Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

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Pelagic Cormorants Shine!

Point Lobos State Park
Carmel-by-the Sea, CA
May 3, 2021

In mid April, I discovered a large nesting colony of Brandt’s Cormorants within easy viewing at Point Lobos State Park in Carmel. Finding a great gathering of birds like this is like finding a wondrous treasure trove in plain sight. I probably should have known they were there; it’s not as if they’ve been hidden. I have been following the much smaller colony at Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz for years.

I wanted to return to Point Lobos as soon as possible. The colony numbers about a thousand adults and the population will at least double as chicks hatch. Here the birds are better positioned for photography than at Natural Bridges.

Point Lobos State Park is now a sixty minute drive instead of ninety. That half hour reduction in time (totaling an hour round trip) makes a big difference and I’ve started planning regular day trips. But there is a problem with Point Lobos: its popularity. It quickly gets crowded and after a certain number of cars enter the park, they close it. I won’t go near it on weekends and even on weekdays you can be turned away by 11:00am.

If you are willing to be patient, quiet and present in nature, you begin to see things that aren’t immediately apparent. The longer you linger the more you will see. I find it takes a minimum of 20 minutes of quiet presence at a spot before you notice the less obvious details in front of you. Once you do see them, you wonder how you could have missed them.

I scanned the panoramic view in front of me, witnessing the nearby guano coated island with active Brandt’s Cormorants, the islands farther out with even more birds, the blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean, and the precipitous sides of both the islands and the peninsula where I stood. It suddenly registered in my vision that there were a few large, dark birds clinging to cliff walls below, tucked into the slightest recesses in the craggy rocks.

Pelagic cormorants! They are one of three species of cormorants found here. The pelagics are less common and their choice of wild ocean cliff walls for nesting make them more difficult to view in breeding season. They do not gather in colonies like the Brandt’s but find scattered sites along the dramatic coastline of California. Pelagic cormorants are identifiable from other cormorants by their red face – and I would discover red mouth – greater iridescence and white patches on their flanks. When breeding, pelagic cormorants are overall more colorful. From a distance they usually look a solid glossy black but up close, in the right light, the feathers shine green, blue and purple.

When I returned once again on May 3rd the pelagic cormorant guarding the closest nest, stood numerous times showing off a large beautiful white egg. I could only see one egg; I don’t know if there are more coming or if this egg might be their only potential offspring this year. They normally lay 2-4 in a clutch.

I plan returning regularly to see more eggs and eventually hatched chicks! Stay tuned.

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Flowers Still Bloom

Flowers Still Bloom
March 2021

My photography obsessions gravitate to what is available, to the aspect of nature that is either nearby, accessible or is reaching its seasonal peak. The intensity of winter sunsets and sunrises, the wild waves of winter storms, and the migrating birds of the West Coast have most recently drawn my attention.

Now it is spring wildflower season. Some photographers focus on the drama of vast fields of blooms, like the great meadows of California poppies or hillsides of purple lupine. I love those displays, but I prefer close-up intimate photos of flowers, individual portraits that reveal the subtle beauty and character of each variety.

Now that I have been doing this for a number of years, each new wildflower season becomes a reunion with old friends. I return to places where I know they live and check to see who is back again this year. I also try to add a few new locations where I might discover new flowers. Occasionally, I have the rare pleasure of meeting a blossoming plant that I haven’t seen before.

There is no superbloom this year. The rains during winter were light. But spring still comes. Flowers still bloom. This first set of flowers images is from the Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell Redwood State Park in Felton, California. They were taken in late March.

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The Waves Keep Coming

I admit it. I confess. I am a waveholic. I can’t get enough waves. My well-being seems to depend on them. My wild nature feeds off them.

Currently, I live just a few blocks from the sea. For nearly 20 years the Pacific Ocean has been a 20 minute or so drive away. Now it is minutes by car. When you live this close to the ocean’s deep presence, even when you can’t see or hear it, it becomes part of your psyche. You know there is a wild, untamed world powerfully lapping at the edges of your civilized routine and civilized pretensions.

The waves are the ocean’s insistence on being heard and noticed. Waves rhythmically drum on the living earth. Pulsing, waxing, waning. Tides expanding and contracting. Peeking, falling. A dénouement and release. The final push of the wave rushes over the sand’s surface reaching out as far as it can, then, when it realizes it can go no father, it pulls everything back into it. Pushing forward, pausing briefly and retreating back, repeating this for eternity.

In this part of the world, waves can be deadly. A huge wave may come as a surprise, a wave that is bigger and more powerful than the rest, as if it has decided that it will be the one to conquer the land once and for all. Each year people drown, bewildered to be powerlessly, plucked from the beach. You cannot turn your back on the sea, for it wishes to bring you back to your watery primordial origins.

Waves are accomplished sculptors, using the tool of water to shape stone and rock and boulders and cliffs. Waves are landscape designers. They have an unquenchable thirst for tinkering and rearranging. Sometimes after a storm, or if I’ve been away for too long, a familiar beach will have become someplace new. Hills and dips appear where there had been none. Rock formations will either become newly exposed or suddenly buried, with the level the beach either drastically higher or lower. Incoming creeks may take a completely new path back into the sea.

Waves are a full body experience. There is the exciting spectacle of watching an approaching swell, as it lifts upward, then curls and dives. Waves explode in the ears, crashing, splashing, roaring, pounding. We are invigorated by the ocean’s fresh fragrance and the thrill of cold water rushing over feet and ankles. The skin detects the moist breeze, delights in getting sprayed with tiny water droplets.

A wave is where water and land and sky meet and mingle. The unique character of each ocean wave determined by the particular clouds, wind and sunlight of that brief moment.

Actually, I am drawn to everything made of water. I love wateriness. Its slippery wetness, its many shifting colors, its transparency, its shape-shifting fluidity, its sparkle and reflectiveness, its gemlike droplets and bubbles, its ability to mirror anything near it. You’ll see water in many of my photos. In the form of rivers, streams, lakes, oceans, waterfalls, raindrops, puddles. And especially, in one of its most ethereal and beautiful forms, clouds.

I admit it. I confess. I am a cloudaholic . . .

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A Panoply of Wetland Birds

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A Panoply of Wetland Birds
March 2-4, 2021
Merced National Wildlife Refuge, Merced, California

Although I went to Merced Wildlife Refuge specifically seeking the great wintering flocks of Sandhill Cranes and Snow/Ross’s Geese, I was also hoping to catch sight of the numerous other birds drawn to the Central Valley wetlands. The abundant damp grasslands, the stretches of shallow waters dotted with cattails and reeds, and the mowed agricultural fields are all attractive to many birds.

Driving through the wildlife refuge is, at times, an odd experience since you are instructed to stay in your car. There are only a few places where you are allowed to park and walk around. Here humans are restrained and, in a sense, caged, while the wild creatures are given free rein.

The car acted as a convenient blind where I could rest my camera on the ledge of the open window. I drove slowly, very slowly, with my camera safely in my lap, repeatedly lifting the heavy telephoto lens to the window when I stopped at spots with good views. It took me 3-4 hours to drive the 5 mile loop.

Below is a selection of photos representing most of the birds I identified. I chose the best photos of each. A few birds I have only subpar images but I still included them to prove I actually saw these birds. Some other birds were not photographed. I believe the total number of ID’d birds came to about 50 species. At least seven were new to my Life List.

Additional birds sighted but not photographed:
• Yellow-rumped Warbler
• Northern Harrier
• Loggerhead Shrike
• Ruby-crowned Kinglet
• Great Blue Heron
• Mourning Dove
• California Gull
• Least Sandpiper

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The Sandhill Cranes of California

The Sandhill Cranes of California
March 2-4, 2021
Merced National Wildlife Refuge, Merced, CA

I’ve known about the Sandhill Crane migration for a long time, having seen remarkable photos of the vast flocks gathered along the Platte River in Nebraska. Cranes filling the shallow waters, cranes along the muddy banks, cranes feeding in the corn fields nearby, cranes darkening the sky.

The first Sandhill Cranes I ever saw was during our year long drive around the US in late 2012 to late 2013. Cranes had gathered in the dunes at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas but I never got a good look at them. I could hear their continuous eager friendly calls as if they were consistently excited to see one another. I could see them – barely – in the distance, landing and taking off, jumping and hopping in their courtship dance.

A few weeks later I got my first up-close and personal look at a Sandhill Crane at Alafia River State Park in Florida. A few cranes calmly patrolled the campground, walking through with regal aloofness and little fear. This was a real treat! While driving south along the Florida coast we spotted a Sandhill Crane family, parents and chick, strolling through the parking lot of a Walmart, giving the impression that they, like many American families, shopped there. (See photo below.) These Florida cranes are non-migratory, spending the whole year in the wet warm climate of Florida.

But I did not know until I’d been in California a few years that there was also a major Sandhill Crane migration through California. In central California the cranes spend a few winter months in the vestiges of what was once vast wetlands, resting and feeding, before returning to the far north to breed. Only recently did I finally witness these large seasonal gatherings.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge (northeast of Los Banos, CA) is one of the many preserved wetlands where the Sandhill Cranes stop over. I traveled there in early March 2021 to see if they were still in residence, along with the huge white flocks of snow geese and Ross’s geese. To my delight I saw thousands of birds.

With 90% of the Central Valley’s wetlands gone to development and agriculture what we can witness now is only a tiny fraction of what the migratory bird population once was.

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A Pandemonium of Sea Otters

A Pandemonium of Sea Otters
June 2020
Moss Landing, CA

A few months ago, earlier in the pandemic, I was exploring one of my favorite haunts, Moss Landing, CA. This area has several wonderful beaches, an expansive harbor, and it leads to a large tidal estuary, Elkhorn Slough. It doesn’t disappoint when it comes to sightings of shore birds and marine wildlife, although I never know exactly what I will see at each visit. Season, weather, tides and time of day all influence the appearance of the diverse ocean-loving creatures.

Not surprisingly, one of my favorite animals to see (and photograph) are the sea otters. Usually, however, they are not close to shore so I view them, lovingly, from afar. On this day, I stumbled on a raft of resting, grooming, squirming otters gathered in a kelp bed right next to the rock wall of the harbor entrance channel. What a delight! I could get within 20-30 feet of them and watch their behavior and shenanigans. It is interesting to note that despite appearances, otters are not social animals (except for moms and pups) but gather to find safety in numbers. A group of otters is officially called a raft, but I prefer my own term, a pandemonium of sea otters.

Below is a slide show of still photos and a video of otters in action (Warning: includes some graphic otter pooping!)

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Backyard Birds – Part 2

Backyard Birds – Part 2
Santa Cruz, CA
December 2020-February 2021

Below are additional backyard bird photos from my new home in Santa Cruz. It’s given me some practice for the Annual Great Backyard Bird Count coming up from February 12-15 sponsored by the Cornell Lab, Audubon and Oiseaux Canada.

You too can participate in the count! Go to:

You can also join in a Facebook Livestream Webinar on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 12pm EST to learn more about the Great Backyard Bird Count. Share in the joy of birds!
Register: Click Here

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The Happiness of Hummingbirds

The Happiness of Hummingbirds
Neary Lagoon, Santa Cruz, CA

Ahead of me on the cement pathway, was a woman excitedly gesticulating upwards. She was clearly trying to show the two women nearby something unique and interesting in the trees.

I scanned the bare branches intently as I walked closer but I saw nothing. Whatever was there was hidden and relatively stationary since most birds or other creatures would have fled immediately. Was it a roosting owl or a hawk? Very possibly, I thought.

When I reached the small group I asked what all the fuss was about. She simply exclaimed, “Hummingbird nest!” Even with a mask on I could tell she was smiling broadly, completely delighted by what she was witnessing and with the opportunity to share her joy. I was elated too, as I had never seen a hummer’s nest before.

Searching above, now with some idea of what I was looking for, I pretty quickly focused in on the tiny bird and nest. The nest was about five feet overhead in the fork of several branches. It was shaped like a small round sphere and had a tiny Anna’s hummingbird settled on top.

I would never have noticed it without someone showing me where to look. It was so small and well-camouflaged that it was nearly impossible to see. Around the top were soft fibers and fine hairs probably made of spider web threads. The outside was decorated with small bits of green and yellow lichen looking like confetti glued to a ball, allowing it to perfectly blend into the complicated pattern of branches, buds and shadows.

I was able to capture several photographs from a few different angles. When I came back by the nest on my way home, the wind was blowing hard and the branches swayed and shook in the breeze. But the hummingbird sat firm and resolute, calmly protecting her eggs.

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Backyard Birds – Part 1

Backyard Birds – Part 1

Our backyard – before the August fires – was the majestic redwood forest.

Now I live in town where the houses are modest, the lots small and the backyards even smaller. Yet here, even in the middle of winter, the earth is bursting with lush greenery. It is mild enough to support many non-native tropical plants; four tall willowy palm trees sway high above us across the street and other types of palms, even bananas, adorn many lawns. Our tiny backyard has two apples tree and a Meyer lemon tree weighted down by abundant golden fruit. The bottlebrush bush, calla lilies, and violets are currently blooming, while many others plants are forming buds.

We had birds in the redwood forest, including turkeys, woodpeckers, ravens and hawks, but few song birds. They prefer the varied landscape of this more urban ecosystem where they can they can find easy shelter in the shrubs and consume the berries, seeds and fruit that are abundant.

The leaves of the apples trees are long gone as well as most of the fruit but there are enough dried apples still clinging to the branches to attract a variety of hungry birds. I sometimes sit or stand patiently, like a cat at a mouse hole, waiting with my camera to see who comes to feast on apples.

Songbirds (also known as Passerines) are notoriously difficult to photograph. They are small, in constant motion and often obscured by foliage. Click through the photos below.

All photographs were taken from our yard. Please do not reproduce without permission. To inquire about permission contact Carla at: