Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

Another Trip Up the Coast to Gualala, CA

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Another Trip Up the Coast to Gualala, CA
July 19-23, 2018

This was my first trip since my surgeries in May and June. I was eager to have time outdoors to sit under the big sky and breathe in wild air.

The first night we drove from Stanford, where I had an appointment, to Jenner along the ocean at the mouth of the Russian River. A friend had mentioned that there were a few good spots along Highway 1 where we could boondock (that is, stay for free.)

Sure enough, we found several small areas squeezed in between the road and the precipitous cliff edge. These pullouts are most often used by tourists to stop and gawk at the incredible views. But there wasn’t much of a view that night as the fog was too dense to see the beach below much less the vast ocean before us. There was only the 360° expanse of gray thick mist. We were still happy to be there for the night and settled into dinner and some reading. Before sunset the fog lifted just enough to tantalize us with a peek at the jagged rocks emerging from the ocean. Just minutes before they had been completely invisible.

In the morning the sky was still overcast and heavy but we could see the Russian River Estuary and beyond to Goat Rock. I will included a video of our view in Jenner from both our trip up and back in another post.

In Gualala, we stayed with Chris’s sister and brother-in-law, just relaxing and enjoying the perspective from their home on a high bluff above the Pacific. Turkey vultures, ravens and gulls soared at eye level with an occasional timid deer or California quail on the ground below. We drove to a few beaches looking for beachcombing or photographic treasures. Chris hoped to boogie board but the ocean was unusually flat with low lapping waves.

We headed for Jenner again on our way home, first stopping at Salt Point State Park and Fort Ross. Fort Ross is the remains of a 19th century Russian fort and settlement when this area was frequented by Russian hunters and trappers. To see more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Ross,_California

Below are a range of photos, including ocean views, a few persisting wildflowers, tafoni – the honeycomb sandstone erosion caused by sea and wind, languorous harbor seals, energetic pelicans and a few other discoveries. I will include several videos in another blog post.

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This gallery contains 72 photos

Last of the Wildflowers 2018

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Because of health issues, I missed much of the June wildflower season. Still I was able to capture a few over the past six weeks on several short walks and have included some of those flowers here. To see many more flowers, at this point, I would have to go to higher elevations in the Sierras but I don’t think I will make it there this summer.

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This gallery contains 65 photos

Another Day in the Life of Brandt’s Cormorants

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July 6, 2018.
West Cliff Drive, Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz, CA.

You may be getting tired of the ongoing saga of the cormorant nesting colony. But I am loving following their growth, life cycle and idiosyncratic behavior.

Much had change from the week before. The colony cliff site was noticeably less populated although there still were a few chicks, several adults sitting on nests and general activity. Last week there had been six juveniles standing on the beach below. This week I counted 35. These congregations of juveniles are called creches. The young birds were much more active than before.

Many were experimenting entering the water, swimming, diving, playing together, and then returning to land. Some were obviously inexperienced and got tossed and tumbled by the waves. As one juvenile walked out of the sea onto the sand it’s feet were hit by the next incoming wave and it was thrown completely backward into the foam.

I watched at least six adults climb out of the water to feed their young. Although they may have several offspring, only one is fed at a time. Sometimes a unrelated bird would start to beg for food but the adult would aggressively chase it away. These feedings are captured in a variety of photos below. Honestly, it makes me gag to watch them!

People walking by stopped and asked me what kind of birds they were. I pointed out the colony, the nests and the juveniles below. If you watched for only a few minutes, nothing special seemed to be happening. But, as is the case in nature, if you stay still, observe carefully and are patient you begin to see nuanced, amusing and unexpected behaviors.

Near the creche was a small ledge about 3 feet high on the cliff face. I called this the “practice ledge”. The juveniles would periodically attempt to fly onto the ledge. One bird tried twice only to fall back into the sand. Others were successful. There is no way these birds could make it back to their colony 30 feet above!

Many juveniles seemed interested in rearranging the seaweed on the beach. They would pick up pieces, drag them along and then deposit them elsewhere. Occasionally one would get a mouthful of seaweed and take it into the water. At other times one would come out of the water with a new fresh clump of seaweed. I am guessing this mimics nest building behavior. But they did not seem to know why they are doing it and were just entertaining themselves.

I was fortunate to watch a juvenile’s first launch from the colony. With his wings outspread, he not so much flew, but plummeted down the cliff, landing with an awkward “plop” into the waves below. He then began to swim furiously but was caught by the swells and currents and driven to some rocks offshore. The young bird scrambled onto a rock, probably relieved to find some terra firma again. Eventually a large wave knocked him into the water again and he found his way to shore to join the other juveniles in the creche.

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This gallery contains 25 photos

Cormorants 6-28-18

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Natural Bridges State Park, West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz
6-28-18

I got back to the Brandt’s cormorant colony today after a three week absence. I wasn’t sure how many young would still be there. Possibly some of the babies were finally mature enough to be on their own. But the colony was more crowded than ever and abuzz with activity. The oldest young we’re getting harder to distinguish from their parents.

Flight feathers were fully formed and many excitedly flapped their wings. Some birds ran through the colony with wings extended like overexcited toddlers racing through a crowd. I watched several birds play with and fight over a ziplock bag. A few adults still sat on nests; I don’t know if they were tending any eggs or tiny birds.

There was also a group of six juveniles standing together on the small beach 30 feet below. This is the first time I had seen any young birds separated from the group on the cliff. They seemed to have been evicted from the colony but still lacked the skill or confidence to be totally on their own. Periodically, one would venture out and step into the surf but then dash quickly back to the dry sandy ground as if they literally had cold feet. Soon most of their life would be spent diving and fishing in the frigid Pacific waters.

These six birds had graduated from being large adolescents – that are as tall as the parents but still awkward and goofy – to becoming what are called “juveniles.” If human, we might call them young adults. Their backs were now sleek and dark instead of fuzzy and speckled. Their fronts were taking on the deep bronze color of a juvenile; they would look like this for another year before turning into the solid iridescent black of an adult.

The parent of two of the juveniles walked out of the surf and was greeted eagerly by its offspring. It had brought lunch. Only one of the young was aggressive enough to get fed by plunging it’s entire head down the parent’s throat to receive the regurgitated fish. This group was like gang of older teenagers who should have been on their own but we’re still living in their parents basement mooching food.

This spot had an unusually strong, foul fishy smell which I assume was emanating from the colony.

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This gallery contains 22 photos

Babies Are Growing Fast!

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West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, CA, May 13 – June 1, 2018

The baby cormorants are exploding in size, seemingly overnight. There are a few small newly hatched chicks but most are nearly the height of their parents. They do not have flight feathers yet but they sure like to exercise their underdeveloped wings. Still covered in fuzzy gray feathers with some white spots they are quickly darkening in color and will soon be sleek. The rock ledge is crowded with families and most birds stand nearby, but not in, their now too small nests.

I also discovered two nesting California Gulls among the blooming iceplants just above the cormorants. I have yet to see any baby gulls. These gull are actually the biggest predator of cormorant eggs and small chicks. Now most chicks are larger than the gulls.

I will include photos from May 13, May 18, May 27 and June 1. You can see the striking difference in the size of the babies. In one photo from May 18 you will see a brown immature Brandt’s cormorant from last years brood. It’s the only juvenile I have seen while visiting this site.

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This gallery contains 22 photos

More Wildflowers; Spring 2018

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Wildflowers Spring 2018

Here is this year’s photographic crop of wildflowers that I have not yet posted. Most of these flowers were seen in open space on Skyline Blvd., Quail Hollow County Park, along Alba Road where I live, Mt. Madonna Retreat Center, and various other locations I found myself wandering with my camera.

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This gallery contains 89 photos

The Babies are Hatching!

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May 12, 2018, West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, CA

The eggs at the Brandt’s Cormorant colony are beginning to hatch! Gray, reptile looking chicks are showing their heads and begging for food. Many of the pairs are still incubating eggs. Both parents spend time on the eggs/ hatchlings. Photos a bit blurry, but you can see the babies.

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This gallery contains 12 photos