Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

Whale Tails and Sea Lions

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Whale Tails and Sea Lions
July 2019, Monterey Bay, CA

The day was overcast and foggy. The blues of the sky and sea had vanished, rendering everything in shades of black-and-white. Eliza and I were going whale watching aboard the Goddess Fantasy from Moss Landing. I splurged and paid an extra fee to get us “VIP” seating on the upper deck. I figured it would be easier to move from port to starboard to stern as we tracked the whale sightings. It would also give me a better perspective for photography. It was definitely worth it.

In the harbor, sea lions lounged on various docks, weighing them down into the water. Signs warned to beware of “vicious sea lions.” We watched a sailor aim a hose at a sea lion that was positioned between him and his boat. I would have thought the sea lion would have enjoyed the shower but it slid into the sea. Cormorants greeted us at the signs welcoming boaters.

Just a little ways into the Bay we sighted a single humpback whale lunge feeding, its large knobby head with mouth agape burst through the water. We kept going to an area where a small group of humpbacks had been seen. What made this whale watch special – that is, seeing something new – was the large rafts (groups) of sea lions that were swimming along side the whales. These whales were all dive fishing which means we mostly only saw spouting, arching backs and diving tails. Few heads emerged and there was no breaching. But we were interested to see them rise and dive amid the swimming sea lions as if they were all enjoying the day together.

Several times the sea lions swam quickly, leaping out of the water in quick synchronous graceful arcs called “porpoising.” I tried to photograph this but failed to capture it.

After the whale watch we went to Moss Landing State Beach and watched the sea otters.

A couple weeks later a photo from Monterey Bay of a humpback whale that accidentally scooped up a sea lion while lunge feeding went viral. This would have been taken about the same time we were there. All the experts claimed how unusual it was to see this. But after watching how closely the humpbacks and sea lions fished together, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/07/humpback-whale-sea-lion-mouth-photo/

Please do not use any photographs without permission. Contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com

 

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Elephant Seals Rough-housing!

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Elephant Seals Rough-housing!
Pescadero, CA
7/22/19

Eliza (my niece) and I went to Ano Nuevo State Park, Pescadero, CA, to check on any elephant seals that might be there. July is when the males arrive onshore to molt. The females are currently feeding far out to sea; they molt in the spring.

I warned Eliza that all we might see were big inert lumps of furry blubber lying on the beach. Like sacks of sand. Not very exciting really. But we were pleasantly surprised to find plenty of action. Juvenile and mature males were engaged in play fighting. Quite entertaining! There were brawls both in and out of the water with lots of strange guttural gurgles, grunts and groans. With their fur coming off, some of the molting seals looked like characters from “The Walking Dead.” Hollywood make-up artists take note.

Observe the difference in the size of their noses. For elephant seals, size matters when it comes to their schnoz. During breeding season in the fall, the fighting will no longer be play and will draw blood as they fight over who gets to rule the harem.

On our way out to see the seals (a 1.5 mile hike), a docent at the small “staging area” cabin pointed out several mud-constructed cliff swallows nests. Parents were flying back and forth with insect meals for the growing chicks. We also witnessed a mother California quail with her large brood of chicks crossing the trail in front of us. At first we saw 2 or 3 babies, then 6 or 7, then 9, 10, 11! A male, possible the father of this group, was acting as sentry atop a bush, looking for predators. Fortunately, we didn’t qualify. There was also constant bird traffic traveling between the small fresh water pond and the ocean. Streams of brown pelican flew overhead. The most unusual sighting was a San Francisco garter snake, retracting into the grassy meadow, with a mouse in its mouth!

 

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Meet the Timema!

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(I haven’t posted a blog in a while because an update/upgrade caused problems in editing this blog. We figure out how to fix it this morning.)

Meet the Timema!

It’s not every day that I see an insect from a genus that was previously unknown to me. The Timema, or short-bodied walking stick! I know about regular walking sticks, the long-bodied wingless insect that looks just like it’s name, an imitation stick with six legs. But the existence of the Timema was a revelation.

One foggy morning, a few weeks ago, I wandered onto our back deck, a small platform 10 feet off the ground abutting one of our massive redwood trees. On the white door was a large – not huge but noticeable, maybe 2” – green wingless insect. On closer examination, it was actually two insects, one riding the back of the other.

I was flummoxed; what could this creature be? It was not like anything I had seen before. Because it was wingless and most (but not all) adult insects have wings, I guessed they were immature/nymph stage insects. Maybe a grasshopper or katydid. But they lacked those large back jumping legs. And why were they different sizes? The critter on top was considerably smaller than the one on the bottom.

Chris and I both grabbed cameras for a photo shoot before they skedaddled back to whence they came. The white of the door frame nicely contrasted them like a “photo ark” image by Joel Sartore. Photo Ark

I posted the photos on Facebook, hoping to crowd source an identification. I also sent an inquiry to a website: whatsthatbug.com. A friend sent my Facebook post to her entomology buddies, The Bug Chicks, at Texas A & M University. I heard back from the Chicks and the website about the same time; they both said I had the fortune to witness (and photograph) the elusive timema. Who knew these critters lurked in the redwood forest surrounding my home all this time? What other mysterious beings are out there?

To make it more interesting, these were a mating pair, probably post-coitus. After sex the smaller male rides on top of the larger female for as long as five days! This is called “mate guarding.” For an amusing human reenactment of this unique walking stick behavior, see this video by The Bug Chicks. https://vimeo.com/59447990. Also, its interesting to note that many Timemas are parthenogenetic, meaning females can reproduce without male participation by making clones of themselves instead. Neat trick!

Timemas live in the far western United States, mostly in California. There are many kinds, each with a favored host plant. There are timemas on redwoods, oaks, douglas firs, manzanitas, and other trees. Some are green and others are tan, brown or gray, whatever color camouflages them best for their chosen lifestyle. Mine were very green and very possibly redwood specialists. I feel blessed to have seen this mating pair, since I could easily have gone a lifetime without even knowing they existed.

(By the way, can anyone tell me how timema is pronounced? Which syllable is accented? Long or short vowels?)

Please help us restore balance to our beleaguered planet so our many amazing and varied inhabitants – like timemas – can continue to thrive!

Have you ever seen a timema?

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The Dream of Montana

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The Dream of Montana
May 2019

It is an odd, if common, experience to hop on a plane and be suddenly deposited in a different environment. These airplane trips feel like time travel or like being beamed somewhere, Star Trek-style, creating a strange disruption in my normal sense of continuity. Flying is a slow version of being de-materializing in one place and re-materializing in another. It seemed as if part of me remained in California, asleep, awaiting my return from a dream.

The Montana dream happened because I was attending a meditation retreat. The unfamiliar beauty of the place along with days of silence and the hours of meditation contributed to the dream-like feeling. We met at a Lutheran camp on the shores of Flathead Lake, held in the arms of the surrounding forests and lapping waters.

Before arriving at the camp, I met up with three others in Kalispell for a ride to the retreat. The weather was cool, rain falling unpredictably, randomly. Clouds hung low as if becoming too heavy to float. We first visited a Tibetan Buddhist center called “Garden of a 1,000 Buddhas.” It had a great mandala garden with a Tara statue at the center. Spokes radiated outward lined with identical white Buddhas side by side. The enclosing wall was topped with small stupas, each with a Tara inside, perhaps a thousand of them as well. This was the dream, the vision, of a Tibetan lama, come to realization in this wide grassy valley in a tiny town in remote northern Montana. (As lovely as this was, I prefer the shrine of Wild Nature – snow covered peaks, for example.)

Our cabin at the retreat (mine and two other women) was perched on a bluff facing south across the lake. A large picture window and outside benches drew us back again and again to the spacious view. It was pure luck that I had signed up for this particular cabin, the one with the most spectacular vista.

Each day during breaks between the scheduled sessions, I wandered the property, exploring the aromatic Douglas fir and pine woods with my senses and camera. I was still on the hunt for spring wildflowers, still inspired by the abundant blooms recently seen in California. There were arrowleaf balsamroot, arnica, Oregon grape, penstemon, paintbrush and others adorning the forest floor.

Gradually smoke from wildfires in Alberta made the features hazy, dissolving mountains and lake into something more like the sky, something more like a dream.

Please do not reproduce any photographs or videos without permission. If you are interested in purchasing a photograph, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.

This gallery contains 45 photos

Pinnacles National Park: California Wildflowers and Condors

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Pinnacles National Park: California Wildflowers and Condors
April 29-May 2, 2019

After witnessing the splendor of Carrizo Plain National Monument’s superbloom in March, I was determined to get back to enjoy more flowers. But by the time I had a few days available to make the trip, the superbloom had passed. I will have to wait until the next one, which could be next year or in 10 years or ?

Fortunately, the regular spring wildflower season wasn’t over and I could go somewhere closer to home to find them, possibly Pinnacles National Park, Henry Coe State Park or Mercey Hot Springs. These are not places of superblooms but good choices for reliable yearly wildflowers. I decided on Pinnacles, only two hours away. I’d been there once before on an unpleasantly crowded weekend. This trip, I was arriving on a Monday. Pinnacles is also home to condors, a bird I’ve long wanted to see.

Arriving without a reservation, I was still able to find a good campsite, #59. It was spacious, shaded by oaks, with a small stream running through it. California quail, acorn woodpeckers, juncos, scrub jays, spotted towhees, gray squirrels and ground squirrels made frequent visits. After one hike, I sat quietly for a long time, watching the various animals come and go, sometimes photographing them. On the last night, raccoons decorated my car with muddy footprints. The only downside to this spot was that it was near group campsites where boisterous excitable teenagers had gathered for an outdoor adventure.

My first full day was cool and cloudy, perfect for hiking and photographing flowers. After getting a suggestion from a park ranger, I hiked five miles round-trip on the Old Pinnacles Trail. It was a leg punishing day, not because the trail was long or steep but because photographing flowers meant I was constantly doing deep knee bends while caring weights (cameras, telephoto lens, water, lunch). It was six hours of walk 15 feet, deep knee bend, walk 15 feet, deep knee bend, walk 15 feet, deep knee bend.

The next day I went on a shorter, steeper hike, the Condor Gulch Trail from the trailhead to the Overlook, only two miles round-trip. At the Overlook I met a couple from Walnut Creek and a young American woman living in Tel Aviv. We ate lunch together, sharing stories about nature and birds. (It turns out that Israel is a great birding destination.) The couple had seen condors the evening before from the campground and explained where to meet at sunset to see them again.

After lunch I meandered a little farther on the trail, admiring in silence the towering cliffs and volcanic rock formations. Turkey vultures flew in and out of view above the tallest pinnacles. Then I saw it. A soaring bird much larger than the vultures with white on its underside. A condor! It only appeared for a few seconds. I grabbed my bridge camera with its 600mm zoom (my good telephoto lens was still in my pack.) It appeared again for a few seconds and I took some quick, what I call, panic shots. It disappeared again. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. My good camera poised for action. Eventually I gave up and put the camera down to pack up for the hike home. At that moment two condors soared right overhead, like low-flying aircraft, darkening the sky with their nearly ten foot wingspan.

There are only 160 condors in all of California and about 27 are in Pinnacles. As you probably know, during the 20th century, their population was decimated by poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction. The few remaining condors were captured and became a part of a captive breeding project. In the 1990’s, they began to be introduced back into the wild.

Back at the campground that evening, I joined others at sunset to watch the arrival of condors taking advantage of the last updrafts from the sun’s dwindling heat. Above the hill behind the campground they soared acrobatically, being lit by the sun’s last rays.

This gallery contains 75 photos

Guatemala: Tikal National Park

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Guatemala: Tikal National Park
January 2019

Life has carried me away the last few months, but now, at last, I am back reviewing my photos and remembrances from my trip to Central America in January 2019.

From the San Ignacio area of Belize we crossed into Guatemala to visit the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal.

The border crossing was our first challenge. Traveling in a car rented from Belize triggered a series of bureaucratic reactions from the Guatemalan side. Standing in numerous lines, often repeatedly, forms had to be presented, often repeatedly. Money was changed and fees paid. The process was mysterious and convoluted. A young man with basic English attached himself to us, offering to guide us through the process, expecting, or at least hoping for, a tip at the end (which he got). This type of money-making arrangement is found around the world in developing countries. In his New York baseball cap he effectively shepherded us through the chain of command. My niece who speaks fluent Spanish also interceded. It was unnerving to see Guatemalan soldiers in spiffy camouflage uniforms with large automatic weapons guarding the border.

On the road again we had 80 miles to Tikal National Park. The drive was scenic, passing lush farmland and forests, small villages, and the narrow east end of Lago Peten Itza.

We encountered more confusion when we reached the Park entrance. They only wanted Guatemalan money and we hadn’t changed enough cash. We discovered that when changing or using US dollars, they will only take large bills, $20 or more, in absolutely mint condition. The slightest mark or tear would disqualify the exchange.

A tour guide, Jose, hoping to be hired, talked to my sister while the rest of us tried to figure out how to pay our entrance fee. Eventually, we made it through. We found out from Jose that a general strike had been called for the next day to protest the president of Guatemala’s decision to kick UN representatives out of the country. The UN was investigating governmental corruption. All the roads might be closed and we could be trapped in Guatemala. Fortunately the roads stayed open and we made it back, without incident, to Belize the next day.

We had reservations at the Jungle Lodge in the National Park. Our casita was comfortable and attractive. The open air restaurant at the Lodge was surrounded by large flowering ginger plants and the jungle fragrances and sounds were intoxicating. As we checked in I saw a social flycatcher and a gray-necked wood rail, both birds I had never seen before. During a quick trip to the swimming pool I spotted my first spider monkey, traveling from branch to branch in the tall trees. From the front desk, we hired a guide, another Jose but much younger, to take us on a late afternoon tour of the ruins. His English was excellent and we discovered he had spent a few years in western Pennsylvania, not far from where my sister and I had grown up.

Walking the main trail through the jungle we were happy with anticipation, excited to reach the ancient remains of the large and sophisticated Mayan culture. I had seen Aztec pyramids in Mexico but had never been at a Mayan site before. Our first stop was the Great Plaza, with its temples, palace ruins, altars, ball courts and acropolis. Climbing the stairs to a viewing ledge at Temple II, we peered across the Plaza to Temple I.

Looking down I tried to imagine what life would have looked like, a dreamlike world of color and costume. Here there would have been processions of kings and queens, complete with gold and jade jewelry, elaborate ornamentation and flowing feathers. Tournaments of a sacred ballgame were often held near Temple I, some games ending in bloody human sacrifice. The architecture would have been covered in sculptures depicting their complex mythology. Some buildings – entire temples – were painted red. In the hubbub of daily life, one would have seen children playing while merchants, artists, farmers, and toolsmiths displayed their wares.

The Great Plaza has a connection to the resplendent quetzal, a bird of importance to both ancient and modern Central American culture. When you clap loudly and sharply in the center of the Plaza, the echo mimics the quetzal’s call. Am interesting phenomena, but was it intentional or coincidental?

As the light diminished, coatimundis appeared, searching for any treats left behind by a full day of tourists.

The next morning we rose before dawn to meet with our first Jose, the Older, for a longer tour of the fauna and flora of the park in addition to the Mayan remains. We traveled through more areas of restored buildings, including Temple IV, the tallest still-standing structure within the entire Mayan empire. After climbing a long wooden staircase we reached a viewing platform above tree line that revealed the vast expanse of jungle broken only by the crumbling stone tops of other temples. During the height of Tikal, most of the trees between temples would not have been there, and we would have seen great causeways, ponds, smaller buildings and many splendidly dressed people.

Probably without knowing it, you have seen images of Tikal. In “Stars Wars: A New Hope,” views of Tikal were used as the site of the rebel base.

You might be interested in a recent NatGeo TV show called, “Lost Treasures of the Maya.” The four part series explores new discoveries of the ancient Mayan civilization revealed by LIDAR, a technology that is changing archeology around the world. By using special radar in low flying airplanes, the unknown remains of 61,000 Mayan structures can be seen through the previously impenetrable blanket of jungle vegetation. Scientists now realize that the Mayan empire was more massive than ever imagined. Even at Tikal, which has been excavated for years, new structures have been found.

Check back for the 3rd and final installment from our Central American trip: “Belize: The Ocean.”

This gallery contains 30 photos

The Ongoing Saga of the Cormorant Colony

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If you followed my blog last year, you saw posts dedicated to the nesting, hatching and growth of a breeding colony of Brandt’s Cormorants in Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz, California.

Twice during the previous month, I visited the rock ledge they had inhabited last year. But no cormorants. Just a couple California gulls and a snowy egret. I was bereft, hoping they were okay wherever they had gone. I wondered why they had not returned here.

It took me a while to realize I had actually seen them in their new location. They are now on top of the famous rock outcropping at Natural Bridge’s Beach. It forms the last natural arch standing in the park. The “bridge” that connected the rock to the shore and for which the park is named, collapsed in the 1989 earthquake.

From the parking lot just outside the park entrance, there is a clear view to the new colony site. However, it is considerably farther away than my viewing spot last year. Fortunately, I now have a better camera and lens. So I hope the quality of my photographs is comparable to the past. Included here are a few long distance and close-up shots. Notice their bright blue throat patches and their straggly white whisker feathers on their back and neck.

Please do not reproduce any photographs or videos without permission. If you are interested in purchasing a photograph, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.

This gallery contains 8 photos