Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

Leave a comment

Colonies of Nesting Cormorants

Colonies of Nesting Cormorants
April 2018

I’ve been periodically visiting two nesting colonies of two different species of cormorants: Brandt’s and Pelagic. There is a third species found in our area – the Double-crested Cormorant – but I haven’t seen many around here and I certainly have not seen their nests. (See photos of them from Morro Bay: Each species has their own preference for nest location and material.

Brandt’s Cormorant. They nest close together on rocky islands or headlands, often on the flat top of a rock face. On my most recent visit, most of the nests were completed with one parent sitting patiently on top as if incubating. When I was there in February, the cormorants were just standing around small disorganized piles of seagrass waiting to steal some from an absent neighbor.

I did catch a pair in the act of mating. (See below.) Another cormorant was vigorously doing it’s mating display. (Head up, tail up, wings up and curled.) So I guess this means that some birds were not yet impregnated. I had hoped to get a glimpse of eggs but either they haven’t been laid yet or were obscured by the sitting bird. There are about 25 nests.

Despite the wild and remote look of this nesting site, it is actually just below a parking lot and scenic lookout. I took the photos from a heavily used sidewalk next to a road and houses.

Brandt’s Cormorants are most easily identified by their bright blue breeding throat patch. They also have a few spindly white feathers on their back and cheeks. (Here they are in February:

Pelagic Cormorant. Despite their name, these cormorants aren’t pelagic. (Pelagic means living on the open sea.) They are instead coastal, staying on shore, beaches, and cliffs. Their preferred nesting sites are on vertical cliffs overlooking the ocean. These cliffs have tiny, tiny ledges to build nests on. A very precarious place to bring up babies I would think. The upside to this arrangement is that no cautious predator can get to them. There are not as many Pelagic Cormorants here as I have seen in past years, but a few pairs appeared to be developing nests. My telephoto lens was at its max to get these photos.

Pelagic Cormorants are most easily identified by their red face and the white patches on their lower back. Their seemingly black bodies have a touch of green iridescence.

Video. You might want to watch this Nat Geo video of a cormorant pulling off remora from a whale shark in Mexico!

Please do not reproduce any photographs without Carla’s permission.


The Earlybird 2018 Spring Flowers

1 Comment

The Earlybird 2018 Spring Flowers.

March begins the wildflower season around here. Below are some of the first to blossom this year. These photographs were taken in Henry Cowell State Park in Felton, Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve in Los Gatos, and along the coast in Davenport.

Giant Trillium
Western Trillium
Shooting Star
Redwood Sorrel
Milk Maids
Flowering Currant
California Buttercup
California Poppy
Wild Strawberry
Redwood Violet
Western Heart’s Ease
. . . and a few unknown

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission!

This gallery contains 34 photos

Ephemeral Waterfalls

Leave a comment

Ephemeral Waterfalls
Scotts Creek Beach, Davenport, CA
April 7, 2018

The miraculous appears when unexpected. I’d been to this beach many times. I’ve walk below many beautiful cliffs along the California Coast at all times of year. But this was the first time I’d seen high waterfalls running from the coastal prairie, cascading down the cliffs to the sea. I didn’t even know they occurred here after heavy rains, although it makes sense and now I am more surprised I have never seen them before.

I had my nose down, meandering at a snail’s pace, looking for treasures left on the sand after the recent storm. Eventually I looked up and was stunned to see a waterfall up ahead where one had never been. About 80 feet high. Three more could be seen in the distance.

By tomorrow they will be only a trickle or completely gone.

Go into nature, quietly, slowly, patiently, with senses open and she will show you unimagined splendor.


This gallery contains 1 photo.

Bunnies – The Easter Edition


Mercey Hot Springs, CA.
March 24-26, 2018.

Last week Chris and I went to one of our go-to places: Mercey Hot Springs. Half of the reason I go is for the hot healing waters, the other half is for the wildlife, and sometimes, wildflowers. And let’s not forget to mention the open arid landscape, the skies, stars and moon. In the trees of this small desert oasis are long-eared owls, great horned owls and barn owls. If you follow this blog, you’ve already seen some photos of these impressive enchanting birds. But on this trip the owls were elusive. Only a female great horned owl could reliably be seen, sitting stoically, unmoving on her nest of eggs. The barn owl made a brief appearance, emerging and disappearing quickly like a ghost, from the dense tangle of treetop limbs. I also saw, for a few moments, a golden eagle flying overhead.

The wildlife that was abundant and visible were desert cottontails, the food source for the owls as well as other raptors, foxes, coyotes, weasels and bobcats. California ground squirrels were everywhere too. They all were darting in and out of dense bushes and underground holes. So I focused my camera on them. They live in and around the shrubbery that lines the small muddy creek. But they frequently ventured farther afield, at their own risk, to eat the new green luscious spring grass.

I began to recognize individual rabbits, mostly by the unique scarring on their ears. It’s like how they identify whales, by the marks on their tails. One rabbit, I named it “Our Bunny” because it hung out in or near our campsite, was missing half an ear. I imagined on owl grabbing for this fleeing cottontail only to get away with some flimsy ear skin in its talons.

Speaking of ears, in the morning, at the right angle, I could sometimes catch the bright low sun shining through their pink ears, making it seem as if they were illuminated from within.

Our Bunny liked to crawl under the bush right next to our camper, resting only a few feet away. The bush branches were still bare, the buds just starting to leaf out. So even though the rabbit thought it was hiding, it was clearly visible. Admittedly, you had to know it was there because its coloration matched the shadowy dirt underneath. One time, as I watched it hopped toward the bush from the creek bed, it paused first to munch on some dirt. Yes, dirt. I have a photo of it. I figure they eat soil in order to add minerals and salts to their diet. I later saw a ground squirrel eating dirt. Because of the hot springs the ground here is probably particularly rich in nutrients. When I was very young I love the smell of mud, and would occasionally eat it.

California jackrabbits are my favorite bunny. They’re big, they’re fast and their ears are humongous. They can probably pick up transmissions from space. But they’re skittish and evasive and rarely seen close enough to photograph.

House finches, a common bird, shared their cheerful chirping each morning. The males’ red heads made them photogenic. Mourning doves cooed they’re sad keening all day. White-crowned sparrows pecked relentlessly in the dirt and sometimes bathed in the creek.

So just in time for Easter, I’m including here a selection a bunny portraits.

All photographs by Carla Brennan. Please do not use photographs without permission.

This gallery contains 27 photos

The Birds and the Bees and the Elephant Seals

1 Comment

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.

This gallery contains 27 photos

Leave a comment

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):