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Over the past couple of weeks I've rented two super telephoto lenses, to see what all the hype was about. I mean, do I really need 500 or 600mm of reach? I had read up on the specs of such lenses, and one major drawback is the weight—1900 grams or more. Would I be willing to lug a beast like this around, and would I be able to use it effectively? You never know until you try, so I rented them. And, of course, it was foggy both weeks so I didn't have much opportunity to take decent photos. But since the entire point of renting the lenses was to see if I could use them at all, that was fine.

As part of the test-drive for the second lens, I went up to Waddell Beach to see if there would be any birds to photograph. It is migration season, and our winter residents will be arriving soon. Some of them, such as the red-necked phalarope, have shown up at Younger Lagoon over the past four weeks or so. It was really foggy at Waddell, remember, and I didn't have much hope of seeing anything remarkable. There were some gulls and whimbrels off in the distance. But it turned out that the stars of the show were blackbirds!

They were hard to miss, because there were 50-60 of them and they were hopping up and down like jumping beans.

This is a mixed flock of Brewer's blackbirds (Euphagus cyanocephalus) and red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoenicius). The glossy greenish-black birds are the male Brewer's blackbirds, and most of the brownish birds are female Brewer's blackbirds. Since both sexes were doing the hopping, I didn't think this behavior had to do with courtship or mating.

So yes, while most of the birds seemed to be Brewer's blackbirds, I did hear the liquid gurgling of the red-winged blackbird's song coming from somewhere in the flock. When I got home and looked at the photos on the big monitor, I did see some red-winged blackbirds. Here's a male, surrounded by other males red-wingeds and both female and male Brewer's blackbirds.

Male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoenicius) at Waddell Beach
2021-09-14
© Allison J. Gong

In this photo above the black birds are male Brewer's blackbirds. The brown birds without faint wing bars are female Brewer's blackbirds, and the brown birds with the wing bars are male red-wingeds. There were no female red-winged blackbirds in any of my photos. According to an article from Cornell's Bird Academy, the males spend the weeks leading up to springtime competing for territories, and when the females return from their winter migration they will choose mates based partly on the quality of the territory. Mid-September is too early for this kind of competition, though. We are just about up to the autumn equinox, but not near winter quite yet.

Back to the hopping. There's a clue in this photo about what I think was going on:

Male Brewer's blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus) at Waddell Beach
2021-09-14
© Allison J. Gong

See that little fly? There were many such flies, most of which were lower on the beach gathering around the kelps and other wet detritus that had washed up. There were fewer flies up where the driftwood accumulates, though. Once again, it wasn't until I saw the pictures on my big monitor that I could figure out what those blackbirds were doing. They were hopping up to eat flies!

Here's a series of shots showing one of the male red-wingeds in mid-hop.

  • Looking up, just before the hop:
Male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoenicius) at Waddell Beach
2021-09-14
© Allison J. Gong
  • Up he goes! See the very edge of the red epaulette on his right wing? And all those flies?
Male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoenicius) at Waddell Beach
2021-09-14
© Allison J. Gong
  • Is he going to catch something?
Male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoenicius) at Waddell Beach
2021-09-14
© Allison J. Gong
  • Maybe?
Male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoenicius) at Waddell Beach
2021-09-14
© Allison J. Gong
  • After all that, I'm not at all sure if he actually got anything!
Male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoenicius) at Waddell Beach
2021-09-14
© Allison J. Gong

I don't have any hard evidence that the blackbirds (both Brewer's and red-wingeds) are catching flies. And while I was at the beach watching them hopping up and down I had no idea what they were doing. However, now that I've seen the flies in the photos, it makes sense that the birds would be hopping up to catch and eat them, especially since both sexes of the Brewer's blackbirds were doing the same thing.

So that's what was hoppening at the beach!

1

One year ago today a lightning storm settled over the Santa Cruz Mountains and dry lightning ignited a bunch of wildfires. Given the drier-than-normal conditions at the time the fires took off like crazy and eventually merged into one megablaze that CalFire dubbed the CZU Lightning Complex fire. The CZU Lightning Complex fire burned over 80,000 acres in Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties before being contained by CalFire on 22 September. It raged through Big Basin Redwood State Park and destroyed the buildings at the park headquarters up in the mountains. Several mountain communities were threatened, with over 1400 structures destroyed. I personally know two families whose homes were lost, and many others who evacuated. We were also ready to evacuate, with bags packed and a place to flee to.

To commemorate the first anniversary of the CZU Lightning Complex fire the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History and the Santa Cruz Public Library put together a series of events called "CZU and You" to teach the public about this particular natural disaster. This past weekend we attended a walk through Rancho del Oso, led by Richard Fletcher, who is one of the California State Parks interpretive rangers. Rancho del Oso sits in a little valley that I think of as the "bottom" of Big Basin Redwood State Park. It ends at Highway 1 directly opposite Waddell Beach. In previous years I have taken my Ecology class to Rancho del Oso for the first field trip of the semester. Rancho del Oso was cleared to reopen for visitors on weekends only just a few weeks ago.

My nature journal entry
2021-08-14
© Allison J. Gong

The Nature and History Center at Rancho del Oso is housed in the building that was the residence of Hulda Hoover McLean, who was the niece of President Herbert Hoover. Hulda and her husband, Charles, raised a family in the Rancho; Hulda taught her children about the natural history of the area. She sold her 40 acres of land and her home to the Sempervirens Fund in 1985, with the intent to create a place where people could visit and learn about this part of the natural world. There was one ranger on site on August 16, 2020 when dry lightning ignited the fire on the hillside directly across Waddell Creek from the nature center. He managed to flag down a single fire truck and crew. Working through the night this handful of people built a backfire to burn up the hill towards the flames that had sped around the house and were approaching from the other side, and sweeping off the burning embers that landed on the roof

The first things that Ranger Fletcher showed us were some cones from Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) trees. He described this species is being moderately serotinous, meaning that seeds don't fall out of the cones until they are exposed to the heat of a fire. Heat dries and opens up the cones, allowing the seeds to fall and be dispersed.

In the area this backfire burned, literally across the driveway from the nature center, we could see some of the fire followers. These are the first plants to show up after a fire. Some of them may have arrived by seed, but many are regrowth from underground roots or bulbs.

The naked lady lilies (Amaryllis belladonna) are non-native ornamental bulbs that have been planted in gardens all over the region. They are called naked ladies because their leaves die back completely before the stalk blooms in late summer; you can see all the brown leaves at the bases of the flower spikes. In this first bloom season after the fire they seem more vibrantly pink than usual. The other foliage in the foreground is a blackberry (Rubus sp.) that could be either native or not. In the background you can see some bracken fern (Pteridium sp.).

Naked ladies (Amaryllis belladonna) in burned area at Rancho del Oso
2021-08-14
© Allison J. Gong

After a disturbance such as a fire the process of ecological succession is reset. Given the European colonizers' habit of suppressing all fire, it had been at least 100 years since the Waddell Valley burnt. In the many decades since the previous fire the homesteaders and ranchers had planted all sorts of non-native ornamental plants in their gardens. The naked ladies and invasive blackberries are examples of plants that are well suited for our Mediterranean climate, and they certainly made a showy return after the CZU Lightning Complex fire.

Fortunately it's not just the non-natives that are coming back. The ranger was excited to point out that one yellow bush lupine (Lupinus arboreus) had popped up on this same slope. Lupines are good plants to have on burnt slopes because they help stabilize the soil. They are also nitrogen fixers, which makes the soil more hospitable to other, hopefully native, plants.

Bush lupine (Lupinus arboreus), bracken fern (Pteridium sp.) and naked ladies (Amaryllis belladonna) in burned area at Rancho del Oso
2021-08-14
© Allison J. Gong

One plant that I hadn't expected to see in this location is Equisetum, the horsetail. There is a lot of Equisetum along the Marsh Trail, and I associated this plant with wetlands. So why was it growing on this particular slope, which is measurably drier than the Marsh Trail? It was growing really well, too!

Equisetum in burned area at Rancho del Oso
2021-08-14
© Allison J. Gong

And see how lush it is growing along the Marsh Trail?

Equisetum along Marsh Trail at Rancho del Oso
2021-08-14
© Allison J. Gong

We hiked the Marsh Trail—how could there be so many mosquitos when we're in such a bad drought??—and crossed Waddell Creek to where the Skyline to the Sea trail ends (or begins, if you were to start at the beach and hike uphill). This is where Ranger Fletcher told us more about the fire itself and its ongoing effects.

We were hiking at Rancho del Oso on a foggy morning. It was so very different last year, when the marine layer abandoned us early in the summer and left us to dry out just in time for the dry lightning in mid-August. But this is the area where the first lightning strikes hit ground:

Hillside northwest of Waddell Creek, where the Waddell fire began
2021-08-14
© Allison J. Gong

Once the fire was extinguished this hill was covered with black, burnt vegetation. Anything green is vegetation that has grown since then.

CalFire declared the CZU Lightning Complex fire contained on 22 September 2020 and controlled on 23 December. What nobody knew at the time was that the fire remained burning underground. Considering their great height, redwood trees don't have deep roots. But they have lateral networks of roots that entwine with those of neighboring trees (which are likely to be clonemates) and form a more or less solid mesh that holds all of the trees up. The fire travelled along this root network and continues to burn. One of our group asked "What is there to burn, if the roots have already burnt?" and Ranger Fletcher explained that now there are tons of charcoal buried in the ground, and we all know how well charcoal burns, right? Not being able to detect where roots are burning underground means it's difficult to evaluate trails and know when they are safe. Just last week a ranger was working up at Big Basin and stepped into what turned out to be a cavern containing burning embers. CalFire estimates that the fire will continue to burn underground for another four years. Trees that were weakened or killed by the fire will also be falling. It will be several years before the Skyline to the Sea trail opens again. But in the lifespan of a redwood forest, five or even ten years would be a blink of the eye. And I'd just as soon not step into a burning hole while hiking, thank you very much.

On this side of Waddell Creek you can see the meadow that acts as a buffer zone between the mountains and the ocean. When wildfires burn through hilly areas, we worry about winter rains causing mudslides. This past winter we got hardly any rain at all, so at least the mudslides didn't materialize. But even when there aren't mudslides, a lot of nutrients wash downhill towards the ocean. The meadow is a biological sponge that soaks up these nutrients and keeps them from creating problems in the marine habitat. This is one of the reasons that wetlands are such important players in the health of coastal ecosystems. I took this photo from the Highway 1 bridge that crosses Waddell Creek. Just on the other side of the highway the creek spills onto Waddell Beach.

Waddell Creek and flanking wetlands
2021-08-14
© Allison J. Gong

From a fire behavior perspective the CZU Lightning Complex fire was unusual. Fires usually burn up hills, but this one burned downhill towards the ocean. Waddell Beach is almost always foggy, and the marine layer can be felt away from the beach, as it was on our most recent visit to Rancho del Oso. This marine influence should have acted to keep the fire from racing downhill as fast as it did. Alas, the marine layer was not doing its job last summer. If it had been, we wouldn't have seen so many lightning strikes in the first place. The paucity of rain from the previous winter didn't help things, either. Climate change is coming back to bite us in the ass. Around the world we are seeing extreme weather events, from severe drought to equally devastating floods to heat records tumbling by the wayside. We are living in the era of anthropogenic climate change, and we will not be alive when an equilibrium returns to Earth's climate. In the timeframe of a human lifespan, however, it is nice to see and document how this small part of the landscape is recovering from last year's fires. Now that Rancho del Oso is open again I'll try to get up there every so often to record changes in my nature journal.

A week ago I snagged a stint with a traveling nature journal that is making the rounds. It's a nature journal that is being sent to whoever wants to take it. Each user keeps the journal for five days or until five pages are filled, then sends it on to the next person. I was lucky enough to be the first person to respond when it became available, and the journal arrived chez moi this past Monday.

I gotta say, thumbing through the journal and looking at the work of the folks who had it before me was both thrilling and a little intimidating. But it was so exciting to get to study other people's nature journal pages. Just seeing the different styles and focuses was a fantastic learning experience for me. At first I wondered how the heck I would find five pages' worth of stuff to write/draw about in five days. However, something about having the book in hand released the mental block and stuff just flowed onto the pages. Oh, there was a lot of erasing and a little trepidation the first time I put pen to paper, but overall it was a lot of fun.

Anyway, here are my pages.

Monday 2021-05-17 I found the not-so-secret nesting spot for the Brandt's cormorants. This is apparently a new site for them. I had a lot of fun with the cormorants on the rock—all those postures to study and draw! And I'm very pleased with the larger pair in the corner. They actually look like cormorants!


Tuesday 2021-05-18 The journal has both white paper and tan toned paper. Nobody had used any of the toned pages yet. I decided to use it for these sketches of blooming sand plants. My favorite sketch on this page is the California poppies.


Wednesday 2021-05-19 While flipping through the photos I had taken at Asilomar over the weekend, I decided to draw some of the molluscs. My favorite on this page is the turban snail. And octopuses are really hard to draw!


Thursday 2021-05-20 I used my last two pages to diagram sea urchin larval development. The difficult thing about this page was getting the layout to flow the way I wanted. I used about half an eraser, trying different arrangements of text and drawings! The sketches themselves were not that difficult, as I've drawn these larvae many times before.


So there you have it—a week's worth of nature journaling. It was an immense honor and pleasure to participate in this living document of nature observations. I've sent the traveling journal up to Anchorage, Alaska, and am excited to see what the next person does with it.

1

As we speed towards the summer solstice the days continue to get longer. The early morning low tides are much easier to get up for, as the sky is lightening by 05:30. Even so, when traveling an hour to get to the site, it's nice when the low is later than that. This past Saturday the low wasn't until 08:00. My parents were in Monterey for the weekend, so I decided it would be a good day to work the tide at the southern end of Monterey Bay, and then visit my parents. The Monterey Peninsula has some of the most spectacular tidepooling terrain in the region, and if I lived closer you can bet I'd know those sites better. Not that there is anything at all wrong with the sites on my end of the Bay and up the coast. But sometimes it's good to get out of one's comfort zone and explore the less well known.

Rocks and tidepools
Rocky intertidal at Asilomar State Beach
2021-05-15
© Allison J. Gong

So explore we did. It was cold and windy. The tide wasn't all that low and the swell was up, so we didn't get beyond the mid-tidal zone. My hip boots have deteriorated to the point that I have pinprick leaks at the seam where the boot part meets the leg part. Usually the tiny leaks don't bother me, but when the water is cold I definitely feel the trickles. What all this means is that I didn't get down into the low zone, which is fine. Biodiversity is highest in the mid zone anyway. The mediocrity of the low tide meant that I had to keep an eye out for sneaker swells, so less heads-down poking around and more scanning from above and then zooming in on individual items of interest.

One thing we noticed right away is that groups of Tegula funebralis, the black turban snail, were clumped together above the waterline of the high pools.

I'm trying to decide whether or not this is noteworthy. The pattern did catch my eye, but that might be only because it's unusual (although not particularly interesting). It was a cold and drizzly morning, so the snails didn't have to worry about desiccation. Was the clumping together benefiting the snails in any significant way? Hard to say.

The T. funebralis were also clumping together in the water! Here's a large clump of Tegula shells in a pool.

Clump of black turban snails in a tidepool
Black turban snails (Tegula funebralis) and one hermit crab (Pagurus samuelis)
2021-05-15
© Allison J. Gong

Almost all of these are snails, but can you see the one that is a hermit crab?

Poor Tegula funebralis. It is so common that it is invisible and vastly underappreciated. I find them quite charming, though. There's something about a grazing snail's slow way of life that is very soothing. Not that you might not fall asleep waiting for them to do something interesting, but it is good to slow down to the pace of nature. Anyway, Tegula is one of my favorite animals, precisely because it is so unassuming and ignored. One of delightful things about Tegula funebralis is when it plays host to Crepidula adunca. I've written about the biology of C. adunca before and don't want to rehash that here. I just wanted to show off my favorite photo of this trip to Asilomar:

Black turban snail with two attached slipper snails
Black turban snail (Tegula funebralis) wearing two slipper snails (Crepidula adunca)
2021-05-15
© Allison J. Gong

I don't know why I like this photo so much. It certainly isn't the best shot I've ever taken. There isn't any vibrant color at all. The subjects are the same color as the background. But it works for me.

When it comes to a snail's pace, you can't find anything slower than Thylacodes. That's because Thylacodes squamigerus is the snail that lives in a calcareous tube. Much like a barnacle, or the serpulid worms that have similar tubes, Thylacodes makes one decision about where to live and lives there for the rest of its life. I see Thylacodes at places like Pigeon Point up north, but they are much more abundant on the Monterey Peninsula.

Tube snail (Thylacodes squamigerus)
2021-05-15
© Allison J. Gong

And the snail winners in the Most Likely to be Overlooked have got to be the littorines. These little snails (most of which are smaller than 15 mm) live in the highest intertidal, where they get splashed by the ocean just often enough to keep their gill sufficiently moist. They are never entirely submerged, but they do tend to gather in cracks, even the tiniest of which will hold water longer than a flat rock surface.

Littorines (Littorina keenae) in the splash zone
2021-05-15
© Allison J. Gong

If you look closely at the photo above, you might see pairs of mating snails. Given where they live, high up in the intertidal where they are rarely covered by water, broadcast spawning isn't a viable option for the littorines. They have to copulate. There are, I think, eight copulating pairs in this group of ~30 snails.

Copulating pairs of Littorina keenae
2021-05-15
© Allison J. Gong

Because Littorina's habitat makes broadcast spawning an unfeasible option, the snails must lay eggs. But the splash zone isn't a very friendly place for the eggs of marine animals. The littorines lay eggs in gelatinous masses in crevices or depressions where water will remain. After a week or so of development, the egg mass dissolves as it gets splashed, and veliger larvae emerge. They recruit back to the intertidal after spending some period of time in the plankton.

When all is said and done it's difficult to make the claim that snails live exciting lives. Nonetheless, they are interesting animals. The diversity of morphology and lifestyle we see in the intertidal snails makes them eminently worthy of study and appreciation. I like to think that, as biologists once again "discover" the usefulness of natural history, students will be encouraged to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of these and other abundant animals.

It never really feels like springtime until the swallows have returned to the marine lab. This year the barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) came back right on schedule in the last week of March. They have been flying around ever since. I've seen them gathering mud on the banks of Younger Lagoon, but they haven't been very serious about nest building. The cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota), on the other hand, were late arrivals, and I was beginning to worry about them. I didn't see the first cliff swallow until the 1st of May.

Unlike the barn swallows, the cliff swallows immediately started spackling mud on the buildings. There have been a few aborted attempts, but overall they have been very busy little birds. I've been keeping an eye on one nest in particular, as it seems to be the one progressing most rapidly. This nest is located on a building that has been used every year, by both barn swallows and cliff swallows. In previous years I've seen and photographed the nests side-by-side. There isn't any reason to expect them not to nest together again.

So here's what has been going on so far.

The first stage is a simple shelf of mud. The birds are building on vertical walls, but corners where they can use two walls are prime locations. Even a tiny ledge can be used to support those first splats of mud, and once the mud dries it becomes foundation for additional layers. See the mud in the swallow's beak?

Sometimes the birds get this far and then decide to abandon the nest. And sometimes they keep going. Here's what's going on less than a meter away from this nest.

Four cliff swallows building mud nests on wooden walls
Cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)
2021-05-07
© Allison J. Gong

Notice how the birds use their tails as braces so they can cling onto vertical walls. Woodpeckers do the same thing. Of the four birds in the photo above, the two outer ones look like they're just starting to build. I've seen two birds flying in and out of that larger nest, but have no idea whether or not they're the same two birds every time. I suspect they are a mated pair.

The cliff swallow's nest is the gourd-shaped one, with a body that narrows to a much smaller opening just big enough for one bird to pass through. When the nest I was watching got to the stage in the photo above, I thought the opening would be on the left, since there's already a nice curve along that side of the front edge.

I might be kind of right. Today the opening is much narrower, and located off-center towards the left.

Cliff swallow nest on wooden walls
Cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) nest
2021-05-09
© Allison J. Gong

This nest may be finished tomorrow or the next day. It will have taken the birds about a week from start to finish.

Why are there no birds near the nest, you may ask? Well, when I walked out of the building I noticed that all of the swallows were in the air, and nobody was at the nest site. The birds were making alarm calls and flying around, but it didn't look like they were feeding, and none were returning to the nests even for short visits. I looked around and up and found the reason for the swallows' unrest.

Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
2021-05-09
© Allison J. Gong

The hawk was perched directly across from the swallows' nest site, and the swallows were not happy about it.

(For some reason the embedded video isn't working right now. You can watch it from YouTube directly by clicking on that link in the lower left corner.)

Some of the swallows flying around the hawk were barn swallows. I think they are nesting in the breezeway of the building under the hawk. Anyway, the hawk's presence was obviously upsetting to all of the swallows. It hung out for about 10 minutes and then flew away over the field. And immediately, the cliff swallows got right back down to the important business of building a home for the next generation.

A few weeks ago I went out to Franklin Point and saw that the sea lettuces (Ulva sp.) were spawning in the high pools. I revisited the site today, with a lower tide to work with, and spent a considerable amount of time looking for and photographing the staurozoans. I did find some, too! But they are not the focus of this post.

As the tide came back in, I spent more time working my way through the higher pools. At Franklin Point there are very few places where the water is still. Even in the high regions the intertidal terrain is more surge channels than pools. But if you go high enough up the beach there are some quiet areas where the water, if it moves, does so very slowly. It is in these areas where the algal spawn forms those beautiful patterns that I photographed at the beginning of the month. Today there was much less algal spawn accumulating in the calm areas. It was also windy (and cold) this morning, so the patterns were not as crisp as they had been in early April. Still pretty, though!

Algal spawn on surface of a tidepool
Ulva spawn on surface of tidepool at Franklin Point
2021-04-29
© Allison J. Gong

On my way back up the beach I saw something that looked like an iceberg viewed from the air.

Foam on surface of water
2021-04-29
© Allison J. Gong

This is an accumulation of foam being pushed ashore. I didn't have any way to collect a sample to bring back to the lab for closer observation, but foams like this are usually due to algal particulates. Surface agitation whips up the organic matter, which act as surfactants and produce tiny bubbles. I'd be willing to bet that the Ulva spawn is at least partly responsible for this foam.

I watched the foam for several minutes, and was rewarded for my vigilance. I found an area where the highest reach of the incoming tide was gently washing back and forth.

I found the slow swirling to be rather mesmerizing. Maybe that was due to the early morning, the brisk sea air, or hunger pangs. But when I saw this I thought to myself, "I've seen that somewhere before." You might be able to guess where.

Swirling foam on the surface of the water at Franklin Point
2021-04-29
© Allison J. Gong

To validate my intuition, when I got home I looked up some images and found that I was sort of right after all.

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, 1889
Public domain - Google Art Project

Okay, so maybe the resemblance isn't as strong as all that. But I can still imagine the streams in van Gogh's painting swirling and flowing the way the algal foam does. What do you think?

3

Way back in 2015 I wrote about some Ulva that spawned in a bowl at the lab, and delved into the mysteries of reproduction in the green algae. This morning I was out at Franklin Point and saw this:

Spawning algae at Franklin Point
2021-04-01
© Allison J. Gong

I had seen the sea lettuces (Ulva spp.) spawning in these high pools at Franklin Point before, and usually cursed the murkiness of the water. But today the water was dead calm, with the tide low enough that there were no waves to slosh into the pools. The result was a gorgeous marbled swirl in the water. The patterns were stunning.

Yellow streams of algal spawn in a shallow tidepool
Spawning algae at Franklin Point
2021-04-01
© Allison J. Gong
Yellow streams of algal spawn in a shallow tidepool
Spawning algae at Franklin Point
2021-04-01
© Allison J. Gong
Yellow streams of algal spawn in a shallow tidepool
Spawning algae at Franklin Point
2021-04-01
© Allison J. Gong

What these photos show is the Ulva releasing either spores or gametes. Without microscopic examination it's impossible for me to know whether these tiny cells are spores or gametes. What I can say is that the spawn is released from the distal ends of the thallus, making the body of the alga look ragged.

Sea lettuce in a tidepool. Some blades are clear.
Sea lettuce (Ulva sp.) at the edge of a tidepool at Franklin Point
2021-04-01
© Allison J. Gong

The parts of the thallus that have already spawned are now clear. The tissue itself will soon disintegrate, leaving behind only the healthy green parts, which should be able to regrow.

All of these photos were taken in pools where the spawning itself had either completely or mostly stopped. Obviously when the tide comes back all of this yellow spooge will get mixed up. It's only when the water is perfectly still that these streams would form. It was hard stepping around the pools to take the photos, as the last thing I wanted to do was stomp my big booted foot into a pool and disrupt the beautiful patterns. Fortunately the sun angle was a little cooperative this morning, and I was able to find a pool where active spawning was happening.

What appears to be an act of destruction—the alga's brilliant green thallus being reduced to yellow streaks that drift away with the tide—is really an act of procreation. This is terminal reproduction, literally the last thing an organism does before it dies. Salmon do this, as do annual plants. The sheer amount of algal spawn in these tidepools is astounding. Imagine the number of 2-micron cells needed to color the water to this degree. But if reproducing is the last thing you're going to do in your life, you might as well go all in on your way out, right?

Intact shells are a limited resource in the rocky intertidal. Snails, of course, build and live in their shells for the duration of their lives. A snail's body is attached to its shell, so until it dies it is the sole proprietor of the shell. Once the snail dies, though, its shell goes on the market to whoever manages to claim it. Empty shells tend not to remain on the market for long.

Hermit crabs also live inside snail shells. They are the ones that compete for empty shells when they do become available. Here in California, at least, the hermit crabs can't kill snails for their shells; they have to wait for a snail to die. And once a shell comes on the market, it will have a taker even if it's not the ideal size for the crab. It's not at all uncommon to see hermit crabs that can fit only their abdomen into the shell, leaving the head and legs exposed and vulnerable. On the other end of the spectrum, many hermit crabs are so small that they can pull into the shell and not be seen by an inquisitive tidepool visitor. Anybody taking a snail shell home as a souvenir—where such takes are allowed, of course—must be certain that there is no tiny hermit crab hiding deep in the depths.

Hermit crab in black turban snail shell
Hermit crab (Pagurus samuelis) in shell of turban snail (Tegula funebralis) at Point Piños
2015-05-09
© Allison J. Gong

From a hermit crab's perspective, the best shell is one that is big enough to retreat into but light enough to be carried around. Snail shells come in a variety of shapes and corresponding internal volumes. Turban snails, with their roughly spherical shape, have a large interior space and are coveted by larger hermit crabs. For example, the grainy hand hermit crab (Pagurus granosimanus) seems to really like both black and brown turban snail shells.

Original inhabitant and builder of the shell:

Brown turban snail partially withdrawn into shell
Brown turban snail (Tegula brunnea) at Pistachio Beach
2021-02-09
© Allison J. Gong

And opportunistic second inhabitant of the same type of shell:

Grainy hand hermit crab in turban snail shell
Grainy hand hermit crab (Pagurus granosimanus) in brown turban snail (Tegula funebralis) shell
2018-06-01
© Allison J. Gong

Other snails are not even remotely spherical. Olivella biplicata, for example, is shaped like the pit of an olive. Unlike Tegula, of which both intertidal species are found in rocky areas, O. biplicata burrows in sand. Note the shape and habitat of this olive snail:

Olive snail
Olive snail (Olivella biplicata) burrowing through sand at Whaler's Cove
2019-11-24
© Allison J. Gong

These olive snails have a smaller internal volume, and thus tend to house smaller hermit crabs. Young individuals of P. granosimanus can be found in olive snail shells, but they quickly outgrow the cramped quarters and need to find a larger home. Smaller hermits such as Pagurus hirsutiusculus, though, are often found in olive shells.

Any hermit crab that finds itself robbed of its snail shell has a short life expectancy. The front end of the hermit resembles the front end of any crab, with the familiar armored legs, claws, eyestalks, and antennae. But the abdomen is soft and unarmored, covered by only a thin cuticle. The abdomen is coiled to follow the coiling of the snail shell, which allows the crab's body to curl around the columella, the central axis around which the shell spirals. In this way the crab can hang onto its snail shell and resist a tug by a would-be predator. A strong enough tug, though, will rip the crab's front end (head + thorax) away from its abdomen. So if you ever find yourself with a hermit crab in hand, do not be tempted to remove it from its shell by yanking it out!

The next time you encounter gastropod shells in the tidepools and want to know whether the inhabitant is a snail or a hermit crab, watch to see how it moves. Hermit crabs scuttle, as crabs do, while snails glide along very slowly. You would also notice a difference as you pick up the shell: snails stick to the rock with their foot, which you will feel as a suction. Hermit crabs don't stick at all, so if the shell comes away easily it likely houses a crab instead of a snail. See? Easy peasy lemon squeezy!

Sometimes even a well-known site can present a surprise. Here's an example. Yesterday I went up to Davenport to scope things out and see how the algae were doing. This is the time of year that they start growing back after the winter senescence. I also took my nature journal along, hoping to find a spot to sit and draw for a while.

The first thing I noticed was the amount of sand on the beach. Strong winter storms usually carve sand off the beaches, making them steeper. And during the calmer months of summer the beaches are flatter and less steep. Yesterday the beach was very thick and flat. It makes trudging across the sand in hip boots much easier!

The accumulation of sand meant that I could walk around the first point. Unless the tide is extremely low, such as we see around the solstices, the water is too deep for that. But yesterday I walked around it, and it wasn't until I got to the other side that it occurred to me that: (1) hey, I walked around the point; and (2) I could do that only because there was so much sand. See, a thick beach with a lot of sand makes a mediocre low tide feel lower because the water isn't as deep as it would be if the beach were thinner. When the tide isn't low enough for me to walk around the point, I have to clamber down a cliff. The cliff height varies depending on how much sand has built up, obviously, but is about head height for me. Getting down usually involves scooting on my butt and hoping my feet land on something that isn't slippery. As with most climbing, up is easier and less scary than down.

It's hard to imagine the amount of sand there was yesterday. Look at this picture.

Flat rock area and sandy area
North of Davenport Landing Beach
2021-02-08
© Allison J. Gong

See how the rocks in the foreground end? Usually that's the edge of the cliff. Yesterday I could have just taken a tiny step off the top of the cliff onto sand. That's over 1.5 meters of sand in that one spot! If the couple in the background were visiting this area for the first time, they'd have no idea of the conditions that made it so easy for them to get out onto the reef.

There was a lot of sand in the channels between rocks, too.

Sand between rocks in the intertidal
Intertidal area north of Davenport Landing Beach
2021-02-08
© Allison J. Gong

Normally those channels are deeper. You can see that some anemones were able to reach to the surface of the sand, but many more are buried, along with any other critters and algae unfortunate enough to be attached to the lower vertical surfaces. And while some of them will either suffocate or be scoured off as the sand washes away, many will survive and be ready to get on with life.

The second surprise of the day was a bright orange object. What I could see of it was about as big as my thumb, and at first I thought it was a nudibranch. Then when I crept closer for a better look, what popped into my head was "snailfish". Which was an odd thing, because I'd never seen a snailfish before. But something about the creature's posture looked somehow familiar.

Orange fish with large head and tail wrapped around the body
Tidepool snailfish (Liparis florae) at Davenport Landing
2021-02-08
© Allison J. Gong

Fortunately I had the presence of mind to take photos before trying to draw this little fish, because this is all I had time to get:

When I spooked the critter it took off really fast, confirming that it was no nudibranch. It was, indeed, a snailfish! It came to rest in a small hole in a rock, from where it looked out at me.

Tidepool snailfish (Liparis florae) at Davenport Landing
2021-02-08
© Allison J. Gong

The snailfishes are a very poorly studied group. As a group they are related to the sculpins. There are snailfishes throughout the northern temperate and polar regions, from the intertidal to the deep sea. iNaturalist shows 43 observations of L. florae, eight of which are in California. Before yesterday, none had been recorded at Davenport Landing.

Map of northeast Pacific coast, showing sighting of tidepool snailfish recoreded in iNaturalist
Observations of tidepool snailfish (Liparis florae) recorded in iNaturalist
2021-02-09
© iNaturalist

So there you have it, a snailfish! We don't know much about any of the snailfish species, even the intertidal ones. They apparently have pelvic fins modified to from a sucker, similar to the clingfishes, but I didn't have a chance to examine this specimen closely enough to confirm that. I don't know why they are called snailfishes, either. They're not snail-shaped at all.

Now, about that thing up there where I said "snailfish" came to mind even though I'd never seen one before. That happens quite a bit—a name will jump into my head before I've had a chance to think about it. Sometimes I'm wrong, but often I'm right. I know I hadn't seen a live snailfish before, but obviously I'd seen photos of them or I wouldn't have been able to recognize this orange creature as being one. It's fascinating how the brain forms search images, isn't it?

During what has become my daily check to see what's going on in Younger Lagoon, I got totally lucky and was able to see and photograph lots of birds. A morning with mostly cloudy skies meant good light for picture-taking. So I took lots of pictures! Some of these are series and need to be viewed in order to see the action. Sure, I could have just shot videos, but where's the fun in that? Sometimes still photos show a lot more than video.

It was a great day to watch wading birds! Legs and beaks come in varying lengths, and a particular species' combination of beak length and leg length determine where and how the bird forages.

Long-billed curlews, snowy egret, and marbled godwit on the beach at Younger Lagoon
Shorebirds at Younger Lagoon. Left to right: Two Long-billed curlews (Numenius americanus); snowy egret (Egretta thula); long-billed curlew; marbled godwit (Limosa fedoa)
2021-01-30
© Allison J. Gong

While the long-billed curlew (N. americanus) has the longest beak-length-to-head ratio of any bird, the marbled godwit and whimbrel also have impressively long bills. In the photo below, the three birds with slightly downcurved beaks are whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) and the one bird with the two-toned straight beak is the godwit (Limosa fedoa). Most of the godwits I've seen have beaks that are a smidge upturned, but this one looks pretty straight to me.

Whimbrels and marbled godwits in the surf zone at Younger Lagoon
Shorebirds at Younger Lagoon. Three whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) with downcurved beaks and one marbled godwit (Limosa fedoa) with straight beak
2021-01-30
© Allison J. Gong

All of these birds forage by probing the sand with their beaks. All sorts of infaunal invertebrates are taken, and the mole crab Emerita analoga is a favored prey item. Obviously a longer beak allows for deeper probing in the sand, and the variation in beak lengths among the shorebird species may allow for niche partitioning. In other words, a long-billed curlew can reach down for prey items that are unavailable for birds with shorter beaks. The flip side of this equation is that birds with the "short" beaks might be better at picking up prey buried that are buried at shallow depths.

Prey are also distributed patchily along the beach itself, from the surf zone to the dunes, and these birds forage in the entire range. The length of the legs determines how far down into the surf zone they can go. When the beach is steep, as it is now at Younger Lagoon, the birds don't have much time to dig around in the surf zone before the next wave comes up. Click through the slide show to see this group of godwits, curlews, whimbrels, and a snowy egret react to an oncoming wave. It's important to note that while these birds do have some waterproofing in their feathers, they do not swim. Nor can they take flight if their feet aren't on the ground. Getting swept up by a wave and carried off the beach would likely be deadly for them.

The long-billed curlew is a favorite of mine, because I can't imagine what it would be like to go through life with a 2-meter beak sticking out of my face. They are fun to watch, and can probe remarkably fast with that long beak. This is one of the phenomena that is best shown by video.

You can watch how the birds forage within the surf zone, as in the slide show above, and also how long-billed curlews probe the sand higher up the beach.

Shorebirds foraging at Younger Lagoon
2021-01-30
© Allison J. Gong

These long-legged wading birds also feed in protected bodies of water and estuaries. All of these species can be seen at Elkhorn Slough as well as on the open coast, as one would expect from the Slough's position along the Pacific Flyway. Some birds migrate to California from far away. Marbled godwits, for example, spend the summer breeding season in the interior regions of North America, and winter along the Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic coasts. The long-billed curlew also breeds in the interior of the continent. Snowy egrets, on the other hand, are year-round residents.

I am grateful to have access to places like Younger Lagoon, where I can spend time outdoors without other people around, remove my mask, and take pictures of birds. I love that the Younger Lagoon Reserve has so many different habitats to explore, from ocean to beach to dunes to coastal scrub, in a small area. Fingers crossed that sooner rather than later, we'll be able to once again bring students there to study the natural world in the Reserve's outdoor classrooms.

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