Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .


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The Squirrels of Santa Cruz County

The Squirrels of Santa Cruz
2021

In the redwood forest where I used to live, the only squirrels living there were Western Gray Squirrels (which pretty much look like Eastern Gray Squirrels.) End of story about squirrels in Santa Cruz County, right? . . . well, actually, no. When I photographed the squirrel below in a park in more urban Santa Cruz, I thought, “What the hell? That’s not a gray squirrel! What is it?” After a little research, I found that in urbanized Santa Cruz you are more likely to see an introduced Fox Squirrel or Eastern Gray Squirrel, both from the Eastern US. I guess squirrels like California, too.

Fox Squirrel

Western Gray Squirrel


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Hummingbird King of the Garden

Hummingbird King of the Garden
Summer 2021
Santa Cruz, CA

For the last few months, a male Anna’s Hummingbird has reigned over our little flower garden. He has several shady spots where he rests between bouts of sipping nectar or chasing other hummers. If a hummingbird dares to trespass into his home territory, the Little King – with incredible swiftness and precision – vanquishes the intruder with an aerial chase that includes great whirring of wings and noisy chatter.

One of his favorite spots to sit and patrol the garden is on the lower branches of the apple tree. I also sit under that tree about 6-8 feet from him and we enjoy sharing the space and observing the flowers together. Sometimes he sits silently while other times he emits an energetic series of delicate chirps. Overall the Little King is a chatty bird and I can usually find him if I wait and listening for his voice.

But this week he has disappeared. I feel bereft; before I could always count on his presence. I listen for his cheerful twittering but hear nothing. A female Anna’s has started showing up regularly but she seems to call somewhere else home.

Has he moved on? To greener, more flowery pastures? Has something happened to him? He seems too fast and agile to be captured by a neighborhood cat or a marauding Cooper’s hawk. But they are known to prey on hummers.

During these months of sharing the garden with the Little King, I’ve patiently sat with my camera in my lap, hoping to capture those moments when his head feathers flash red-pink. As David Allen Sibley says, “the iridescent colors of the throat of a male hummingbird are among the most refined and spectacular colors in all of nature.” Only when the light and the viewing angle are right, do the colors light up, and often for only seconds as the bird ceaselessly moves from flower to flower. Otherwise his head and throat appear deep black.

Below is a sampling of photographs of the Hummingbird King as well as the new gray-green female visitor. In one photo of the female, you can see the rarely viewed small patch of red-pink on her throat.

Please do not use photographs without permission. To inquire about permission, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.


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Catch of the Day – August 14, 2021

Catch of the Day – August 14, 2021
Santa Cruz, CA

This was both a photographic capture for me and a food capture for the western scrub jay I was watching. The jay flew into the apple tree beside me carrying something that looked like an animal part. The bird – in full scavenger mode – picked at it, searching for any tasty morsels that might be left. Eventually, I recognized its catch as the desiccated, ragged remains of a mouse. Probably the leftovers from one of the neighborhood cats. It was a bit gruesome but then nothing goes to waste in nature. Once again, you never know what you will see when you sit quietly in nature.

Earlier I had been watching (and photographing) the jay as it perched on the neighbor’s fence. Strangely, it looked like it was quietly muttering to itself, slightly opening and closing its beak and turning its head side to side. Then I realized it actually WAS muttering to itself, making a barely audible sound I had never heard from a jay. Soft chirpy, melodic, fluent notes that reminded me of a mockingbird on low volume. Later it would speak up with the more typical, loud jay “SQWAWK!”

Please do not use photographs without permission. To inquire about permission, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.


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Cormorant Home Improvement Project

Cormorant Home Improvement Project
Point Lobos State Park
Carmel, CA
Spring/Summer 2021

If you have the patience, Brandt’s cormorant colonies are entertaining to watch. In a simple and relaxed sort of way. Like a slowed down version of “Housewives of Point Lobos” where all the housewives (and househusbands) look alike and where not a lot happens. When it comes to nature, I guess I am easily entertained. I may stand around for an hour or two while most people spend only a minute and then move on to other sights.

One can watch the birds fly in and out. One parent keeps the eggs or nestlings warm, while the other is at sea fishing. The pairs, especially early in the season, frequently interact physically with what I call kissing and necking, where they engage their beaks and rub their necks together. Some can be seen in their comical breeding display dance and occasionally you can witness them mating. There are frequent squabbles between nesting neighbors and with the western gulls when they get too close. Eventually there is the egg-laying, hatching and quick growth of the chicks. The feeding of the chicks can look quite dramatic with the nestling forcing its entire head into the throat of the parent.

One of the most amusing activities to watch is the ritual of the male cormorants bringing new nesting material to the female on the nest. To our eyes, male and female cormorants look alike and they share most of the child rearing tasks. But the area where there is a division of labor is in nest building and maintenance (and egg laying, of course.) The male gathers the nesting components including seaweed, sticks and plants while the female arranges and glues them together using her own guano (poop). The nest needs constant upkeep for the duration of the laying of eggs and rearing of the young. The males can be seen wobbling along on their two big feet, wings open for balance, carrying material in their beaks. They then drop it in front of the female and she goes about integrating it into the nest. Sometimes both males and females will steal choice nesting items from other birds. This often leads to a ruckus and minor altercations.

Please do not use photographs without permission. To inquire about permission, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.


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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.

Please do not use photographs without permission. To inquire about permission, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.


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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.

Please do not use photographs without permission. To inquire about permission, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.


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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.

Please do not use photographs without permission. To inquire about permission, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.


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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.)

Please do not use photographs without permission. To inquire about permission, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.