Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

The Birds and the Bees and the Elephant Seals

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The Birds and the Bees and the Elephant Seals.
February 27, 2018.
Ano Nuevo State Park, Pescadero, CA.

The last time I visited ANSP (and created a post about elephant seals) was four years ago. At that time I vowed to visit several times a year. I have failed at that but with my latest visit I have renewed my intention to frequent this special place. Go to the park website here for more information:

To come here is a significant commitment of time, at least 3-4 hours (plus over an hour driving). I felt called to go on the 27th and see if I could get into a scheduled tour. (You must be on a docent-led tour to see the seals.) The ranger at the kiosk said a tour was leaving in 5 minutes so I made a beeline to the visitors center to purchase a ticket. Our group had only three people (there can be up to 25) so this tour was more personal and spacious than most. Two of us carried long heavy telephoto lenses on Canon cameras.

After the long walk to the rookery, we found a variety of elephant seals strewn inert across the dunes and beach. Females, sub-adult males, adult males, nursing pups and weaners (pups who have finished weaning and are no longer attended by their mothers.) Many of the seals had already left for their 5 months at sea before they return next summer to molt all of their skin and fur.

A few pups were still nursing, cloaked in black fur to absorb heat from the sun while they fattened up from the thick rich milk. The weaners were no longer black but silvery. Some were so well fed that they looked like sausages about to burst their casing.

Little was happening except grunts and squeals and occasional sand flipping. Then the action started.

The alpha bull directly ahead decided it was time to finish his mission to mate with his harem. The sudden and aggressive forward launching of his blubbery massive body caused the other males in the area to scatter, in their clumsy, fat-rippling way. Cows cried, heads back and mouths wide open, in excitement or protest – I am not sure which. More giant slug-like bodies began moving aside as the male chose a female. Afterward, he approached several other cows but I am not sure if the act was consummated. It was a little hard to tell.

Eventually the bull settled down and fell asleep, mouth open, exhausted from the effort.

This alpha bull had been in a fight a few days earlier; our docent had witnessed it. Ragged, red wounds pot-marked the right side of his face. And he was the winner. I’d hate to see what happened to the other guy.

You can check out the blog post and photos from 2014:

Please do not use photographs without permission.

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Photo of the Day: It’s Turkey Time!

Photo of the Day: It’s Turkey Time!
February 27, 2018
Ben Lomond, CA

And I don’t mean Thanksgiving dinner. It’s that time of year when male turkeys strut their stuff. There is nothing as strange or spectacular as being close to turkey toms displaying and courting females. It’s equal to the show that Birds of Paradise put on, only these birds are really big and in my yard (instead of Papua New Guinea). We take this marvel of avian behavior for granted because we see pictures of it everywhere every fall.

A flock of about 15-20 birds (it’s hard to keep track) gathered in our yard in the morning for some ritualized interactions. At least six males walked proudly, all in fluffed up in bold iridescent feathers, with tail fans waving and, most odd of all, showing off the flesh on their heads. The wattle engorges and turns alternating red-white-blue as their mood changes – a head like a mood ring. The flesh that hangs over their beak is called the snood and all those bumpy head growths are called caruncles.

The males like our cement driveway because their noisy wing feather dragging is louder there than on dirt and it attracts more attention. Numerous hens seemed quite interested in all this activity. I have, in the past, seen males displaying ardently with the females completely ignoring them.

Wild turkeys were only introduced to California in the 1960’s and 70’s. In the Bay Area they have become quite common.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):



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Photo of the Day: Three Egrets at Dusk

Feb. 25, 2018.
West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, CA.

Looking down into a cove at sunset,
seven snowy egrets played at water’s edge.
The last daylight reflecting off the cliffs
turned the water pink.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):

Spearfishing with Egrets

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Spearfishing with Egrets
February 11, 2018
Moss Landing, CA

Off on a Sunday afternoon to Moss Landing for some wildlife viewing and beach walking. I was most interested in identifying birds this trip but I was also on the lookout for otters, seals and sea lions. It was a pleasant day and I spotted a variety of shorebirds: long-billed curlews, willets, black-bellied plover, mallards, blue-winged teals, buffleheads, black-necked stilts, terns, and lots of gulls. The tide was quite low leaving an expansive mud flat on the bay, attracting some birds.  At the top of a far barren tree perched a white and black raptor. I first assumed it was an osprey but then realized it was a kite, a white-tailed kite. A new bird for my Life List.

With its inner bay, tidal flats, marshes, open beaches, and estuary, Moss Landing offers a wide range of wildlife habitats in a relatively small area. This place is not free of humans, however. It is home to whale-watching and fishing boats and the world famous Phil’s Restaurant as well as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. That Sunday was also the weekend of the big Pebble Beach PGA tournament nearby in Monterey so we were concerned extra sight-seers might be on the highways and at the beaches.

The road into Moss Landing crosses a small lagoon near a marina. For some reason in this confined area there are often a few birds and an occasional otter. It’s easy to park there and sneak up for some relatively close photographs. Sure enough, there were two great egrets, a pair of eared grebes, and double crested cormorants. A snowy egret landed while I was shooting.

One great egret stood still and elegant on a rock for quite a while. Suddenly she spotted some prey, invisible to me beneath the water. Leaping forward, she plunged completely into the lagoon with only her upper angel wings above the surface. I had never witnessed one of these large wading birds completely submerge itself. The egret then burst from the water, flapping wildly toward shore with two anchovies! What a catch!

One fish was crushed between the jaws of its beak and the other was impaled on the pointed tip. It took patience and skill for the egret to reposition the anchovies so it could swallow them. But eventually the fish disappeared down its gullet and the great egret resumed its still and elegant pose.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):

This gallery contains 25 photos

Coupling Cormorants and Migrating Monarchs in February

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Coupling Cormorants and Migrating Monarchs in February

Walking on West Cliff Drive on the Westside of Santa Cruz, I sought the Brandt’s cormorants I had seen a few days earlier. Cormorants are common and plentiful so most people simply ignore them. But when I saw a group of cormorants close together on a rock ledge, I knew something was up. Sure enough, closer examination revealed it was a small rookery of nesting birds. Or at least birds getting ready to nest.

Numerous piles of seaweed were placed a few feet apart. Some birds sat on the messy disorganized mounds of ocean plants while others stood nearby protecting their small territory. When a bird flew off to feed or it looked the other way, another would snatch a beak full of fibers. If one got caught in the act, noisy squabbling and beak jabbing  ensued.

Their breeding hormones had transformed their throats into a vivid cerulean blue that matched their eyes. White stringy feathers sprouted from their heads and backs, contrasting their sleek black bodies. They impressed each other with ritualized courtship behavior: heads thrown back, tails skyward, wings curled and vibrating. Sometimes they would just shake their heads vigorously, mouths open. Below, waves crashed against the cliff.

To see a video of a Brandt’s cormorant displaying go to:

And see a nest material theft in progress:

I plan to visit this colony regularly to watch them build actual viable nests, lay eggs and raise young.

On my way to my car, I spotted a snowy egret playing in the surf. I swear that was what it was doing. Without any apparent attempt to feed or do anything practical, the egret would walk into the oncoming waves, enjoy the flowing foam around its legs then lift upward quickly when then water became too deep. It then flew back toward the cliffs and started the game all over again.

Then onto Soldiers Field to check out the Monarch butterfly situation. I was surprised to see them still there, energetically flying about in the warm sunny air. No doubt they won’t be around much longer.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):

This gallery contains 21 photos

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Update on the 2017-18 mushroom season in California

I missed the peak season this year. Sadly, I was too busy to get out much. Although the timing varies a little from year to year (and that’s especially true now with our unpredictable weather), November and December are generally the best months for fungus here in Santa Cruz County. Many mushrooms emerge after the first fall rains to then quickly rot away until next year. However, some mushroom species return throughout winter and others prefer to first reveal themselves later in the year.

So even with a late start, I have found a diversity of mushrooms and have enjoy documenting them. I’ve also been experimenting with macro-photography using the super-macro setting on my Olympus Tough 5. The forest floor can be quite dark which puts my cameras at a disadvantage so a few photos are of questionable quality (lots of noise) but I still include them to share my finds. Some mushrooms have been labeled but most I am not quite sure of their identification.

In some photos you will see a brown chicken’s egg. This was an inspired idea (if I say so myself) to find a way to indicate approximate size and scale of the mushrooms. It can be hard to tell from photographs whether the mushroom is 1” or 10” across. People use a variety of objects to help with this: money, lighters, keys, rulers, hands. I wanted something that looked relatively natural so I ordered fake wooden eggs. Many of the shots do not have the egg in the photo, mostly because I haven’t gotten reliably into the habit of using it.

My most exciting find was in the dark understory of the redwood forest just a few feet from the trail in Henry Cowell State Park. Tanoak and other leafy branches obscured it from easy view. My eye caught a white form amid the dappled light of the forest floor. My first thought was large oyster mushrooms but on closer examination, these were revealed to be big white chanterelles! A mushroom I had never seen before. They were beautiful robust fleshy specimens, prime for the picking and eating, considered to be very tasty. But this is a state park and picking mushrooms is verboten. Which was fine for me, I prefer to leave them alone and bring back only photographic evidence. Rain was soon forecast and they would likely begin decaying in the moisture. Chris was disappointed, however, to not get a tasty wild treat.

I told a park docent about the discovery of these chanterelles and he told me where I might find one of the earliest wild flowers, a flower I have never seen before, California Fetid Adder’s Tongue. They bloom in in February.  Stay tuned and I hope to share a photo with you!

I have often pondered how and why small steamy clouds of fog drift up from the redwood forest. Fog often rolls in from the ocean or descends from low clouds, but there are times when the forest itself seems to create fog, especially on partly sunny days. During my mushroom walk in Henry Cowell, I got to witness this in action. With the sun shining brightly on some damp redwoods trees, steam arose right out of the bark, creating undulating wisps of upward floating moisture. I’ve included a few photos to try to captures this mesmerizing phenomena.

As I walked through Henry Cowell recently, I pause wistfully at places where I had spotted exceptional mushrooms during the previous season. The tree that had bright orange chicken-of-the-woods now showed only small withered dark remnants of once living fungi. The ground below a redwood tree where a small group of large dyers polypore once stood was now bare.

There is one live oak on the park near the entrance kiosk that hosts a continual variety of mushrooms under its low branches. This year I found a whole new cast of mycological characters, including a new one for me called amusingly, “cowboy’s handkerchief” for its slimy mucus covered exterior.

The largest individual fungus I have ever seen was in Williamsburg, MA in about 1998. This was before I was a photographer so I have no recorded evidence of it. I would need a dozen eggs to scale its size. Wandering off the trail in the forest behind my house, I was quietly exploring the woods for what I might find. There I stumbled on a brown fleshy shelf mushroom emerging from the base of a tree. It was if the the tree itself had formed into a semicircular low table just right for a dinner gathering of gnomes. The mushroom was almost 3 feet across; I can’t imagine how much it weighed. It was a single individual enormous shelf, not multiple layers like chicken-of-the-woods or oyster mushrooms.

I have also seen huge outcroppings of lion’s mane mushrooms, looking like a mass of delicate tiny icicles in summer (MA). In northern MI I found colorful beach ball sized protuberances of chicken-of-the-woods in an old growth forest. Part of the attraction of mushrooms hunting is their unpredictability and their ephemeral nature.

New recommended book, Mushrooms of the Redwoods Coast, by Noah Siegel and Christian Schwarz. Great photos.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):