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For as long as sentient humans have walked across the surface of the planet, they have observed the world around them. Quite often these observations had direct life-or-death consequences, as most of survival had to do with finding food while not becoming someone else's dinner. Fast forward a few million years and we find ourselves mired in technology, often interacting with the outside world through some sort of digital interface. And yes, I totally get the irony of writing that statement in a blog. Be that as it may, I've found that people generally don't pay much attention to what's going on around them. My job as a biology professor is to teach some of the forgotten skills of the naturalist, including the practice of observation.

Today I took my Ecology students birdwatching. We looked at other things, of course, but birds were the primary focus of today's observations. We started the day near the mouth of Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, where we were immediately challenged to identify some shorebirds. Fortunately we had a guest lecture from a seabird biologist yesterday, and she gave us some important clues to help us with our field IDs.

Some shorebirds are fairly easy to identify, such as this long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus). It was foraging in a stand of pickleweed just off the road, which is the only reason I was able to take a decent photo of it.

Long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus) at Elkhorn Slough. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus) at Elkhorn Slough.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

We also saw marbled godwits (Limosa fedoa), willets (Tringa semipalmata), as well as the flocking "peeps," which we never got a really good look at but all agreed might have been sanderlings (Calidris alba).

One of the things we had been warned about was the difficulty of identifying gulls. There are some features that help when the birds are in adult breeding plumage, but gulls go through several juvenile plumages before attaining their adult colors and there's a lot of phenotypic overlap among species. Case in point:

Gulls (Larus spp.) on Moss Landing State Beach. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Gulls (Larus spp.) on Moss Landing State Beach.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Some of these adults are western gulls (Larus occidentalis) but some look different (smaller bodies, different beak coloration). They might be sub-adult westerns or another species entirely. And even the birds in juvenile plumage varied a lot; some were speckled or mottled while others were more uniformly colored. Several birds (not in this photo) had pale gray backs and pale tan flanks. According to my field guide, National Geographic's Field Guide to the Birds of North America, there are several species that have this plumage in their second or third winter. We kind of gave up on the gulls, but to be honest we didn't have a lot invested in identifying them.

The highlight of the beach part of the field trip, at least for me, was seeing snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus). These tiny birds are perfectly colored to hide in the sand, and unless they move they are almost impossible to see. I found them because we unwittingly wandered too far up the beach towards the dunes and accidentally flushed them from their divots in the sand.

Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) at Moss Landing State Beach. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) at Moss Landing State Beach.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Can you spot all four plovers in this photo? Here's another quartet:

Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) at Moss Landing State Beach. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) at Moss Landing State Beach.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This morning I saw my first humpback whale of the season. A couple of whale watching boats were lingering around the mouth of the harbor, which should have clued us in that there was something going on. However, it took a kayaker to tell us that there were breaching humpbacks just off the jetty before we realized. And I call myself a naturalist? Sheesh.

This bird is, I think, a third-winter western gull (L. occidentalis).

Western gull (Larus occidentalis) at Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, CA. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Western gull (Larus occidentalis) at Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, CA.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This species is endemic to the California Current, which means that it is found nowhere else. The pink legs are characteristic of western gulls, and the black on the tip of the bill indicates a third-winter bird. Adults have a red spot towards the end of the bill but not on the very tip. If you look closely you can see that this bird has a tiny bit of red immediately proximal to the black smudge.


After lunch we convened at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve visitor center, across the highway and inland a bit from our morning site. The students got a 30-minute orientation to the history and geography of the Slough, then we went on a hike.

Orientation to the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Orientation to the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The first leg of the hike was a short walk to what is appropriately called the overlook. This is where I gave the students their only real assignment of the day. They had to spend 10 minutes in silent observation. They could write in their notebooks and look around with binoculars, but they were not allowed to talk at all. With some groups this is a nigh-impossible feat, but these students did a fantastic job. After the 10-minute observation period we discussed what they had seen and heard. One student said he heard 26 bird calls, but didn't know how many of them were the same bird making different calls. Others mentioned the sounds of human activity--traffic on the highway, planes flying overhead, the beep-beep-beep of a truck in reverse--as well as the buzz of insects and birds. I asked if anyone else had noticed the shadow of a turkey vulture that flew directly over us.

Silent observation period at Elkhorn Slough. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Silent observation period at Elkhorn Slough.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I think this is a very valuable exercise and would like to extend this period of silent observation to 15 or 20 minutes for future classes. In a lot of ways class always feels a little frantic, and to slow down and simply be a part of nature is a luxury of time that many of us don't have. Alas, we had other places to visit on the hike and needed to get moving again.

Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) in flight over Elkhorn Slough. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) in flight over Elkhorn Slough.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Much of Elkhorn Slough used to be a dairy, and the Slough is still surrounded by agricultural fields. There are two barns on the Reserve, named Big Barn and Little Barn. Little Barn is used for equipment storage and isn't open to the public, but you can walk into Big Barn. There are two barn owl boxes in Big Barn. We searched under them for owl pellets; we didn't find any intact pellets but did see some that had been dissected by previous human visitors.

Little Barn (foreground) and Big Barn (background) at Elkhorn Slough. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Little Barn (foreground) and Big Barn (background) at Elkhorn Slough.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I don't think I've ever seen this much green at Elkhorn Slough. All of the El Niño rains have brought forth a lot of wildflowers and grasses. We hiked past a large stand of non-native poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) on our way to Big Barn. That stuff is going to be difficult to eradicate, as it spreads quickly and outcompetes native species. And yes, this plant is highly toxic to mammals and was, in fact, used by the ancient Greeks for human executions (including that of Socrates).

When we returned to the visitor we asked the Reserve's naturalist, Jane, to take our picture. So this is class photo #1 of the semester. It's not complete, as three students were absent today. I hope to get a picture of the entire class another day.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I wanted to take the students to the woodpeckers' acorn granary, but we didn't have time to hike that far. Spring break is coming up week after next, and I think I'll go back to the Slough to say "hello" to the family of acorn woodpeckers. I'm looking forward to having more time than I do at the moment to play outdoors. I want to do some drawing, too!

After pretty much neglecting us in February, El Niño has returned with a bang in March. Late yesterday and last night a weather station near me, more or less at sea level, recorded 4.67 inches of rain and wind speeds of 15 mph. Stations in the Santa Cruz mountains recorded close to 6 inches of rain yesterday, and there were patchy power outages throughout the county. This morning I woke to sunny, clear skies. Beautifully clear, with white puffy clouds. The forecast calls for another storm to head in this evening, giving me a window of opportunity to run up the coast and grab some mussels.

I have to say, El Niño's timing could be better. We have alternating weeks of spring and neap tides, and this winter the storms seem to be arriving during the spring tides. More than one tide series has been washed out because of storm surge and majorly big swell. I had figured that this would be the case today, so I didn't expect to get very far down in the intertidal. However the only thing I absolutely had to collect was mussels and I don't need a very low tide for those. It was very unlikely that I'd be unable to collect them, and at the very least I'd be able to take some photos.

Walking across the beach to the rocks, I noticed my first Velella of the season. As usual for these strangely wonderful animals they were gathered into windrows at the high tide level. Many of them were very small, less than 1 cm long, and the largest I saw was about the length of my thumb.

Velella velella stranded on the beach at Davenport Landing. 6 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Velella velella stranded on the beach at Davenport Landing.
6 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

While it is not at all unusual to find Velella washed up on the beach, I did find some in a place that I didn't expect. More on that in a bit.

Conditions in and on the water were pretty rough. There were no surfable waves, therefore no surfers. They'd have been beat up by the waves crashing in all directions.

Rough water at Davenport Landing Beach. 6 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Rough water at Davenport Landing Beach.
6 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

On a calmer day, the water at this beach can be glassy smooth with very gently breaking waves. Not so today:

Easily accessible beaches such as this one are typically crowded for these afternoon low tides. Most of the people there are just hanging out with their friends, family, and dogs. Every once in a while, however, I run into people who might not be entirely on the up and up. Much of the coast in California is designated as a marine protected area (MPA), and while allowed activities vary from MPA to MPA, in general I don't have permission to collect at any of them with my current state-issued scientific collecting permit. This means that collecting, both scientific and recreational, is concentrated into the few places where it is allowed.

Today I arrived at the parking area at the same time as a family of three adults and about five kids. The men were wearing wellies and carrying 5-gallon buckets. It was clear that they were going to be collecting something. I can't really say that I looked any different, in my hip boots and with my own bucket, so I just smiled a greeting to them and headed out on my way. Given that there was so little exposed rock, we were bound to keep running onto each other. At one such meeting I asked what they were doing, and they said they were collecting mussels to eat. I said I was, too, to use as food for animals at the marine lab. They asked what the limit was. I told them that I didn't know what the limit was for taking with a marine fishing license (assuming that they had one), but the limit for my collecting permit is 35. We nodded and went our separate ways.

Now, I'm not a game warden and it's not my job to enforce the state's rules about collecting, or even to see if other citizens have the appropriate permits or licenses. I generally feel that the better part of valor is to mind my own business. These guys today were friendly enough and completely non-threatening, but my gut instinct tells me that they didn't have a fishing license. Is that any of my business? I don't think so; yet as a citizen of this state I have a vested interest in protecting our wildlife from unlawful take. I know there aren't enough wardens to patrol all beaches all the time, and now that I think about it I don't know that I've ever been stopped by a warden on an afternoon low tide. The enforcement strategy seems to be to let citizens patrol each other, in the sense that skullduggery is less likely on a crowded beach in the broad daylight of afternoon than at the crack of dawn on a morning low tide.

Anyway, on to the matter at hand. I've noticed that recently my eye has been drawn to patterns that occur among whatever objects happen to be around. Scrambling down a little cliff and continuing up the coast I noticed these smears of algae growing on the vertical sandstone face. It's not that I hadn't seen them before, but because of the recent rain there was water running down the cliff face, which added a sheen to the green algae that they don't have when they're dry.

Streaks of green algae on sandstone cliff face at Davenport Landing. 6 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Streaks of green algae on sandstone cliff face at Davenport Landing.
6 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

At this site there are some little caves that you can get to at low tide. The tide wasn't low enough to reach the caves that go back any appreciable distance, but I did get to a small one. It was more of deep fissure than a cave, really, large enough to duck into but only a couple of meters deep. The really cool thing about it was the waterfall cascading over the opening. Again, without the runoff from yesterday's rain this little waterfall wouldn't even exist.

Also, there is quite a bit of stuff living inside the cavelet. Not much in the way of algae, of course, with the exception of both encrusting and upright corallines, but in terms of animals there was more or less the same fauna that I'd expect in the high-mid intertidal.

Cavelet at Davenport Landing Beach. 6 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Cavelet at Davenport Landing Beach.
6 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The biggest surprise in this little cave was Velella! A bunch of them had apparently gotten washed up into the fissure by the last high tide. I found them stuck amongst barnacles and algae.

Velella velella stuck to coralline alga inside cave at Davenport Landing. 6 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Velella velella stuck to coralline algae inside cave at Davenport Landing.
6 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This one was maybe half the length of my thumb. On the opposite side of the cave a crab was taking advantage of this unusual bounty.

Small shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) dining on a mangled Velella velella in a cave at Davenport Landing Beach. 6 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Small shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) snacking on a mangled Velella velella in a cave at Davenport Landing Beach.
6 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I can't imagine there's much nutrition in a Velella for a crab, but the animal is always right even (especially?) when it doesn't make sense to us. The crab knows what it's doing.

All told, it was a short but very satisfying little jaunt to the intertidal. The clouds had spent the afternoon talking about whether or not to build to anything, and by the time I left they'd come to consensus. The wind is picking up now, the rain should start soon, and the National Weather Service says we may be in for thunderstorms tonight. I'm tucked up at home, warm and dry. Have a good evening, everybody!

Davenport Beach

This year I'm teaching Ecology for the second time. It is a field-intensive course: we have all day on Fridays to meet outside the classroom and do something outdoors. Most people understand that hands-on experiences are the best way to learn, whether the subject matter is field-based or computer-based (such as working with software for statistical analyses), and part of my job this semester is to provide as many diverse experiential activities as I can for my students. As I am a marine biologist by training and inclination the course is biased towards marine ecology, but I'm doing my best to include terrestrial activities as well.

Today we visited the Younger Lagoon Reserve on the Long Marine Lab campus, to participate in the ongoing habitat restoration project. We were met by Beth Howard, the reserve manager, and Tim Brown, the reserve steward, who gave us a brief history of the reserve and the conservation work going on there.

Beth (aqua jacket) and Tim (yellow jacket) give us the rundown on restoration at the Younger Lagoon Reserve. 4 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Beth (aqua jacket) and Tim (yellow jacket) give us the rundown on restoration at the Younger Lagoon Reserve.
4 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

We are standing in a plot that had very recently (as in within the last week) been planted with young grasses. The reserve staff, volunteers, and student interns collect seeds from local populations of native plants, germinate and grow them up in the greenhouse, and then plant them the following spring. The idea is that in a few years the larger scrub plants, such as coyote bush and sticky monkey flower, will outcompete the non-native weeds and the plant community will more or less take care of itself. The annual flowering plants should re-seed and repopulate the area at the end of the season.

The master design in this area of the Younger Lagoon Reserve. 4 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
The master design in this area of the Younger Lagoon Reserve.
4 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Tim, as the reserve steward, designed this bit of the reserve. The areas within the polygons are to be planted with flowering annuals, while the spaces between polygons are to be filled with perennial grasses. To make seed gathering easier, we were told to plant in patches, resulting in medium-sized patches of several plants of one species grouped together.

In addition to helping plant upwards of 1500 plants today, we got to see how last year's plants are doing! I'm proud to report that they have filled in beautifully and grown a lot:

On the right: Plants that my students and I planted last year. On the left: Plants that were set out about a week ago. Younger Lagoon Reserve. 4 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
On the right: Plants that my students and I planted last year. On the left: Plants that were set out about a week ago. Younger Lagoon Reserve.
4 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Not all the vegetation in the right side of the photo was the stuff that we planted last year. Some of it was weeds. The reserve workers are about to shift from planting mode to weeding mode, to remove as many weeds as possible before they have a chance to flower and set seed.

When it was time to start the actual planting, we were shown how to make holes and insert the baby plants.

Demonstration of the "dibble dance." Younger Lagoon Reserve © Allison J. Gong
Demonstration of the "dibbler dance." Younger Lagoon Reserve
© Allison J. Gong

The dibbler is a nifty tool that makes holes in the ground. You clear off the layer of mulch, shove the dibbler into the soil, and wiggle it around, making a perfectly round hole. The plants are grown in cone-tainers, that not-so-coincidentally are the exact same size and shape as the holes made by the dibbler. I asked Beth, and she confirmed that the dibbler and cone-tainers are made by the same company. Once the dibbler has made the hole you remove a plant from a cone-tainer, stick it in the hole, tamp down the soil around it, and replace the mulch.

We were instructed to place the holes 18" apart, and not in a strict grid pattern. The goal is to restore a natural setting, not create a formal garden. After the instructions we all got to play in the dirt.

Student working at YLR Students at YLR Student at YLR Students at YLR

In addition to planting flowering annuals in a couple of the polygons, we also did this:

Native grasses my students and I planted at Younger Lagoon Reserve. 4 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Some of the native grasses my students and I planted at Younger Lagoon Reserve.
4 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

After our work in the field we went across the marine lab to Younger Lagoon. It rained on us for a while, and we sheltered under the lean-to and looked out over the lagoon. It's beautiful even in the rain.

Younger Lagoon 4 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Younger Lagoon
4 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) at Younger Lagoon. 4 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) at Younger Lagoon.
4 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This red-winged blackbird was loudly staking his claim to a bit of territory. He never showed off his red epaulettes, though. Another bird was replying from the top of a cypress tree a short distance away. The back-and-forth went on for about five minutes, before one of the birds flew off.

For the first time I got to hike the trail that parallels the east side of Younger Lagoon. We didn't go down onto the beach, but I was able to see a perspective of the large rock at the mouth of the lagoon that I'd never looked on before.

Large rock at the mouth of Younger Lagoon. 4 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Large rock at the mouth of Younger Lagoon.
4 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Does anybody else see the profile of Abraham Lincoln in this rock?

Today my students and I visited the Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project hatchery, to learn about local efforts to save the federally endangered coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch). The coho is one of five species of Pacific salmon found on the coast of North America, the other four being the Chinook (O. tshawytscha), the chum (O. keta), the sockeye (O. nerka), and the pink (O. gorbuscha). The coho's range extends in the North Pacific from northern Japan up along Russia, across the Aleutians, and down the coast of North America to the northern bit of Monterey Bay. In our area the coho return to their natal streams (Scott Creek, Big Creek, and occasionally the San Lorenzo River) during the winter rains in January and February.

The local population of coho make up an evolutionarily significant unit (ESU). This means that they are locally adapted to the extent that they are biologically and genetically distinct from other populations. For example, coho from Alaska, where they are much more common, cannot be successfully transplanted into our watershed because they are genetically programmed to spawn in the fall, the time of year when our streams are dry or disconnected from the ocean due to sand bars. So these fish aren't just any old salmon. They have evolved to live in this particular watershed and as such are irreplaceable.

Our first stop of the morning was to the fish trap on Scott Creek. The weir, the structure that extends across the river in the photo below, traps fish that are swimming upstream. Once on the upstream side of the weir, the fish are directed into the cage, from which they can be removed so that fisheries biologists can collect life history data--species, sex, weight, length--before they are released to continue their journey upstream (if they are steelhead) or transported to the hatchery to be spawned (if they are coho).

Students visiting the fish trap on Scott Creek. 19 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Students visiting the fish trap on Scott Creek.
19 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

No fish were in the trap when we got there this morning but our host, a NMFS biologist named Erick, told me that eight coho had been caught yesterday. We did see a pair of steelhead swimming in the water upstream of the weir. Anytime I see a fish out of water, I forget how difficult it is to find them when they're in their natural habitat. The spots on a steelhead's back blend in perfectly with the ripples of the water and the gravel of the stream bed.

Pair of steelhead in Scott Creek. 19 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Pair of steelhead in Scott Creek.
19 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Do you see two faintly reddish blurs in the photo above? Those are the fish. They are facing upstream, to the right. The larger fish on the top is the female.

After the visit to the fish trap on Scott creek we drove up to the hatchery, which is located along Big Creek. The hatchery's day-to-day operations are run by a couple of people from MBSTP. During the busy seasons staff and interns from the NMFS lab in Santa Cruz work up there, too, so the little hatchery building gets quite crowded. We were fortunate to get to see pretty much all the steps involved in trying to return an endangered species from the brink of extinction.

Male salmon, called bucks, are held in pens outdoors. They can contribute more than one sperm donation in a season, just as in the wild a male can fertilize the eggs of more than one female. A buck is taken from the pen, sedated, and then is milted for his sperm. The milt is collected into a glass test-tube and kept dry; once the sperm make contact with fresh water they become activated, and there is a 30-second window during which they can fertilize eggs. Sperm can also be damaged by exposure to UV radiation, so the test tubes are always held in a closed hand. Back inside the hatchery building Erick takes a look at the sperm under a microscope to make sure they can swim properly.

Female salmon are called hens. Before eggs are taken the hens are anaesthetized and examined by palpation and ultrasound to confirm that their eggs are mature. A sample of ovarian fluid is taken and sent off to be tested for disease. When a hen passes the ripeness test she is sliced open to release her eggs into four metal basins.

Collecting a sample of ovarian fluid from a ripe coho hen. 19 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Collecting a sample of ovarian fluid from a ripe coho hen.
19 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

A single female's eggs are fertilized by the sperm of four males. The fisheries biologists keep a detailed matrix of who mates with whom, so that they can avoid additional inbreeding in a population of fish that has already undergone a genetic bottleneck. Milt that has been collected from broodstock males is placed over the eggs. Fertilization occurs once fresh water is added to the basin. The egg-sperm combination is swirled ("just like panning for gold," Erick explained) for two minutes, then the eggs are rinsed and disinfected before being placed into a 100% humidity cold incubator held at 11°C.

The eggs remain in the incubator until the embryos have developed eyes. Then they are transferred into trays through which water flows. When they've absorbed most of their yolk sac they get placed into large indoor trays where they will be fed until they are big enough to go into the outdoor tanks. They'll spend about a year in the outdoor tanks and should then be ready to undergo the process of smoltification, during which their physiology undergoes the alterations necessary for the transition to marine life.

Erick explains hatchery operations, standing next to one of the outdoor pens where smolts are held. 19 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Erick explains hatchery operations, standing next to one of the outdoor pens where smolts are held.
19 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

When I took last year's class to the hatchery we didn't get to see much activity because there were so few fish returning due to the prolonged drought and low water in the creek. This year's El Niño, which has brought rain, has also made it possible for the fish to get into the creeks. Coho are a 3-year species, so the fish returning this year were born in 2013. These fish outmigrated as smolts into drought conditions, and fortunately for them they return during a rainy year. Their progeny will outmigrate in 2017, hopefully into a strong upwelling which will produce lots of food. And when they return in 3-4 years, I hope that there is enough rain for their creek to flow.

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?

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