Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

The Birds of Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough, Part 1 (of 3)

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The Birds of Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough, Part 1 (of 3)

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The Mammas and the Pup-Pups

The Mamas and the Pup-Pups
(California dreaming on the Monterey Bay)
Elkhorn Slough, Moss Landing CA
1/21/21

Last Thursday I went on my third trip with Elkhorn Slough Safari . It’s especially enjoyable at this time, because they allow fewer customers aboard the pontoon boat due to the pandemic. On this outing there were only five of us plus the captain and the naturalist (they can seat 22 in normal times). I had the back of the boat to myself where I could wield my cameras and walk port to starboard and back again as I wished. From the vantage point of the boat you can see a greater range of wildlife and birds: sea otters, harbor seals, sea lions, egrets, herons, cormorants, pelicans and all manner of shore birds.

Sea otters reproduce year round so mothers and pups might be seen at anytime. Even so, sometimes there are many mothers and offspring and other times there are few. This was a trip blessed with many. As a matter of fact, it seemed that every otter that popped into view had a pup with her. Some pups were small fuzzy bundles where it was hard to tell which end was which. Most were older and getting closer to independence. Pups stay with their moms for about six months.

I highly recommend watching PBS Nature episode “Saving Otter 501” to learn about sea otters and especially orphaned ones and how they are cared for by the Monterey Bay Aquarium to return to the sea.

Enjoy the portfolio below of sea otter mother-pup portraits.
Please do not reproduce photographs without permission.


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A New Dawn

A New Dawn
January 22, 2021

It’s a “new dawn,” because seeing the dawn every day is new for me. I’m not a get-up-before-sunrise type. But I recently got inspired to enjoy sunrise outdoors after catching glimpses from my windows of a frequent early morning sky on fire.

Right now the sunrise is late enough to occur at a not unreasonable time, about 7:15 AM. But it will happen earlier and earlier and, at some point this spring, I will likely refuse to leave my warm bed even with the promise of witnessing yet another morning spectacle.

Our current location, since early December, is a short drive to a wide beach that abuts the Santa Cruz Harbor and hosts the Walton Lighthouse. Because California mostly faces west and southwest, the sunrise cannot be seen from most beaches. This is sunset country.

However, Seabright State Beach is an exception. It faces south, the water line running east and west, so that the rising sun, at this time of year, clears the hills at one end and illuminates the shore. And conveniently, the lighthouse at the eastern end adds a well-known landmark and a welcomed compositional element to the photographs I take.

The sunrise people arrive each day. Many with dogs, others getting exercise, some making music or taking photos. Still others are there just to absorb the magic of the soft growing light and the way it plays on the ever moving waters of the sea. The fragrant air, the view, the sand under one’s feet bring each of us back to the vivid immediacy of the moment.

I will explore each sunrise as the unique occurrence that it is. A sight to never to be seen again, as it quietly and completely dissolves into the light of day. Every morning a new dawn.

Below is a slideshow of sunrises from Seabright Beach, Santa Cruz, CA. Please do not use any photos without permission. To inquire about permission, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.


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WINTER WAVES

WINTER WAVES
Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument
Santa Cruz, CA

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Pacific winter storms bring the wild waves to the Santa Cruz coastline. It is the season that the surfers love most. During the last couple weeks, high surf warnings have been frequent, alerting me to grab my camera and go to the beach. The warnings advise beachgoers to “not turn your back to the ocean” because sneaker waves can unexpectedly rush in and wash people out to sea.

Yesterday, as I watched from the Rockview lookout on Pleasure Point, a red Coast Guard helicopter flew slowly overhead. When the surf is like this, surfers, boaters and swimmers often get into trouble and need to be rescued. Some do not make it.

From the cliffs overlooking the sea westward, you can see the huge swells roll in from the horizon. Normally the swells are not visible from afar and the waves crash on shore, but when the surf is unusually high, the swells stand out in endless parallel rows, often cresting long before reaching land. The roar from the sea is loud and constant, and the surface becomes a frothy stew of foam.

Here are a few photos from Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument along Highway One at sunset. (Making Coast Dairies a national monument was one of Obama’s last acts as president. I worried that Trump might overturn the order but so far he hasn’t. He still has 3 days but I doubt this is a priority for him.)


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Battle of the Egrets

The Battle of the Egrets
Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz, CA
Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Snowy egrets like to get into territorial tussles. When they do, it’s like watching angels break out into a fistfight. Calm, elegant beauty suddenly devolves into a frenzy of feathers and jabbing limbs. They become wild, acrobatic and aggressive but the altercation usually ends as abruptly as it started.

Locally, snowy egrets are sporting their long lacy breeding plumage on their heads, necks and backs. It becomes especially visible when they are excited through courtship or disputes.


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I AM BACK

Dear Blog Followers,

I apologize. I have been remiss in adding posts for many months. I now intend to recommit myself to posting on my blog regularly. There aren’t many of you followers and I don’t think my absence has been a great loss for anyone. Except, possibly, for me.

A lot has happened in the past year. Normal life for me (well, what normal life had become in an abnormal pandemic) was upended when we lost our home and belongings in August from the CZU Lightning Complex Fire in Santa Cruz County, CA. This was/is devastating and deserves more discussion, but at another time.

Since August we have been living in the middle of Santa Cruz in a densely populated single home neighborhood. A big change from our many years amidst the (now charred) redwood forest. The up side is that we are closer to the ocean and nearby lagoons where wildlife and the untamed sea dominate. Walking the beach has been a refuge in this disturbing time. It has also provided some exceptional opportunities for photography.

I have been posting photos on Facebook regularly because it is easy and I get responses quickly, feeding me with the minor pleasure of the small dopamine hits of “likes.” But I also value the focus and the record that this website provides.

My plan is to write less (only because it is time-consuming) and post a “Photograph of the Day” everyday, or at least daily-ish. I may add additional posts and photographs occasionally as I get more organized and inspired.

Thank you for your patience.
I hope you are well and safe and finding some comforting sanity in an insane world.
Carla Brennan

Pinnacles National Park – June 1 – 4, 2020

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PINNACLES NATIONAL PARK – JUNE 1-4, 2020

ARRIVING
It took 24 hours to settle down after occasional feelings of distractedness and unease. It takes time to adjust to the pace of nature and to living in the open. Eventually that wonderful feeling of coming home arose. A home, I realized, I had been longing for every day. I don’t mean Pinnacles National Park but the fragrant green surroundings, the gently moving air, the random sounds of bird and insect. I said to myself, this is all I want to do, be in natural places like this and to sit quietly. Watch. Listen. Explore.

The thing about nature is that it is always changing, revealing something fresh, surprising, wondrous. Even in the exact same spot. By contrast, human civilization is dedicated to promoting predictability and control.

Instead of sheltering at home, I was sheltering in campsite, limited to where I could go on foot since the roads beyond the campground were closed to cars. Chris had his bicycle so he adventured farther afield.

A FEW SIGHTINGS
A hummingbird visited, hovering nearby, flying off and then returning, checking me out several times, as if it were wondering if I was a giant nectar-filled flower. It decided I was not and disappeared into the bushes.

All day the acorn woodpeckers burst out of the tree canopy, grabbing insects midair and circling back into the shadows of the towering oaks. Rather than boring into bark for food they were cashing in on the wealth of flying insects. I saw scrub jays doing the same thing. I was not sure what insects were up there.

The insects I did see close at hand were the perpetually annoying gnats, the dawn and dusk mosquitoes and an occasional butterfly. The scrub jays, along with the California towhees, spotted towhees and juncos, also foraged on the ground nearby, looking for crawling creatures.

A raccoon visited us at least twice while we sat and read. It was persistent and fearless. During the night it left muddy footprints over the trunk hood as if it had used it for a dance floor. Then it slid off leaving a sloppy muddy trail down the side of the cab.

CALIFORNIA CONDORS
Every evening, about a half hour before sunset, I walked five minutes to a spot where I could see the ridge line of the hills to the east above the campground. It was there, given the right conditions, the California condors would congregate.

I only saw them there one night. Some of these huge birds were soaring on the thermals while others were roosting in the trees. At times I could count at least 10 to 15 birds. They were far away, but it was still thrilling to see them through binoculars or my camera’s telephoto lens.

There are over 300 California condors in the wild today. About 86 of them reside in Pinnacles National Park.

HIKING BEYOND
Our site was at the farthest point of a loop at the southern end of the campground. One edge of our campsite was hemmed in by an old barbwire fence. It was low in one spot so I climbed over it to explore what was beyond. The barbwire fence seemed like a relic from the past rather than a real barrier to be respected. I hopped the fence frequently. It took some careful foot placement to avoid getting scratched or hooked by the sharp wire points

Beyond the campsite, I found a long stretch of meadows and trees making up a riparian corridor. It paralleled the official trail along the main road leading to the upper trailheads. Few, if any, people leave the main trail to visit this area. A small, slow moving stream was at its heart.

The meadows I crossed were covered in dry yellowed grasses, the bright green of a few weeks earlier gone until next year. They were primarily invasive foxtails, a terrible nuisance and potentially a terrible ordeal to walk through. I was wearing running shoes that were usually comfortable for hiking. Within only a few steps the needle-like foxtail seedheads had burrowed through my shoes, through my socks and were attempting to penetrate my skin. It was painful and frustrating. I had to stop several times to pull out the offending barbs from my shoes. And, as you might imagine, they were near impossible to remove. The following morning I wore different hiking boots which were blessedly foxtail proof.

As I returned to the campsite from my first early morning expedition, scrub jays were numerous and active along the creek side. The dashes of blue attracted the eye and at times seemed out of place amid the greens and earth tones. All jays are noisy, their voices loud and harsh. But I also heard a call that stood out from the others. It was an hysterical shrieking, louder, more urgent and piercing than any of the other bird sounds. Then I thought, I know what this is, probably a young jay demanding food. Soon I spotted it, a fledgling on the ground with bright blue wings but still dark around the head and chest. It flapped its earthbound wings, hopping madly about, mouth agape. The parents were nearby and seemed unmoved by the theatrics, occasionally offering it mouthfuls of grubs.

PANDEMIC
You wouldn’t know there was a pandemic going on except that much of the park was closed. Few people wore masks, few stepped aside when they passed on the trail. There were small groups of young adults, college-aged I’d guess, who were not socially distancing or wearing masks. I am pretty sure they had not been sheltering in place together at home.

Most of the other campers were families with young kids, taking advantage of a place to get away from home and ride bicycles. It was a hard to be near so many strangers after several months with only Chris at home. I couldn’t help but think each one was a possible vector of viral doom.

WILDFLOWERS
I was late for this year’s wildflower party. The main event was over and most flowers had already left for the season. A variety of flowering shrubs remained, most with white blooms. Some of the still plentiful stragglers from the party were buckwheat and California wild roses.

I soon discovered one of my favorite flowers, the elegant clarkia, were still blooming. It was like finding little jewels strewn among the brittle straw of desiccated grass. These ones were small and delicate compared to the larger and more robust ones I saw here last year in April. But they had the same charming pinwheel shape and bright purple-pink color.

There were a few surprises. On a slope near the small creek were round flower heads of mini purplish small flowers. They were lovely and unknown to me; but I knew they were from the mint family, with square stems and fragrant small leaves. Later I would identify them as coyote mint.

Turning a corner on a longer hike on the second day I came across a large shrub maybe 8 feet across and 5 feet high with multiple arms ending in racemes of purplish flowers. From a distance I thought it was late blooming lupine and left the trail to get a closer look. The flower heads were something altogether different. The racemes were covered decorative fuzzy buds in a variety of colors: pink, whitish, purple. Every so often an elegant blue flower with long stamens emerged from the furry buds. These flower heads reminded me of party decorations or icing on a cake. So maybe the party wasn’t over yet! The leaves were fragrant and I guessed it was in the sage family. But it was much showier and more dazzling than anything I had seen before. I later identified as Woolly Bluecurl.

 

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The Sad Evanescence of Wildflowers (Wildflowers Part II)

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The Sad Evanescence of Wildflowers (Wildflowers Part II)
Photos from April 4-24, 2020

It’s what makes wildflowers so extraordinary: they come unbidden and last only briefly. The spring flowers and vegetation have been robust and exuberant this year. Their wild and carefree example is a welcome antidote to the oppressive constraints of lockdown.

During this pandemic, because I am limited to where I can go, I visit the same places often. I am closely witnessing the successive waves of wildflowers. It is like watching a long play with numerous acts. Some characters have a role in each scene while others exit early. Sometimes new characters are introduced later in the performance. One character who has appeared on stage in every act is the California poppy.

The flowering current, an early blooming shrub, is no longer displaying its large pink flower clusters. Eventually, it will show off it’s purple fruit but for now it has transitioned from something showy, cheerful and bright to an inconspicuous bush.

The giant trillium has now passed on. The leaves are still hugging the forest floor, big and flat, but they are beginning to show the wear and tear of life in the wild. The tall, deep red petals have shriveled and darkened, dislodged by the multi-sided seed pod at its base.

The blue of the sky lupines has been replaced by the purplish tangled mats of winter vetch. Just last week the lupines were everywhere and now they have strangely vanished without a trace. How can this be? I feel abandoned. They were just here, so vibrant and fresh.

The shooting stars have also departed, having only appeared for a brief time, like their namesake. The resplendent carpets of flowers along Russian Ridge have finally peaked. The fading of their previous glory saddens me.

Withered plants, fallen petals, dulled colors. I am heart broken and grieving. My friends are leaving again. We had such a short time together. But it was splendid and joyful for a while.

We must wait another year to meet. I hope they all make it to our next rendezvous. Our date for spring 2021 is already written in my calendar. With droughts, fires and climate change, it’s not a given they will come. My own existence is also not guaranteed.

Does beauty only exist because everything is transient? Is life only meaningful because it is finite? Does our love have to be intricately tied to our capacity for heartbreak?

Yes, it seems so.

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Wildflowers are My Solace – Part 1

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Wildflowers are My Solace – Part 1

Mid-March – April 3, 2020

Santa Cruz Mountains and Coast

This is the first installment in my annual spring wildflower post. All photographs were taken before April 3, 2020. A silver lining to the pandemic is more opportunity to witness the gradual arrival of spring.

Spring has burst forth this year with confidence and splendor, oblivious to the human cost of the pandemic. The Santa Cruz Mountains are home to a beautiful array of wildflowers; you just have to know where and when to look. Each year I return to familiar haunts where I have found flowers before. Each year I try to find new places with new wildflowers.

The freedom of my wanderings has been undercut, at times, by park, beach and trail closures. But there are enough wild places open, even within walking distance, to keep me occupied. During the weekdays, there are more people out than there would have been prior to the pandemic. Since many people aren’t going to work and are desperate to be outdoors, they are showing up at places I used to have to myself. I stay home on weekends.

Walking into meadow and forest is an immersion into primordial beauty and a focused treasure hunt. I am hunting down wildflowers and hoping to capture exceptional photographs.

Below are photographs of some of the earliest wildflowers.
• Checkerbloom
• Giant Trillium
• Pacific Trillium
• Baby Blue Eyes
• Blue Dicks
• Flowering Currant
• Forget-me-not
• Giant Trillium
• Golden Violet
• Redwood Violet
• Lupine
• Milk Maids
• Wild Onion
• Popcorn Flower
• California Poppy
• Sea Pink
• Pacific Trillium
• Wood Sorrel

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Retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains

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NOTE: I have been remiss in posting my blog notes and photos for the last few months. I’ve been resorting to “quick and dirty” posting on Facebook on both my personal page and my more professional “Carla Brennan Photography” page. However, now that I have been sheltering-in-place for a few weeks, I am knuckling down to resume regular posts. I have no shortage of photographs to share.

When I wrote the first draft of this narrative in January, I did not know that my self-retreating skills would soon be put to good use while sheltering-in-place for the pandemic!

THE SELF-RETREAT

Santa Cruz Mountains, CA
December 2019

Every so often – but not often enough – I arrange a self-retreat, a period of time to be alone and silent. The days are spent following a loose schedule of meditation, exercise, meals and moseying about with my camera. This past December I spent four nights at a friend’s estate in the Santa Cruz Mountains while they were away.

For this self-retreat I tried something new. I shared the experience with a friend. We both contributed to preparing meals and we ate together in silence, only speaking to communicate practical concerns. We also meditated together several times a day. Otherwise, we kept our own schedules. We had separate but nearby rooms. Maybe this is new kind of retreat, a buddy-retreat instead of a self-retreat.

Despite forecasts for sun, it was overcast and rainy most of the week. Thick fog often obscured the surrounding mountains. This weather added to a mood of quiet introspection.

The property had beautiful gardens with small man-made ponds and pathways. Large and small sculptures, stonework and inviting seating areas were dispersed among the plantings. Despite the rain and chilliness, I wandered outdoors for a few hours each day. I did not hike, mind you, but only sauntered, as John Muir recommended, slowly and lovingly taking in the sights, smells and sounds of the sacred land in a leisurely manner.

This area of thoughtfully cultivated land is completely surrounded by wild redwood forest creating a feeling of remoteness and welcomed isolation, even though it was only a few miles from my home (as the raven flies) and even closer to the not-so-bustling center of downtown Ben Lomond. I felt delightfully removed from my ordinary life as if I were far away in a magical kingdom.

CALIFORNIA NEWTS
Each day, whether raining or not, I’d zigzag through the gardens of fruit trees and flowering plants. Several ponds, created for water storage and for beauty, dotted the landscape. Within these pools, California newts had begun their mating rituals, lazily floating in embracing pairs. This was engrossing to watch even though it was, for the most part, serene with little activity.

Occasionally there would be a sudden upheaval and disturbance. A third newt would approach a mating pair and attempt to takeover. I assume it was a male trying to win over mating rights with the female. Suddenly the three newts would become a writhing ball of hard-to-identify amphibious parts struggling for supremacy. Eventually one newt would leave and the pair would again settle into their gentle mating embrace, floating dreamily in the murky water. I never knew if it was the intruder or the original male who left.

Some newts had also taken to traveling across land through the forest so I had to be careful where I stepped. They were perhaps on their way to another pond to reproduce.

WATER STRIDERS
The other primary inhabitant of the ponds were water striders, those insects who magically glide on water, taking advantage of its natural surface tension. Being the large, clumsy creatures that we are, we rarely get to experience this feature of water. I tried to photograph the delicate balance of insect resting on water.

DROPS AND BUBBLES
I enjoy photographing water in all its many forms. The rain during the week left glistening beads of water on stems and leaves and flowers. I even found myself reflected in large bubbles created in ponds by droplets falling from trees.

OLIVES
Do you love olives? I do. I love eating them but I also love photographing them. I am enchanted to see them growing and ripening on their trees, something you don’t see, of course, in the Northeast where I am from. Olives do well in the climate here, with weather similar to their origins along the Mediterranean Sea. I now understand why olives are a popular motif in Southern European designs. I have, for example, a lovely French oilcloth tablecloth and napkins decorated with a black olive pattern.

RETREATING
A retreat is a chance to slow down, to return to simplicity and celebrate silence. It is a break from the relentless demand of our to-do list and a respite from the powerful intrusive “weapons of mass distraction.” For a while we can be relieved of the pressure to get things done, to fulfill agendas and pursue accomplishments.

Having engaged in many long silent retreats over four decades, I know the transformative power of relinquishing our daily routines and hurried activities. We can return to a rhythm connected to the lifeblood of the living planet rather than the demands of societal pressures and electronic devices.

It is a sorrowful state of affairs that most people don’t know that there is an inner depth available – still, silent and peaceful – just below the stormy wave-tossed surface of our thought-driven minds. Nature provides the surest doorway to this other way of being.

The first day of the retreat I slept a lot, surrendering to a fatigue I didn’t know was there. The second day, I was consumed by aches and stiffness in my body. The third day I was pursued by a torrent of thoughts and memories trailing me like an inescapable bad smell. The last day I finally fully arrived, body relaxed, heart and mind present and at ease. I was sad to be leaving the following day.

This is the way most retreats are. It takes 3-4 days to release the layers of built-up tension from daily life. This is why even longer retreats can have a more profound effect. Over many days of silence and simplicity we relax more fully into the open expanse of our inner being.

 

This gallery contains 29 photos