It's no secret that I love pelicans. I love watching them soar low over the waves, where they are truly in their element. I love watching them plunge from the air into the water and then bob right back to the surface, because unlike their cormorant relatives, pelicans can't fly underwater. And I love watching them plunk around on land, where they are dumpy and awkward but still somehow elegant.
The other day I ventured out between storms to photograph birds. As per usual I ended up down at Natural Bridges, where pelicans were hanging out on the last remaining rock arch. They were well within the reach of my long lens, so I took a lot of photos.
The best photos I got were of a subadult pelican coming in for a landing.
Landing gear down!
Decreasing air speed:
And. . . touchdown!
A job well done!
The youngster managed a safe landing without knocking one of its compadres into the water. That isn't always the case--those wings can do a lot of damage. But the three adult birds on the left hardly seemed to notice, which means the youngster has learned how to stick the landing without disturbing everyone else in the vicinity. I'm sure that's a lot easier said than done!
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.
People call them air rats or trash birds, but I really like gulls. Especially the western gull (Larus occidentalis), known colloquially among birders as the WEGU. Yes, gulls eat garbage, but that's only because humans are so good at making garbage and leaving it all over the place. Other gulls may travel quite far inland--in fact, the state bird of Utah is the California gull (Larus californicus)--but the WEGU is a California Current endemic species. This means that its natural food sources are the fishes and invertebrates of the California Current, which flows southwards along the west coast of North America. As a result, it lives in only a very narrow strip of coastline, nesting on cliffs and restaurant roofs.
Case in point. Yesterday afternoon I was at Moss Landing with my marine biology students. We had hiked along the road, over the dune to the beach, down the beach a ways, and returned over the dune to circle back to our starting point. The last item of note that we all watched was a western gull hunting along the shoreline of the Moss Landing harbor.
It had grabbed a crab. It looked like a rock crab, but I couldn't tell what species.
The crab wasn't dead, and was thrashing around enough to make it difficult for the gull to get a good grip on it.
The crab gets a reprieve!
But the gull didn't give up. It reached down, came back with the crab in its beak, and then flew off.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Here's a close-up of the same plant. Look at that gorgeous orange color!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
Here's a newly detached bud from a teddybear cholla:
And here's a recently established, young plant:
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.
In Joshua Tree National Park, said trees were blooming in late March.
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.
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:
The color of the day at Anza-Borrego was yellow. More details on the yellow players in a bit.
It had rained a few days prior to our visit, and there a stream was flowing through the desert.
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!
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.
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:
And brittlebush was very abundant!
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.
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)!
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.
One of my favorite flower color combinations is yellow, white, and purple. Imagine how pleased I was to find it in the desert!
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.
And this is Phacelia campanularia, the desert bluebell:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The teddybear chollas were very abundant at Anza-Borrego. We continued to see them as we continued on our trip. Next stop, Joshua Tree!
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:
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.
There was some relief from all the yellow, in patches of baby blue eyes.
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?
There was such glorious scenery all around!
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.
Poppies weren't going very strongly yet, but were distinguishable as a faint orange wash on the hills:
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.
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.
The United States entered World War II in December 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. With Japan now considered an enemy state, part of the U.S. response in 1942 was to order more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast and in Hawaii into forced interment in remote camps operated by the military. The internees were men, women, and children; immigrants and U.S.-born citizens. They were considered a risk to national security, and their removal from society was widely (but not universally) viewed as a justifiable precautionary measure.
Executive Order 9066 was issued and signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in February 1942. This order authorized the Secretary of War to build and operate military installations where Japanese Americans, German Americans, and Italian Americans would be imprisoned for the duration of the war. The order doesn't specify which Americans would be interned, but uses the term 'alien enemies'; given that at the time the U.S. was at war with Japan, Germany, and Italy, it doesn't take much imagination to figure out who the intended prisoners would be. Interestingly, or perhaps not, only Americans of Japanese descent were interned in large camps. A total of about 14,000 people of German or Italian descent were interned.
Of the Japanese Americans interned, about 70% were U.S. citizens. Many more would have been, but for the fact that Japanese-born immigrants to the U.S. (Issei) were by law forbidden to take U.S. citizenship despite having no loyalty to Japan. Their American-born children (Nisei) were, of course, American citizens, eligible to be drafted into the military and fight for the country that had interned their families.
Manzanar is one of the internment camps. Located in the eastern Sierra just off Highway 395 in the Owens Valley in southern California, it sits in a most glorious location. Even today it is hours away from any type of city, but definitely worth the drive to visit. I learned a lot at the visitor center, which is probably the best one I've ever been to. We were there for over three hours, learning about the lives of the people interned at Manzanar.
The camp was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Eight guard towers (built, ironically, by Japanese craftsmen) were manned by military police. The fencing and most of the guard towers are gone now. At some point after the camp was dismantled, most of the buildings were removed to other locations. There isn't much remaining on the site, but what is there is crammed full of information and artifacts from the people who lived there.
Manzanar housed ~10,000 internees, most from California and Washington, plus civilian and military families. Internees were stuffed into 504 barracks organized into 36 blocks. Each block, home to 200-400 internees, contained 14 barracks, a mess hall, men's and women's latrines, and a laundry room. There were also school buildings, a Buddhist temple and a Buddhist church, housing for military and civilian residents (built of much better quality than the barracks for internees, with indoor plumbing, solid walls, and insulation). Within the barracks there was no privacy. Seven or eight people, who could be family members or complete strangers, lived in a 20-by-25 foot room, or 'apartment'. For each room, the government provided cots with straw mattresses, blankets, an oil stove for heat, and a single hanging light bulb. The restored exhibits in Block 14 are much better lit now than they were when people were interned here.
The internees would hang blankets or use personal belongings to contrive some semblance of privacy in a small room shared with strangers.
When internees began arriving at Manzanar, the barracks were built of wood covered with tar paper--no insulation or even sealant between the boards of the walls and floor. This construction was woefully inadequate for the frigid winters and blazing hot summers of the high desert, and provided no protection from the wind that blows year-round and the dust that it carries. Dust storms were very common, and internees would hunker down for the worst of the storm and then sweep out the dust. The barracks were eventually reinforced with real walls and some degree of insulation, but linoleum wasn't installed on the floors until late 1942.
The internees were very resourceful people who did a remarkable job of making an extremely unpleasant situation as bearable as possible. Many were craftsmen, and they built furniture from whatever they could get their hands on. Fruit packing crates provided lumber that was built into tables, chairs, and cabinets.
The lack of privacy extended to the most personal of daily activities. The women's latrine of Block 14 has been restored:
There's another bank of five toilets on the opposite side of the white partition. Imagine waiting in line with dozens of people, many suffering from diarrhea due to the unfamiliar diet and stress, for the chance to use a toilet with nine other strangers in such close proximity. This lack of privacy in latrines was cited by many residents as one of the greatest hardships of life at Manzanar.
Internees ate all of their meals in the block mess hall. At first internees would venture from block to block searching for the best chef in the camp, but eventually the authorities cracked down on such wandering and forced internees to eat in their own block.
Meal prep began well before dawn and continued through the evening. Meal times were stringently scheduled throughout the day. Kitchen scraps were used to feed hogs, and an on-site chicken ranch provided eggs. Eventually chefs were provided with the materials to make tofu and miso, which were used to make more palatable meals for the internees. Mess halls also served as social areas and often hosted movies, dances, or meetings.
Japanese craftsmanship is evident in the tools used by the chefs. Internees built this baker's table, and also the massive steaming basket on the industrial stove.
Exhibits at the Manzanar visitor center include recordings of internees recollecting their experiences in the camp. In many ways the internees tried and succeeded at making life as normal as possible. There were two schools, one for younger children and a high school. An on-site hospital was run by one of the woman internees who was a physician; she was extremely insistent on cleanliness throughout the camp and that all residents receive inoculations against disease. Couples were married and babies were born. Kids played the all-American games of baseball and basketball, even against other high schools that came to Manzanar. The Manzanar teams were never allowed to compete at other schools, though.
The internees at Manzanar must have been fully aware of the irony of their situation. They were prisoners of the U.S. government, their property and businesses seized, their rights stripped away. The worst of the indignities, in my opinion, was the loyalty questionnaire. Its purpose was, ostensibly, to determine who were the 'loyal' Japanese Americans who could be safely released from the camp to states in the interior of the country. Questions 27 and 28 were especially problematic. They were worded slightly differently for men and women, but the overall gist is the same.
Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?
Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attacks by foreign and domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or disobedience to the Japanese Emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?
Question 27 was problematic because if a man answered 'yes', he could conceivably be drafted into duty and have to fight against his ancestral homeland, where he may still have family residing. Some men answered 'no' for this reason and were deemed disloyal as a result; they were segregated from their families and sent to even more strict camps.
Question 28 was problematic for more subtle and insidious reasons. Many Nisei (American-born children of Japanese immigrants) were insulted by the implication that they had any loyalty to Japan or the Japanese Emperor. For Issei, who were denied U.S. citizenship, a 'yes' answer could leave them without a country. Recognizing the difficulty for Issei, the WRA (War Relocation Authority) did revise Question 28 to read as follows: Will you swear to abide by the laws of the United States and to take no action which would in anyway interfere with the war effort of the United States?
As a native Californian, I feel I should have known more about Manzanar and the role it played in our country's history. The gathering and imprisonment of Japanese Americans for no reason other than their Japanese-ness was misguided and, as it turns out, unnecessary. None of the Japanese American internees at Manzanar were ever found to have committed any act of treason, sabotage, or disloyalty towards the United States. I see similar attitudes in recent attempts to close our borders and separate immigrant children from their parents, and fear that those in power who most need to learn the lessons of Manzanar will choose to remain ignorant. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I leave you with this image of the basketball court at Manzanar. Kids shooting hoops in the afternoon sun--how much more American can you get? But that fence. It gives me the creeps. What does this image say to you?
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:
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.
And finally, down the hatch it goes:
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!
Among photographers and those who watch the sky, last night's lunar eclipse was an event to stay up late for. In much of California the latest storm left the sky cloudy, but I was lucky to have pretty good viewing for most of the eclipse. The moon was behind clouds at the beginning of the eclipse and for most of the period of totality, though, so I didn't get any pictures of those times.
I did, however, take a series of photos of what I could see. Here they are, in chronological order. All photos were taken with my new camera, a Nikon D750 combined with the Nikkor 300mm f/4 prime lens.
21:36 Pacific Standard Time:
21:41 Pacific Standard Time:
21:51 Pacific Standard Time:
22:33 Pacific Standard Time:
22:48 Pacific Standard Time:
At this point the clouds came back and it started to rain. I didn't wait for the eclipse to end, as I wouldn't have been able to see it anyway. When I got up this morning the skies had cleared, and since the moon would still be full I sat on the front porch in my pajamas and bathrobe and took this final shot.
05:53 Pacific Standard Time:
And there you have it--my series of eclipse photos! I learned a lot while shooting and processing these. I am embarrassed at how long it took me to figure out how to create this montage:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.