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

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

Scenes from a Superbloom

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It rained a lot this winter. That’s what it’s supposed to do in the coastal redwood forest of Northern California near Santa Cruz. After seven years of drought, the last few years of close-to-normal precipitation have been a relief.

We don’t get superblooms here, just the expected spring flowers. Superblooms occur in arid areas that usually don’t have wet winters. I hadn’t been paying attention to the weather farther south so the news of a possible superbloom came to me late and I had to scramble to figure out how to fit in a trip. During the superbloom of 2017, Chris and I went to Carrizo Plain National Monument (CPNM). I was adamant about going again.

The deserts of Southern California, which have been in the news for their fabulous flower displays (and destructive crowds of people), are a 10-12 hour drive from here. But Carrizo Plain is a mere 4-5 hours.

We packed up the camper for a three night stay. The wildflower hotline said it was pre-peak at CPNM but I figured there would still be plenty to see. It was indeed stunning, a heavenly spectacle of color and verdancy. Yellows, followed by purples, dominated the hillsides and valley floor. Then came the oranges, blues, pinks and whites. Everything was held in a great embrace of green.

The first night we pulled off Soda Lake Road and bumped along a rough single lane dirt path into the hills where dispersed camping is allowed. We found a rise with an open view across the great plain to the Temblor Mountains to the east, with the Caliente Mountains lifting up behind us.

We saw little wildlife during this trip, only indirect evidence of it. The ground was pockmarked with the borrows of ground squirrels and other rodents with larger holes for foxes, coyotes and badgers. The holes were so numerous that walking became an obstacle course. The first evening, distracted by photography, I twisted an ankle in a dirt opening. I limped for a day or so and it is still a bit sore, two weeks later.

We saw only a few birds, mostly ravens and sage sparrows, and a couple jackrabbits. Walking with the midday sun, we kept an eye out for rattlesnakes, but none were spotted. The rodents remained invisible, even at dusk or dawn. At night I shone my flashlight across the ground, hoping to catch a busy nocturnal creature. But saw none.

We wanted to camp on the eastern side of the Monument which we had not done before, but several of the main roads across the valley plain were closed due to poor conditions. The CPNM Visitor Center directed us to cross over on Seven-Mile Road, just outside the park, to reach Elkhorn Rd. Seven-Mile Road turned out to be quite a treat on its own. The valley was covered with goldfields, hillside daisies, tidy tips and occasional phacelia.

Unbeknownst to me, this road also led to an iconic view (one I had only seen in photographs) where Highway 58 passes through the Tremblor Mountains. The hillsides glowed in gold with complementary patches of purple. Cars had pulled off the highway and lined the roads. Families trekked up a path to a fairyland of color. It was Sunday and it was crowded. After a few photographs we opted out on the hike and chose to continue south on Elkhorn to find a spot for the night.

We pulled off Elkhorn and had another vast view, this time facing west. Coyotes barked, yipped and howled at night and in the morning. Near us was a dry arroyo. I surmised this would be a good place to find flowers since it would have been wetter than the surrounding hillsides. It was indeed a wildflower haven. While the flowers in this part of the park were not so widespread to be seen from space (https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/california-super-bloom-space-trnd/index.html), they were abundant, delightful and diverse at close range. I saw varieties that were new to me such as desert candles, evening snow and blazing stars as well as familiar hillside daisies, phacelia, lupine, poppies, fiddlenecks, filaree, owl’s clover, cream cups, thistle sage and more.

The sky was sunny and cloudless the next two days. This sounds great, but it’s actually not ideal for photography. On the last morning I got up before sunrise so I could see the flowers and the terrain bathed in the subtle light of dawn.

Photographing wildflowers here also turned out to be grueling exercise for my legs. In addition to long walks, I was popping up and down constantly, doing deep knee bends, to reach the low to the ground treasures with my close-up macro lens. And I was always carrying weights, AKA two heavy cameras.

I longed to stay more days, go on more walks, find more and more unique flowers. But we had to leave. Before getting on the highway we stopped again at the pass through the Tremblor Mountains and this time I scaled the trail into the yellow rounded hills. I was alone and the view was breath-taking, pure magic.

I plan to go back but my schedule won’t allow it until the end of April. It will be post-peak then, but I imagine the late blooming varieties will still be showing off their fleeting, heart-breaking beauty.

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 72 photos

Snow!

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Snow!
February 5, 2019

Snow was predicted for last night above 1000 ft. in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Our house is at 1400 ft. so I woke up excited this morning to see what had fallen during the night. We only get snow here about every 5-10 years so this is a special event; the higher elevations have it a little more frequently.

There was a teensy bit of snow on our cars and in small patches on the ground. However, since the top of our mountain is at 2500 ft., I knew there would be more up there. I drove the two miles up Alba Road to Empire Grade in my trusty Subaru. Yes, it was a winter wonderland! There was only about an inch or so, but enough to turn the redwood forest into a beautiful lacy filigree.

Alba Road is not built for snow and ice; it is narrow, steep, winding, with drop-offs and no guard rails. And people here don’t know how to drive on snow and ice. I parked at the intersection and wandered a bit. A little Kia was parked behind me, also taking photos. When they tried to leave, their wheels just spun. I flexed my muscles getting ready to help push them out when they finally got traction and left.

I also watched several cars make the turn from Alba to Empire Grade a little too fast, fishtailing their way down the road, barely in control. One ignorant lad actually gunned the accelerator when reaching Empire Grade, causing an impressive sideways slide and coming to an eventual stop facing the wrong direction. There are no such things as snow tires or snow plows here. This reminded me of being in Amherst MA during the first fall snowfall when all the new foreign students at the University, who have never seen snow, try to drive.

It was gorgeous driving home: sun, snow, fog, dripping trees and god rays, all mixed together. After some breakfast (winter weather, makes you hungry!) I walked up and down the same two miles taking more photos. Better take advantage of this now; it will likely be another 5-10 years for the next opportunity.

I have always been a snow lover (except for the part when it’s all over the cars, roads, sidewalks, etc. And when it turns into ice.) Having snow today was like a visit from a dear old friend. One that leaves you with joy and inspiration before disappearing.

BTW, I did all of that while still in my pajamas. When there is SNOW, who has time to get dressed?

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 20 photos

UNEXPECTED ELEPHANT SEALS

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UNEXPECTED ELEPHANT SEALS
Photography from Ano Nuevo State Park, CA, Sunday Jan. 27, 2019

On Sunday the weather was splendid and Chris and I decided to go to the coast. Living among the big redwoods, especially in winter, can make the entire day seem dark, even when the sun shines. I suggested we go to Cove Beach at Ano Nuevo State Park. I thought we would forego the elephant seal colony that resides on a beach about a mile from the visitors center and instead meander to the closer Cove beach. You need a reservation to visit the seals and it was mid-afternoon by the time we got there. We were unlikely to get permission to make the walk to the colony.

But we were lucky to discover that six immature males (adolescents 1-4 years old and sub-adult males 4-7 years old) had fled the “designated” area and were lounging on Cove Beach instead. The designated area is roped off and monitored by docents while at Cove neither the seals nor the humans were supervised. A sign said to stay at least 25 feet from seals but it seemed I was the only one who had read it.

These young males had probably escaped the colony to get a reprieve from being harassed by the mature males. The occasional bands of curious humans that came close to them probably seemed benign compared to their older aggressive brethren. They lolled on the sand in massive blubbery lumps occasionally lifting their large heads and improbable proboscis noses to eye the two-legged strangers. As you will see, sometimes discerning the features of their head and faces amid the lumps and bulges was challenging. It can be hard to know what you are looking at. They can seem bizarre or as Chris said, “kind of gross.” The seals were huge, probably close to 10 feet or more in length.

One elephant seal found comfort in the coolness of a salt water pool formed by the last high tide. Most of the time, he looked dead, inert, and sleeping or a least resting with his head submerged. But periodically he would resurface and stretch, blow bubbles and yawn, creating strange and amusing poses.

Also included are two photos of common fossil rock strewn on the beach. They are Purisima Formations from the Pilocene period.

California elephant seals made the national news the same week I made this post. Here is a CBS newsclip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BeApgSmqth8

Here is a video Chris made of the bubble blowing elephant seal:

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 32 photos

Monarchs Bring Both Beauty and Sadness

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Monarchs Bring Both Beauty and Sadness

The over-wintering monarch butterflies this year are split between Natural Bridges and Lighthouse Field State Parks. My favorite spot is Lighthouse Field because it is easier to access and there are fewer people. Almost none, as a matter of fact. I am usually alone with my cameras, tripod, large trees and a few clumps of amassed monarchs dangling from eucalyptus or cedars branches.

Natural Bridges is the spot tourists, large families and busloads of children go to find butterflies. My first search for monarchs this year was on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Only a few butterflies were at the park but there plenty of people! I discovered that visiting the monarchs on Thanksgiving weekend has become a local family tradition. Turkey, pumpkin pie and monarchs.

An article about the decline of monarchs in Santa Cruz appeared recently in The Guardian (yes, the British daily newspaper.) They claim there is a 97% drop in the number of monarchs. I have certainly noticed fewer and fewer each year. It is another disturbing sign of climate change and loss of habitat. Read for more information:
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/dec/07/its-a-sad-reality-a-troubling-trend-sees-a-97-decline-in-monarch-butterflies

The following article just came out in National Geographic:
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2018/12/monarch-butterflies-risk-extinction-climate-change/

Lighthouse Field State Park is across from the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum and Steamer Lane, the most famous surfing spot in Santa Cruz. After photographing the butterflies, I usually walk to the ocean cliff edge and watch the congregation of surfers jostling for the best positions to catch the next big wave.

See previous posts on over-wintering monarchs:
https://carlabrennan.com/2018/02/06/vitamin-sea-and-butterflies-in-february/
https://carlabrennan.com/2016/11/07/the-butterflies-are-back/

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 18 photos