Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

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

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

The Mendonoma Coast

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I am in Gualala writing this. After the coming week here I will no doubt have a slew of photos to share. This post includes some of the backlog of images from previous trips in September and November.

The term “Mendonoma” is the marriage of Mendocino and Sonoma counties; together they possess a long stretch of stunning seascapes. I am guessing this word was thought up as a publicity gimmick for tourism but it makes sense to pair these counties since they share a similar geography. On our regular trips to Gualala we travel Highway One from Bodega Bay in Sonoma through Jenner to Gualala which sits on the county line between the two. While here, we often take trips north to beaches or towns such as Bowling Ball Beach, Point Arena and the town of Mendocino. So the so-called Mendonoma Coast is our regular playground.

The most exciting event was when gray whales came into Gualala Bay in September and swam by the cliffs just below us. We happened to be home and I had my tripod and camera already set up on the deck. It was thrilling to watch them spout and swim from from the comfort of the house. Whale photographs, unless the beasts are breaching or diving are not very interesting (gray humps) but I included several to prove how close they were.

The next most exciting experience was successfully taking long exposure photographs of the Milky Way (and Mars). These were taken from a different deck on the house. The camera is much more sensitive than the naked eye so many, many more more stars appear in the photograph than we can actually see. I am gradually learning to become better at astrophotography and will continue to experiment.

Some of the birds included – the peregrine falcon, common mergansers, and green heron – were photographed during a kayak trip on the Gualala River. On one side of the river is Sonoma County and on the other, Mendocino, so this was a true Mendonoma experience. It was windy that day, as it had been all week. You can see the fluffing up of the falcon feathers from the stiff breeze in the tall tree. The mergansers were hunkered down to withstand the wind. Fortunately, I didn’t have to kayak far inland to be out of the coastal breeze (otherwise kayaking would have been a nightmare.) When I saw the green heron, the air was light.

There is a bald eagle pair who live in the Gualala area. The photograph included appears to be in a wild and remote place but it was actually only a block from “downtown” Gualala.

A few words about beach hoppers, Megalorchestia corniculata. Although they are common they are nocturnal so you don’t usually see them. I got to Bowling Ball Beach one morning before the sun had risen over the cliffs and these little beach-dwelling shrimp-relatives were busy sparring with each other and going in and out of their burrows. They would soon disappear for the day. Their bodies are about an inch long.

I am experimenting with black and white photography and have included a few examples here. This opens up a whole new vision for places and subjects I’ve photographed many times before.

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 38 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

Our Local Underwater Treasure: Monterey Bay Aquarium

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Well, it’s that time of year again! No, not the holidays but the annual free week for locals at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, CA. This past week I made three trips. Although I am a “local” I live at the northernmost reaches of the tri-county free zone. With good traffic (and often it isn’t) it takes over an hour to get there. Parking can be a challenge, too. On my last trip I became an aquarium member. Now I have unlimited access to the aquarium. (Why haven’t I done this before?)

I was glad so many children were being exposed to these creatures and informational interactive exhibits. Future marine biologists and environmentalists in the making! But it did create an experience that is something like a theme-park playground gone mad. Strollers everywhere, overstimulated and overexcited children running amok, some having full-blown meltdowns.

By the third trip, I had refined some of my photo technique. For example, I soon learned that tanks with curve surfaces we’re hopeless, At least with my current cameras. To the naked eye the contents looked clear, but to the camera it was blurry. I fumbled with my camera settings and would occasionally hit it just right, getting the correct mix of ISO, shutter and aperture. Low light is one of the biggest camera bedevilments. I lugged around two large cameras and my purse, all dangling from my neck. It was clumsy and burdensome but still I persevered. And enjoyed myself immensely.

What is my favorite exhibit? Hard to say. The “Open Sea” may be the winner. It’s an enormous tank with a 90 foot window facing a large darkened amphitheater. Light rays penetrate the water from above and sea creatures circle the tank, some leisurely and others quickly, coming in and out of view. Huge sea turtles, molas (AKA sunfish), schools of tuna and sardines, hammerhead sharks, rays. The background ambient music helps lull one into an otherworldly trance. They have scheduled feeding times and lectures about the inhabitants but I avoid these since it becomes a dense mob scene. The only downside for me is the difficulty in getting good photos under the dark conditions and through the very thick glass. Occasionally a photo stands out.

The jellies are, of course, a favorite for everyone. They also offer a soothing ethereal beauty that can calm even the most distracted, agitated mind. The exhibit is much easier to photograph so it offers that satisfaction, too. By the way, some of my photos I printed upside down. Contrary to popular assumptions, the jellies are more likely to be floating with their umbrella body heading downward and their tentacles upward. At least that’s true in these enclosed tanks.

The kelp forest tank is another place to just rest and observe. The sway of the kelp fronds, the scattering of light like in an earthbound forest, and the circling of sharks, sea bass, garibaldis, and sardines are mesmerizing.

I am partial to cephalopods making the “Tentacles” exhibit is a favorite, too. Many of the cephalopods like to hide in dark crevices so you can go through the exhibits and not see all the inhabitants. To augment the living creatures they include cephalopod themed art, videos and interactive exhibits. This time, one of the large octopuses was in full view. And it preformed magic right in front of us. Within a blink of an eye (I just looked down at my camera for a second,) it transformed itself from a fleshy pale stone color to a brilliant scarlet red. How fabulous is that! Wouldn’t you like to be able to morph into your own color scheme? Maybe if we could change into literally all hues of the rainbow at will, we would get past our limited thinking about race.

The Baja exhibit has three special residents: Green moray eels, garden eels and seahorses. There are also many tanks throughout the aquarium with tropical fish. The one with clown fish and blue tang fish brought delighted screeches from children: “Dory!” “Nemo!”

The otters, penguins and puffins we’re also engaging, of course. I haven’t even thoroughly gone through all the aquarium photos or the post-production work yet but you will get a good taste (mostly salty!) of what can be seen at the aquarium from these.

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 43 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