts (floats) and a holdfast that is less dense than the subtidal form.

Macrocystis pyrifera (giant kelp) growing intertidally at Point Piños, 9 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Macrocystis pyrifera (giant kelp) growing intertidally at Point Piños, 9 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

Hermit crabs are diverse and abundant at Point Piños. Here's an example of Pagurus samuelis, the blue-banded hermit crab; even when you can't see the blue bands on the legs, the bright red antennae are a major clue to this crab's identity.

Pagurus samuelis (blue-banded hermit crab) at Point Piños, 9 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Pagurus samuelis (blue-banded hermit crab) at Point Piños, 9 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

When we climbed over the point to the Monterey Bay side, I found two of these little gastropod molluscs, which I didn't recognize. They are about 1 cm long, with a brown lumpy mantle that can covers the shell, which is pinkish in color. After putting it out on Facebook that I needed help with the ID, a bunch of friends and friends of friends chimed in (thanks John, Rebecca, Barry, and David!) and I was able to determine that these little guys are Hespererato vitellina:

Hespererato vitellina (appleseed Erato snail) crawling on Phyllospadix scouleri (surf grass) at Point Piños, 9 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Hespererato vitellina (appleseed Erato snail) crawling on Phyllospadix scouleri (surf grass) at Point Piños, 9 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

On our way back up the beach we noticed long windrows of Velella velella, the by-the-wind sailors, washed up. While most of them were faded and desiccated, there were enough freshly dead ones that were still blue, which may have washed up on the previous high tide.

Windrows of Velella velella (by-the-wind sailor) washed up on the beach at Point Piños, 9 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Windrows of Velella velella (by-the-wind sailor) washed up on the beach at Point Piños, 9 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

All in all, a very satisfactory morning. I saw things I expected to see, some things I didn't quite expect but wasn't surprised to see, and some things I'd never seen before. That Hespererato vitellina was completely new to me, which is always exciting.

Next up:  What kinds of things live in white calcareous tubes?

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This morning I went here (see arrow):

Natural Bridges State Beach, viewed from Long Marine Lab, 4 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Natural Bridges State Beach, viewed from Long Marine Lab, 4 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

See how it's covered in water? I took this picture at about 13:00, probably right at high tide. And of course when I was out there this morning at 06:00, it was low tide. It wasn't the greatest of low tides but it allowed me to see what I needed to see and have a front-row seat watching the early morning surfers going up and down on the big swell that's blowing in.

Obviously, visits to the intertidal need to be timed with the tide cycle. At this time of the year we get our lowest spring tides in the morning every two weeks or so, which is great for me because I am a creature of the morning. I can get up hours before the sun rises, but don't ask me to do anything that requires any intense brain activity after about 21:30.

Low tide this morning was at 05:29, when it was still almost full dark. There was plenty of light to see by the time I got out to the rocks. The tide wasn't very low and the swell was big, a combination that makes for some pretty spectacular wave watching. Here's a view towards the marine lab from my intertidal bench; look at all that frothy water!

View of Terrace Point from Natural Bridges State Beach, 4 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
View of Terrace Point from Natural Bridges State Beach, 4 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

So the water was big and the tide was mediocre, but it was still a glorious morning. Where I was the bench looked like this:

Looking seaward, Natural Bridges State Beach, 4 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Looking seaward, Natural Bridges State Beach, 4 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

What a difference seven hours can make! See that tiny black dot in the ocean? That's a surfer. While I was out there none of the three surfers I was watching did any actual surfing.

I can't seem to stop taking pictures of anemones:

A baby Anthopleura sola, measuring about 1.5 cm in diameter, 4 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
A small Anthopleura sola, measuring about 1.5 cm in diameter, 4 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong
Anthopleura xanthogrammica, 4 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Anthopleura xanthogrammica, 4 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong
Anthopleura sola adult, 4 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Anthopleura sola adult, 4 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

My prize of the day appeared as I was walking back. I happened to look down at the right time and saw this little guy:

Little octopus in tide pool at Natural Bridges State Beach, 4 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Little octopus in tide pool at Natural Bridges State Beach, 4 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

I was able to watch the octopus for a couple of minutes. Its mantle was about 3 cm tall, and I'd guess that all spread out the animal was perhaps a bit larger than the palm of my hand. When I got up to move around to the other side of the pool for a different camera angle, the octopus oozed underneath the mussels and just disappeared.

Before it vanished I was able to catch it in the act of breathing.

Although it looks like a head, given the position of the animal's eyes, the part of the animal that's pulsating is the mantle. The visceral mass and gills are contained in the space enclosed by the mantle; not surprisingly, this space is called the mantle cavity. The octopus flushes water in and out of the mantle cavity to irrigate its gills. When it wants to swim it closes off the opening to the mantle and forces water out through a funnel which can be rotated 360° so it can jet off in any direction. But this time the octopus didn't use jet propulsion. It just oozed away.

Our red-tailed hawk chicks are growing bigger every day, and trading fluff for feathers as well. Their bodies are almost completely feathered by now, which makes their heads look small and strange, as though the heads are developing more slowly than the rest of the body. Given that the head is where the brain is located, maybe it actually is growing at a different rate from the body.

For quite long stretches of time now, both parents are away from the nest. Usually the chicks are just lazing around, napping below the level of the nest rim so that we can't see them. But occasionally they stand up and look around. Already they've got that "eyes like a hawk" thing going, and they'll stare back at us through the spotting scope. And we can tell when the parents are approaching with food before we can see them, because the chicks make a holy hell of a racket. From what I've observed, they've been eating a lot of rodents lately. Good hawks! Eat all the gophers!

Sometimes the chicks get up and stretch. They need to build strength in their growing flight muscles, so they stretch up and flap their wings a bit. They're pretty long-legged and gangly now. They look sort of like bald eagles, but that's only because they don't have feathers on their heads yet.

Watch this:

Having never kept close eyes on baby red-tailed hawks before, I can't guess how long it'll be until these chicks fledge. My experience watching peregrine falcons fledge at the marine lab tells me that, for those raptors at least, fledging doesn't occur until the head is more completely feathered. If that also holds for red-taileds, then these guys have a bit of feather-growing to do. Besides, the more time they spend stretching and flapping, the better shape their muscles will be in for when they take that eventual first journey into the air.

I've been told what to expect when these guys get close to fledging, and what to do if one of them ends up on the ground. I'll keep you posted!

3

When I was in graduate school I found myself drawn to the "old-fashioned" skills of classical zoology:  observation of and experiments with living animals. I had, and still have, very little interest in the new-fangled high-tech methods of studying animals, and part of me strongly resents having to homogenize an animal to know what its name is. I leave that sort of biology to the systematists because, after all, the animal doesn't care what name we give it, and the names themselves are merely a way for us humans to communicate amongst ourselves (although in the best of all possible worlds the taxonomy reflects the evolutionary history of the group in question, which is itself a Very Useful Thing). I am much more interested in what the animal actually does as it goes about living its life.

A priest I know has said repeatedly that observation is a passive activity, and I've told him that he wouldn't think so if he actually knew how to do it properly. Careful observation takes a tremendous amount of mental focus, and like all other skills gets easier the more one does it. But I fervently disagree that observation is at all passive. If it is, then you're not doing it right. There are tricks of the trade that facilitate observation, of course, such as sketching and annotation, and I have all of my students do at least some drawing. My upper-division students keep a lab notebook that consists of drawings and notes that document their lab activities during the semester. Sometimes they grumble about having to draw and most of them worry about their self-perceived lack of artistic skill, but they do come around and realize that drawing forces them to really pay attention to what they observe. And no, I do not allow them to substitute photographs for drawings.

In graduate school I was fortunate enough to fall under the tutelage of one Todd Newberry, who directly and indirectly shaped how I think about animals and biology. He also taught me a specific type of scientific illustration, which he himself had learned from a pair of biologists in Paris. I used these techniques to draw the life history stages of my dissertation study organism, the moon jelly Aurelia sp. My favorite of this group of drawings is the juvenile medusa, or ephyra:

Pen-and-ink drawing of ephyra of Aurelia sp. Scale bar indicates 1 mm. © Allison J. Gong
Pen-and-ink drawing of ephyra of Aurelia sp., oral view. Scale bar indicates 1 mm.
© 2015 Allison J. Gong

Several years ago now, I put together a handout of sea star larval development for my invertebrate zoology students. These pen-and-ink drawings were done using the same techniques, but I left out the stippling as the larval anatomy became more complex. Part of the beauty of drawing as a means of documenting my observations is that I can select what to include which obviously reflects what I feel is important. Sometimes the decision about what to omit helps me focus on the structures that really matter, which of course depends on the purpose for any particular drawing.
Patiria development

 

So there are some of my drawings. One of my goals for the summer is to put together a suite of similar drawings of my sea urchin larvae, to complement the sea star set. It will give me an excuse to clean out my technical pens--they've been sadly neglected for years, and I hope they can be revived--and spend time with my photographs. I also have plans for some pencil drawings on black paper. I'm looking forward to tapping into the artistic side of my brain again for a while!

3

As a native Californian, I've been living with drought my entire life. Well, maybe not so much during the El Niño of 1997-98, but even then the thought "We have water now but might not later..." was always in the back of my mind. This season we had a great few weeks of rain in late November and early December, then January was bone dry and February has been disappointing as well.

This weekend an Arctic storm is moving through the region, bringing rain and cool temperatures to coastal areas and (hopefully) snow in the Sierra Nevada. Here in Santa Cruz it hasn't rained much yet but we did get a few decent showers this morning. It just so happened that I headed down to the marine lab between showers, and the light was magnificent. The water was that magical color of aquamarine and seaglass green that I associate with the tropics. The sun was shining, casting cloud shadows on the water, which added depth to the color palette when combined with the kelp bed. So pretty!

Looking east towards Natural Bridges from Terrace Point, 28 February 2015. ©Allison J. Gong
Looking east towards Natural Bridges from Terrace Point, 28 February 2015.
© Allison J. Gong
See how translucent and green the water is? 28 February 2015. ©Allison J. Gong
See how translucent and green the water is? 28 February 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

Brown pelicans (Pelicanus occidentalis) were one of many bird species whose populations were devastated by widespread use of the pesticide DDT in the mid-20th century; in 1970 it was listed on the federal Endangered Species List. After the general use of DDT was banned in the United States in 1972 the population began to recover, and in 2009 the brown pelican was removed from the Endangered Species List (I believe the bureaucratic jargon for that is "de-listed"). It is now not unusual to see long lines of pelicans skimming the waves as they fly just above the ocean surface.

Today I didn't see any large groups of pelicans in flight, but I did catch this one flying by right in front of me.

Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) flying past Terrace Point, 28 February 2015. ©Allison J. Gong
Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) flying past Terrace Point, 28 February 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

Anyone who knows me personally knows that I'm not a big cheerleader for the marine mammals. However, seeing cetaceans in the wild is always a treat. This morning I was lucky enough to catch this pod of dolphin-type critters as they swam right off the point. There were 6-8 of them, I think. As they swam past the marine lab a couple of them indulged in some tail slapping.

Dolphins swimming past Terrace Point, 28 February 2015. ©Allison J. Gong
Small cetaeans swimming past Terrace Point, 28 February 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

I'm not enough of a cetacean expert to be able to identify the animals from photos. They did have dolphin-like dorsal fins but I couldn't see a prominent rostrum on any of them. I didn't have my binoculars with me . . . and I call myself a naturalist??

Since the animals were not traveling very quickly I decided to see if I could catch them on video. I was lucky enough to get this clip:

Can anybody help me identify what these animals are?

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