Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

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

The Ongoing Saga of the Cormorant Colony

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If you followed my blog last year, you saw posts dedicated to the nesting, hatching and growth of a breeding colony of Brandt’s Cormorants in Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz, California.

Twice during the previous month, I visited the rock ledge they had inhabited last year. But no cormorants. Just a couple California gulls and a snowy egret. I was bereft, hoping they were okay wherever they had gone. I wondered why they had not returned here.

It took me a while to realize I had actually seen them in their new location. They are now on top of the famous rock outcropping at Natural Bridge’s Beach. It forms the last natural arch standing in the park. The “bridge” that connected the rock to the shore and for which the park is named, collapsed in the 1989 earthquake.

From the parking lot just outside the park entrance, there is a clear view to the new colony site. However, it is considerably farther away than my viewing spot last year. Fortunately, I now have a better camera and lens. So I hope the quality of my photographs is comparable to the past. Included here are a few long distance and close-up shots. Notice their bright blue throat patches and their straggly white whisker feathers on their back and neck.

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 8 photos

Egrets Everywhere

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Well, actually, they aren’t everywhere but I sure have seen a lot of them, both great egrets and snowy egrets, while living near the coast in California. Egrets – along with herons, pelicans and cranes – are good friends of the wildlife photographer. They are large, often remain still for long periods, are elegant in form and beautiful in flight. (Maybe pelicans aren’t exactly elegant but they are certainly appealing.) Most of the photos in this post have not been published before.

To see two other blog posts devoted to egrets, go to:
https://carlabrennan.com/2018/02/14/spearfishing-with-egrets/
https://carlabrennan.com/2015/12/07/angels-with-big-yellow-feet/

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 34 photos

Mostly Moss Landing

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Mostly Moss Landing

Below is a combination of photos from two trips in the last couple months to Moss Landing, CA. I would go there everyday if I could! Well, once a week anyway. Even though it is a busy place for humans with Highway One (traffic!), fishing, whale-watching vessels, tourist stops, restaurants and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, it is also a busy place for wildlife. Sea otters, sea lions, harbor seals and shore, wading and other birds. On one trip, there was a large raft of sea otters with several coming close to shore but almost no sea lions. The next time there were plenty of sea lions but few otters. Both times had shore birds and pelicans.

LONG-BILLED CURLEW
I have a series of four photos showing a curlew with a small clam between its beak which it consumes. What is interesting about this, is the clam seems to be suspended between the upper and lower mandibles by mucus. Does anyone know anything about this?

SEA OTTERS
As I said, there was a large raft of otters bobbing in the harbor. They were conveniently located near one of the dune lookouts. The otters were either resting – floating still with front paws in prayer position – or grooming themselves, or playing. One otter came close to shore (and to me) wading on its back in a few inches of water to energetically groom itself. It was difficult to choose which photos to included here. I had hundreds.

OTTERS ON LAND
Occasionally, but not often, an otter will come ashore and walk on all four. You can then see how thick and luxurious their furs is (for which they were hunted to near extinction.) They look like a bear with a small strange head. One such photo is included.

WOUNDED OTTER
I first saw this otter lying lifeless on the sand. Deep raw red gashes on its head and back were visible. I assumed it was dead. But when I looked back it was gone! I periodically caught glimpses of it swimming with the otter raft as if nothing was wrong. I am guessing it had an encounter with either a boat propeller or a shark. I don’t know if it has survived but I hope so.

I have also added a few photographs from other places that haven’t been shared on this post yet.

SALMON SHARK
I stumbled on a small dead shark entangled in kelp, maybe 3 feet long from tip to tip; I thought it could be a young great white shark. Many juvenile sharks were sighted this summer in the Monterey Bay area. After internet searching, I identified it was a salmon shark. A species previously unknown to me. It is a close relative of the great white and looks very similar, but smaller with a few minor coloration distinctions. As its name implies, it likes salmon and therefore is less likely to mistake humans as prey.

WANDERING TATTLER
This lonely bird was wandering the shore at Scotts Creek in Davenport. A first I thought it was a willet, but its yellow legs indicated it was something else. Bird books, apps and internet searching led me to the wandering tattler, another new bird for my life list. They winter and migrate through California.

 

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 64 photos

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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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.

Please do not reproduce photographs without permission.

This gallery contains 25 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.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without my permission. Thank you!

 

This gallery contains 22 photos