Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

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Colonies of Nesting Cormorants

Colonies of Nesting Cormorants
April 2018

I’ve been periodically visiting two nesting colonies of two different species of cormorants: Brandt’s and Pelagic. There is a third species found in our area – the Double-crested Cormorant – but I haven’t seen many around here and I certainly have not seen their nests. (See photos of them from Morro Bay: Each species has their own preference for nest location and material.

Brandt’s Cormorant. They nest close together on rocky islands or headlands, often on the flat top of a rock face. On my most recent visit, most of the nests were completed with one parent sitting patiently on top as if incubating. When I was there in February, the cormorants were just standing around small disorganized piles of seagrass waiting to steal some from an absent neighbor.

I did catch a pair in the act of mating. (See below.) Another cormorant was vigorously doing it’s mating display. (Head up, tail up, wings up and curled.) So I guess this means that some birds were not yet impregnated. I had hoped to get a glimpse of eggs but either they haven’t been laid yet or were obscured by the sitting bird. There are about 25 nests.

Despite the wild and remote look of this nesting site, it is actually just below a parking lot and scenic lookout. I took the photos from a heavily used sidewalk next to a road and houses.

Brandt’s Cormorants are most easily identified by their bright blue breeding throat patch. They also have a few spindly white feathers on their back and cheeks. (Here they are in February:

Pelagic Cormorant. Despite their name, these cormorants aren’t pelagic. (Pelagic means living on the open sea.) They are instead coastal, staying on shore, beaches, and cliffs. Their preferred nesting sites are on vertical cliffs overlooking the ocean. These cliffs have tiny, tiny ledges to build nests on. A very precarious place to bring up babies I would think. The upside to this arrangement is that no cautious predator can get to them. There are not as many Pelagic Cormorants here as I have seen in past years, but a few pairs appeared to be developing nests. My telephoto lens was at its max to get these photos.

Pelagic Cormorants are most easily identified by their red face and the white patches on their lower back. Their seemingly black bodies have a touch of green iridescence.

Video. You might want to watch this Nat Geo video of a cormorant pulling off remora from a whale shark in Mexico!

Please do not reproduce any photographs without Carla’s permission.


The Earlybird 2018 Spring Flowers

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The Earlybird 2018 Spring Flowers.

March begins the wildflower season around here. Below are some of the first to blossom this year. These photographs were taken in Henry Cowell State Park in Felton, Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve in Los Gatos, and along the coast in Davenport.

Giant Trillium
Western Trillium
Shooting Star
Redwood Sorrel
Milk Maids
Flowering Currant
California Buttercup
California Poppy
Wild Strawberry
Redwood Violet
Western Heart’s Ease
. . . and a few unknown

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission!

This gallery contains 34 photos

Ephemeral Waterfalls

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Ephemeral Waterfalls
Scotts Creek Beach, Davenport, CA
April 7, 2018

The miraculous appears when unexpected. I’d been to this beach many times. I’ve walk below many beautiful cliffs along the California Coast at all times of year. But this was the first time I’d seen high waterfalls running from the coastal prairie, cascading down the cliffs to the sea. I didn’t even know they occurred here after heavy rains, although it makes sense and now I am more surprised I have never seen them before.

I had my nose down, meandering at a snail’s pace, looking for treasures left on the sand after the recent storm. Eventually I looked up and was stunned to see a waterfall up ahead where one had never been. About 80 feet high. Three more could be seen in the distance.

By tomorrow they will be only a trickle or completely gone.

Go into nature, quietly, slowly, patiently, with senses open and she will show you unimagined splendor.


This gallery contains 1 photo.

Bunnies – The Easter Edition


Mercey Hot Springs, CA.
March 24-26, 2018.

Last week Chris and I went to one of our go-to places: Mercey Hot Springs. Half of the reason I go is for the hot healing waters, the other half is for the wildlife, and sometimes, wildflowers. And let’s not forget to mention the open arid landscape, the skies, stars and moon. In the trees of this small desert oasis are long-eared owls, great horned owls and barn owls. If you follow this blog, you’ve already seen some photos of these impressive enchanting birds. But on this trip the owls were elusive. Only a female great horned owl could reliably be seen, sitting stoically, unmoving on her nest of eggs. The barn owl made a brief appearance, emerging and disappearing quickly like a ghost, from the dense tangle of treetop limbs. I also saw, for a few moments, a golden eagle flying overhead.

The wildlife that was abundant and visible were desert cottontails, the food source for the owls as well as other raptors, foxes, coyotes, weasels and bobcats. California ground squirrels were everywhere too. They all were darting in and out of dense bushes and underground holes. So I focused my camera on them. They live in and around the shrubbery that lines the small muddy creek. But they frequently ventured farther afield, at their own risk, to eat the new green luscious spring grass.

I began to recognize individual rabbits, mostly by the unique scarring on their ears. It’s like how they identify whales, by the marks on their tails. One rabbit, I named it “Our Bunny” because it hung out in or near our campsite, was missing half an ear. I imagined on owl grabbing for this fleeing cottontail only to get away with some flimsy ear skin in its talons.

Speaking of ears, in the morning, at the right angle, I could sometimes catch the bright low sun shining through their pink ears, making it seem as if they were illuminated from within.

Our Bunny liked to crawl under the bush right next to our camper, resting only a few feet away. The bush branches were still bare, the buds just starting to leaf out. So even though the rabbit thought it was hiding, it was clearly visible. Admittedly, you had to know it was there because its coloration matched the shadowy dirt underneath. One time, as I watched it hopped toward the bush from the creek bed, it paused first to munch on some dirt. Yes, dirt. I have a photo of it. I figure they eat soil in order to add minerals and salts to their diet. I later saw a ground squirrel eating dirt. Because of the hot springs the ground here is probably particularly rich in nutrients. When I was very young I love the smell of mud, and would occasionally eat it.

California jackrabbits are my favorite bunny. They’re big, they’re fast and their ears are humongous. They can probably pick up transmissions from space. But they’re skittish and evasive and rarely seen close enough to photograph.

House finches, a common bird, shared their cheerful chirping each morning. The males’ red heads made them photogenic. Mourning doves cooed they’re sad keening all day. White-crowned sparrows pecked relentlessly in the dirt and sometimes bathed in the creek.

So just in time for Easter, I’m including here a selection a bunny portraits.

All photographs by Carla Brennan. Please do not use photographs without permission.

This gallery contains 27 photos

Spearfishing with Egrets

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Spearfishing with Egrets
February 11, 2018
Moss Landing, CA

Off on a Sunday afternoon to Moss Landing for some wildlife viewing and beach walking. I was most interested in identifying birds this trip but I was also on the lookout for otters, seals and sea lions. It was a pleasant day and I spotted a variety of shorebirds: long-billed curlews, willets, black-bellied plover, mallards, blue-winged teals, buffleheads, black-necked stilts, terns, and lots of gulls. The tide was quite low leaving an expansive mud flat on the bay, attracting some birds.  At the top of a far barren tree perched a white and black raptor. I first assumed it was an osprey but then realized it was a kite, a white-tailed kite. A new bird for my Life List.

With its inner bay, tidal flats, marshes, open beaches, and estuary, Moss Landing offers a wide range of wildlife habitats in a relatively small area. This place is not free of humans, however. It is home to whale-watching and fishing boats and the world famous Phil’s Restaurant as well as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. That Sunday was also the weekend of the big Pebble Beach PGA tournament nearby in Monterey so we were concerned extra sight-seers might be on the highways and at the beaches.

The road into Moss Landing crosses a small lagoon near a marina. For some reason in this confined area there are often a few birds and an occasional otter. It’s easy to park there and sneak up for some relatively close photographs. Sure enough, there were two great egrets, a pair of eared grebes, and double crested cormorants. A snowy egret landed while I was shooting.

One great egret stood still and elegant on a rock for quite a while. Suddenly she spotted some prey, invisible to me beneath the water. Leaping forward, she plunged completely into the lagoon with only her upper angel wings above the surface. I had never witnessed one of these large wading birds completely submerge itself. The egret then burst from the water, flapping wildly toward shore with two anchovies! What a catch!

One fish was crushed between the jaws of its beak and the other was impaled on the pointed tip. It took patience and skill for the egret to reposition the anchovies so it could swallow them. But eventually the fish disappeared down its gullet and the great egret resumed its still and elegant pose.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):

This gallery contains 25 photos

Coupling Cormorants and Migrating Monarchs in February

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Coupling Cormorants and Migrating Monarchs in February

Walking on West Cliff Drive on the Westside of Santa Cruz, I sought the Brandt’s cormorants I had seen a few days earlier. Cormorants are common and plentiful so most people simply ignore them. But when I saw a group of cormorants close together on a rock ledge, I knew something was up. Sure enough, closer examination revealed it was a small rookery of nesting birds. Or at least birds getting ready to nest.

Numerous piles of seaweed were placed a few feet apart. Some birds sat on the messy disorganized mounds of ocean plants while others stood nearby protecting their small territory. When a bird flew off to feed or it looked the other way, another would snatch a beak full of fibers. If one got caught in the act, noisy squabbling and beak jabbing  ensued.

Their breeding hormones had transformed their throats into a vivid cerulean blue that matched their eyes. White stringy feathers sprouted from their heads and backs, contrasting their sleek black bodies. They impressed each other with ritualized courtship behavior: heads thrown back, tails skyward, wings curled and vibrating. Sometimes they would just shake their heads vigorously, mouths open. Below, waves crashed against the cliff.

To see a video of a Brandt’s cormorant displaying go to:

And see a nest material theft in progress:

I plan to visit this colony regularly to watch them build actual viable nests, lay eggs and raise young.

On my way to my car, I spotted a snowy egret playing in the surf. I swear that was what it was doing. Without any apparent attempt to feed or do anything practical, the egret would walk into the oncoming waves, enjoy the flowing foam around its legs then lift upward quickly when then water became too deep. It then flew back toward the cliffs and started the game all over again.

Then onto Soldiers Field to check out the Monarch butterfly situation. I was surprised to see them still there, energetically flying about in the warm sunny air. No doubt they won’t be around much longer.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):

This gallery contains 21 photos

On a Real Wild Goose Chase

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November 19-20, 2017
San Luis and Merced National Wildlife Refuges, Near Los Banos, CA


Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):

This gallery contains 34 photos