Yesterday I had the great fortune to visit a new intertidal site. It can be accessed only by crossing private property. The property owner is my next-door neighbor, and he said I can visit any time. As I said, lucky me! The site is a little north of Pigeon Point, and at first glance the terrain is not very different from Pigeon. But I could tell that it a site that is rarely, if ever, visited by humans. It just had that look of being mostly undisturbed. Yesterday's marine layer was low, making for dark skies and pretty lousy light for picture-taking, so I had to try something new.
This site has a lot of lovely pools and channels to explore, and at this time of year the water is very clear, which does make for good picture-taking. Halosaccion glandiforme, one of the charismatic red algae, is more abundant here than at other sites, and in the pools it grows quite a bit taller than it does on the rocks.
Here's what it looks like on the tops of the rocks. This is a cluster of young thalli. The tallest of these "bladders" is about 4 cm tall. Note that they are about 2/3 full of water, with a large air space at the top.
The really cool thing is what happened when I stuck the camera in the water and took a shot. I got something like this:
I got a little carried away. But don't things look interesting from the turban snail's perspective?
I'm kind of enraptured by these towers of algae.
But the best part of these experiments was the reflections on the surface of the water. Check it out.
And this is the money shot! I just love how this turned out.
This was a super fun morning. I'm looking forward to visiting this site again, when the light is better. When the daylight low tides return in a few months they will be in the afternoon. I anticipate some fantastic light shows in these pools and channels. I'll be teaching most afternoons by then, but will get out as often as I can.
Dedication: For Krinkle, because I think he'd appreciate the juxtaposition
This is one of my favorite quotations from literature:
And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and back to the tide pool again.
—J. Steinbeck and E.F. Ricketts, Log from the Sea of Cortez
These words are never far from my thoughts when I contemplate the nature of life on planet Earth. And with this week's release of the first images from the James Webb telescope, they rocketed back into my brain with full force.
To my eye, the most striking of these first images from James Webb is this one, of the Carina Nebula. It is just breathtaking.
When I started poking around NASA's website I kept finding images that reminded me of my tide pool photos. So I want to share a few comparisons.
NASA also released this photo of Stephan's Quintet, a group of five galaxies found in the constellation Pegasus. Only four of the five galaxies are visible in this image.
Those swirling white masses are vast sweeps of dust and gas. But to my mind they resemble spawning male marine invertebrates, of which I have seen more than any normal person. See what I mean?
Given all the justified hype over the images taken by James Webb, it's sort of easy to forget about the Hubble Space Telescope. But Hubble has been taking spectacular images for years, giving humanity some of our first and best images of the universe far from home.
In the archived data from the Hubble Space Telescope, I found several eye-catching photos. This one, of Abell 370, reminded me of plankton. Abell 370 is another cluster of galaxies. It contains hundreds of galaxies held in a group by their mutual gravitational pulls. I love all the shapes of these galaxies, which do indeed look like plankters!
Here's a plankton sample in a bowl:
And doesn't this radiolarian look like it belongs in Abell 370?
In 2021 the Hubble Space Telescope took a photograph of the Prawn Nebula. As with most of images of amorphous things in space, I can't explain why the Prawn Nebula has that name. Most of the light it emits is in wavelengths that we cannot see, so the Prawn Nebula is essentially invisible to the naked eye. This image from Hubble was taken in infrared light, and is beautifully colorful.
The colors in this nursery for baby stars reminds me of the ones I see in some of our iridescent algae in the intertidal here on Earth.
Hubble photographed this area of space, where new stars are being born, back in 2015. This region, designated NGC 2174, is in the constellation Orion.
At the peak of the summer growing season the sea lettuces (Ulva spp.) look similar.
In 2016, NASA's Juno mission arrived at its target, the largest planet in our solar system. The vehicle carries a camera called the JunoCam, which sends data back to Earth. NASA collects the raw images and makes them available to the public for free, to be processed and edited. The public is thus making an ongoing contribution to science. The JunoCam is still operational. NASA also invites amateur astronomers to add their own photos of Jupiter, taken from personal telescopes, to the database of images.
Anyway, here's a photo of Jupiter, taken by JunoCam and processed by Brian Swift:
All of these lovely swirls brought to mind the patterns I sometimes see on the surface of a tide pool.
And now, having spent several hours marveling at the beauty of the stars as captured by the Hubble and James Webb telescopes, I take Steinbeck's and Ricketts' advice and return to my tide pool image library, where I see other swirling patterns that I did not find in any of the space photos. But I hope that they will be found out there, some day.
By all means, look up at the stars and marvel at the vastness of the universe. But don't forget to also look down at where your feet are and marvel at the intricacy and exquisite beauty of what we can experience with our human senses.
Last week we had some of the best low tides of the season, and I was grateful to spend three consecutive mornings in the intertidal. The picture-taking conditions were fantastic when I went to Natural Bridges, and I snapped away like a madwoman. Unfortunately, last week was also finals week, and it wasn't until I got all of the grading done and actual grades submitted that I let myself look at the photos. And there were a lot of good ones!
There are many wonderful things about the early morning low tides. One of the best is that most people prefer to remain in bed rather than get up before the sun and splash around in cold water. The past several weeks had been very busy, with little time for solitude, and I badly needed some time by myself in nature.
Usually when I post an entry here I have a story to tell. This time I don't, unless the photos themselves tell the story. Let me know what you think.
At this time of year the algae are the stars of the show. They are at their most lush and glorious for the next several weeks.
Even in the sand, the algae were abundant and conspicuous. In the low intertidal the most prominent algae are the kelps. Here the feather boa kelp (Egregia menziesii) and the various Laminaria species are doing really well. Egregia also occurs higher in the intertidal, but Laminaria and Macrocystis (just visible along the right edge) are low intertidal and subtidal species.
My absolute favorite sighting of the morning was this group of algae on top of the sand. I love the way that the algae are splayed out. They are just so pretty!
Macrocystis pyrifera is justifiably well known as the major canopy-forming kelp along our coast. But it does occur in the low intertidal, as mentioned above.
And now to focus on some individual organisms. Starting with my favorites, the anemones. This time it was the giant green anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, that was the star of the show.
I experimented with close-up shots, too!
There was a clingfish (Gobiesox meandricus), in its usual under-rock habitat. Don't worry, I made sure to carefully replace the rock as I found it. This fish was about 10cm long. It may be the first clingfish I've ever seen at Natural Bridges. Clearly, I need to do more rock flipping.
A clingfish's pelvic fins are fused together and modified to form a suction cup on the ventral surface. Clingfish can hop around a bit and are super cute when they eat. They sort of dart forward and land on the food, then shuffle around as they ingest it.
The coralline algae were both abundant and flourishing. They are looking fantastic this season. Someday I'll study up on the coralline algae and write about them. For now, here are some happy snaps of Bossiella.
Such a beautiful organism!
Sticking with the pink theme, another oft-overlooked organism is the barnacle Tetraclita rubescens. It has a few common names, including pink volcano barnacle and thatched barnacle. It is the largest of the intertidal barnacles along the California coast, and can be fairly abundant in some places. It is never as abundant as the smaller white (Balanus glandula) and gray/brown (Chthamalus dalli/fissus) barnacles, though.
Which brings us to my favorite color, purple. The tentacles of the sandcastle worm, Phragmatopoma californica, are a beautiful shade of purple. You don't get to see the tentacles unless the worm is under water, and with the tide as low as it was when I was there this past week, it wasn't easy finding any Phragmatopoma that were submerged. I've written about Phragmatopoma before, so won't go into details here. But look at all those fecal pellets!
And last but not least, here are a couple of the many purple urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) out there. At Natural Bridges there's a large pool fairly high in the mid-intertidal that is called the Urchin Pool because it contains dozens (hundreds?) of urchins. Most of them are burrowed into the soft rock. Those are sort of easy pickings. I like finding urchins in less-obvious places, like these.
Urchins in the intertidal often cover themselves with bits of shell, small pebbles, and algae. This helps them retain water as the tide recedes. At a location where the rock is soft, such as Natural Bridges, many of the urchins have grown larger than the opening to their burrow and cannot leave to forage; these imprisoned urchins have to wait for pieces of algae to drift nearby, which they can grab with their tube feet and then transport to the mouth on the underside. So long as they don't get pried out by otters, the urchins seem to do just fine.
I think that's enough for now. I hope these photos give you some idea of what it was like out there a week and a half ago. The next excellent low tide series is in mid-June. Snapshot Cal Coast will be in full swing then, so get out there if you can!
Last night, 15 May 2022, there was a total lunar eclipse, which turned the full moon dark red. By the time the moon rose above the trees to the east the red phase was in full swing. I learned that it's extremely difficult to photograph what is essentially the new moon against the night sky.
I had better success once the moon started moving out of Earth's shadow and re-learned how to create photo montages. Some day I will remember how to do that and not have to learn it all over again. But the result is pretty nice!
And then I went to bed, because I'm not good at staying up late.
How did the eclipse show in your neck of the woods?
It feels like forever since I've checked in on the cormorants at Natural Bridges. I simply haven't had time to mosey down there, take a gajillion photos, and then deal with them on the computer. But today I thought I'd give myself until lunch time to play with photos and such, before I hit the grindstone again and work on a lecture about the natural history of Big Sur.
And for the update: The Brandt's cormorants (Urile penicillatus) chicks are growing up! They're still mostly fluffy but some have a few feathers, and they're getting big now. I watched for about half an hour before realizing that the parents were feeding them; after that it was pretty easy to see when a feeding was imminent.
First, there's the behavior of the chick(s). Most of the time they are flopped like sacks of brown fluff, but when there's possible food they perk up and pay attention. It's funny how long their necks can be when stretched up! The chicks don't seem able to hold their heads up for very long yet. As we all know, however, food is a powerful motivator.
The parent also demonstrates what I think of as an about-to-regurgitate movements. It sort of reminds me of the cats' convulsions right before they hork up a hairball, only not as fast or violent. The parent cormorant stands up and sort of undulates front to back a few times, then bows low. This gets the chicks' attention and they start looking alert and expectant. The parent might go through the whole routine a few times before leaning towards the chick. The chick begins poking at the parent's bill, which seems to stimulate the actual regurgitation. Nom nom nom!
What I want to showcase this time is a series of photos showing a feeding session. The whole thing took about five seconds.
Look at those stubby little wings! These youngsters have some growing to do and have to make real feathers before they can fledge. Maybe they'll have done so by the time I finish up with school for the year.
I go to Natural Bridges quite often, to play in and study the rocky intertidal. But at this time of year, before the low tides really get useful, there is another reason to visit Natural Bridges—to see the monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). Natural Bridges State Park is a butterfly sanctuary, providing a safe overwintering spot for migrating monarchs.
Yesterday morning, while it was still cool enough for the butterflies to be hanging in clusters, I went out and photographed them. Last year's count was only 550 for the winter, but I'd heard that there were more butterflies this year and it was definitely worthwhile going out and looking for them.
The butterflies rest with their wings up, so when they are hanging like this you see the duller underside of the wings. A few of them were starting to warm up their flight muscles and showing off the more brilliant orange of the dorsal wing surface.
I am really not good at counting things like this, but my guess is that there were hundreds of butterflies, all told. Based on the 2020 season, when I didn't see any monarchs at all at my house and only a few scattered individuals at Natural Bridges, this year's population seems to be doing much better. 2020 was an awful year in California in general, and in the Santa Cruz region in particular. The CZU August Lightning Complex fire put air quality into the unhealthy-for-everybody range for several weeks. Much of the rest of the western U.S. also burned, with much habitat loss for nature. Maybe that's part of why there were so few monarchs last winter in Santa Cruz. Of course, the monarchs' populations have been declining for years, so last year's population crash may be only a dip in the grand scheme of things.
Whatever the cause, it really was good to see even this many butterflies at Natural Bridges.
Oh, and before starting my butterfly hunt in earnest, I spent about an hour watching and listening for birds. I wanted to get the birdwatching in before human activity drowned out the birdsong. Unfortunately, most of what there was to hear was the cawing of crows.
Next time I'm at Natural Bridges, I'll try to remember to check in with the visitor center to see what the official count for monarchs is. Fingers crossed the number is a lot higher than 550!
Over the past couple of weeks I've rented two super telephoto lenses, to see what all the hype was about. I mean, do I really need 500 or 600mm of reach? I had read up on the specs of such lenses, and one major drawback is the weight—1900 grams or more. Would I be willing to lug a beast like this around, and would I be able to use it effectively? You never know until you try, so I rented them. And, of course, it was foggy both weeks so I didn't have much opportunity to take decent photos. But since the entire point of renting the lenses was to see if I could use them at all, that was fine.
As part of the test-drive for the second lens, I went up to Waddell Beach to see if there would be any birds to photograph. It is migration season, and our winter residents will be arriving soon. Some of them, such as the red-necked phalarope, have shown up at Younger Lagoon over the past four weeks or so. It was really foggy at Waddell, remember, and I didn't have much hope of seeing anything remarkable. There were some gulls and whimbrels off in the distance. But it turned out that the stars of the show were blackbirds!
They were hard to miss, because there were 50-60 of them and they were hopping up and down like jumping beans.
This is a mixed flock of Brewer's blackbirds (Euphagus cyanocephalus) and red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoenicius). The glossy greenish-black birds are the male Brewer's blackbirds, and most of the brownish birds are female Brewer's blackbirds. Since both sexes were doing the hopping, I didn't think this behavior had to do with courtship or mating.
So yes, while most of the birds seemed to be Brewer's blackbirds, I did hear the liquid gurgling of the red-winged blackbird's song coming from somewhere in the flock. When I got home and looked at the photos on the big monitor, I did see some red-winged blackbirds. Here's a male, surrounded by other males red-wingeds and both female and male Brewer's blackbirds.
In this photo above the black birds are male Brewer's blackbirds. The brown birds without faint wing bars are female Brewer's blackbirds, and the brown birds with the wing bars are male red-wingeds. There were no female red-winged blackbirds in any of my photos. According to an article from Cornell's Bird Academy, the males spend the weeks leading up to springtime competing for territories, and when the females return from their winter migration they will choose mates based partly on the quality of the territory. Mid-September is too early for this kind of competition, though. We are just about up to the autumn equinox, but not near winter quite yet.
Back to the hopping. There's a clue in this photo about what I think was going on:
See that little fly? There were many such flies, most of which were lower on the beach gathering around the kelps and other wet detritus that had washed up. There were fewer flies up where the driftwood accumulates, though. Once again, it wasn't until I saw the pictures on my big monitor that I could figure out what those blackbirds were doing. They were hopping up to eat flies!
Here's a series of shots showing one of the male red-wingeds in mid-hop.
Looking up, just before the hop:
Up he goes! See the very edge of the red epaulette on his right wing? And all those flies?
Is he going to catch something?
After all that, I'm not at all sure if he actually got anything!
I don't have any hard evidence that the blackbirds (both Brewer's and red-wingeds) are catching flies. And while I was at the beach watching them hopping up and down I had no idea what they were doing. However, now that I've seen the flies in the photos, it makes sense that the birds would be hopping up to catch and eat them, especially since both sexes of the Brewer's blackbirds were doing the same thing.
A utility pole across the street and one house down has, for years, been an object of interest for a variety of birds. The hairy and downy woodpeckers drum on it in the spring, and various songbirds hang out and rest on the top. About a month ago now I saw a raptor up there, eating something. It was a female merlin (Falco columbarius). According to Cornell's All About Birds, merlins are in our area during the nonbreeding season, but I've never been certain about having seen one.
On the morning of Saturday 13 March I went outside to look around, and saw a bird on the pole. It appeared to be either eating or cleaning its beak. I ran inside to grab the camera, which fortunately had my longest lens and the 1.4x teleconverter attached, and snapped off a bunch of shots. The sun was rising, but I was able to get some decent photos of the bird even though from the best vantage point it was backlit.
Clearly, he's eating something:
But what is it eating? Rodent bits?
No, look at that foot. It's a bird!
Yep. Definitely a bird.
And here he is, taking a break between courses:
Merlins are members of the falcon family. Smaller birds make up the majority of a merlin's prey, but they also eat large insects such as grasshoppers. As with peregrine falcons, merlin populations were severely reduced in the years when DDT was widely used to keep insect populations down, but they have since recovered. Truly, the recovery of birds of prey after DDT was banned is one of the great successes of conservation biology.
There were feathers in the street below the pole. I assume they are from the merlin's prey, as when I looked at the top of the pole through binoculars I could see the same sort of feathers up there. I compared the feathers with photos on a few ID sites, but it's no easy identifying feathers without any additional context. Someone suggested that they might be from a male house finch. We have lots of those around all the time, so that's probably the best guess possible.
So there you have it: Saturday brunch with songbird on the menu!
We have all heard about hummingbirds and their ability to hover and fly backwards. These tiny feathered jewels are a delight to observe. They are birds of the New World, and I feel sorry for people living in parts of the world that don't have hummingbirds. Where I live, on the coast of Northern California, the resident hummers are Anna's hummingbirds (Calypte anna). We get the occasional Rufous and Allen's hummers (Selasphorus rufus and S. sasin, respectively) passing through on their migrations, but the Anna's are here year-round. We have front-row seats to watch their mating displays, and I know they must be nesting nearby even though I've never managed to locate a nest.
The other day, while sheltering in place at home, I went outside to photograph birds. The Anna's hummers were putting on quite a show. The males have been displaying since February, flying straight up-up-up and then plunging into a J-shaped dive near an observant female. At the bottom of the dive the male uses his tail feathers to create a sharp and very loud chirp. When this occurs about a meter from your head, it sounds like a pistol shot. Trust me on this.
Anyhow, that day I was lucky and captured some shots of a male Anna's hummingbird hovering in place. These aren't National Geographic quality photos, but then again I'm not a National Geographic-caliber photographer. For anyone who is interested in such details, here are the EXIF data:
300mm f/4 lens
1/2500 sec at f/4
At a shutter speed of 1/2500 sec, you can freeze even the movement of a hummingbird's wings. You can see very clearly that although the bird's wings are moving, his head remains perfectly skill and his position doesn't change at all.
A hovering hummingbird moves its wings in a figure-8, similar to the sculling motion of a skilled rower. If you use your imagination a bit you can see the rotation of the wings in this set of photos.
Given the mandate to shelter in place at home, I don't know how many of the upcoming morning low tides I'll be able to explore. On the one hand, I'd be by myself, not risking exposing anyone to any germs I might be carrying. On the other hand, staying home means, well, staying home. The tidepools are calling to me, but this year I might not be allowed to accept the invitation. All for the greater good, right?