Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

The Age of Aquariums

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The Age of Aquariums
July 2019

It is the dawning of the age of aquariums for me because, as a Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) member, I can go whenever I want for free. My last trip was in July with my visiting niece, Eliza.

The aquarium was busy but not overcrowded. We started, as I usually do, with the jellies and then moved on to the gigantic open sea tank. That was followed by the cephalopods, seabirds, sea otters, the Baja exhibit, the kelp forest and on and on. We closed the place out at 6:30 PM. Even though this wasn’t primarily a photography visit, I, of course, took lots of photographs.

Here are some of the highlights:
As we stood in front of the open sea tank, lulled into a pleasant stupor from the darkness and soothing ambient music, a cross made of pipe was lowered into the water from above. A docent standing nearby explained that it was a signal for one of the tank’s residents that they were about to be fed. Sure enough, the giant sunfish – a favorite of mine – slowly made its way toward the cross, mouth agape. A disembodied gloved hand dipped into the water holding some gelatinous goop and the sunfish gobbled it up. Apparently, they had to get rid of one sunfish because it couldn’t learn this Pavlovian trick – not the smartest fish in the sea.

We were disappointed to not see the sea turtles; they were having a “spa” day as they apparently do every Thursday. Yes, they call it that. They are taken to their own private tank on the roof where they get to sunbathe and eat special food.

As we arrived at the seabird exhibit they were also being fed. A MBA employee threw handfuls of anchovies into the water. Puffins, oystercatchers and murres swam like torpedoes, quickly gathering their meal in their beaks.

At the squid tank, most of them had already eaten, but one, which appeared to be a large male, still had a goldfish in his tentacles. He proceeded to play with the fish for quite a while, like a cat does with a mouse.

We watched sea otters play with fake kelp, sharks swim circles in the kelp forest, a giant Pacific octopus fully visible in its dark tank, lounging penguins and many versions of Dory and Nemo in the reef display.

With each visit there is something new to see as well as an opportunity to visit old friends.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Contact Carla Brennan: brennan.carla@gmail.com

 

This gallery contains 34 photos

The Remaining Wildflowers of 2019

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THE REMAINING WILDFLOWERS OF 2019

I posted a blog earlier this year about the superbloom at Carrizo Plain National Monument. In May I found more wildflowers at Pinnacles National Park. Today I am sharing many of the others blooms that I saw throughout the spring and summer. They were spotted along Skyline Blvd., up and down the the coast, Henry Cowell Sate Park, Uvas County Park and other local spots where I happened to be or where I pulled over to get a closer look.

Take your time and enjoy. There are a lot of them.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Contact Carla Brennan: brennan.carla@gmail.com.

 

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Whale Tails and Sea Lions

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Whale Tails and Sea Lions
July 2019, Monterey Bay, CA

The day was overcast and foggy. The blues of the sky and sea had vanished, rendering everything in shades of black-and-white. Eliza and I were going whale watching aboard the Goddess Fantasy from Moss Landing. I splurged and paid an extra fee to get us “VIP” seating on the upper deck. I figured it would be easier to move from port to starboard to stern as we tracked the whale sightings. It would also give me a better perspective for photography. It was definitely worth it.

In the harbor, sea lions lounged on various docks, weighing them down into the water. Signs warned to beware of “vicious sea lions.” We watched a sailor aim a hose at a sea lion that was positioned between him and his boat. I would have thought the sea lion would have enjoyed the shower but it slid into the sea. Cormorants greeted us at the signs welcoming boaters.

Just a little ways into the Bay we sighted a single humpback whale lunge feeding, its large knobby head with mouth agape burst through the water. We kept going to an area where a small group of humpbacks had been seen. What made this whale watch special – that is, seeing something new – was the large rafts (groups) of sea lions that were swimming along side the whales. These whales were all dive fishing which means we mostly only saw spouting, arching backs and diving tails. Few heads emerged and there was no breaching. But we were interested to see them rise and dive amid the swimming sea lions as if they were all enjoying the day together.

Several times the sea lions swam quickly, leaping out of the water in quick synchronous graceful arcs called “porpoising.” I tried to photograph this but failed to capture it.

After the whale watch we went to Moss Landing State Beach and watched the sea otters.

A couple weeks later a photo from Monterey Bay of a humpback whale that accidentally scooped up a sea lion while lunge feeding went viral. This would have been taken about the same time we were there. All the experts claimed how unusual it was to see this. But after watching how closely the humpbacks and sea lions fished together, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/07/humpback-whale-sea-lion-mouth-photo/

Please do not use any photographs without permission. Contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com

 

This gallery contains 33 photos

Elephant Seals Rough-housing!

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Elephant Seals Rough-housing!
Pescadero, CA
7/22/19

Eliza (my niece) and I went to Ano Nuevo State Park, Pescadero, CA, to check on any elephant seals that might be there. July is when the males arrive onshore to molt. The females are currently feeding far out to sea; they molt in the spring.

I warned Eliza that all we might see were big inert lumps of furry blubber lying on the beach. Like sacks of sand. Not very exciting really. But we were pleasantly surprised to find plenty of action. Juvenile and mature males were engaged in play fighting. Quite entertaining! There were brawls both in and out of the water with lots of strange guttural gurgles, grunts and groans. With their fur coming off, some of the molting seals looked like characters from “The Walking Dead.” Hollywood make-up artists take note.

Observe the difference in the size of their noses. For elephant seals, size matters when it comes to their schnoz. During breeding season in the fall, the fighting will no longer be play and will draw blood as they fight over who gets to rule the harem.

On our way out to see the seals (a 1.5 mile hike), a docent at the small “staging area” cabin pointed out several mud-constructed cliff swallows nests. Parents were flying back and forth with insect meals for the growing chicks. We also witnessed a mother California quail with her large brood of chicks crossing the trail in front of us. At first we saw 2 or 3 babies, then 6 or 7, then 9, 10, 11! A male, possible the father of this group, was acting as sentry atop a bush, looking for predators. Fortunately, we didn’t qualify. There was also constant bird traffic traveling between the small fresh water pond and the ocean. Streams of brown pelican flew overhead. The most unusual sighting was a San Francisco garter snake, retracting into the grassy meadow, with a mouse in its mouth!

 

This gallery contains 26 photos

Meet the Timema!

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(I haven’t posted a blog in a while because an update/upgrade caused problems in editing this blog. We figure out how to fix it this morning.)

Meet the Timema!

It’s not every day that I see an insect from a genus that was previously unknown to me. The Timema, or short-bodied walking stick! I know about regular walking sticks, the long-bodied wingless insect that looks just like it’s name, an imitation stick with six legs. But the existence of the Timema was a revelation.

One foggy morning, a few weeks ago, I wandered onto our back deck, a small platform 10 feet off the ground abutting one of our massive redwood trees. On the white door was a large – not huge but noticeable, maybe 2” – green wingless insect. On closer examination, it was actually two insects, one riding the back of the other.

I was flummoxed; what could this creature be? It was not like anything I had seen before. Because it was wingless and most (but not all) adult insects have wings, I guessed they were immature/nymph stage insects. Maybe a grasshopper or katydid. But they lacked those large back jumping legs. And why were they different sizes? The critter on top was considerably smaller than the one on the bottom.

Chris and I both grabbed cameras for a photo shoot before they skedaddled back to whence they came. The white of the door frame nicely contrasted them like a “photo ark” image by Joel Sartore. Photo Ark

I posted the photos on Facebook, hoping to crowd source an identification. I also sent an inquiry to a website: whatsthatbug.com. A friend sent my Facebook post to her entomology buddies, The Bug Chicks, at Texas A & M University. I heard back from the Chicks and the website about the same time; they both said I had the fortune to witness (and photograph) the elusive timema. Who knew these critters lurked in the redwood forest surrounding my home all this time? What other mysterious beings are out there?

To make it more interesting, these were a mating pair, probably post-coitus. After sex the smaller male rides on top of the larger female for as long as five days! This is called “mate guarding.” For an amusing human reenactment of this unique walking stick behavior, see this video by The Bug Chicks. https://vimeo.com/59447990. Also, its interesting to note that many Timemas are parthenogenetic, meaning females can reproduce without male participation by making clones of themselves instead. Neat trick!

Timemas live in the far western United States, mostly in California. There are many kinds, each with a favored host plant. There are timemas on redwoods, oaks, douglas firs, manzanitas, and other trees. Some are green and others are tan, brown or gray, whatever color camouflages them best for their chosen lifestyle. Mine were very green and very possibly redwood specialists. I feel blessed to have seen this mating pair, since I could easily have gone a lifetime without even knowing they existed.

(By the way, can anyone tell me how timema is pronounced? Which syllable is accented? Long or short vowels?)

Please help us restore balance to our beleaguered planet so our many amazing and varied inhabitants – like timemas – can continue to thrive!

Have you ever seen a timema?

This gallery contains 2 photos

The Dream of Montana

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The Dream of Montana
May 2019

It is an odd, if common, experience to hop on a plane and be suddenly deposited in a different environment. These airplane trips feel like time travel or like being beamed somewhere, Star Trek-style, creating a strange disruption in my normal sense of continuity. Flying is a slow version of being de-materializing in one place and re-materializing in another. It seemed as if part of me remained in California, asleep, awaiting my return from a dream.

The Montana dream happened because I was attending a meditation retreat. The unfamiliar beauty of the place along with days of silence and the hours of meditation contributed to the dream-like feeling. We met at a Lutheran camp on the shores of Flathead Lake, held in the arms of the surrounding forests and lapping waters.

Before arriving at the camp, I met up with three others in Kalispell for a ride to the retreat. The weather was cool, rain falling unpredictably, randomly. Clouds hung low as if becoming too heavy to float. We first visited a Tibetan Buddhist center called “Garden of a 1,000 Buddhas.” It had a great mandala garden with a Tara statue at the center. Spokes radiated outward lined with identical white Buddhas side by side. The enclosing wall was topped with small stupas, each with a Tara inside, perhaps a thousand of them as well. This was the dream, the vision, of a Tibetan lama, come to realization in this wide grassy valley in a tiny town in remote northern Montana. (As lovely as this was, I prefer the shrine of Wild Nature – snow covered peaks, for example.)

Our cabin at the retreat (mine and two other women) was perched on a bluff facing south across the lake. A large picture window and outside benches drew us back again and again to the spacious view. It was pure luck that I had signed up for this particular cabin, the one with the most spectacular vista.

Each day during breaks between the scheduled sessions, I wandered the property, exploring the aromatic Douglas fir and pine woods with my senses and camera. I was still on the hunt for spring wildflowers, still inspired by the abundant blooms recently seen in California. There were arrowleaf balsamroot, arnica, Oregon grape, penstemon, paintbrush and others adorning the forest floor.

Gradually smoke from wildfires in Alberta made the features hazy, dissolving mountains and lake into something more like the sky, something more like a dream.

Please do not reproduce any photographs or videos without permission. If you are interested in purchasing a photograph, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.

This gallery contains 45 photos

Pinnacles National Park: California Wildflowers and Condors

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Pinnacles National Park: California Wildflowers and Condors
April 29-May 2, 2019

After witnessing the splendor of Carrizo Plain National Monument’s superbloom in March, I was determined to get back to enjoy more flowers. But by the time I had a few days available to make the trip, the superbloom had passed. I will have to wait until the next one, which could be next year or in 10 years or ?

Fortunately, the regular spring wildflower season wasn’t over and I could go somewhere closer to home to find them, possibly Pinnacles National Park, Henry Coe State Park or Mercey Hot Springs. These are not places of superblooms but good choices for reliable yearly wildflowers. I decided on Pinnacles, only two hours away. I’d been there once before on an unpleasantly crowded weekend. This trip, I was arriving on a Monday. Pinnacles is also home to condors, a bird I’ve long wanted to see.

Arriving without a reservation, I was still able to find a good campsite, #59. It was spacious, shaded by oaks, with a small stream running through it. California quail, acorn woodpeckers, juncos, scrub jays, spotted towhees, gray squirrels and ground squirrels made frequent visits. After one hike, I sat quietly for a long time, watching the various animals come and go, sometimes photographing them. On the last night, raccoons decorated my car with muddy footprints. The only downside to this spot was that it was near group campsites where boisterous excitable teenagers had gathered for an outdoor adventure.

My first full day was cool and cloudy, perfect for hiking and photographing flowers. After getting a suggestion from a park ranger, I hiked five miles round-trip on the Old Pinnacles Trail. It was a leg punishing day, not because the trail was long or steep but because photographing flowers meant I was constantly doing deep knee bends while caring weights (cameras, telephoto lens, water, lunch). It was six hours of walk 15 feet, deep knee bend, walk 15 feet, deep knee bend, walk 15 feet, deep knee bend.

The next day I went on a shorter, steeper hike, the Condor Gulch Trail from the trailhead to the Overlook, only two miles round-trip. At the Overlook I met a couple from Walnut Creek and a young American woman living in Tel Aviv. We ate lunch together, sharing stories about nature and birds. (It turns out that Israel is a great birding destination.) The couple had seen condors the evening before from the campground and explained where to meet at sunset to see them again.

After lunch I meandered a little farther on the trail, admiring in silence the towering cliffs and volcanic rock formations. Turkey vultures flew in and out of view above the tallest pinnacles. Then I saw it. A soaring bird much larger than the vultures with white on its underside. A condor! It only appeared for a few seconds. I grabbed my bridge camera with its 600mm zoom (my good telephoto lens was still in my pack.) It appeared again for a few seconds and I took some quick, what I call, panic shots. It disappeared again. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. My good camera poised for action. Eventually I gave up and put the camera down to pack up for the hike home. At that moment two condors soared right overhead, like low-flying aircraft, darkening the sky with their nearly ten foot wingspan.

There are only 160 condors in all of California and about 27 are in Pinnacles. As you probably know, during the 20th century, their population was decimated by poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction. The few remaining condors were captured and became a part of a captive breeding project. In the 1990’s, they began to be introduced back into the wild.

Back at the campground that evening, I joined others at sunset to watch the arrival of condors taking advantage of the last updrafts from the sun’s dwindling heat. Above the hill behind the campground they soared acrobatically, being lit by the sun’s last rays.

This gallery contains 75 photos