Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

Watch My Cormorant Videos!

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July 13, 2018
Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz, CA

Here is something really exciting! (Well, maybe.) Videos! Chris has been hounding me to take videos as well as stills of the cormorants. I have been resisting this suggestion because filming videos represents a whole new creative CAN OF WORMS in terms of the skill, equipment and technique. I have enough on my hands with still photography.

But I finally gave in and spent the good part of two hours taking short videos of the cormorant activity using my same DSLR camera (Canon 70D) and telephoto lens (Tamron 150-600). It is a steep learning curve but, for better or worse, I may be hooked! Admittedly, a few years ago I entertained the idea of documentary film-making and have an idea of what I would like to produce. That would truly be a daunting task.

If you can’t play the videos, let me know, since this is my first time publishing my videos on my blog.

The videos are pretty jerky because the slightest movement is amplified in telephoto. Some of what I shot was on the tripod and some just handheld. The wind caused small movements in the camera even when it sat on the tripod. In photography, there is always new equipment to be had and if I do more videos, I will need a smoother moving head for the tripod. I already have my eye on a Manfrotto fluid head!

I also have to deal with sound which is a whole new world. What you mostly will hear is the ocean, wind, traffic, California gulls and voices of people nearby. The cormorants don’t make a lot of sound themselves. Maybe someday I will be able to multitask by narrating while video taping. I can also eventually learn to overlay sound.

Included here are videos of the cormorant colony on the cliff ledge as well as the juvenile gathering (creche) below on the beach. You will get a better sense of their active and interactive nature in these videos.

The cliff ledge colony. There are still a number of adults and chicks but the population has thinned a lot. There are even a few fuzzy, specked young. Several adults sit on nests but I don’t believe there are any eggs; maybe its just a good resting spot. The birds running, hopping, skipping, waddling and flapping wings are mostly juveniles. Some juveniles are taking very short excursions up into the cascade of ice plants. I guess they get to try their new wings and be safely caught by the tangled mat of plants. You will also see a favorite cormorant activity: stealing nesting material from others. You may also see them “projectile pooping.” Male and female cormorants are identical.

The creche. The main spectacle here was the adults feeding the juveniles. There are several scenes of parents feeding young and even more examples of juveniles hassling and chasing parents to feed them or feed them more. The young will beg by pecking at the parents beak to stimulate regurgitation. The parents give the impression this whole process is unpleasant, they are worn out and vaguely annoyed by their children (a familiar feeling?) Once they feed an offspring they usually indifferently waddle right back into the waves. This must be a lot of work for them, catching enough fish for both themselves and these adult-sized offspring. You can tell which are the adults because they are black all over and have a small white throat patch with occasional flashes of blue. The immature cormorants have a rich chocolate brown front. There was also a lot of coming and going of juveniles in and out of the water and some were flying successfully.

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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