Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

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

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

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

New England Earth and Sky

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New England Earth and Sky
August 2018

In mid August, Chris and I flew to New England. It was my first major trip since surgery in May and June. What caught my eye most on the visit were the skies. So different from Central California where there is usually little weather drama.

On our first day there, staying by the beach in Hampton, NH, a large storm system passed through. We got completely drenched as we rushed back home from a walk. I had to use the freely distributed doggy-poop bags to cover my camera.

The bold contrasts in the sky – the dark brooding clouds and areas of bright light – were enthralling. They communicated potential danger, seething and simmering with potent energy and the threat of fury.

Most of the other photos are a smattering of sightings or experiences. Birds, flowers, mushrooms, kayaking. I regret not having had more time to hunt mushrooms. After the storms and the ensuing heat that first week, the forest was erupting in fungus.

Included are also shots of a small lake in Granby, MA, where a friend took me to swim. The prevalence of lakes, ponds, and creeks in New England is something I sorely miss in California. Swimming in the late summer in a pond in the woods when the water is mild and refreshing is possibly the height of pleasure in nature. Just before we left to get to the car before dusk, a trio of barred owls called to each other across the water.

For the last few years, I have been in New England during the holidays or spring so I was delighted to be there in August when everything was lush and the summer explosion of biomass was at its peak.

I also can’t pass up photographing my buddies, the cormorants. We were staying right on the water so resting cormorants were a common sight. These were double-crested cormorants.
Please do not reproduce any photographs or videos without permission. If are interested in purchasing a photograph, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com

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This gallery contains 32 photos