Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

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Catch of the Day – 6/30/21

Catch of the Day – 6/30/21
UCSC Arboretum and Neary Lagoon
Santa Cruz, CA

“Catch of the Day” is my new name for posts where I share photo highlights from walks without much commentary.

In this you see Anna’s hummingbirds, California quail, spotted phoebe, wood ducks, mallards, matilija poppies. The male wood ducks have transitioned (or are transitioning) from their delightfully ornate breeding plumage into something more sedate. When they are in the middle of transitioning they look like they tried to dress up for a fancy party but were so drunk that they made a mess of their make-up and clothes. You can easily tell the male and female wood ducks apart by their eye color. Bright red for males, black for females.

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Cormorant Home Improvement Project

Cormorant Home Improvement Project
Point Lobos State Park
Carmel, CA
Spring/Summer 2021

If you have the patience, Brandt’s cormorant colonies are entertaining to watch. In a simple and relaxed sort of way. Like a slowed down version of “Housewives of Point Lobos” where all the housewives (and househusbands) look alike and where not a lot happens. When it comes to nature, I guess I am easily entertained. I may stand around for an hour or two while most people spend only a minute and then move on to other sights.

One can watch the birds fly in and out. One parent keeps the eggs or nestlings warm, while the other is at sea fishing. The pairs, especially early in the season, frequently interact physically with what I call kissing and necking, where they engage their beaks and rub their necks together. Some can be seen in their comical breeding display dance and occasionally you can witness them mating. There are frequent squabbles between nesting neighbors and with the western gulls when they get too close. Eventually there is the egg-laying, hatching and quick growth of the chicks. The feeding of the chicks can look quite dramatic with the nestling forcing its entire head into the throat of the parent.

One of the most amusing activities to watch is the ritual of the male cormorants bringing new nesting material to the female on the nest. To our eyes, male and female cormorants look alike and they share most of the child rearing tasks. But the area where there is a division of labor is in nest building and maintenance (and egg laying, of course.) The male gathers the nesting components including seaweed, sticks and plants while the female arranges and glues them together using her own guano (poop). The nest needs constant upkeep for the duration of the laying of eggs and rearing of the young. The males can be seen wobbling along on their two big feet, wings open for balance, carrying material in their beaks. They then drop it in front of the female and she goes about integrating it into the nest. Sometimes both males and females will steal choice nesting items from other birds. This often leads to a ruckus and minor altercations.

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The Bald Eagle Appears at the Last Minute

The Bald Eagle Appears at the Last Minute
Gualala, CA
June 22, 2021

The view is spectacular. The house is covered in windows on a bluff, facing the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. We are dog sitting for Chris’s sister for a week. It is our last full day and I have seen the local bald eagle only twice, quickly flying by, gone before I can even lift my camera. During a call from Oregon, Chris’s sister chides me for not having photographed the eagle yet. She says I might have to stay until I capture an image; I agree.

About an hour later while packing my bags in the second story bedroom, there is a commotion and loud chirping in the pine tree right outside the large picture window. Two bald eagles have landed in the upper branches while two quarrelsome ravens hassle them. My camera is downstairs and I know I only have seconds; I run there frantically yelling, “Bald eagles! Bald eagles in the tree!” Chris grabs his phone and I take aim with my telephoto. One eagle has already flown off, pursued by a raven. The other eagle clings to the branch, ruffling feathers and gruffly arguing with the ravens.

I don’t have time to adjust the camera settings and I shoot through the window. Soon this eagle also glides away seeking relief from harassment, although the ravens continue to trail in hot pursuit.

Fortunately, I leave Gualala with a photograph of the bald eagle. An image that shows our close encounter with the great raptor.

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From Toddler to Teenager in Two Weeks

From Toddler to Teenager in Two Weeks:
The Childhood of Brandt’s Cormorants
Point Lobos State Park
Carmel, CA

June 25, 2021

Since mid-April, I’d been driving to Point Lobos weekly so I could witness the gradual evolution of the Brandt’s Cormorant nesting colony. About a month ago, the eggs started hatching and small, helpless, naked chicks could be seen peeking out from underneath the sitting parent. During my previous visit on June 10th the chicks had enlarged considerably but were still small enough to stay in the nest. Because of my schedule there was a two-week gap before I could visit them again. I knew this was a critical time when the fastest growth spurt would happen.

On June 25th, I found that the chicks had exploded, Hulk-like, into lumbering, gangling teenagers. The colony was bustling and overcrowded with large families of active birds. The young were nearly as tall as their parents and had overflowed the nests. The adults are slick, black and shiny, looking elegant and put together. In comparison, the chicks, are a fluffy dull gray with scattered white spots and sprinkled with pieces of debris, some of which appeared to be dried guano (poop). Personal hygiene is not their strong point and the smell of the colony was strong. There was a lot of flapping of their measly wings that had not yet developed flight feathers. There was also a lot of begging for food. The parents regurgitate their digested fish meals while the chicks stick their heads fully into the parent’s mouth. If a bird stuck its head in my mouth I think I would regurgitate my last meal too.

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Protecting Ones Nest Egg

Protecting Ones Nest Egg
Point Lobos State Park
Carmel, CA
Spring 2021

Witnessing a bird’s egg cradled in a nest is enough of a rarity to make each sighting thrilling. It can be an achievement just to find a nest much less see the secret gift it contains. Shore birds’ nests are large and often low and in the open so it makes the possibility of seeing eggs (and eventually nestlings) much greater. Still, you need to know where to go. You need to be watching when the incubating parent stands up or shift position to reveal the hidden treasure it is protecting. The glimpse may only last a second. All of these photos were taken at Point Lobos State Park in an area aptly called Bird Island.

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Great Big Great Blue Heron Babies

Santa Cruz Harbor, Santa Cruz, CA
June 2, 2021

I had heard there were great blue heron nests in the trees by the Santa Cruz Harbor. It took me a while to find them but I finally located the birds high in a large eucalyptus. Along side them were double-crested cormorant nests. I don’t know why they were all in that one tree when there were many to choose from. The young herons I saw were quite large and already fledging. You could only tell they were not quite adults by a few fuzzy feathers on their heads and their shorter tails. One fledgling was flying from branch to branch and exploring what its wings could do as well as the effects of gravity.

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Pupping Season for Pacific Harbor Seals

Pupping Season for Pacific Harbor Seals
Monterey Bay, CA

Beginning in February and extending through April, harbor seals give birth to pups. They are the most common seal in this area and can be seen swimming near shore, through waves and in bays and estuaries. Their whiskered faces are a familiar site, popping up above the water, their big black eyes staring back with alert curiosity. But I only know of two places in the area where I can reliably see moms and their newborn pups resting on beaches: Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing and Point Lobos State Park in Carmel.

Seals, as opposed to sea lions and sea otters, have limited ability to move on land. Instead of walking or even crawling, they do what is called “galumphing,” a sort of rocking and then throwing their blubbery weight forward to inch themselves ahead. It’s amusing to watch. All harbor seals spend half of their time hauled out on land, lounging like huge inert overstuffed sausages. Unlike other pinnipeds, their coloration is surprisingly varied with near white, gray, tan, brown and black coats. Moms and pups often have very different colored fur. They are also leopard spotted which is sometimes pronounced and other times quite subtle.

I imagine there were, at one time, many more seals and many more beaches where they hauled out to rest, have their young and nurse. Now there are few places where people do not gather or where homes and businesses do not encroach on the beach. Harbor seals like their privacy and avoid places with too many humans. (I can relate.)

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When Sky and Trees Become Water

When Sky and Trees Become Water
Zayante Creek, Felton, CA
May 26, 2021

When I am not photographing wildlife or wildflowers, I often look for beauty in the abstract patterns of the natural world. Shadow, light, textures and reflections often communicate the wonder of nature through essential forms and color. Here are photographs of the clear blue sky and luminous green trees as reflected in the rippling surface of Zayante Creek.

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