Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

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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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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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