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Library of Congress  I was completely unprepared for how astoundingly beautiful the Library of Congress is. From the outside it looks like another of the many federal buildings constructed in the Classical style. The interior, though, was spectacular.

Columns, Corinthian capitals, and ceiling details inside the Library of Congress
28 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Ceiling and columns in the Great Hall, Library of Congress Jefferson Building
28 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The ceiling of the Great Hall is magnificent--take a look at this stained glass!

Ceiling of the Great Hall, Library of Congress Jefferson Building
28 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

We joined a tour and the docent explained the significance of many of the architectural and artistic details she pointed out to us. She told us that when the building was designed in the 1890s, the intent was to portray the United States as a major player on the world stage, able to build in the Classical style as well as the Europeans did, while adding details that are distinctly American. For example, the mosaic floor of the great hall features a motif of an ear of corn, to represent a New World plant that isn't native to Europe.

And this painting, high up on a wall, represents Sport. It features  baseball, that most American of sports! The corresponding painting on the opposite wall shows American football. And of course the athletes are naked, because that's how the ancient Greek athletes competed. Artistic nudity, either in painting or in sculpture, was not a problem in the 1890s. There were no prudes calling for fig leaves to be placed over statues' genitals, or for female nipples to be covered with pasties.

Painting portraying Sport, Library of Congress Jefferson Building
28 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Our docent told us that the building's designers were all Americans, but that some of the actual artisans were brought over from Europe. Likewise, much of the stone came from quarries in the U.S. The marble for those columns with the fancy capitals, however, was mined near Siena, Italy. She wasn't sure if it was Cararra marble. I think the look is right for Cararra marble, though.

There a lot going on, visually, inside this building. It's exactly the kind of visual input that should have killed my brain right on the spot. However, because all of the elements conform to the theme of Classical Greek and Roman design, they fit together thematically. The net result is very pleasing to the eye. I would really like to return and go on a tour with a different docent, who would highlight other things for us to look at. The amount of symbolism and history in the building is fantastic. Every item and detail means something.

Angels in the high corner, Library of Congress Jefferson Building
28 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Our docent pointed out that there were no depictions of named women, anywhere in the Library of Congress. However, female figures were often used to portray broad themes such as wisdom, philosophy, culture, government, and the like. There is one mosaic of the Roman goddess Minerva:

Mosaic of Minerva, Library of Congress Jefferson Building
28 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Minerva is located at the landing on the staircase leading up to the overlook. Tour groups are allowed up to the overlook one at a time, and nobody is allowed to stop at the Minerva mosaic. The only way to photograph her is from across the room.

The overlook looks down into the Reading Room. It sounds like anybody needing to do research can obtain a library card and use the resources, including the Reading Room. As mere visitors, we were restricted to looking down from above.

Reading Room, Library of Congress Jefferson Building
28 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The Library of Congress holds one of three existing Gutenberg Bibles printed on vellum; the other two are in Europe, housed in Paris and London.

Gutenberg Bible, Library of Congress Jefferson Building
28 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The docent described how Gutenberg had to set, by hand, every single letter on each page he printed, and that he needed a way to organize all of the letters so he could find them easily and use them again. He decided to put all of the capital letters on the upper levels of his shelves . . . which is why we call them 'upper case' letters! And the lower case letters were, of course, organized in the lower levels of the shelves. I had no idea how or from where we inherited that terminology. If Gutenberg had put all the capital letters in boxes on the floor, 'upper case' and 'lower case' would mean the exact opposite of what they do mean!

Thomas Jefferson's library is housed in this building, as well as memorabilia from Bob Hope. It also holds much of the estates of George and Ira Gershwin, some of which is displayed in the Gershwin Room, opened as a permanent exhibit in 1998. We got to see George Gershwin's piano! It's a black Steinway grand, a smaller version of what you'd see in any concert hall and doesn't look particularly special until you consider the musical genius of the man who sat at it and composed Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris. Not to mention Porgy and Bess. I mean, WOW!

Front page from the original score to Gershwin's An American in Paris, Library of Congress Jefferson Building
28 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

It doesn't get more American than that, does it?

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History  Finally, on the afternoon of our last day, we got to visit the NMNH. My friend, Dr. Chris Mah, works in the Invertebrate Zoology department of the NMNH. We arranged to meet him outside the staff entrance so we could bypass the ginormous line, then wandered the hall for a couple of hours before meeting up with him again for a tour of the behind-the-scenes stuff.

To be honest, while I love exploring any natural history museum, this one was too crowded for me to relax and enjoy. Again, it was because I was there during spring break, and all of the museums were especially packed with visitors. We had time to wander through the Ocean Hall, the fossils, and the minerals and gems. The minerals and gems are often my favorite part of a natural history museum, because (a) I'm not a geologist, so there's always stuff for me to learn; and (b) I love the colored minerals. I don't covet precious gems because of their monetary value, but I do love looking at them for their brilliant colors.

I took only one good picture on the main floor of the museum--there were too many people around for me to be able to take the time to frame shots nicely and after a while I gave up. But this is the fossil skeleton of a whale ancestor. Note that this animal didn't have just the pelvic bones that modern whales have; it had fully formed hind limbs. The most recent thinking is that Ambulocetus natans was entirely aquatic, but may have been able to walk around on the seafloor even if it never came out onto land.

Ambulocetus natans, at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
29 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The real treat for us was meeting up with Chris again at the end of the day. Chris took us through the security doors to the Invertebrate Zoology department, where the various collections are housed. This is where all the cool (and bizarre) stuff is kept. Most of the items are not going to be displayed, but are used by scientists studying particular groups of animals. Chris works at the NMNH but also travels to museums in California, Paris, and Tokyo to identify sea stars in those collections. The bowels of a museum are like the bowels of any other building--fluorescent lighting, dingy walls, old posters and whiteboards on the walls.

This was the best door sign. In recent years the federal museums have undergone reorganizations and consolidations. I don't know why and forgot to ask Chris, but the Invertebrate Zoology department inherited the entire National Parasite Slide collection. I bet it's a huge collection of parasites sectioned and mounted on slides.

 

In one of the collection rooms, sitting against the wall, was one of the most godawful objects I have ever seen.

29 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

It's a giant clam shell (Tridacna sp.) mounted on a silver base of mermaids. At first I thought it was a bathroom sink, but Chris said it's a punch bowl. Apparently there's a whole set of punch cups that go with it. The whole shebang was a gift to one of the early 20th-century presidents. Seems it might be a better item for the American History Museum, but may be they got right of first refusal and refused to accept it. Or maybe because of the clam shell the IZ department wanted it? Doubtful.

The collections are housed in movable shelves, in some order that hopefully makes sense to both the curators (people who decide what goes where) and the scientific users. Here's a bit of the coral collection:

One drawer of the coral collection, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
29 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Items that are being actively studied or need a temporary place while their permanent home is being decided or made ready end up spread out on big tables. This is the kind of thing that I find fascinating. The detritus of working scientists is fun to examine.

MIscellaneous items, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
29 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

These are freshwater bivalves:

Freshwater bivalves, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
29 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
29 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Chris said that the museum acquires items from a variety of sources: private collections, smaller museums or schools that can no longer keep all of the material in their own collections, and donations from individuals. Some of the artifacts are quite old, and arrive in quaint containers such as these nostalgic match boxes. Other things are packaged in paper towels and plastic bags. This, of course, is for dry specimens. Wet specimens, preserved in alcohol or formalin, are stored in buckets elsewhere.

Chris showed us some specimens that were of special interest to this marine biologist from California. The first were some brittle stars, Ophiocoma aethiops, collected by Ed Ricketts! Get a load of the label on this box:

Ophiocoma aethiops, collected by Ed Ricketts, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
29 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

There were four other boxes of the same animal. The date (March 20, 1940) and location (Espiritu Santo) indicate that this specimen and the several others just like it were collected during the trip that Ricketts and Steinbeck immortalized in their book Sea of Cortez. I read this book every so often, and use bits of it in lectures. I know that most of Ricketts' collection was deposited with the Hopkins Marine Station, part of Stanford University in Pacific Grove, after his death, and it was really cool to see this set of specimens in the Smithsonian.

The other special item that Chris likes to show visitors from California is the type specimen of one of our local sea stars, Pisaster giganteus. Before the onset of sea star wasting syndrome I'd see this star occasionally in the low intertidal, and divers would see it subtidally in kelp forests. The biggest one I'd ever seen was probably about 23 cm in diameter, a bit larger than my completely outstretched hand. What the Smithsonian has in its collection, for reasons that I don't remember, is the type specimen for this species. The type specimen is the individual (or group of individuals) that is the basis for the scientific description of a species and the species' name. You can think of it as the 'default' for a species, with an important caveat. Many times a species is named based on a type specimen that turns out to be not the norm for the species, which is why we encounter scientific names that are descriptive but make no sense.

Anyway, here's the type specimen of P. giganteus:

Dr. Chris Mah holding the type specimen of Pisaster giganteus, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
29 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The tag says that this animal, which indeed lives up to its species epithet, was collected from Tomales Bay in 1857. It's easily three times the diameter of the conspecific stars that I've seen alive. And even in photos of subtidal stars, I haven't seen a P. giganteus this big. Do they just not get this big anymore? Does it have something to do with habitat? I wouldn't have expected to find P. giganteus in Tomales Bay, because I usually associate them with a rocky bottom in a more exposed habitat. So what's going on with this type specimen? I don't know, maybe nothing. This thing is remarkable for its huge size, though. Stuff like this is very cool. I always like going backstage and getting to see things that will never make it into the exhibit hall.

National Archives  We spent the morning waiting in line to see things in the National Archives building. The lines to get in were very long, and even though we'd bought a membership the night before so that we could bypass the entry line, once we got inside the building there were more lines to go through security. And this was like going through security at the airport--all coats and belts removed, all pockets emptied, walk through the metal detector, then retrieve belongings and get dressed again. At least they let us keep our shoes on.

Of course, everybody at the Archives wants to see the Charters of Freedom. I'd never heard of that term before but it refers to documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. There were very long lines to get into the room where these items are displayed, and this was the location where my head really was unhappy with the crowds. Many of the tourists were school groups on spring break, and they were loud. It was exactly the kind of stimulus that my brain, still suffering from post-concussion syndrome, can't deal with.

Oh, and there's no photography allowed at all in the Archives, so no pictures to share.

The Charters of Freedom are exhibited in a dimly lit room. Museum staff let in group of ~30 people at a time, and people would rush from case to case. As soon as the crowd began to dissipate another group would come in and there wasn't any time to really look at any of the documents. Given their age it is not surprisingly that they are faded with time. The ink is visible but difficult to read. Some day I would like to go back when it isn't so crowded and spend some time inspecting them. There is something undeniably special about seeing one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence in person, even if it is sealed in a special case behind glass.

Smithsonian Air and Space Museum  After lunch we made our first visit to one of the Smithsonian museums. Air and Space is always one of the most popular of all the museums in DC, and the day we were there it was predictably crowded. The staff was also setting up for a fancy shindig of some sort, which I imagine must happen fairly regularly in places like that. The folks arriving towards closing time were dressed in formal cocktail attire, and the rest of us were herded towards the doors right at 5:30 p.m.

The Air and Space Museum makes for tricky photography: all of the artifacts are behind glass and most are dimly lit so photos end up glare-y and/or noisy. A lot of the cool stuff is hanging from the ceiling, but there are so many vehicles suspended up there that it's really hard to get the entirety of any one item in view without it being at least partially covered up by something else. Still, there's no other way for some of these huge planes and craft to be displayed, and it's really cool seeing the actual sizes of things. You can walk through the Skylab module, which we did right at closing when they were shooing visitors out the doors. I didn't know they had a real shower up there!

This is probably my favorite artifact of the bunch. It's the Apollo command module. I don't know why, but I think it looks really cool.

Apollo command module, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
27 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

As someone who suffers from mild claustrophobia, it's really hard for me to imagine what it would be like to be cooped in this capsule for longer than about five minutes. And the Gemini capsule would be even worse! This module was used to learn how humans perform in space and how they can work in space, leading up to the Apollo moon missions.

Gemini capsule, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
27 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Two astronauts would stay in this tiny capsule for as long as the anticipated length of a lunar mission, up to 14 days. Two whole weeks! See those chairs? That's about all the space there is. There was nothing in the signage about how they took care of bodily functions when restrained in a tiny compartment for that long. Surely I can't be the only person who wonders!

Moon suit worn by Gene Cernan, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
27 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

This is the suit that Eugene Cernan wore on the moon. He became the last human to leave the moon's surface by being the last to return to the lunar landing module in Apollo 17. He died in January 2017. Some parts of each moon walker's suit were left behind on the moon to minimize weight for the voyage home.

Apollo moon flag, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
27 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And hey, here's that flag from MTV! This isn't the actual flag that astronauts left on the moon, obviously, but is a replicate. There were six U.S. flags planted on the moon, by astronauts from Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17. According to this NASA site, five of the six flags were still standing on the moon's surface until fairly recently. I think many scientists were surprised to learn that the flags have survived several decades on the moon's surface, with constant exposure to full solar radiation and extreme temperature. They must be completely faded by now.

I have been fascinated by the idea of robots crawling across the surface of Mars and sending data home to Earth since the Sojourner rover landed on Independence Day 1997. And I remember watching and listening with bated breath as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers approached for its landing on Mars in 2004. To me, the fact that we sent robots to another planet and communicated with them for over 10 years as they collected data, is the epitome of scientific success. Spirit's wheels got stuck in the sand and NASA was unable to free it, but the robot continued to send data back to Earth until March 2010. As of today, Opportunity is still alive and roaming.

But I've never known how big these robots are. Air and Space has a life-size model of the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012 and remains operational. Based on this model, Curiosity is about as long as and both wider and taller than my car, a Honda Fit.

Curiosity rover, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
27 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Of all the weird gizmos and gadgets displayed in the Air and Space museum, one of my favorite displays was this panel of equipment included in the return modules. I think that now, with Russian Soyuz capsules serving as the vehicles taking astronauts and cosmonauts up to and back from the International Space Station (ISS), returning space travelers land in Kazakhstan. But before the use of the Space Shuttle, astronauts came back to Earth by splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. So perhaps it isn't surprising that their return kit included these items:

In Case of Water Landing
27 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Those NASA engineers sure thought of everything, didn't they? I wonder if any of the astronauts had to use the shark repellent. Unfortunately, the signs didn't say.

Lincoln Memorial  This is one of the most easily recognizable monuments in Washington, DC. It graces the back of our $5 bill and sits directly across the Reflecting Pool from the Washington Monument. Everybody knows what it looks like.

Lincoln Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

From the outside, especially from the bottom of the steps, this is another imposing marble edifice. I like that the names of the states carved into the frieze above the colonnade. I first saw these names on the back of a $5 bill when I was in grade school. Kinda cool to see that they're also present in the real thing.

Inside the memorial has a very different feel. There's the famous sculpture of Lincoln sitting on that big chair, of course, with his various writings carved into the walls around him. But even though that statue is so dang big, it doesn't feel cold or distancing. Lincoln looks like he's just a person. Viewed from ground level the statue's hands and feet are enormous compared to the head; I don't know if the sculptor did that deliberately, or if it's just an artifact of perspective because we're looking up at it.

Lincoln Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I'm strongly drawn to the hands of this sculpture. Neither of them indicates a relaxed posture; the fingers of the right hand are gripping the armrest of the chair, and the left hand is closed in a fist. I don't know what those hands are intended to convey, but to me they suggest tension.

Lincoln Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Isn't that slightly raised right index finger interesting? I wonder if that was an actual mannerism of Lincoln's, or just an artistic decision made by the sculptor.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is, of course, among those writings inscribed on the wall of the memorial. For some reason I'd assumed that the bit we all know was the beginning of a much longer speech. But no, the entire thing is contained in this single panel. Simple and eloquent. Why the heck do politicians talk so dang much today? And why do they so often seem to say so little?

 

Vietnam Veterans Memorial  I knew what the Vietnam Memorial was going to look like, having seen plenty of pictures and followed from afar the design and construction of it. And everyone I knew who had seen it raved at how touching it is. The one thing that pictures and words cannot convey is what it feels like to walk by the wall. Getting to the wall from the Lincoln Memorial you walk past a monument to the U.S. soldiers who fought in Vietnam.

Vietnam soldiers
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

It's slightly larger than life-size and the details are amazing. From the expressions on their faces these men are exhausted and yet resolved. I wish we'd had more time so I could take pictures of this piece from different angles.

The Vietnam Wall is shaped like a long, meandering trapezoid. Like the FDR Memorial, this is one that you don't just approach and leave; the path takes you along the entire length of the Wall. The panels on each end taper up towards the panels in the middle. This is visually pleasing, but the effect results from the fact that each panel bears the names of the soldiers who died in a given year of the war, and so the overall shape of the wall is a long, tapered trapezoid. I didn't have the right equipment to get all or even any significant portion of the Wall in a photograph, so I didn't even try.

A tiny portion of the Vietnam Wall
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

You might not expect a simple list of names to be so moving. I certainly didn't. And while this listing might seem like a way of making the names anonymous, it had the opposite effect. I don't have a relative whose name is on the Wall so none of the names here meant anything to me personally. But when you are confronted with the sheer magnitude of the mortality and the (mostly) young people who were lost to their families, it's very sobering.

Note that there are no ranks among the names. Each name on the wall represents a person who served and died, and military ranks don't matter to the dead. Nobody gets special treatment in this memorial.

Visitors leave gifts and notes for a loved ones whose name is on the Wall
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Slightly off the beaten path and therefore not heavily visited is the Vietnam Women's Monument. There are only eight women's names on the Wall, but there were ~11,000 women who served in Vietnam, mostly as nurses. The Vietnam Women's Monument recognizes the skills of these women as they tend to a wounded soldier.

Vietnam Women's Monument
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Vietnam Women's Monument
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The blue cards on the base of the monument are thank-you notes written by schoolchildren in Kansas. They said things like "Thank you for serving your country" and "I wish I had your courage." Smart kids.

1

Monday 26 March 2018 -- Memorials

Southwest District of Columbia
© Google Maps

On Monday we ventured south of the Mall to the Tidewater area, where an extension of the Potomac river floods into a basin and forms a tidal pond. This area is where the famous cherry trees of Washington, DC, are concentrated, and we hoped to catch some of the bloom. Alas, it had snowed about a week earlier, there were still patches of snow on the ground, and that day it was cold and windy. The cherry trees were thinking about blooming but hadn't gotten around to making any real effort yet. It was sunny, though, and nice weather for walking around, since we were bundled up.

About a week too early!
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Jefferson Memorial  Our first stop was the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. We skipped the Washington Monument because it didn't look very interesting and I didn't want to wait in the line to go up to the top, from where the view must be spectacular. I did, however, take the obligatory photo of the monument itself.

Washington Monument
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The Jefferson Memorial occupies a beautiful spot along the tidewater shore. It must be truly beautiful when the cherry trees are blooming.

Jefferson Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Inscription from interior of the Jefferson Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Inside the rotunda the walls are inscribed with some of Jefferson's writings. The walls are curved and tall, making them difficult to photograph. Another difficulty I had with this memorial was reconciling Jefferson's words about freedom with the knowledge that he was a slaveholder. While I do think it's unfair to judge historical personages by the moral standards of today, I can't really wrap my brain around that particular cognitive dissonance. This one particular inscription, though, I thoroughly agree with. It seems pretty clear to me that Jefferson never intended the U.S. Constitution to be a static document that could not be amended as required. Rather the opposite, in fact.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial  My favorite memorial of the day was the one for FDR. I liked it because it didn't have present me with any of the minor squicks that I got at the Jefferson memorial. Not only that, but unlike the other presidential memorials this one isn't a single giant edifice that people walk up to and then away from. The FDR memorial consists of life-sized sculptures mounted at eye level, so passersby can interact with them as they wander along the path. Several of FDR's quotes are inscribed along walls interspersed with fountains. All this gives us a memorial that we can experience at a human level and gives us a feel for who FDR was as a person, not just a president.

FDR Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
FDR Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I liked how Eleanor Roosevelt was memorialized, too.

Sculpture of Eleanor Roosevelt at the FDR Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

My favorite part of the FDR Memorial was at the far end. Walking along the path you first encounter a series of columns that appear to be covered in bronze plates. The columns and the frieze behind them commemorated FDR's federal public works projects, a response to the Great Depression.

Bronze frieze and die rolls at the FDR Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The really cool thing about this part of the memorial is that the columns are actually the die rolls used to make the panels on the frieze wall. I didn't see any signage explaining what was going on, so the visitors have to figure it out for themselves. This was another of the things that made this particular memorial feel personal.

Here's one part of one die roll:

26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

and here is the panel cast from it:

26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Isn't that cool?

Martin Luther King Memorial The MLK Memorial consists of a single large sculpture of the man in front of a wall inscribed with bits of his writings and speeches. The sculpture itself is very imposing and grand, very different from the more personal and humble feeling I took from the FDR Memorial.

Sculpture of Martin Luther King, with the Washington Monument in the background
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

From the front of the sculpture he really seems to be looking down on us. He was a preacher, and this expression makes me feel like I'm about to hear a sermon. I don't enjoy being preached to, so this is not a comfortable feeling for me.

MLK Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Like the Jefferson Memorial, this one left me feeling cold. It imparts a feeling for who MLK was as a preacher and leader, but nothing about who he was as a person. Most of the inscriptions on the wall were ones that we're all familiar with. The one that struck me most strongly was this one:

MLK Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I like this particular quote because I think we often forget how easy it is to be a good person when things are going well, and how bloody difficult it is when things aren't going well. It may not be fair to judge people by how they behave in times of adversity, but it is fair to say that we are generally not at our best in those situations. And yet, there is something to be said about how having to endure hardship often shows us our true selves. It can be a difficult thing to face up to. For me, the power of MLK's message comes from his exhortations to us to be better people, and a society, than we have been. We may have come a long way, baby, but we still have a long way to go.

Spring break for me this year was the last week of March. I generally don't travel far for spring break because it's nice to have a week of nothing to do but not be working. This year, though, we decided to visit Washington, DC, for most of the break. I had never been before and had always felt in the back of my mind that every responsible citizen should pay a visit to the capital of his or her country. I have a friend who works at the Smithsonian, too. He said he would be in town for the week and could give us a special tour of the National Museum of Natural History, so we went. More on that tour in another post.

Washington National Cathedral

We arrived on Saturday, the day before Passion Sunday. Flying across the country from west to east consumes an entire day, so even though we left San Francisco on an 08:00 flight by the time we got to our apartment and settled in all we had time to do was walk down the street and grab some dinner from a food truck. The March for Our Lives had finished an hour or two before our arrival; on the train into the city from the airport we passed many train cars going the other way that were jam packed with people leaving DC after the march. There was a fair amount of post-march detritus littering the streets, but not nearly as much as I had expected. And the trash, as well, as the enormous bank of portable toilets around the Navy Memorial, cleaned up the following day. Well done, Washington! I guess they're used to cleaning up after big events like this.

Gargoyles waiting to take their places
25 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Knowing that we'd be in DC for the right date, we decided to attend the Passion Sunday service at the National Cathedral. The day was cold and clear, with a bright sun that made outdoor photography of the church difficult, at least from the angles that I was interested in capturing. Parts of the building are being restored/rebuilt after major damage sustained in the 2011 earthquake.

I have always found gothic architecture to be extremely beautiful, especially for churches. The well-thought use of line and proportion draw the eye upward, and the use of flying buttresses to support the towers creates the impression of height without weight, making them appear even taller. It really is amazing how the medieval builders figured out ways to make such tall buildings that make the viewer think of light rather than heaviness.

Just a taste of the gothic architecture
25 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The gothic style is also evident inside the cathedral. The rib vaulting is both graceful and strong, transferring the weight of the roof to the supporting columns. Rib vaulting, pointed arches, and flying buttresses are--to my inexpert eye--the hallmarks of gothic architecture.

Ceiling of the nave
25 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Nave and high altar
25 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Immediately after the service the church staff asked everyone to leave so they could start setting up for a concert later in the afternoon, so we didn't have much time to look around. We did, however, sneak down to the crypt, where there are several small chapels as well as the tomb of notable persons such as Helen Keller.

Joseph of Arimathea Chapel (also called the St. Joseph Chapel):

Joseph of Arimathea Chapel
25 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And the much showier mosaic in the Resurrection Chapel:

Resurrection Chapel
25 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Good Shepherd statue in the crypt
25 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Given my love for simplicity in art, it is probably not surprising that one of my favorite items in the entire cathedral was this statue of Jesus as Good Shepherd, tucked into an alcove in the crypt. There was no sign or plaque indicating who the artist is, or when the statue was carved. There were other carvings in similar alcoves throughout the crypt, but none caught my eye like this one did.

We did not stay for the afternoon concert. Instead, we went to a play that evening: a fabulous performance of The Winter's Tale in the iconic Folger Library. That is one fantastic venue for Shakespeare's plays. We hadn't planned on visiting the Folger Library, and it was only by chance that we happened upon a listing for the play. I studied Winter's Tale in college but had never seen it staged, so it was doubly enjoyable. The Library currently has an exhibition on illustration in the time of Shakespeare, and there were many very cool artifacts on display. The play in the evening made for a long day, but everything was worth it.

Next installment: All memorials, all day

I like to venture out of my comfort zone every once in a while, as that's the only way to keep learning. Even though my particular area of interest is the marine invertebrates, there are a lot of other aspects of marine biology that are almost as interesting. And if I'm going to call myself a naturalist I should extend my knowledge in as many directions as I can, right? Besides, going out and learning new stuff is a lot of fun!

Shortly after the new year I went up to Año Nuevo State Park to see the northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) at their winter breeding rookery. Of course, I've known about the rookery ever since I came to Santa Cruz and have had friends in the Ph.D. program doing their dissertation out there, yet for whatever reason I never managed to get out there during the breeding season. The park is open all year, but while seals are on the beach for breeding the trail out to the rookery is accessible only via docent-led tour. This year I remembered to buy tickets ahead of time, to ensure that we'd be able to see the seals on a day we had time to do so.

The day we went, a Thursday, was threatening to be stormy, so we took our rain jackets just in case. We met up with our docent, a woman named Trevlyn, and hiked out to the beaches. Before we got there, though, we saw a mother bobcat (Lynx rufus) and her two kittens. This particular mom is well known to the folks at the park, who see her frequently. Because of the overcast skies, these normally crepuscular wild cats were active in the middle of the day.

Adult female bobcat (Lynx rufus) at Año Nuevo State Park
4 January 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And here is one of her kittens. There were two, but they were much shyer than their mom and hesitated to come out of the bushes.

Bobcat (Lynx rufus) kitten at Año Nuevo State Park
4 January 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Both of the kittens looked healthy, alert, and well fed. It looks like the heavy rains of the 2016-2017 season resulted in an abundance of prey--everything from insects to rodents to rabbits to birds--for carnivores, including bobcats. Given the bobcat's variable and adaptable diet, the future looks bright for these kittens who were lucky enough to be born in a state park. They (and their prey) will not be poisoned by pesticides or herbicides or hunted by humans, although it is likely that mountain lions (Felis concolor) prowl these trails as well.

Our guide, Trevlyn, giving us the lowdown on elephant seal biology
4 January 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Before arriving at the rookery we stopped so that Trevlyn could go over some elephant seal biology and give us the rules for visiting the beaches. The rules were: (1) stay behind Trevlyn at all times; and (2) do whatever she says without question. These animals are BIG and can move surprisingly fast over short distances. We were there at the early part of the season and there were only a few hundred animals at the rookery. But later, after all the adult animals have returned to land and the pups are born, it gets very crowded and stinky.

Elephant seal biology

The northern elephant seal is a highly pelagic animal, coming to land for two purposes at different times of the year: to breed in the winter and to molt. While they are hauled out for either purpose they do not feed, and survive on blubber reserves accumulated during the months foraging at sea. The different demographic groups (pups, juveniles, adult females, and adult males) haul out at different times of year.

The breeding season begins in mid-November, with the adult males arriving first. As they are staking out beach territory the females start arriving about three weeks later. They are pregnant and usually give birth a few or several days after their arrival.

Newborn elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) with its mother at Año Nuevo State Park
4 January 2018
© Allison J. Gong

A female who has given birth spends all of her time resting and nursing her pup. See how the pup in the photo above is sort of skinny, with wrinkled skin? This tells us that it is only a couple of days old. As it continues to nurse that loose skin gets filled out and the pup gets nice and fat. In the meantime, its mother is fasting while she nurses, and loses a significant portion of her bodyweight.

Sometimes the juvenile males, who have not yet proven their worth against an established bull male, get a little overexcited and try to mate with a female who has just given birth. These females are not receptive because, well, they've just given birth and have not yet gone into estrus. Watch this female above rebuff the attention of a juvenile male. Trevlyn told us that females try to rest near the larger bull males, whose presence will keep the juvenile males in line. Oh, and those markings on the young male? Those are made with ordinary hair dye, to identify the animals being studied.

Pups nurse for 28 days, then are abruptly weaned when their mothers mate and return to the sea. At this point the pups are called weaners. Weaners can't follow their mothers to the sea until they molt their pup fur and learn how to swim. They usually head out around early May, when they become fodder for white sharks lurking just offshore. The sharks ain't stupid.

The spectacular showdowns between adult male seals fighting for mating rights should be starting up about now.

Adult male elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) on the beach at Año Nuevo State Park
4 January 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Adult males are by far the largest animals on the beach. They also have a much larger proboscis. And see that pinkish stuff on the neck? That is thickened, callused skin that forms when the animals are fighting. As two bull males charge into each other they rear back and then slam forward, trying to gouge each other's neck with their teeth. The fights are not deadly but can become quite bloody before the loser decides to give in to the dominant male. While they aren't fighting or mating the males are resting to conserve their energy. This early in the season there is plenty of space on the beach and things are pretty serene, although as animals continue to arrive and pups are born, the fighting and mating will begin in earnest and there will be a lot more activity.

Elephant seal rookery (Mirounga angustirostris) at Año Nuevo State Park
4 January 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Elephant seal rookery (Mirounga angustirostris) at Año Nuevo State Park
4 January 2018
© Allison J. Gong

But at least as of early January, youngsters like these yearlings can relax on the beach without having to worry about being run over by males weighing up to 2500 kg.

Yearling northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) at Año Nuevo State Park
4 January 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Año Nuevo Island lies just offshore. When northern elephant seals began to return to this part of California they established their first breeding colony on the Island. Many pinnipeds, as well as seabirds, breed on islands because they are protected from land predators. In the case of the northern elephant seal, the major land predator was the grizzly bear.

Año Nuevo Island
4 January 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Problem is, Año Nuevo Island has limited beach real estate. Elephant seals can't climb up even short cliffs, so can come ashore only on sandy beaches. The last wild grizzly bear in California was spotted in 1924, and since then the elephant seals have began taking over the coastal beaches near the island. All told, some couple thousand elephant seals will be on the beach at Año Nuevo this winter. This is a small rookery; the rookery south at Piedras Blancas is much larger. The northern elephant seal population in California seems pretty robust, with the animals having recovered nicely after being hunted to near extinction at the end of the 19th century. In these days when all news about the environment seems to be doom and gloom, it's nice to hear of a wildlife species doing so well.

The other day I was walking along Pescadero Beach about an hour north of where I live. My husband and I had gone on a short afternoon hike in Pescadero Marsh and decided to return to the car via the beach. It was a windy afternoon, making photography difficult, but I did enjoy the chance to get out, stretch my legs, and observe some nature. The ocean was quite lively, and as always it was fun watching surf scoters playing in the waves crashing on the beach. These ducks breed in freshwater lakes in northern Canada and Alaska, but spend their winters along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America, where they forage on small invertebrates.

Surf scoters (Melanitta perspicillata) bobbing around in the surf at Pescadero Beach.
26 December 2017
© Allison J. Gong

High on the beach well above the high-tide line we spotted some little brown puff balls, perfectly colored to match the sand and tiny enough to disappear completely in the divots formed by the footsteps of previous beach combers. They would run along the sand and duck behind a small hillock of sand, where they would be protected from the wind and from visual predators. See how well they disappear?

Can you spot the snowy plover?
26 December 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Snowy plover (Melanitta perspicillata) at Pescadero Beach
26 December 2017
© Allison J. Gong

These are the delightful snowy plovers in their winter plumage. The field guides describe them as inconspicuous, pale little birds, which they certainly are. Unlike the sanderlings and other 'peeps' that frequent our beaches, which gather in large flocks and run away from both waves and people, snowy plovers react to human presence by hunkering down in small depressions and relying on their cryptic coloration for protection. Snowies live in California year-round, but I see them usually in the winter and spring. They nest in the sand, laying eggs in small depressions lined with shells, pebbles, and other like debris. Both parents incubate the clutch of 3-4 speckled eggs, which hatch into speckled nestlings.

Snowy plover (Melanitta perspicillata) at Pescadero Beach
26 December 2017
© Allison J. Gong

It's this habit of nesting on sand that imperils the snowy plover. They are not as a species considered endangered, but some populations are declining. Human activities and the presence of dogs on beaches disrupt breeding birds and destroy eggs. Such tiny birds have a high metabolism and need to feed constantly. Every time they are disturbed into running away from humans they expend precious energy that they cannot spare. This is why some beaches where snowies are known to be nesting are closed to humans during the nesting season.

So if you see one of these signs on the beach, stay out of the fenced areas and keep your eyes open for tiny sand-colored puff balls. Even when the birds are not breeding they should be left alone and watched from a distance. Use your binoculars to get a close-up view of them.

Day 2 (24 March 2017): Tehachapi, Antelope Valley, and Wind Wolves

We spent the night in Bakersfield and the next morning (24 March 2017) headed up over Tehachapi Pass and headed into Antelope Valley.

It had been many years since I'd driven over Tehachapi Pass, and I didn't remember ever having seen Joshua trees before. Maybe I was always sleeping on that part of the trip. Once we got past the windmills at the top of the pass--most definitely Not Good for my concussed brain--and started descending into the valley there were Joshua trees all over the place! So cool! And with this year being the 30th anniversary of U2's best (in my opinion) album, how appropriate.

Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) in the Tehachapi Mountains
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

To my admittedly inexperienced eye, Joshua trees are the symbols of the Mojave Desert, as the saguaro is the symbol of the Sonoran Desert. None of the Joshua trees that we saw at Tehachapi were blooming, although I heard from a friend that they were in bloom slightly farther south at Lancaster.


Continuing on, we drove through the desert scrubbiness and eventually could see orange splashed onto the distant hills. We stopped to pick up sandwiches at a corner market and then headed towards the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. And bang! all of a sudden we were in the poppy fields.

California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) in Antelope Valley
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

California's state flower grows as either a perennial or an annual, depending on how much water it receives. In desert areas in the south it behaves like an annual, whereas in moister areas along the coast and in gardens it can come back as a perennial. There are several subspecies of E. californica, each adapted to a particular habitat within the state. Blossom color varies from a golden yellow (very similar to that of fiddlenecks, actually) to a deep intense orange.

California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) in Antelope Valley
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Our intent was to stop at the visitor center of the park and pick up a trail map, but we never got there. We arrived at early mid-day on a Friday, when everybody from Los Angeles showed up, and the line of cars trying to get into the park was backed up almost to the road. Um, no thanks. Besides, we saw all these poppies from the road, and could find places sort of off the beaten track with fewer people tromping around with selfie sticks than would be inside the actual park. Now I'm not one to discourage people from visiting our state parks, but if you decide to go here, try to arrive earlier in the morning on a midweek day. And time your visit for a sunny day, when the poppies will be open.

Poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and goldfields (Lasthenia californica) near the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Field of poppies (Eschscholzia californica)
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

And looking up towards the hills we saw pastel paintings. The orange flowers are poppies, I'm guessing that the yellow is goldfields, and the purple is lupines.

And in terms of lupines, Antelope Valley was the best place we visited. When we made plans to come here I had grandiose ideas of capturing that perfect iconic photograph of purple lupines and orange poppies together. You know the one. Unfortunately I think we arrive a week or two early to catch the peak of the lupine bloom. I never did see nice full lush poppies and blooming lupines in the same spot.

We did, however, see several nice lupine bushes in the various washes around the poppy reserve. Honeybees were glad to see them, too.

A deep purple lupine (Lupinus sp.) in Antelope Valley
24 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong
A foraging honeybee checks out the lupine blossom
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

As glorious as the poppies were, we needed to keep moving in order to meet up with friends on the coast. Working our way westward we stopped at the Wind Wolves Preserve, an ecological reserve managed by the Wildlands Conservancy. I had never heard of the place and wasn't sure what to expect. What I got was a lovely surprise.

There are, of course, no wolves in this part of California. So then, why the name? According to a sign at the head of the wildflower trail, the name refers to the Preserve's long grasses, which undulate like running animals when the wind blows through them. I wasn't carrying the tripod with me so I didn't try to take any video. However, on our way from Antelope Valley we stopped at Tejon Pass, where the wind was blowing pretty well. I took this video there.

It does look like one of those aerial views of a herd of galloping ungulates, doesn't it? Perhaps not wind wolves, exactly, but at the Preserve it was easy to imagine how the place got its name. The wildflower walk, a bit less than a mile long, winds through rolling hills covered with grasses and dotted here and there with flowers. There were several small groups of people hiking the trail, and it wasn't uncommon to have them disappear completely from the landscape when they got lost in the grasses as the trail dipped into a small depression.

Wind Wolves Preserve
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Wind Wolves Preserve
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

No doubt the resemblance to running wolves will be stronger when the grasses are a bit taller.

We were perhaps two weeks ahead of the bloom and most of the flowers were just starting to open up. The overall effect was a cool wash of green dotted here and there with bright splashes of color. There were lupines, of a smaller ground-growing type rather than the bush lupines we had seen in Antelope Valley, and a plant that we had first seen a lot of on the Carrizo Plain, another whimsically named flower called purple owl's clover (Castilleja exserta). As its scientific name implies, owl's clover is a member of the paintbrush family of plants.

Purple owl's clover (Castilleja exserta) and a small, dark lupine (Lupinus bicolor, perhaps) among the grasses at Wind Wolves Preserve
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

And this might well be my favorite photo of the entire trip:

Purple owl's clover (Castilleja exserta)
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Horned lark (Eremophila alpestris)
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

We had already seen many familiar and not-so-familiar birds on the trip, and it was at Wind Wolves that I saw my first ever horned lark (Eremophila alpestris). This individual wasn't very shy at all; it let us approach within 2 meters on the trail before running off ahead to wait for us again. It had such expressive postures, and a curious look on its face. If there hadn't been a family with small kids behind us on the trail, I could have watched this bird for a long time. But we couldn't block the trail just because there was an interesting (to us) bird standing in it, so we let the family pass and the lark flew off into the grasses. They are social birds so no doubt it had friends and family of its own to join.

We saw lizards, too, most notably the western side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana ssp. elegans). These lizards have very interesting gender expression, depending on color morph: there are three male morphs (orange-throat, yellow-stripe, and blue-throat) and two female morphs (orange-throat and yellow-throat). Sounds crazy, doesn't it? The female morphs differ in egg-laying strategy. Orange-throat females lay many small eggs and defend territories, while yellow-throat females lay fewer larger eggs and are less territorial.

Western side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana ssp.elegans)
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Work by Barry Sinervo's group at UC Santa Cruz showed that the three male color morphs also have different reproductive strategies. They are locked in an evolutionary game of rock-paper-scissors: each color can dominate one (but not both) of the other colors. Note that in this context 'dominate' doesn't necessarily mean that one lizard beats up the other, but rather has greater reproductive success than the other. Orange-throats are the most typically testosterone-driven males; they are more aggressive towards other males and control territories containing several females. Yellow-stripe "sneaker" males hang around the edges of an orange-throated male's territory and sneak copulations with females while the territory holder's attention is elsewhere. Blue-throats have an intermediate level of aggression; they can defend a single female from other blue-throats and yellow-stripes, but not against an orange-throat. In a nutshell:

  • Orange beats Blue but loses (sometimes) to Yellow
  • Blue beats Yellow but loses to Orange
  • Yellow beats Orange (sneakily) but loses to Blue

Pretty dang cool, isn't it?

Next installment: The voyage home

Day 1 (Thursday 23 March 2017) cont'd.: Carrizo Plain National Monument

The Carrizo Plain is an enclosed grassy plain in the southernmost "toe" of San Luis Obispo County, lying between the Temblor Range to the northeast and the Caliente Range to the southwest. Its average elevation is about 700 meters (2200 feet). The main geological features of the plain are a seasonal lake that receives water from both mountain ranges, and the San Andreas Fault, which runs along the northeast edge of the plain up against the aptly named Temblor Range.

Topo map of the Carrizo Plain

For most of the year the Carrizo Plain is hot, dry, and dusty. For a few weeks in the spring, especially if a decent amount of winter rain has fallen, the Plain explodes with color. As in most of the state the dominant color of the flowers is yellow, and the goldfields (Lasthenia californica) grow in huge swaths. Although it is always fun to focus on individual flowers, which I will do later, at the Carrizo Plain the focus is on the landscape.

Soda Lake Road bisects the Carrizo Plain and passes through so many stunning vistas that it is hard to decide where to look. The eye travels from the side of the road, across Soda Lake, and up against the Temblor Range hills and sees amazing splotches of color. It's quite a spectacular display of natural beauty. Well, there's also the humongous solar farm at the northwest corner of the lake, but let's pretend we don't see it, shall we?

View across Soda Lake Road to the Temblor Range hills
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

In only a few weeks the entire landscape will have transformed from this lush green and yellow to unrelenting dusty brown.

Carrizo Plain
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Panoramic view of Soda Lake
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Reflection on Soda Lake 
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

And now let's get up close and personal with some of the flowers. As mentioned above the goldfields were very common. I did not see any tidy tips on the Plain, although of course that doesn't mean they weren't there. One of the most abundant flowers on the Plain is fiddleneck (Amsinckia menziesii), which was just beginning to bloom.

Fields of fiddlenecks (Amsinckia menziesii) on the Carrizo Plain
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Young fiddleneck (Amsinckia menziesii) blossoms
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

In a couple of weeks the inflorescences will be longer and curled into the shape that gives them their common name, and the overall color of the landscape will shift from the brighter yellow of goldfields to a softer golden shade. Wherever the fiddlenecks occur they are extremely abundant. According to what I've read about this plant, later in the season its seeds will be a major food source for seed-eating birds such as finches and sparrows. I don't remember seeing any finches when we were there, but we did see several white-crowned sparrows flitting about on the tops of the sagebrush.

Baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii)
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Fortunately for the retinas of human visitors, the flowers were not all yellow. Along Shell Creek Road and at the Carrizo Plain there were two types of blue or purple flowers. The bluer of the two, baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) occurred both in small patches on the flats and in big carpets on the hillsides. The bluish patch in the photo of fiddlenecks on the hills (up the page a bit) are all baby blue eyes.

 

The Great Valley phacelia (Phacelia ciliata) is a delicate, periwinkle-colored flower that contrasts beautifully with the golden orange of fiddlenecks. We saw it scattered here and there, and while it wasn't uncommon it never seemed to occur in large patches in the Soda Lake area.

Great Valley phacelia (Phacelia ciliata) and fiddleneck (Amsinckia menziesii)
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Continuing along past Soda Lake we passed hillsides covered with brilliant yellow and purple flowers. In this area of the Carrizo Plain the phacelia did form larger patches, although they were still not as dense as either the fiddlenecks or the goldfields.

Goldfields (Lasthenia californica, background) and Great Valley phacelia (Phacelia ciliata, foreground)
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

And in case you think there might not have been enough yellow in the landscape: BAM!

Goldfields (Lasthenia californica)
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Next installment: Antelope Valley and the Wind Wolves Preserve.

1

I am fortunate to live in a place of great natural beauty. While the Pacific Ocean dominates much of the landscape, we are also partially surrounded by mountains. I grew up in the flatness of the San Joaquin Valley, a couple hours' drive from both the sea and the Sierra Nevada but not near enough for either to have any appreciable effect on daily life. When I first moved here from the Sacramento area to start graduate school, I felt claustrophobic because I had been used to looking out in any direction and being able to see for miles around. I've long since grown accustomed to the fact that the only miles-long vistas we get are over the ocean and have come to appreciate the proximity of the mountains.

Here we are ideally situated so that ocean and mountain forest are close enough that both can be explored in a single day. And in fact, I did just that the other day, on Boxing Day. The elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) breeding season has started, and I wanted to go up to Año Nuevo State Park to see them. Alas, this idea didn't occur to me soon enough to purchase tickets for the docent-led tour to the elephant seal reserve area, so we didn't get close to the seals. But it was a gorgeously clear day and the scenery was every bit as spectacular as you'd expect from this part of the coast.

Año Nuevo Island lies a short distance to the southwest off Año Nuevo Point and is reachable only by kayak. The island is a marine wildlife refuge closed to the public, uninhabited by any humans except scientists. Elephant seals, northern fur seals (a type of otariid, or eared seal), rhinoceros auklets, western gulls, and Brandt's cormorants all breed on the island. California sea lions don't breed on the island, but several thousand use it as a haul-out site throughout the year. During the elephant seal pupping season white sharks come to the waters around the island to feed on pups as they learn how to swim.

Año Nuevo Island, viewed from Cove Beach at Año Nuevo State Park.
26 December 2016
© Allison J. Gong

It is not common for the air to be so clear. Usually there is fog or haze that obscures the buildings. There used to be a lighthouse on the island; the dilapidated tower was pulled down in the early 2000s to safeguard the wildlife. Some of the other buildings--a 19th century residence and foghorn station--are currently used as research facilities.

View to the west from Cove Beach.
26 December 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Even without a ticket for docent-led tour of the elephant seal reserve area, you can hike to the staging area from where the tours depart. The trail passes a freshwater pond that is home to two endangered California herps: The red-legged frog (Rana draytonii) and the San Francisco garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia). Years ago I had a colleague in graduate school who studied the elephant seals up at Año Nuevo. I went in the field with him one day and got to wear the special blue research windbreaker. He told me that before being allowed to drive into the reserve area all of the researchers have to take a driving test that involves not running over plastic snakes that are placed in the road. This is to make sure that the endangered snakes won't be inadvertently killed.

Freshwater pond at Año Nuevo State Park.
26 December 2016
© Allison J. Gong

We ate lunch at a lookout point of the tour staging area. Because the air was so clear we could see quite a way down the coast. Highway 1 as it passes under the cliffs immediately north of the Waddell Beach is visible at the far right edge of the photograph.

View towards Waddell Beach from Año Nuevo.
26 December 2016
© Allison J. Gong

After lunch we headed away from the coast and drove up Gazos Creek Road a few miles into the forest. It took all of about 15 minutes to go from beach to redwood forest. How cool is that? Two completely different ecosystems to explore easily within a day. Even the weather was different: sunny and warm at the beach, much cooler and damper among the trees.

Although we were up in the redwoods, this day I was fascinated by all of the moss growing on the trees. We've had a decent amount of rain so far, and the forests are satisfyingly wet and squishy. The creek we followed had washed out a bit of the road in a couple of places, and was closed to all traffic about 5 miles from the highway.

Moss-covered tree along Gazos Creek.
26 December 2016
© Allison J. Gong

We didn't have a lot of time to poke around in the forest, but since we were in the area we stopped at Rancho del Oso on our way home to visit my favorite tree. Rancho del Oso is at the bottom of Big Basin Redwoods State Park. I take my ecology students there for the first field trip of the semester, because there I can introduce them to two of the ecosystems that define the natural history of Santa Cruz.

My favorite tree is a coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) that lives just off the trail at Rancho del Oso. I love its gnarled branches that grow horizontally at ground level. It is an old, wise tree. Looking through its branches you see into the redwood forest of Big Basin. I normally photograph this tree at a different angle, looking into the forest away from the trail. This day I decided to shoot it from an angle parallel to the trail. I don't think it's quite as dramatic from this angle but there's no denying the magnificence of the tree.

Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) at Rancho del Oso.
26 December 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Rancho del Oso is also the downhill terminus of the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail. The entire trail is about 30 miles, and most hikers take two or three days to hike the whole thing. I'm not much of a backpacker but one of the things I'd like to do this spring is the day hike from Big Basin down to Rancho del Oso. Doesn't that sound like great fun?

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