I'm not the world's most diligent user of iNaturalist, but I do try to upload observations after I've been tidepooling or hiking or poking around outdoors. The other morning I did go to to the intertidal, for only the second low tide series since the COVID quarantine began. State park beaches were closed over the Independence Day holiday weekend, to all except people who could walk there. This rather limited my options, but it was fine because I hadn't been to Natural Bridges in quite a while. It's a site I know well, so I also used the trip to record some video clips to use when I teach Marine Biology in the fall.
My favorite iNat observation for the day is this one:
It's not the prettiest photo, or even the best of the ones I took today. What I like is that it shows four different organisms and demonstrates a few ecological concepts. Let me explain.
The first two organisms are the bryozoan Membranipora membranacea encrusting a small piece of giant kelp Macrocystis pyrifera. This bryozoan really likes to live on giant kelp. In the late summer and fall, it is not uncommon to see kelp thalli so heavily encrusted that blades become brittle and break. The bryozoan also makes the overall kelp thallus both heavier and more brittle than usual, contributing to the annual break up when the winter storms arrive.
The third organism is the mussel, Mytilus californianus, which is probably just an empty shell with the piece of kelp jammed inside.
The fourth organism (or first if you're going from largest to smallest) is the anemone. It is a giant green anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica. It's not that uncommon to see them eating mussels, as they are opportunistic predators that will consume anything unfortunate enough to fall onto them. If the mussel shell in indeed empty, then it won't provide the anemone with much in the way of food. However, the bryozoan on the kelp, and even the kelp itself, will. The anemone's gut will be able to digest both of them.
For some reason, the barn swallows at the marine lab like building their nests above doors. It seems that little 1/2-inch ledge of the door frame provides support for the mud nest. And the birds don't always choose little-used doors, either. This year a pair constructed their nest above one side of a double-door that people walk through all day. The mother laid and incubated her eggs, but would occasionally get flushed off the nest if someone came through the door. I always tried not to disturb her any more than necessary. The animal is always right, so I figured she knew what she was doing.
The eggs hatched about a week ago, I think. The mom would sometimes leave the nest when people approached, and even though I couldn't see anything in the nest I'd hear little cheeps. Earlier this week I thought I could see little heads poking above the edge of the nest.
It seems there are three baby birds in this nest!
I haven't spent much time watching the nest closely, because I don't want to scare the mother off and keep her away. Today I was lucky and stuck around just long enough, and with the big camera at hand, to capture both parents returning to feed the babies. The first parent arrived with an insect and landed on the nest. The other parent alit on the door frame.
After depositing the insect into one of the gaping yellow mouths, the first parent flies off. The second parent doesn't seem to have anything to offer the babies, though.
Ooh, maybe this parent has food!
The second parent lands on the nest. . .
. . . and promptly takes off again. . .
. . . leaving the babies alone in the nest again.
These babies still need to grow feathers, although they are clearly big enough to thermoregulate without a parent sitting on them. Growing feathers takes a lot of metabolic energy, and aside from when the parents arrive with food the nestlings will sleep. But it's funny. They seem able to keep an eye (or maybe an ear) out for the parents flying around, and whenever one flies past the doorway they all perk up and start cheeping. There are lots of swallows at the marine lab right now, and I wonder if these babies can identify their parents from among all the other adults in flight.
They'll grow fast, being fed frequently by their parents. They'll have to get big and strong, to prepare for their migratory trip south in the fall I've never noticed exactly when they leave, I think because by the time they head south they've dispersed from the nest site. I always look forward to their return in the spring, though.
Every year we are fortunate to watch a pair of red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) raise young in a tree across the canyon. We're not always sure if the parents are the same birds every year, and I think this year's female is a different bird from last year. Her mate may be the male who has used this nest site for a couple of years now, but again, we don't know.
This year the parents raised three youngsters, who have just begun leaving the nest. They prepare for their first flights by making their way to the edge of the nest and flapping their wings to exercise the flight muscles. This is usually fun to watch, as they don't seem to care whether or not a sibling is in the vicinity. This flapping activity begins before the bird is fully feathered, and they look like awkward punk-rocker teenagers, trying to be cool and not even close to pulling it off.
The hawk nest is in a eucalyptus tree. As the time to fledge approaches, one or both of the parents often perches at the top of a nearby cypress tree. Usually the youngsters' first flights are to the cypress tree. Cypress trees may be the ideal location for fledging, because they have lots of soft-ish branches to fall on when the birds biff the landing. The first flights don't go far from the nest, and the birds end up hopping along branches as they flap their wings. So they are called branchers.
With raptors, the females are bigger. Males tend to leave the nest before their sisters, who have more growing to do, so we always assume that the first one to depart is a boy. This year the females lagged by only a day or so behind their brother. And all three of them seem to be progressing pretty quickly, compared to cohorts we've watched in previous years. Good little branchers!
We watched these two for a while in the early evening. I don't know where the third one was. The branchers watch their parents soar around effortlessly. Here they are at the very top of the cypress tree:
Okay, my digiscoping skills need work. I did, however, get lucky enough with the spotting scope and my phone to catch a few video clips.
You can see them trying to maintain their footing as the wind blows the tree around. They're able to use their wings for balance, but then they catch a little lift and get knocked about. In the second clip one of the birds is hanging out when its sibling crashes into it. If they were human teenagers, you'd hear one yelling "Look out below!" while the other hollers "Get off me!" Yeah, landing is toughest part of flight!
Over the next few weeks the branchers will get better and better at landing, and their flights will get longer. They will learn how to find thermals and soar. Their parents will continue to provide food for them, but at some point the kids will learn how to hunt on their own. Rodents of the neighborhood, look out! Eventually the branchers will be as badass as their parents. Then they'll disperse to find territories of their own.
Back in 1994, the U.S. Army base at Fort Ord was closed in one of the base closure events that occur every once in a while. UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) acquired some 600 acres of the former base to establish the Fort Ord Natural Reserve, which serves as an outdoor laboratory and teaching space for students of all ages. University students from UCSC and California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB) take classes and have internships on the Reserve. Kindergarten students visit the Reserve for what may well be their first experience of Nature. And I take my community college students there every year.
This year, Joe Miller, the reserve manager, had a lot of things for us to learn about, and we were kept busy all day. The first thing we did, after an introduction to the reserve, was hike to the first of several areas where Joe had set some rodent traps the night before.
There were 30 of these Sherman traps to check.
They are live traps, baited to lure in a rodent. The doors shut on the rodent once it ventures inside to grab some seed.
There's a super high-tech method to getting a live rodent out of a trap without hurting either the rodent or the human. You hold the trap vertically, open the top end, slip a plastic bag over the open end, make sure there are no escape openings, then flip the trap over so the rodent falls into the bag. And voilà, instant mouse in a bag!
Then you work the rodent head-first into a corner of the bag with one hand, and reach into the bag and approach it from the back end. Follow the backbone forward, then grab the rodent by the scruff of the neck.
Holding a rodent by the scruff of the neck allows the biologist to handle the animal safely and minimizes the probability of getting bitten.
We caught three or four deermice, but the cutest rodent we saw was a pocket mouse (Chaetodipus californicus). Joe didn't bother with gloves because, as he said, these guys are really mellow. And it really was! He handed it to us and we took turns holding it.
Cute little guy almost fell asleep on a student's arm.
I think it's called a pocket mouse because it's so cute you want to put it in your pocket and take it home.
We had to let the rodents go because Joe had other things for us to do. In addition to the rodent traps, Joe had set up pitfall arrays to catch herps (reptiles and amphibians). A pitfall array consists of two strips of aluminum flashing set up in the shape of a capital T. At each end of the T there is a pitfall trap. The critter runs or slithers along the flashing and then falls into the trap, which is a small bucket buried so the lip is just at ground level.
We got skunked on the pitfall traps--all of them were empty. We did, however, get to see herps. Joe showed us a couple of tiger salamanders, which he had permits to keep as teaching animals. These two animals are hybrids between the native tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense) and a salamander that was introduced from Texas into California to be used as bait. As happened quite often, the bait species took hold in its new habitat and is proving to be a nuisance. In their larval stage they are voracious predators, gobbling up the larvae of other amphibians including those of endangered species such as the red-legged frog. In the area of FONR, pretty much all of the tiger salamanders are hybrids to some degree.
Joe's two "pet" salamanders are very cute!
As with all other amphibians, tiger salamanders require a variety of habitats to complete their life cycle. They reproduce in water, and the larvae live in water. California has distinct wet and dry seasons, and the salamanders must find vernal pools where the water will last long enough for their larvae to metamorphose into the terrestrial adult form. Sometimes the pools don't persist long enough, and in very dry years the pools may not form at all. During the dry season, tiger salamanders may estivate underground, waiting until the weather gets cool and damp enough for them to emerge from burrows and forage on insects and small vertebrates.
One of the students had her heart set on seeing horned lizards, and her wish came true. Some UCSC interns working on the horned lizard mapping project caught a couple of small lizards for us to see. The larger adults aren't coming aboveground yet.
Like the tiger salamanders, the horned lizards face an uncertain future of their own. Their main prey are native ants. California has been invaded by Argentine ants--those are the little black ants that get into houses. The Argentine ants are extremely competitive and form supercolonies, wherein two or more adjacent colonies will merge underground and function as a single colony with multiple queens. They can and do outcompete the native ant species, and predators don't seem to like them. Unfortunately, the horned lizards don't eat the Argentine ants. If the lizards' food source is threatened by the ants, then the lizards could be in big trouble.
One of the things Joe wanted to show us was a plant with a tiny purple flower, that is just now starting to bloom.
This little plant, called greater yellowthroat gilia or sand gilia, is a California endemic species, found nowhere else. The State of California lists it as threatened, and the federal government lists it as endangered. It's a pretty plant, growing low to the ground because although it's March, we haven't had any rain for about eight weeks. And this is supposed to be our rainy season. Joe showed us some Gilia plantlets that were grown in greenhouses and had plenty of water, and they were three or four times as tall as the ones we saw in the field.
There is a lot of very interesting work going on at FONR these days, and it's exciting for me to see how many students are involved. Some of my students said they would contact Joe about internship opportunities, and I hope they do so. If I'm teaching Ecology again next spring, we're definitely coming back to Fort Ord, and I think we'll do an overnight camping trip. I'm sure the reserve is a completely different place once the sun goes down!
The first field trip of the semester for my Ecology class is always a jaunt up the coast to Rancho del Oso and Waddell Beach. It's a great place to start the practice of observing nature, because we can explore the forest in the morning, have lunch, and then wander along the beach in the afternoon. We really are lucky to have such a wide variety of habitats to study around here, which makes taking students out into the field really fun. My passion and expertise will always belong with the marine invertebrates, but it's good for me to work outside my comfort zone and immerse myself in habitats I don't already know very well. During this year's class trip to Waddell Beach I was struck by some things I had seen before but never paid much heed to. And also one very big thing that caught everybody's attention.
Depending on how much rain has fallen recently, Waddell Creek may or may not flow all the way into the ocean. Since California has a short rainy season, there are months when the creek is completely cut off from the ocean, due to both a lack of flow and the accumulation of sand on the beach. So far this rainy season, which began on 1 October 2019, we've gotten about 93% of our normal rain. However, we had a very wet December, and almost no rain since then. I wasn't sure whether or not Waddell would be flowing into the ocean. It was.
The really big thing that we all stopped to look at was this guy lounging in the creek.
The students had many questions: What was he doing there? Was he sick? Was it a male? Was he dead? Well, no, he wasn't dead. And while I guessed from this view that it was a subadult male, I was secretly relieved to be proved right when we walked down the creek (keeping the mandated distance away from him) and looked back to see his big schnozz.
The elephant seal breeding season is coming to an end, but animals will continue to haul out and rest on the beach. This subadult male clearly isn't going to be dethroning any beachmasters this year, so he has taken the safe route and chosen a beach away from the breeding ground at Año Nuevo, which is ~2 miles up the coast. What I really liked about this particular animal was that we could see the tracks he made getting himself up the beach to the creek.
So that was the big thing. Eye-catching he certainly was, but to my mind not nearly as interesting as the small things we paid more attention to on the beach. It is tempting to think of sandy beaches as relatively lifeless places, compared to something like a rocky intertidal or a redwood forest. But for some reason, this trip I became intrigued by the dune vegetation. At first glance a sand dune seems to be a very inhospitable place for plants, and it is. Sand is unstable and moves around all the time, making it difficult for roots to hang on. Sand also doesn't hold water, so dune vegetation must be able to withstand very dry conditions. It's not surprising that dune plants have some of the same adaptations as desert plants.
Let's start with the natives.
I love this little sand verbena (Abronia latifolia)! It is native to the west coast of North America, from Santa Barbara County to the Canadian border. It is a sand stabilizer, decreasing the erosion that occurs. The sand verbenas also live in deserts; I saw them at Anza-Borrego and Joshua Tree last year. The beach sand verbena grows low to the ground, probably as a way to shelter from the winds that come screaming down the coast. Cute little plant, isn't it?
The other yellow beach plant we saw was the beach suncup (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia), a member of the primrose family.
Like the yellow sand verbena, the beach suncup is a California native. It grows along the entire coast, including the Channel Islands. Also like the yellow sand verbena, the suncup grows low to the ground. Its leaves are thick and a little waxy, to help the plant resist desiccation.
And now for the non-natives. I must admit, I had given very little thought to the plant life on my local beaches. I'd seen and studied beach wrack, but to be honest most of my attention is usually directed towards the water instead of up high on the beach where the plants live. This day I decided to photograph the plants.
This plant is a little succulent called European sea rocket (Cakile maritma). As the common name implies, its native habitat is dunes in Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia.
Cakile maritima has several life history traits that enable it to be carried around the world. It produces a lot of seeds, more so than the native dune plants. The seeds are dispersed by water and can be transported long distances in the ballast water of ships, which is probably how it got to California in the first place. It tolerates disturbances better than native dune vegetation, which allows it to be a superior competitor. Cakile maritima is considered to be invasive, meaning that it can survive and spread on its own in a non-native habitat, but its effects seem to be restricted to beach dunes. Despite its ability to thrive and outcompete our native beach plants, it appears to be unable to expand away from the sand.
Our surprise of the day was a beach mushroom! None of us had seen them before. This is Psathyrella ammophila, the beach brittlestem mushroom. Like sea rocket, it is also a European invasive. We were perplexed by this mushroom. Most of a fungus's body (mycelium) is underground. The mycelium spreads through soils as very thin threads called hyphae. Every once in a while the mycelium sends up a fruiting body, which is what we call a mushroom. There is no way to know, from the location of mushrooms, where and how far the mycelium spreads underground.
The presence of a mushroom on the beach means that a fungal mycelium is feeding on something in the sand. There isn't much plant matter buried on beaches, but we hypothesized that perhaps one of the logs from the forest had washed down the creek and been deposited on the beach. It would then be buried in sand, along with all the mycelium it carried, and a mushroom could have sprouted up through the sand.
Well, it was a good hypothesis.
I posted my photo to a mushroom ID page, and it was identified as Psathyrella ammophila. My submission to iNaturalist came back with the same result. A little research led me to another non-native invasive species, Ammophila arenaria, the European marram grass. Notice that the species epithet of the mushroom is the same as the genus name of the plant? That was my first clue. Marram grass is one of the most noxious weed species on the California coast. It was intentionally introduced to the beaches in the mid-1800s, to provide stability to the dunes. It is very good at that, but also spreads very rapidly, usually growing upwards away from the ocean. That said, marram grass also breaks off chunks that can survive in the ocean and float off to colonize new beaches.
The fungus Psathyrella ammophila grows as a saprobe on the decaying roots of Ammophila arenaria. No doubt the fungus was introduced along with the marram grass as an inadvertent hitchhiker. Since there is so much marram grass on our beaches, it's safe to assume that there is a lot of Psathyrella, too. That means it's time to start looking for mushrooms on the beach!
The intertidal sculpins are delightful little fish with lots of personality. They're really fun to watch, if you have the patience to sit still for a while and let them do their thing. A sculpin's best defense is to not be seen, so their first instinct is to freeze where they are. Then, if a perceived threat proves to be truly frightening, they'll scoot off into hiding. They can also change the color of their skin, either to enhance camouflage or communicate with each other.
Around here we have a handful of sculpin species flitting around in our tidepools. Sculpins can be tricky to identify even if you have the fish in hand--many of the meristics (things you count, such as hard spines and soft rays in the dorsal fin, or the number of scales in the lateral line) used to distinguish species actually overlap quite a lot between species. The fishes' ability to change color means that skin coloration isn't a very reliable trait. When I was in grad school there was another student in my department who was studying the intertidal sculpins, and she told me that most of the ones we see commonly are either woolly sculpins (Clinocottus analis) or fluffy sculpins (Oligocottus snyderi). I've developed a sort of gut feeling for the gestalt of these species, but I'm not always 100% certain of my identifications.
Anyway, back to the camouflaged sculpins. The ability to change the color of the skin means that sculpins can match their backgrounds, which comes in very handy when there isn't anything to hide behind. Since the environment is rarely uniformly colored, sculpins tend to have mottled skin. Some can be banded, looking like Oreo cookies. The fish in this photo lives in a pool with a granite bottom. The rock contains large quartz crystals and is colonized by tufty bits of mostly red algae. There is enough wave surge for these fist-sized rocks to get tumbled about, which prevents larger macroalgae from colonizing them.
Other shallow pools higher up in the intertidal at Asilomar have a different type of rocky bottom. The rocks lining the bottom of these pools are whitish pebbles that are small enough to be tossed up higher onto the beach. I don't know whether or not these pebbles have the same mineral content as the larger rocks lower in the intertidal, but they do have quartz crystals. The pebbles are white. So, as you may have guessed, are the sculpins!
Other intertidal locations have different color schemes. On the reef to the south of Davenport Landing Beach, you will see a lot of coralline algae. Some pools are overwhelmingly pink because of these algae. Bossiella sp. is a common coralline alga at this location.
What color do you think the sculpins are in these pools?
Give yourself a congratulatory pat on the back if you said "pink"!
Sculpins aren't the only animals to blend in with coralline algae. Some crustaceans are remarkably adept at hiding in plain sight by merging into the background. Unlike the various decorator crabs, which tuck bits and pieces of the environment onto their exoskeletons, isopods hide by matching color.
Turning over algae and finding hidden creatures like these is always fun. For example, I saw these isopods at Pescadero this past summer. See how beautifully camouflaged they are?
Sometimes, when you're not looking for anything in particular, you end up finding something really cool. Last weekend I met up with students in the Cabrillo College Natural History Club for a tidepool excursion up at Pigeon Point. We were south of the point at Whaler's Cove, where a staircase makes for comparatively easy access to the intertidal.
It's fun taking students to the intertidal because I enjoy helping them develop search images for things they've never seen before. There really is so much to see, and most of it goes unnoticed by the casual visitor. Often we are reminded to "reach for the stars," when it is equally important to examine what's going on at the level of your feet. That's the only way you can see things like this chiton:
Mopalia muscosa is one of my favorite chitons. It is pretty common up and down the California coast. However, like most chitons it is not very conspicuous--it tends to be encrusted with algae! This individual is exuberantly covered with coralline and other red algae and has itself become a (slowly) walking bit of intertidal habitat. It is not unusual to see small snails, crustaceans, and worms living among the foliage carried around by a chiton. Other species can carry around some algae, but M. muscosa seems to be the most highly decorated chiton around here. I showed this one to some of the students, who then proceeded to find several others. A search image is a great thing to carry around!
Compared to the rocky intertidal, a sandy habitat can be a difficult place to live. Sand is inherently unstable, getting sloshed to and fro with the tides. Because of this instability there is nothing for holdfasts to grab, so there are many fewer algae for animals to eat and hide in. Most of the life at a sandy beach occurs below the surface of the sand, and is thus invisible to anyone who doesn't want to dig. There's a beach at Whaler's Cove where I've found burrowing olive snails (Olivella biplicata) plowing along just below the surface. I wanted to show them to the students, so I waded in and rooted around. I did find Olivella, but I also found a burrowing shrimp. I think it's a species of Crangon.
Now that is some damn fine camouflage! If the shrimp didn't cast its own shadow, it would be invisible. Even so, it was clearly uneasy sitting on the surface like that. I had only a few seconds to shove the camera in the water and snap a quick photo before the shrimp wriggled its way beneath the sand again.
As I've said before, observation takes practice and patience. To look at something doesn't mean you truly see it. That's why it is so important to slow down and let your attention progress at the pace of the phenomenon you're observing. If the only things that catch your eye are the ones that flit about, then I can guarantee you will never find a chiton in the intertidal. And wouldn't that be a sad thing?
Autumn is migration season in California. We all know that, in the northern hemisphere, birds fly south for the winter and return north for the summer. And indeed, this is a very good time to go bird watching along the Pacific Flyway, as migrating birds stop to rest and feed at places such as Elkhorn Slough. Here in Santa Cruz, autumn is punctuated by the return of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), roosting in eucalyptus trees at Natural Bridges State Beach and Lighthouse Field.
Since 1997 the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has been tracking monarch sightings on their migrations between the western U.S. and Mexico. They conduct a volunteer butterfly count every Thanksgiving. More recently, community science data sources such as iNaturalist provide much of the information.
This morning, before it got warm, I went to Natural Bridges to see how the monarchs were doing. I wanted to photograph clumps of butterflies dripping from tree branches. It seemed, however, that there aren't as many butterflies as I remember from previous years. The clusters were not nearly as large or as dense as they should be. And the data shown in the figure below do demonstrate a precipitous decline in monarch since 2017. We're still a couple of weeks away from this year's Thanksgiving count, and there is still a chance that the butterflies might arrive in larger numbers.
Trained observers know how to estimate the number of butterflies in a cluster like this. The numbers of butterflies at various roosting sites are aggregated to assess overall population sizes.
This morning I did see one butterfly that had a tagged wing. It was wearing a green Avery round sticker, with some writing in what looks like black Sharpie. The color of the sticker was very close to the green of the surrounding foliage, so I wasn't even able to see the sticker until I downloaded the pictures from the camera.
At first I thought the tag resulted from an official scientific project or undertaking, but it turns out that anyone can tag a monarch. The tags are used to track migration of the butterflies. There doesn't seem to be a central depository of tags and their origins, so knowing the color of the tag doesn't tell me where this particular butterfly came from.
Once the sun hits the butterflies and they begin to warm up, the clusters start breaking apart. Butterflies open and close their wings, exposing the darker dorsal surfaces to the sun and warming up their flight muscles. Sometimes they dislodge one another.
On a cool morning like this, many of the butterflies that fell out of the clump couldn't fly yet, and landed on the ground. The boardwalk is perhaps not the safest place for a butterfly to wind up, but at least in a monarch sanctuary such as Natural Bridges the visitors are knowledgeable and look out for the butterflies' safety.
As I wrote before, the butterflies we see at Natural Bridges this year were not born here. This means that their survival to this point has depended on healthy conditions in the Pacific Northwest and the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains, where they lived as caterpillars and emerged from their chrysalises. This also means that planting milkweed for monarch caterpillars in California won't help the butterflies that we see here, although it would help butterflies that are destined to overwinter elsewhere. What will help local butterflies--monarchs and otherwise, and all nectar-feeding insects, in fact--is planting California native plants, to provide them with the nutrition they have evolved to survive on.
This time of year is when California earns its nickname as the Golden State. It isn't only the dried vegetation blanketing the hillsides. The light itself takes on a golden hue, especially in the morning and evening when the sun is low on the horizon. Photographers call the time periods just after sunrise and just before sunset the 'golden hour' and with good reason. Some of my favorite photos were taken in either the early morning or late evening.
Today the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (ESNERR) held an open house event. Booths were set up on the field outside the visitor center, with information on native plants, research projects taking place at the slough, a watershed demonstration, mosquito abatement tactics, face painting for kids, and even a food truck. I hadn't been to the slough since early summer, and when I got the notice about the open house I decided to spend the morning there. I'd hike around a bit, take some pictures, and do some nature journaling.
It certainly was a beautiful morning. It had been swelteringly hot earlier in the week, and fortunately the heat had lessened. There was a strong cool breeze and the sky was a clear blue.
In the spring, when I bring my Ecology students to the slough, the landscape is green. The grasses are green and wildflowers are in bloom. Even the pickleweed looks nice and fresh in the spring. Six months later, however, those same grasses are brittle and brown, and most of the wildflowers have long gone to seed and senesced. The live oaks retain their foliage throughout the year, and after two successive wet winters they are lush and green.
When I arrived at the reserve this morning I spent a few minutes touching base with acquaintances and meeting some new people, then wandered off on one of the trails. It was a little chilly, very welcome after the previous heatwaves, and I sat on a bench to do some painting and looking around. After about half an hour I heard something behind me that didn't sound like the wind blowing through the grasses. It was much more rhythmic and regular--definitely some critter walking through the brush. Very quietly, I stood up and sneaked around the oak tree to see a group of three or four juvenile wild turkeys disappearing into a thicket.
All in all I had a pretty good two hours of bird watching. I don't consider myself a birder, really. I enjoy watching birds, just like I enjoy watching other animals. The competitive aspect of birding is a real turn-off for me. I don't care about keeping a life list and comparing it to anybody else's. That said, I do like to keep note of what I see at a given time and place, because it helps me understand the natural world a little better. For example, the other day I heard my first golden-crowned sparrow of the season, and although I haven't seen it yet, knowing it is there makes me think that autumn has truly arrived.
In past decades, several different groups of people have been working to restore natural habitat to the slough. One of the earlier ideas was to build artificial islands, hoping they would encourage the marsh plants such as pickleweed to recruit and expand to their former abundance. It didn't really work, but the islands do provide places for resident and migratory birds to stop and rest.
More recently, a consortium of stakeholders has worked to restore marshlands closer to the ocean. They filled in areas that had been completely flooded, and pickleweed recruited there on its own. That area has been restored to a much more natural condition, with meandering waterways and pickleweed that isn't drowned by seawater. Elkhorn Slough falls into several jurisdictions at the federal, state, and local levels, and getting these groups to work together for a common goal can be difficult. The success that they have had speaks to their willingness to cooperate. I think it helps that any actions taken are based on science, rather than politics or economics.
Over the summer, a lot of work was done to eradicate non-native plant species. This work is ongoing, and may very well never be finished, but it is good to the ecosystem to try. An island called Hummingbird Island has been rid of invasive eucalyptus trees, and now the only trees there are native live oaks and cypress. The trail I hiked went through several areas where trees has been cut down.
Remember that train I mentioned? Here it is, traveling through the slough at about midday.
Sometimes visitors to the slough don't believe that those tracks are actually used.
Much of the land that the ESNERR sits on used to be a dairy. These barns are, I think, the only dairy buildings that remain. Visitors aren't allowed into Little Barn, but we can walk through Big Barn. It is used for occasional equipment storage and is inhabited by barn owls. Sometimes we find owl pellets on the ground beneath the owl boxes mounted in the barn. It is also not unusual to find pieces of those old-fashioned glass milk bottles near the trails.
When I was a little kid I disliked autumn because the shortening days meant that summer was over and winter was coming. As I grow older, though, and gain a presumably more mature outlook on life, I am more able to appreciate the glory of autumn. I still think spring is my favorite season of the year, but autumn in California is indeed golden and lovely.
We usually think of sea stars as the colorful animals that stick to rocks in the intertidal. You know, animals like Pisaster ochraceus (ochre star) and Patiria miniata (bat star). I see these animals all the time in the intertidal, and if you're a regular reader of this blog you've probably seen the photos that I post here. Given how prominent P. ochraceus and P. miniata can be in the rocky intertidal, it may be a bit of a surprise to learn that not all sea stars live on rocks. In fact, some can't even really stick to a rock.
This morning I was meandering through the Seymour Center when I stopped at a recently refurbished tank. The new inhabitants are a couple of curlfin sole (Pleuronichthyes decurrens) and their secretive and strange roommate. Here's one of the flat fish:
The other fish was hiding up against the wall in one of the back corners and didn't come down until it was feeding time.
The secretive roommate was all but invisible. Here's a photo. Ignore the fish's tail. Do you see anybody else?
Fortunately for all of the tank's inhabitants, feeding time was just around the corner. I knew what would happen, so I stuck my phone on the glass and recorded some video. Keep an eye on the upper left-hand corner. Watching the fish eat is entertaining, too. Just how do they manage with those tiny sideways mouths?
It's not the greatest bit of video, but did you see what happened? That creature emerging from the sand is Astropecten armatus, a sea star that lives in sand. And did you notice how fast it moves? Most of the time it is buried under the sand and usually comes out only to grab food. Every once in a while I'll find it on one of the walls but most of the time it is essentially invisible to human viewers on the other side of the glass.
All spread out, this Astropecten is probably a little smaller than my hand. It has a smooth-ish aboral (i.e., top) surface, lacking the spiny protuberances that Pisaster has. The texture of the aboral surface is similar to that of the bat star, Patiria miniata. The species epithet, armatus, means 'armored' and refers to the row of marginal plates along the perimeter of the body. These plates bear a row of spines that point up and another row that point down. Astropecten is unusual among sea stars for having suckerless tube feet. Its tube feet are pointed, and instead of being super grippy, work to push sand around so the animal can sort of bulldoze its way along. As always, form follows function!
In the wild, A. armatus lives on sandy flats, rarely exposed even at low tide. One of its favorite prey items is the olive snail, Olivella biplicata. Imagine this life-and-death encounter taking place below the surface of the sand: Olivella is burrowing through the sand, minding its own business and unaware that Astropecten is following the slime trail it (Olivella) left behind. Astropecten catches up to Olivella, shoves a couple of arms into the sand around Olivella, engulfs the snail, and swallows it whole. Eventually an empty Olivella shell is spat out. Incidentally, many small hermit crabs, especially Pagurus hirsutiusculus and juveniles of other Pagurus species, live in Olivella shells. I've often wondered why there are so many empty but intact olive snail shells for the hermit crabs to find, and now suppose that Astropecten's method of feeding might have something to do with it.
Interesting star, this Astropecten. I'm really happy that it is on exhibit again, because even most visitors will never see it, watching it come out to feed is always fun.
A few weeks ago I was contacted by a woman named Kathleen, who reads this blog and is herself a student of the seaweeds. She said that she studies a site up at Pescadero, about an hour up the coast from me. We decided to meet up during the series of low tides around the Fourth of July so we could explore the area together, and she could help me with my algal IDs. My friend and former student, Lisa, joined us for the fun.
The most prominent landmark along the coastline in this region is Bird Island, which is accessible only at minus tides, when it is revealed to be a peninsula. It smells pretty much as you probably imagine, especially if you happen to be downwind. Given the prevailing wind direction, that means that the closer you get to Bird Island from the south, the stronger the smell. Kathleen's site is the south side of Pescadero Point, fortunately far enough south of Bird Island that the smell isn't noticeable from that distance. She has a permanent transect that she surveys regularly, taking note of algal abundances and distributions.
One of the notable things we all noticed was the conspicuous presence of big, healthy ochre stars (Pisaster ochraceus)--many hand-sized or larger. I also saw many smaller stars, in the 2 cm size range, but these were hidden in crevices or under algae. The big guys and gals, were out there in plain sight.
However, not all was perfect for the sea stars at Pescadero Point. One of the ochre stars showed symptoms of sea star wasting syndrome (SSWS). It had autotomized two of its arms and had a sloppy, goopy open wound that extended into the oral disc. It was also mushy when I touched it and didn't firm up the way healthy stars do. This star is a goner, even though it doesn't know it yet. That's the beauty (and in this case, tragedy) of an entirely decentralized nervous system.
After I mentioned having seen a sick sea star we compared notes on the current status of SSWS. What more do we know about the syndrome, and any recovery of stars? We came to the consensus that the oubreak was probably caused by a perfect storm of ecological conditions--an opportunistically pathogenic virus that is ubiquitous in the environment, environmental stresses, and high population densities both intertidally and subtidally. Kathleen asked me what I had been seeing recently. I told her that Pisaster ochraceus, one of the species that melted away in spectacular fashion, seems to be making a strong comeback in the places where I used to see it in large numbers. Even though every once in a while i see a sick star, places like Natural Bridges and Davenport Landing are again populated by lots of hand-sized-or-bigger ochre stars. Which of course brings up the question of where these large stars suddenly came from. I think they were tiny stars when the outbreak occurred, hiding in the mussel beds. Many of them died, but as with any plague there are always some survivors. Those lucky few managed to hang on and creep into the niches that opened up when so many adults died. But would little juveniles only a few millimeters in diameter be able to grow to the sizes that we're seeing now, in ~5 years? I suppose that's not out of the question, and we know that when fed well in the lab they grow very quickly, but individual growth rates in the field are difficult to measure.
Another animal goody that we saw were clusters of the bryozoan, Flustrellidra corniculata. Unlike most bryozoans, which are calcified and crunchy, Flustrellidra colonies are soft and flexible. They look more like strange, thick pieces of brown algae than anything recognizable as a bryozoan.
We were there to do some basic marine botany, and although I kept getting distracted by the invertebrates I did also pay attention to the floral aspect of Kathleen's site. She pointed out that Laminaria sinclairii, one of the small low-intertidal kelps, was always abundant. It's true, there were rocks that were entirely covered with L. sinclairii, like this one:
Laminaria sinclairii and L. setchellii are the most common intertidal species of the genus on our coast. They are easily distinguishable because L. sinclairii has a single undivided blade arising from the stipe, and L. setchellii has a blade that is subdivided into fingerlike sections; in fact, the former species epithet for L. setchellii was dentigera, referring to 'finger'.
See the difference?
There is a third species of Laminaria on our coast, that I knew only by reputation. What I'd heard is that Laminaria ephemera resembles L. sinclairii except for the morphology of the holdfast: L. ephemera has a discoid, suction-cup holdfast while L. sinclairii has the more typical hapterous holdfast (made of intertwined cylindrical projections). I think I might have seen a few L. ephemera at Pescadero. These thalli appear to have suction-cup holdfasts, don't they?
We didn't spend much time on the south side of the point, but scrambled over the rocks to the north side, where there are stretches of sandy beach between rocky outcrops. Bird Island is that peninsula in the top of the picture. As I mentioned above, it is connected to the beach only at low tide, so while I think of it as a peninsula, it really is an island most of the time.
Once on the north side of the point we slowed down and made some more attentive observations of the flora. It turns out that this portion of our intertidal visit was sponsored by the letter 'P'. One of the things we all noticed was the prevalence of Pyropia, the filmy red alga that is common in the high-mid intertidal. The thallus of Pyropia consists of a single layer of cells connected to form a very thin elastic tissue. It dries to a crisp in the sun, but rehydrates when the tide returns. You've probably encountered Pyropia before without realizing it: nori is made of Pyropia that has been shredded and processed into paper-like sheets, used for things like sushi rolls.
Although it looks uniformly blackish-green when packaged for human consumption, Pyropia's color in life is a glorious iridescent mixture of greens, olives, and purples. It is another of those easily overlooked denizens of the intertidal that deserves a much closer look than it usually gets.
Another common red alga at Pescadero Point is the delicate and lacy Plocamium cartilagineum. This is one of the hobbyist phycologist's favorite species because it presses like a dream and makes great gifts or wall decorations. As I wrote about here, Plocamium has a doppelganger: Microcladia coulteri. These algae share a similar morphology, but as I mentioned in the previous post, natural history makes it easy to distinguish between the two in the field. Microcladia is epiphytic, growing on other algae, and Plocamium is not.
Plocamium grows on rock surfaces in the mid-to-low tide regions. It sometimes gets surrounded or even buried in sand, but if you dig down far enough you'll always find the holdfast attached to a rock (or shell or other hard object).
Last month I wrote about Postelsia palmaeformis, the sea palm. We found a most handsome specimen washed up on the beach. Note that, as per usual, it wasn't the holdfast of the kelp that failed. The holdfast did its job perfectly well, and it was the mussel it was attached to that broke free of the rock.
The sad thing about finding great specimens like this on the beach is the realization that it will soon be dead. In fact, so will the mussel. Such is the price organisms pay for failing to hang onto their substrate (or for their substrate's failure to hang on). The rocky intertidal is a harsh place to live, and can be unforgiving of mistakes and bad decisions.
That's part of the reason I find it so fascinating. Most wild organisms live on the knife-edge of survival, with only the thinnest margin between life and death. Every organism has its predators, pathogens, and parasites to deal with on a daily basis, in addition to the physical stresses of its habitat. All of the organisms that I study in the intertidal are marine--not freshwater or even brackish, although some can tolerate reduced salinity (and on the other extreme, some tolerate very high salinity). They evolved to live in the ocean, in a habitat where the ocean abandons them for a few hours twice a day. Yet as improbable as that sounds, the diversity in the intertidal is astonishingly high. Obviously, for those that can live there, the trade-off between stability and safety is worthwhile. Nature will always find a way.