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In my experience, the most difficult organisms to photograph in the wild are staurozoans. Even birds in flight are easier. The problem with staurozoans is where they live. I never see them in calm, still pools, where taking pictures would be easy. Instead, they seem to like surge channels where the water constantly sloshes back and forth, and even in the few seconds between a wave coming in and receding they never really stop moving. Their bodies are extremely soft and squishy, so the slightest current causes them to flutter and make blurry photos. When they are emersed their bodies don't really look like anything except a soggy booger, so they aren't recognizable as staurozoans unless they are underwater. And when underwater they don't hold still, and so on and so forth.

Still, finding them is always a treat, even if I can't capture photographic proof. They really are extremely gorgeous creatures.

Staurozoan (Haliclystus 'sanjuanensis') at Franklin Point
2019-05-08
© Allison J. Gong

They are also enigmatic creatures. Much of staurozoan biology, including their evolutionary relationships, remains poorly understood. Until recently the staurozoans were considered a subgroup of the Scyphozoa, the taxon that includes the large medusae such as moon jellies (Aurelia spp.) and sea nettles (Chrysaora spp.). However, using data from more extensive morphological and molecular studies, most taxonomists now agree that the Staurozoa should be elevated to a level equivalent to the Scyphozoa. In other words, the staurozoan lineage probably evolved alongside, but separate from, the scyphozoan lineage.

Whatever their evolutionary history and relationships, what we know about staurozoans is very limited. They are considered to be stalked jellies (hence their previously assumed close affinity to the scyphozoans) that do not have a separate polyp stage. Their bodies consist of an adhesive peduncle, or stalk, that attaches to algae or surfgrasses, and a calyx or goblet-shaped portion surrounded by eight tapering arms. Each of the eight arms is topped with a puffball of stinging tentaches which are uses to catch food and presumably to defend the animal against predators. The mouth is located in the center of the calyx, usually lifted up on a short stalk called a manubrium. The animal feeds by capturing prey on the tentacles and flexing the arm so the food is brought to the mouth. Staurozoans are not permanently attached and can sort of 'walk' with a somersault-like motion, flipping end-over-end.

Staurozoan (Haliclystus 'sanjuanensis') at Franklin Point
2019-05-08
© Allison J. Gong
Haliclystus 'sanjuanensis' at Franklin Point
2019-05-08
© Allison J. Gong

Haliclystus 'sanjuanensis' at Franklin Point grows to a length and diameter of ~3 cm, although most of the ones that I see are smaller than that. The most common color is this reddish brown, but I've also seen them in a gorgeous bottle green that makes them much easier to see against the background of their habitat. I usually see them attached to pieces of red algae, but I'm not sure they actually prefer red algae to either green or brown algae. I don't think I've ever seen one attached to a rock.

Last week I had one of those moments in the intertidal when I felt something stuck on my finger and I couldn't get rid of it. That happens frequently, with small bits of algae getting caught on everything; usually I just flick my hand and they go flying off. But this thing wouldn't leave. I finally stuck my hand in the water to rinse it off, and saw that I had been glommed onto by a small staurozoan!

Staurozoan (Haliclystus 'sanjuanensis') on my finger at Franklin Point
2019-05-08
© Allison J. Gong

See how the animal stuck to me with its tentacles, while its peduncle is still attached to a piece of Ulva?

As I mentioned, not much is known about these strange animals. They possess the stinging cells to prove their inclusion within the Cnidaria, but are aberrant medusae which stick to algae instead of swimming around in the water column. Their life cycle is more or less cnidarian-like, but their planula is non-ciliated. Their ecological relationships haven't really been studied at all.

Which is why this photograph is so informative. It's not a great picture, by any means, but it shows a glimpse of how staurozoans interact with other species.

2019-05-08
© Allison J. Gong

This is a picture of two animals, a staurozoan (H. 'sanjuanensis') and a nudibranch (Hermissenda opalescens). Both of these animals are predators. Hermissenda is well known for its affinity for general cnidarian prey, from which it steals the stinging cells to defend its own body (a behavior known as kleptocnidae). But the staurozoan should be quite capable of defending itself. So, who is doing the eating, and who is being eaten?

Given the dastardly nature of Hermissenda, I'd bet on it as the eater. Those damned nudibranchs have to spoil everything! The staurozoan will probably sustain damage, perhaps losing a tuft of tentacles, but should be able to regrow the lost parts. And the sting of the staurozoan may keep the nudibranch from eating as much as it would like. That's the thing. We just don't know.

I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for the staurozoans at Franklin Point the rest of this tide season. I may even bring a few back to the lab for closer inspection; my collecting permit allows me to do so. I could then photograph them under controlled conditions and hopefully get some better pictures. I find these animals very intriguing, being both so clearly cnidarian-like and simultaneously so inscrutable. I always did like a good mystery story!

All semester I've been taking my Ecology students out in the field every Friday. We've visited rivers, forests, natural reserves, endemic habitats, and fish hatcheries--none of which fall into my area of expertise. This year I have several students interested in various aspects of food production, natural/holistic health practices (which sometimes conflict with actual science!), mycology, as well as some who haven't yet decided in which direction to take their academic endeavors. Until very recently I haven't been able to share with my students much of what I really know, which is marine biology. I did have them learn the organisms that live on docks at the harbor, but that was to study the process of ecological succession rather than natural history.

Yesterday, finally, I took the class into my real field, the rocky intertidal. This year it happened that the best Friday to do our annual LiMPETS monitoring was at the end of the semester. We welcomed the new regional LiMPETS coordinator, Hannah, to our classroom on Thursday for some training. Students learned about the history of the LiMPETS program, some natural history of the rocky intertidal in California, and got to practice some organism IDs with photo quadrats of actual intertidal areas.

The real fun, of course, occurs in the field where the organisms live. So we went here:

LiMPETS monitoring at Davenport Landing
2019-05-10
© Allison J. Gong
Sampling along the vertical transect
2019-05-10
© Allison J. Gong

We didn't have a very good student turnout, unfortunately, but the ones who did show up were diligent workers and we got everything finished that Hannah needed. Most of the time was spent sampling along the permanent vertical transect line. This line is sampled at 3-meter increments along a line that runs from the high intertidal into the low. The same quadrats are sampled every time, and the data collected are used to determine how specific sites change over time. The most difficult part of the monitoring is finding the eye bolts that mark where the transects begin!

Sampling along the vertical transect
2019-05-10
© Allison J. Gong

I admit, I was a little bummed at the low turnout and late arrival of my students. But the intertidal is the intertidal, and it didn't take long for me to adjust my attitude. I worked up a handful of quadrats with Hannah, then let the students do the bulk of the heavy lifting. This was their field trip, after all. So I wandered around a bit, remaining within hearing distance in case I was needed. I needed to find some stuff!

I just want to show some of the animals and algae in the intertidal yesterday. I didn't realize how much I missed this basic natural history stuff until I got to spend some time simply looking at things.

Such rich life to see! One of the students was astounded when she learned that we could visit sites like this only a few days each month. "At dinnertime today the spot where you're standing will be under several feet of water!" I told her. Mind blown.

Intertidal biota at Davenport Landing
2019-05-10
© Allison J. Gong

Looking more closely, there were, as usual, interesting zonation patterns to observe. One was the restriction of large brown algae to the vertical faces of rocky outcroppings.

The kelp Laminaria setchellii at Davenport Landing
2019-05-10
© Allison J. Gong

In the mid-intertidal, mussels (Mytilus californianus) rule the roost. They are often (but not always) accompanied by gooseneck barnacles (Pollicipes polymerus). The barnacles, for reasons discussed in this earlier post, always live in clumps and are most abundant in the lower half of the mid-intertidal mussel beds.

Gooseneck barnacles (Pollicipes polymerus) and mussels (Mytilus californianus) at Davenport Landing
2019-05-10
© Allison J. Gong

During the training session on Thursday, Hannah told the students that Pollicipes is easily identifiable because the barnacles look like dragon toes. I think I can sort of see that. They are scaly and strange enough to be dragon toes.

Gooseneck barnacles (Pollicipes polymerus) at Davenport Landing
2019-05-10
© Allison J. Gong

The algae are taking off now, and the site is starting to look very lush.

Mishmash of algae at Davenport Landing
2019-05-10
© Allison J. Gong

Even algae start as babies! These balloon-shaped things are young Halosaccion glandiforme thalli, surrounded by other red algae. The large blades belong to Mazzaella flaccida, which makes up a large portion of algal biomass in the mid-intertidal zone.

Halosaccion glandiforme and Mazzaella flaccida at Davenport Landing
2019-05-10
© Allison J. Gong

The tidepools at Davenport Landing are good places to see fish, if you have the patience to sit still for a while and watch. This woolly sculpin (Clinocottus analis) posed nicely in the perfect pool for photography--deep enough to submerge the camera, with clear, still water.

Woolly sculpin (Clinocottus analis) and purple urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) at Davenport Landing
2019-05-10
© Allison J. Gong

And I was finally able to take a good underwater shot of a turban snail carrying some slipper shells. I've already written about the story of this gastropod trio in case you need a refresher. I'm still waiting to see a taller stack of slipper shells some day.

Black turban snail (Tegula funebralis) with slipper shells (Crepidula adunca) at Davenport Landing
2019-05-10
© Allison J. Gong

It was impossible not to feel satisfied after spending some time looking at these creatures. My attitude was mercifully adjusted, and we all departed feeling that we'd done a good morning's work. Our small group of students was able to collect a full set of data for Hannah. That ended up being a very important accomplishment, as Hannah doesn't have any other groups monitoring at Davenport this spring. This means that our data will probably be the only data collected this year at this site. I'm glad the tide and weather conditions allowed us to stay out there as long as we did.

Joshua Tree National Park gained a certain notoriety this past winter, when idiots went there during the federal government shutdown and trashed the place. The vandals chopped down the iconic Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia), let their dogs run around unleashed, left litter scattered over the landscape, and carved new roads through the desert. I'd like to give most people the benefit of the doubt and assume that they didn't realize the damage they were doing to the park. However, it takes only a few bad apples to destroy a public resource for everybody, as we've all experienced at some point.

© DesertUSA

The very first thing I learned about Joshua Tree is that it has two distinct desert habitats. Hey, I'm a marine biologist, and the desert--any desert--is new territory for me. None of this landscape has been anywhere near the ocean for millions of years! Anyway, the eastern half of the park is Colorado Desert, which is similar to what we had seen at Anza-Borrego State Park. Many of the plants in this region were also familiar to us because we had seen them in Anza-Borrego, but for the most part were more abundant here in Joshua Tree.

For example, we saw many more bluebells (Phacelia campanularia) at Joshua Tree than in Anza-Borrego. The P. campanularia at Joshua Tree also looked healthier (more robust and vigorous, less spindly) than they did in Anza-Borrego. Perhaps the higher elevation of the Colorado Desert in Joshua Tree (approximately 914 meters, or 3000 feet) compared to Anza-Borrego (182 meters, or 597 feet) accounts for this observation.

Desert bluebells (Phacelia campanularia) at Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

I really liked the Colorado Desert in Joshua Tree. Even though it was the same ecosystem as what we saw in Anza-Borrego, here the flowers seemed more colorful and striking. The yellows were a little brighter, and the pinks and blues a little deeper. The scenery was breathtaking everywhere I looked. I wish my photos could do justice to the beauty of the landscape.

Wildflowers at Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

Aside from the desert bluebells, other flowers that we had seen at Anza-Borrego included the brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), which seems to be ubiquitous in the Colorado Desert. The Arizona lupine (Lupinus arizonicus) was also common in Joshua Tree; like the bluebells, these appeared to be more robust here than in Anza-Borrego.

There were new flowers, too. My favorite, which I didn't see a lot of, was this desert globemallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua:

Desert globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) at Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

Here's a close-up of the same plant. Look at that gorgeous orange color!

Desert mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) at Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

Against the prevailing palette of yellows and purples, this orange really stood out and caught the eye. This plant is also called the apricot mallow, for obvious reasons.

Some other flowers that we saw:

Among all the colorful flowers in the overall landscape, there was this very subtle plant, easily overlooked by eyes accustomed to more brilliant blossoms.

Sand blazing star (Mentzelia involucrata) at Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

Something that tickled my funny bone was the little chia plant, Salvia columbariae. It looks like a prickly purple pom-pom. Two days in the desert had taught me not to touch things if I didn't know what they were, but I had to know if these blossoms were as pokey as they looked. They weren't!

Chia (Salvia columbariae) at Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

There are parasitic plants in the desert, too. The red branches in this bush are the desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum), a hemiparasite. It drains water and nutrients from its host plant but performs its own photosynthesis.

Desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum) at Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

In Joshua Tree National Park there's an area called the Cholla Cactus Garden. Chollas are cactuses with cylindrical stems, rather than the flat stems of the beavertail or prickly pear cactuses. The most common one in the Colorado Desert (that we saw, at least) was the teddybear cholla, Cylindropuntia bigelovii. As the name implies, it's a cute, fluffy cactus, but it's definitely still a cactus.

Teddybear chollas (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) at Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

Teddybear chollas (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) at Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

The teddybear cactus blooms in May and June, so we didn't see any flowers. In addition to having the normal plant sex using flowers, these cactuses also reproduce clonally by dropping branches. The dropped pieces roll around and find a new place to attach and grow. Interestingly, this type of clonal replication, called budding, is common in many marine invertebrates!

Buds of teddybear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

Here's a newly detached bud from a teddybear cholla:

Bud of teddybear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

And here's a recently established, young plant:

Young teddybear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

Cute little cactus, isn't it?

The trees that give Joshua Tree National Park its name live in the higher and cooler western region of the park, known as the Mojave Desert. The Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) live singly or in clusters. In some ways, Y. brevifolia is the symbol of the Mojave Desert. They are also abundant in the higher elevations of the Tehachapi Mountains along Highway 58 between Bakersfield and the town of Mojave.

Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) in the Tehachapi Mountains
2017-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

In Joshua Tree National Park, said trees were blooming in late March.

Blooming Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) in Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

I'll have more to say about reproduction in Joshua trees and some other desert plants in another post. This one is getting long, and we had more desert adventures to come.

Next stop: Death Valley

The first new-to-me visit on our spring break road trip was Anza-Borrego State Park in the southern California desert. We arrived late in the day on Monday and had just a brief chance to look around. On Tuesday we got up early and went for a hike, trying to avoid some of the midday heat. Fortunately there was a bit of a breeze, which helped with the heat but made flower picture-taking challenging.

Anza-Borrego is located in the Colorado Desert, which is a western subdivision of the Sonoran Desert. The Colorado is a low-altitude desert (most of the surrounding hills are only ~900 meters tall) and thus gets much hotter in the summer than deserts at higher elevations, and very rarely experiences a winter frost. Winter is the main rainy season and some regions also receive rain during a late-summer monsoon season.

After a rainy winter, the desert explodes into vibrant life:

Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

The color of the day at Anza-Borrego was yellow. More details on the yellow players in a bit.

Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

It had rained a few days prior to our visit, and there a stream was flowing through the desert.

Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

This running water would be a temporary situation, of course, but one that is of great help to the wildlife in the park. At the park visitor center I read that wildlife large and small come to drink from the shallow streams, and that if we were to see bighorn sheep approaching the water we should stay out of their way. Water is so scarce for these animals that any delay in getting to it, or any separation of individuals from their family unit could be very stressful. I didn't know whether or not we'd even see the sheep, since they are shy, but we got lucky!

Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

Handsome fellow, isn't he? He was eating and didn't seem to mind us hikers as long as we stayed on the trail. Of course, there was an idiot who approached too close to get a better photo, and this ram wasn't happy about it. He withdrew away from us and then went about his business. Other sheep wandered through, too, to forage or drink from the stream. But this big guy gave me the best photo op.

A visit to the desert this spring, after all the rain we had over the winter, was all about the wildflowers. Most of them were new to me. One thing that struck me was that, instead of the carpets of color that we'd seen at Carrizo Plain or Antelope Valley, flowers at Anzo-Borrega were much more widely dispersed. Some species were very common and others I didn't see more than once or twice.

As I mentioned above, yellow was the predominant color at Anza-Borrego. There were several daisy-like flowers in both yellow and white, and some were very common. Fortunately for me, the visitor center had an easy-to-use pictorial guide of the most common wildflowers; using that, some wildflower field guides that we brought with us, and Calflora.org, I may have identified them all correctly. I'm sure that somebody will point out any identifications that I got wrong.

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

One of the defining characteristics of E. farinosa is the way that the blossoms are raised up above the grayish-green foliage. It's a cool morphology, and makes the plant look very different when you see it from the side. Here's a shot that shows it:

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

And brittlebush was very abundant!

Lots of brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

Another very abundant yellow flower was the very aptly named desert dandelion, Malacothrix glabrata. It looks like a typical dandelion, perhaps a more pale buttery color than usual, and when mature the blossoms have a small purplish red spot in the center.

Desert dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong
Desert dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

Our state flower, Eschscholzia californica, is typically a brilliant pure orange color, although sometimes the color can be more yellow. In Anza-Borrego I saw some plants whose foliage looked poppy-ish, but the blossoms didn't look quite right--a little too small to be California poppies and a color that was definitely yellow rather than orange. Turns out, though, that they were gold poppies (E. parishii)!

Gold poppies (Eschscholzia parishii) and one of the purple Phacelia species at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

And who can resist a plant called ghostflower? That palest of yellows, almost but not quite white, combined with the tiny dark speckles, makes the plant seem very quiet--indeed, almost spooky. Ghostflower is easily overlooked, compared to the vibrant yellows of brittlebush, poppies, and dandelions.

Desert ghostflower (Mohavea confertiflora) and gold poppy (Eschscholzia parishii) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

One of my favorite flower color combinations is yellow, white, and purple. Imagine how pleased I was to find it in the desert!

Desert dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata), desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana) and a purple phacelia (Phacelia distans) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

The color purple was represented by two species of Phacelia, P. distans and P. campanularia. Phacelia distans was by far the most common in the floors of the valleys, and we saw P. campanularia at higher elevations.

This is Phacelia distans. Note the shape of the inflorescences, and how the blossoms are arranged.

Phacelia distans at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-02-36
© Allison J. Gong
Phacelia distans at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-02-36
© Allison J. Gong

And this is Phacelia campanularia, the desert bluebell:

Desert bluebell (Phacelia campanularia) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-02-36
© Allison J. Gong

These plants have the same blossom shape, but very different blossom arrangements and foliage morphology. Nifty, the differences between presumably closely related species, eh?

Another flower in the purple family was the desert sand verbena (Abronia villosa). It occurred in sandy soils, often in washes or dunes, similar to the sand verbena that I see on beaches along the coast.

Desert sand verbena (Abronia villosa) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

The pink color family was represented by the bright pink Bigelow's monkeyflower, Diplacus bigelovii. They were fun. The golden-orange throat is the diagnostic feature for this species.

Bigelow's monkeyflower (Diplacus bigelovii) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong
Bigelow's monkeyflower (Diplacus bigelovii) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

I didn't get very many good pictures of the white flowers. It always seemed to be especially windy when we saw them. Desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana) is a white daisy-like flower.

Desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

This being the desert, much of the plant biomass was succulent in nature. The ocotillo were blooming, as were the teddybear cholla and other cactuses.

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

Everything living in the desert survives only if it can take advantage of the minimal precipitation that falls every year. Cactuses must suck up as much water as they can during the wet season, and store it for use during the hot, dry summer. Barrel cactus (Ferocactus acanthodes) this spring are fat, like the barrels for which they are named, and full of water. Their bodies are pleated longitudinally, allowing them to swell up when water is available. Then, as their water stores are depleted during the summer, the pleats fold together and the body becomes more compact. The large saguaro cactuses in the Sonoran Desert do the same thing.

Blooming barrel cactus (Ferocactus acanthodes) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

A cactus whose blossom definitely belongs in the pink category is the beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaria). I think it was early in the blooming season for them, as I never saw any plants with more than a few open flowers, but most of them had many buds developing.

Beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaria) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

The chollas are cactuses in the genus Cylindropuntia, characterized by cylindrical stems. The teddybear cholla (C. bigelovii) was the one we saw at Anza-Borrego. It has dense spines that give it a fuzzy look but in reality form an impenetrable defense--it manages to say "I'm cute and fuzzy!" and "Don't touch me!" at the same time.

Teddybear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

The teddybear chollas were very abundant at Anza-Borrego. We continued to see them as we continued on our trip. Next stop, Joshua Tree!

1

We've had a good strong wet season this year, resulting in another wildflower superbloom. Over spring break we went to southern California to chase the flowers and, while we were at it, visit some places that I'd never been to. Our first stops were at familiar stomping grounds that we'd visited in 2017: Shell Creek Road, Carrizo Plain, and Antelope Valley. There were significantly more people at all of these places, compared to two years ago. Many of the well known sites for wildflowers have become very popular lately, and we tried to avoid the most crowded areas.

Location 1: Shell Creek Road

Just because I love the California oaks, here's one that is well festooned with lace lichen (Ramalina menziesii) and moss:

Coastal live oak (Quercus agrifolia)
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

The sky was hazy that day, making for less than ideal picture-taking conditions. The wind certainly didn't help, as the flowers were moving constantly. This early in the bloom the predominant color was yellow: a soft, buttery yellow due to the tidy tips and a much more brilliant, retina-searing gold due to the goldfields.

Goldfields (Lasthenia californica)
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

There was some relief from all the yellow, in patches of baby blue eyes.

Wildflowers along Shell Creek Road
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong
Baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii)
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

Location 2: Carrizo Plain and Temblor Hills

Soda Lake Road, which runs through Carrizo Plain, was quite crowded. We stopped at the vista point and then headed off the beaten track onto some less-traveled dirt roads.

Still hazy, see?

Soda Lake, from vista point
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

There was such glorious scenery all around!

2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

To the northeast of Carrizo Plain lie the Temblor Range hills, on which the bloom was just beginning. We saw fiddlenecks and goldfields at lower elevations, and splotches of purple Phacelia and orange poppies higher on the hills.

Fiddlenecks (Amsinckia menziesii), goldfields (Lasthenia californica), and Phacelia ciliata
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

Poppies weren't going very strongly yet, but were distinguishable as a faint orange wash on the hills:

Wildflowers on Temblor Hills
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

We'd see plenty of poppies the next day!

Location 3: Antelope Valley

Antelope Valley was overrun with people, climbing up hillsides with their dogs and selfie sticks. Seems that selfies of people sitting in poppy fields is all the rage these days. We didn't bother even trying to get into the poppy preserve, as there were lots of flowers to be seen in the surrounding areas.

Owl's clover (Castilleja exserta) and California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
2019-03-25
© Allison J. Gong
California poppies (Eschscholzia californica)
2019-03-25
© Allison J. Gong

Compared to what we saw at Antelope Valley in 2017, this year's bloom was different. This year the poppies were not as widely scattered as in 2017, but where they occurred they were extremely dense. Then again, this year we were early in the bloom, and by now it could be different.

Poppy field at Antelope Valley
2019-03-25
© Allison J. Gong

Next up: Anza-Borrego!

Coastal live oak (Quercus agrifolia) at Fort Ord National Monument
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gong

The other day my students and I lucked out with the weather and managed to get in a full day of exploring a former military base. Fort Ord, on Monterey Bay near the small city of Marina, was an Army base until it was closed in 1994. Since then, most of the land (~14,600 acres) has been designated the Fort Ord National Monument, administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Smaller portions were transferred to the surrounding cities, the campus of CSU Monterey Bay, the state park system, and the University of California's Natural Reserve system. Our guide for the day, Joe, is the reserve manager for the Fort Ord Natural Reserve, and had arranged for us to meet with researchers working at both sites that we visited. It really was a fantastic learning opportunity for all of us.

The Fort Ord National Monument (FONM) came into being in 2012--thank you, President Obama! Most of the monument is public land, with miles of trails used to hikers, bicyclists, and horseback riders. The monument is also home to the California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense), the central California population of which is federally threatened. The first person we met on our field trip was a guy named Robert, who is a graduate researcher working on conservation of the tiger salamanders. Robert showed us some artificial vernal pools that he's using in his research.

Artificial vernal pools at Fort Ord National Monument
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gong

The 18 pools are about 10 meters in diameter, lined with an impermeable layer, and were allowed to fill with natural rainwater. Robert's plan is to seed them with salamander larvae and record how they survive and disperse from the pools. There's a lot more to the story than that, but it's Robert's story to tell, not mine.

We did get to help Robert check the pitfall traps, which are arranged in pairs on each side of the fence surrounding each pool. Each trap is a small bucket set into the ground to be level with the surface. The lid is mounted on wooden legs and sits above the trap, to keep it from filling with water. Animals crawling along the fence will fall into the bucket. Robert collects data on the animals trapped and then releases them unharmed.

The tiger salamanders are all underground at this time of year so there were none in the traps. The students did, however, find a pair of western toads (Anaxyrus boreas) in one of the traps. They were in amplexus, which is what herpetologists call the mating position of frogs and toads: the male clasps the female around her body, ideally positioned to fertilize the female's eggs as she lays them.

Western toads (Anaxyrus boreas) at Fort Ord National Monument
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gong

The pair of amorous toads were released into one of the ponds, where they swam off together, still in amplexus. Their offspring will be born into the pond as tadpoles, along with those of the chorus frogs, the red-legged frogs, and hopefully not too many bullfrogs. Incidentally, herpetologists use the term 'tadpole' to refer only to the larvae of frogs and toads; Robert calls the larvae of his study salamanders just 'larvae'.

We ventured over to the Fort Ord Natural Reserve (FONR), where we ate our lunch in a clearing surrounded by coast live oaks and coastal scrub. FONR is one of five natural reserves managed by UC Santa Cruz as an outdoor classroom and teaching lab. School groups ranging from elementary school to university levels visit FONR to learn about the natural environment, often for the very first time.

FONR sits on an ancient sand dune, and all of the vegetation has had to adapt to difficult growing conditions. The soil is almost entirely sand and doesn't hold water at all. The wind picks up just about every afternoon and blows in salt from the ocean; these winds can be quite fierce even without the salt. The sand itself gets blown around, making an unstable substrate. As a result, plants that would otherwise grow tall are stunted here. Take, for example, the coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia). In places that are more sheltered from the wind, they are tall and majestic, even as they continue their meandering growth form. At FONR they are much shorter and more closely resemble the other scrub plants than actual trees.

Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) and coastal scrub at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gon
Horned lizard (Phyronosoma sp.) at FONR 2018-05-12
© Allison J. Gong

After lunch we heard from Dani, a UCSC undergraduate student studying horned lizards (Phrynosoma sp.). The lizards are very well adapted to this environment. They live in sand, and have flattened bodies so they can hide on top of the sand and become practically invisible. Like the tiger salamanders the horned lizards are underground now. They should emerge in the next couple of months. This is one that we saw last May, when Joe invited last year's class to visit the Reserve on a Saturday, after our planned field trip was cancelled due to rain.

Footsteps of spring
Sanicula arctopoides
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gong

In early March the plants were starting to bloom. One of the earliest bloomers is this delightful plant called 'footsteps of spring'; its real name is Sanicula arctopoides. They look like small blotches of yellow spray paint against the ground. And when you see several of them scattered on the trail, you really understand their common name.

Students follow the footsteps of spring (Sanicula arctopoides)
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gong

There were, of course, no horned lizards to be seen. We did, however, hike the reserve, and Joe showed us some of the endemic and/or endangered plants that live there. That's Joe, in the front of the group here:

Joe and students
Fort Ord Natural Reserve
2019-03-08

Our last stop at the end of the field trip was at a location where the Army used to work on fire suppression. They did this by dumping various flammable items and fuels on the ground, lighting them on fire, and putting them out. This activity resulted in groundwater and soil contamination, which Army contractors have been working to clean up for 20 years now. Currently the site is where Robert is raising his tiger salamander larvae in raised ponds; he will eventually release the larvae into the artificial pools that we saw earlier in the day.

Ponds for growing salamander larvae
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gong

Each of those ponds is filled with natural rain water and contains a small screened tub into which Robert placed 10 salamander eggs. The larvae, after they hatch and have used up all of their yolk reserves, feed on whatever zooplankton have sprung up in the ponds--a quick glance showed that copepods, ostracods, and insect larvae had already taken up residence. The idea is that the salamander larvae will escape from their tubs into the pool at large, which will give them lots of room to grow up.

In a very real sense, this field trip ended where it started. Things don't always work out this nicely, and my Type A personality is pleased at both the symmetry and the closure. Because these field trips are necessarily snapshots of what is happening at a particular moment in a particular place, it can sometimes be difficult to connect them to the real world. This week, though, I feel that my students got the whole story, or at least the entire outline of it. This visit to FONM and FONR may very well be my favorite field trip of the class, because I learned so much about things that are new to me. Thank you, Joe, for arranging such an amazing day for us!

Over the long holiday weekend a little over a week ago we drove up the coast from Morro Bay back to Santa Cruz and stopped at Piedras Blancas to visit the elephant seals. At this time of year the breeding season is over and most of the seals have returned to sea. The adult females gave birth in late December or early January, were mated soon after, fasted for a month while they nursed a growing pup, and then abandoned said pup on the beach to resume the aquatic phase of their life. Same for the adult males, minus the birth and nursing part, of course. Oh, and most of the males didn't get to breed, either. Suffice it to say that the adult elephant seals have more or less abandoned the beach for now.

Elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) at Piedras Blancas
2019-02-17
© Allison J. Gong

Although there were still a lot of seals on the beach, much of the real estate was unoccupied. Contrast this to the same beach in November 2015, as the seals were starting to arrive for that breeding season:

Elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) at Piedras Blancas
2015-11-27
© Allison J. Gong

Elephant seal pups have a tough life. They are born in the dead of winter, on exposed coasts. While they are very young, one of the pups' greatest mortality risks is being run over and trampled to death by the adult males that are fighting for seniority and the right to mate with a harem of females. The moms do their best to fend off rampaging males, but the alphas are so much larger that they just run over anybody in their way. At this point in their life an elephant seal pup's main priority is to eat. They nurse almost constantly on milk that is about 50% fat. Pups are born wrinkled, with a lot of loose skin, but they soon fill out and take on the stereotypical look of fat sausages.

After four weeks of intensive nursing, a pup's life changes drastically. Its mother abandons it on the beach and returns to the sea to begin feeding again and restoring its much-depleted body stores. Remember, she has been nursing a pup and fasting for about a month and a half! Her pup is thus forcibly weaned, because she just leaves and doesn't come back. Researchers refer to these abandoned pups as weaners.

Pair of elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) weaners at Piedras Blancas
2019-02-17
© Allison J. Gong

Most of the seals on the beach in late February are weaners. They will stay on the beach for another two months or so. They have to wait until they molt from their soft baby coat into a more adult coat that will better insulate them in the cold water. And after they molt they have to learn how to swim. They'll make short forays into the surf and paddle around for a bit, learning how to maneuver their bodies in the water, and then return to land to rest. In the meantime they're not feeding. This is why it is crucial for them to pack on as much weight during the four weeks that they get to nurse. Attaining that 'sausage' look is directly related to a weaner's probability of a success launch into the ocean.

Pile of elephant seal (Mirounga angusirostris) weaners at Piedras Blancas
2019-02-17
© Allison J. Gong

But not everybody is a weaner. There are also some subadults on the beach. They, of course, swim perfectly well and can head back out to sea whenever they want. The subadults will also need to molt, but that doesn't happen until the early summer.

Subadult male elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) at Piedras Blancas
2019-02-17
© Allison J. Gong

Don't they have the dopiest faces?

Subadult male elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) at Piedras Blancas
2019-02-17
© Allison J. Gong

With the breeding season over, things will be quiet at the seal rookeries at Piedras Blancas and Año Nuevo. Both sites will get frantic again in December, when the adults return to land and the next reproductive cycle begins.

Over the holiday weekend I was in Morro Bay for a surprise 80th birthday party--not mine! The party on Friday evening was a huge success (none of the guests let the cat out of the bag), the birthday girl was completely taken by surprise, and a good time was had by all. The weather was cold and sporadically stormy the entire weekend, but the clear spells between storm squalls were gorgeous and almost a little warm.

Since it wasn't raining on Saturday morning, we went out to Morro Rock to look for peregrine falcons. There are two (I think) pairs of falcons nesting on the Rock, one of which nests on the side of the rock that is visible to people. This is nesting season, and Morro Rock has a lot of ledges that make good nesting platforms. Peregrines don't make a nest, really. They lay eggs and incubate them on ledge high up on structures--rock cliffs, buildings, bridges--that dominate the landscape. We did see one peregrine way up on the rock, identifiable through binoculars but far enough away that I couldn't get a decent photo. This is the best I could do:

Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) perched on ledge on Morro Rock
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong

So not much success with the falcons, although I could at least document that they were there. Turning away from the Rock I was able to watch a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) go after and catch and eat a juvenile rockfish! The photos tell the story, so I'll just post them.

The Chase:

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) chasing after prey
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong

The Catch:

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) with rockfish prey
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) with rockfish prey
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) with rockfish prey
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) with rockfish prey
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) with rockfish prey
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) with rockfish prey
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong

And finally, down the hatch it goes:

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) swallowing rockfish prey
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong
Gulp!
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong

And there you have it! On a day when it was too blustery for human fishers to venture out of the bay, one avian predator had a successful morning. Way to go, bird!

Combine the words "gold" and "California" and you automatically come up with the Gold Rush, don't you? After all, California is the Golden State. And while that nickname may be to honor the golden hills of summer or the poppies that are the state flower, it may also be a tribute to the discovery of gold in 1848. For better or worse, the Gold Rush initiated rapid development of this area, and California eventually became the 31st state in 1850.

For me, and I suspect for many people, gold is one of the quintessential colors of autumn. Yet here we are in the middle of winter heading towards spring, and I saw a lot of gold in the forest the other day. I had taken my Ecology students to Rancho del Oso for the first field trip of the semester and set them loose to saunter through the woods and practice noticing (and recording) patterns in nature. Incidentally, I have adopted the word 'saunter' as a replacement for 'hike' for most of my own outdoor adventures. I have always been a slow hiker, and felt that in order to keep up with other people I had to miss seeing what was going on around me. Not to mention the fact that I'm always stopping to take pictures or examine some weird thing on the ground, or in the trees, or wherever. By giving myself permission to saunter along at the pace at which nature occurs, I have time to slow down and observe more carefully, and come away with a much better understanding of the world I've passed through. It certainly doesn't work for everybody, but I've learned that the journey is as important as the final destination, and that has made hiking sauntering much more enjoyable for me.

So, back to the gold. One of the very first thing I noticed when we hit the trail was this brilliant yellow-orange slime mold growing on twigs on the forest floor. This area is a mixed forest of hardwoods (mostly oaks) and various pines. I can't be certain what these sticks hosting the slime mold are, but they may be some kind of pine.

Slime mold
Slime mold, possibly Leocarpus fragilis, at Rancho del Oso
2019-02-01
© Allison J. Gong

Slime molds are very strange organisms that don't fit into any of the major eukaryotic kingdoms of life (Animalia, Plantae, or Fungi). The current taxonomic position of slime molds is up for debate and far from settled, so I won't go into it here. Like fungi, slime molds feed on dead and decaying plant matter and are part of the decomposer niche of organisms. Also like fungi, most of a slime mold's life is microscopic. In the case of fungi most of the body, called a mycelium, is a network of extremely thin threads called hyphae. The mycelium for most fungi is underground and thus invisible to the casual observer. What we call a mushroom is only the reproductive fruiting body, which pushes to the surface so that spores can be released into the air.

For most of the time, or at least as long as food is plentiful, a slime mold exists as single amoeba-like or flagellated cells that feed on bacteria. These cells are haploid, containing only one set of chromosomes. Sexual reproduction (labelled SYNGAMY in the figure below) occurs when an amoeba-like cell encounters a compatible flagellated cell. I would also be willing to bet that the amoeboid and flagellated cells are triggered to find each other and initiate syngamy when food is scarce, as is the case with many animals.

Life cycle of a slime mold
© Pearson Education, Inc.

The result of syngamy in a slime mold is a zygote which develops into a macroscopic stage called the plasmodium. The plasmodium undergoes nuclear division multiple times but cytokinesis doesn't occur, resulting in a large cell bounded by a single plasma membrane and containing many nuclei. In animal tissues we describe this condition as syncytial; I don't know if the same word is used by slime mold specialists, but the concept applies.

One of the things that makes slime molds truly bizarre is their method of locomotion. Using time-lapse videography, you can actually see how the contents of the cell swash back and forth in a process called cytoplasmic streaming. The net result of all this cytoplasmic streaming is the physical movement of the plasmodium into new territory. It's a process much easier to understand if you can see it, so here's a video from KQED's Deep Look series:

As with many fungi, slime molds are difficult to identify if you don't see the fruiting body. The slime mold that we encountered the other day was an immature plasmodium that hadn't yet produced fruiting bodies. The experts who took a look at my observation on iNaturalist agreed that it is likely Leocarpus fragilis, based on location and time of year, but they cannot be certain.

Continuing with our theme of gold, we saw several small blotches of golden jelly growing on tree trunks. These were the Tremella fungi. There are two species of golden Tremella in our region, T. mesenterica and T. aurantia. It seems that differentiation between the species depends on examination of microscopic structures, so I am unable to tell which species this little blob is. However, I will point out that the species epithet aurantia means 'gold', so I really hope that's the name for this blob.

One of the golden jelly fungi (Tremella sp.) at Rancho del Oso
2019-02-01
© Allison J. Gong

Saving the best for last! Moving away from the creek and into the more enclosed forest we entered the realm of everybody's favorite terrestrial pulmonate gastropod, the banana slug. They were out in full force, chowing down on mushrooms and sliming up the foliage. One of my students picked up a banana slug and let it crawl on her hand for a while, but to my knowledge nobody licked one. All of the banana slugs that I saw were bright yellow with no brown or gray blotches, so I conclude that they were either Ariolimax californicus (the so-called Peninsula banana slug) or A. dolichophallus (the Santa Cruz banana slug, also the school mascot for UC Santa Cruz).

Banana slug (Ariolimax sp.) at Rancho del Oso
2019-02-01
© Allison J. Gong

But this is where things get interesting. According to their mitochondrial DNA these two species, A. californicus and A. dolichophallus, do not have overlapping ranges. And the dividing line between them is Rancho del Oso, with A. californicus occurring to the north and A. dolichophallus occurring to the south. So, if Rancho del Oso is the magic line defining the ranges of these two species, what species are the slugs at Rancho del Oso? I think that answering this question will require a much finer scale study. For now, I'm just going to call them Ariolimax sp., because that seems to be the safest option until things get sorted out.

I've written about banana slugs before, but I've never had a chance to photograph them doing the actual nasty. Luckily for me and the students, banana slugs have no shame. I think the entire class got to get a close look and photos of this copulating pair:

Copulating banana slugs (Ariolimax sp.) at Rancho del Oso
2019-02-01
© Allison J. Gong

This perfect yin-yang symbol is the result of how banana slugs align themselves during copulation. Each hermaphroditic slug has a genital open behind the head on the right side of the body. There's a lot of kinky stuff that happens during banana slug sex, including the chewing off of one partner's penis, but suffice to say that one animal's penis is inserted into the vagina of the other and, well, we don't know how quickly sperm is transferred, but the animals remain locked together for several hours. Yes, HOURS. Ahem. The penis chewing thing doesn't happen every time slugs mate, and biologists are still trying to figure out the function for this unusual behavior.

We have another several weeks (hopefully!) of rainy weather, so there will be lots of time to explore the world of fungi, slime molds, and banana slugs. The combination of rain and lengthening days creates great conditions to revel in the gold of a California winter in the forest.

People who moved here from other states often say that California doesn't really have seasons. I think what they mean is that in general we don't oscillate between frigid winters and hot, humid summers. The Pacific Ocean moderates weather conditions through most of the state, giving us our Mediterranean climate characterized by a short rainy season and a long dry summer. However, California is a very large state with many different climate zones. Here on the coast our summers are cool and foggy, while in the interior of the state summers can be quite hot, upwards of 38° C for weeks at a time. Snow falls in the Sierra Nevada, providing much of the state's annual water budget, but the rest of the state usually remains snow-free for most of the winter.

That said, California does of course have seasons, even though they may not be as in-your-face as what you'd see in, say, New England. One of the ways to experience the seasons is to observe the comings and goings of migratory wildlife, especially birds. In fact, bird migration patterns make up a significant part of phenology, the study of the timing of biological events in the natural world. California's position along the Pacific Flyway provides fantastic bird watching opportunities throughout the year. There are many locations within California that are pit stops for birds migrating up and down the coast and overwintering oases for birds that breed much farther north.

The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Merced County is one such place. Located in the Central Valley, it represents some of the original habitat in this part of the state. The San Joaquin River winds through the Reserve, providing riparian habitat, although the river is currently a mere ghost of its former glory. Since 2009, federal and state entities have worked to restore the San Joaquin, increasing water flows and cleaning up the surrounding lands. While it would be marvelous to see chinook salmon once again migrating from San Francisco Bay up the San Joaquin, it hasn't happened yet. The re-establishment of salmon runs up to just below Friant Dam would indicate a healthy San Joaquin River, and I really hope to see it in my lifetime.

Before the era of modern agriculture, much of the Central Valley flooded with the winter rains and spring snowmelt. Only a tiny fraction of these wetlands remain; most have been drained for agriculture and further deprived of water by state and federal water diversion projects. In areas such as these, small pools form during the wet season. These vernal pools--so called because they are often at their deepest during the spring--are ephemeral habitats. They almost always disappear during the long dry summer, but during their short existence they provide living space for a unique biota. A few vernal pools occur in most of the flat areas of California, although there are far fewer of them than before, and they differ biologically throughout the state. It is not uncommon for each vernal pool in a given area to have its own combination of flora and fauna, all of which have adapted to thrive in both desiccated and flooded conditions.

System of vernal pools at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge
2018-12-26
© Allison J. Gong

On our way back to the coast after spending Christmas with my family, we stopped at the San Luis NWR to do some wildlife watching. The visitor center was closed because of the federal government shutdown, but the roads were open. The Refuge has two auto tour routes, one to the tule elk reserve and the other to see resident and visiting aquatic birds. We chose to drive the bird route, because winter is a good time to see birds that spend the rest of the year at much higher latitudes.

2018-12-26
© Allison J. Gong

Coots (Fulica americana) are ubiquitous in California's wetland habitats, and because of that they are easily overlooked. When I was little we called them 'mudhens' and smirked at them because they weren't ducks. Of course I now realize that that thinking is entirely unfair, and have come to appreciate coots because they aren't ducks.

Coots (Fulica americana) at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge
2018-12-26
© Allison J. Gong

In addition to the coots, which weren't much of a surprise because we expected to see them, we saw large numbers of several species that we weren't as familiar with. There were ducks and geese, which took us some time to ID because they weren't mallards and Canada geese. Fortunately I keep a bird field guide and binoculars in the car! My favorite bird ID book is the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America; we keep one of the later editions at home, but my beloved and well battered third edition lives in the glove compartment.

The ducks turned out to be northern shovelers, which I've seen at Elkhorn Slough. True to the typical avian way of doing things, the males are strikingly colored, with brilliant green heads, while the females are a dark streaky brown. In the photo below, a female swims with two males.

Northern shovelers (Anas clypeata) at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge
2018-12-26
© Allison J. Gong

The geese were entirely new to us. We first saw them flying overhead in the V-shaped formations that you expect from a gaggle of geese in the air. But they didn't honk like Canada geese so we knew right away that they were something different.

Geese in flight
2018-12-26
© Allison J. Gong

I wasn't able to ID these until we got home and I looked at my photos on the computer. iNaturalist helpfully gave me a tentative ID of greater white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons), which I was happy to go along with.

Greater white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons) at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge
2018-12-26
© Allison J. Gong

In North America, greater white-fronted geese nest in the Arctic of western Canada and through most of Alaska, including out along the Aleutians. They migrate south to spend the winter along the Gulf coast and along the eastern coast of the Sea of Cortez. The winter wetlands of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys host many of these geese, and smaller numbers overwinter in coastal Oregon and Washington.

Living in California, I don't usually expect to encounter any species whose common name includes the word 'tundra', but tundra swans do indeed spend their winters here! They nest in the very high Arctic on tundra, a habitat that is threatened by climate change, and winter is the only time we would see them in the lower 48, when large flocks venture south to overwinter near lakes and estuaries. I'll keep an eye out for them next time I'm at Elkhorn Slough or Moss Landing.

Tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge
2018-12-26
© Allison J. Gong

We saw hundreds of these swans hanging out with the shovelers. Only a few were within photograph range, as I don't have a very long telephoto lens (yet!), but there were lots of large white blobs floating, foraging, preening, and sleeping. They were fun to watch through the binoculars. We had hoped to see some sandhill cranes in the Refuge, too. We had seen them off in the distance, much too far to be photographed, but it wasn't until we were on the last leg of the auto tour that we saw them up close. They were not mingling with the swans and geese, and as far as we could tell tended to gather in single-species flocks. They seemed to be more skittish, too, and would startle and fly away when they heard human noises. I had to move slowly and quietly to get this close to them. Even the sound of the camera shutter caught their attention and made them wary.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge
2018-12-26
© Allison J. Gong

The Central Valley is Ground Zero for sandhill cranes in California, where they can be seen only in the winter. They don't breed here, of course, but there is a small population of ~460 pairs of sandhill cranes breeding in far northeastern California. There are locations in the Central Valley that are known for hosting large crane populations in the winter, and one of my goals is to witness a big 'fly-in' event, when huge flocks come in to roost in the evening. I've seen pictures, and it looks like a spectacular sight. I want to see it with my own eyes.

All this is to say that we do indeed have seasons in California. The shifts between summer and winter are perhaps more subtle here than in other states, but an observant eye keeps track of changes in the natural world. And you don't have to be a trained scientist to track seasonal changes wherever you live, either. We tend to use temperature to tell us which season we're in, but in reality light is a much more reliable indicator. Just think of how dramatically temperature can fluctuate in a few days, and how much more extreme these fluctuations seem to be in recent years, due to climate change. Day length cycles, however, remain constant over geologic time, as we humans haven't yet figured out a way to mess with the tilt of the earth's axis. Everyone notices how the amount and quality of light change with the seasons. It takes just a little more effort to notice the ways that life responds to those changes.


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