Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

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Colonies of Nesting Cormorants

Colonies of Nesting Cormorants
April 2018

I’ve been periodically visiting two nesting colonies of two different species of cormorants: Brandt’s and Pelagic. There is a third species found in our area – the Double-crested Cormorant – but I haven’t seen many around here and I certainly have not seen their nests. (See photos of them from Morro Bay: Each species has their own preference for nest location and material.

Brandt’s Cormorant. They nest close together on rocky islands or headlands, often on the flat top of a rock face. On my most recent visit, most of the nests were completed with one parent sitting patiently on top as if incubating. When I was there in February, the cormorants were just standing around small disorganized piles of seagrass waiting to steal some from an absent neighbor.

I did catch a pair in the act of mating. (See below.) Another cormorant was vigorously doing it’s mating display. (Head up, tail up, wings up and curled.) So I guess this means that some birds were not yet impregnated. I had hoped to get a glimpse of eggs but either they haven’t been laid yet or were obscured by the sitting bird. There are about 25 nests.

Despite the wild and remote look of this nesting site, it is actually just below a parking lot and scenic lookout. I took the photos from a heavily used sidewalk next to a road and houses.

Brandt’s Cormorants are most easily identified by their bright blue breeding throat patch. They also have a few spindly white feathers on their back and cheeks. (Here they are in February:

Pelagic Cormorant. Despite their name, these cormorants aren’t pelagic. (Pelagic means living on the open sea.) They are instead coastal, staying on shore, beaches, and cliffs. Their preferred nesting sites are on vertical cliffs overlooking the ocean. These cliffs have tiny, tiny ledges to build nests on. A very precarious place to bring up babies I would think. The upside to this arrangement is that no cautious predator can get to them. There are not as many Pelagic Cormorants here as I have seen in past years, but a few pairs appeared to be developing nests. My telephoto lens was at its max to get these photos.

Pelagic Cormorants are most easily identified by their red face and the white patches on their lower back. Their seemingly black bodies have a touch of green iridescence.

Video. You might want to watch this Nat Geo video of a cormorant pulling off remora from a whale shark in Mexico!

Please do not reproduce any photographs without Carla’s permission.


2017 Wildflower Bouquet #2

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Here are some of the wildflowers I have stumbled upon in Santa Cruz County during the last month. Two of the flowers were new to me, the musk monkeyflower and the delightful stream orchid. The aptly-named orchid I discovered blooming along the banks of the San Lorenzo River in Henry Cowell State Park. I had to crouch in the river (in my bathing suit) to get the shot.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):

This gallery contains 27 photos

2017 Wildflower Photo Bouquet #1

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Here are some highlights from this year’s spring bounty of wildflowers. The most spectacular display has already been posted from the Carrizo Plain superbloom in March 2017. Go to:

The photos in this post are from much closer to home in Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. By now, I know where and approximately when to find specific flowers, although there is some variation year to year. I may not see the same individual, but I am likely to discover an offspring.

BTW, I’ve given up trying to identify which wild iris is which. This area is home to a variety of native and endemic showy irises. Some iris species can vary widely in color, from pale yellow to to deep purple, making identification confusing. And, honestly, I haven’t buckled down to learn the distinguishing characteristics. In the past, I tended to call everything a “Douglas iris” but they could also be a native Fernald’s iris, Central Coast iris, bowltube iris, or one of the invasive non-native species. So now an iris will just be called “iris.”

Many of the flowers and other plants in California are non-natives brought here by the early Spanish explorers, ranchers, farmers and gardeners. Some native species, especially grasses, have been pushes aside, becoming rarer to find. I have indicated which of the plants I’ve photographed are non-native.

I stumbled upon a few flowers new to me this year (or at least I don’t remember them): Elegant Cat’s Ear (mariposa), California Milkwort, Prettyface, White Brodiaea and Yellow Glandweed. And I love that crazy reed with the strange reproductive organs as well as those berries with thorns.

More flower photographs are likely to come. June and the summer months bring a host of additional blooms. However, sadly, the biggest display is probably behind us for this year (except at high elevations!).

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):

This gallery contains 59 photos

Don’t Hurt the Mushrooms!

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I walk through the forest for exercise and the feeling of aliveness in my body, to breathe in the refreshing exhalations of the trees, and to see what might reveal itself to me. After the rains begin in the fall, I also look for mushrooms and related fungi. Hiking in the Pine Flats area of Henry Cowell State Park last November, I wandered down a side trail encouraged by some mushrooms I spotted near the path’s beginning. However, I soon discovered that someone had recently stomped on every mushroom that grew on the side of the trail. The only people I saw were a man and his perhaps 10-year-old son. Were they the mushroom mashers?

Sadly, this is not uncommon.

I recall as a child being with other children who had been told that mushrooms were “bad” and should be destroyed. This was unfathomable and disturbing to me. I suspect this is still being taught. Mushrooms are associated with death and decay. A few are, of course, poisonous and can kill, others cause illness and hallucinations. But these are rare and easy to avoid. Cars kill and houseplants can poison; do we stamp those out? Mycophobia is the fear of fungus and, like all irrational fears, is based on what is perceived as unknown, out of our control and vaguely threatening. But mushrooms and the fungal world are truly our friends; they keep the world in balance.

My grandfather shared his love of mushrooms, teaching his grandchildren how to make spore prints to help with identification. He had books about mushrooms and a collection of his own photographs. Although I like being able to accurately identify mushrooms (and wildflowers and birds, etc.), I am actually most excited by the treasure hunt of finding them. The reward is in the surprise, the beauty and the unearned gift of witnessing an ephemeral wild thing.

I rarely pick mushrooms anymore and usually do so only if I plan to consume it. There are several species that are hard to get wrong and are reliably good to eat. But mostly I leave the prize edibles, the uniquely beautiful mushrooms and the commonplace ones alone, sometimes creating a record of our encounter through photography.

The true living organism of the fungi – the mycelium: all those white threads found throughout healthy soil – are the veins, lungs and nervous system of the forest. (The mushrooms are the fruiting body like an apple on a much larger tree.) There is generous exchange between the trees that create sugars from photosynthesis and the mycelium that transport minerals and fluids. They provide inter-plant communication and distribute the wealth of resources. This intricate web of tiny fungal fibers is so extensive that in a cubic inch of soil there can be eight miles of these cells. It’s called the “Wood Wide Web.” Listen to Radiolab, “From Tree to Shining Tree”

Did you know that fungi are more closely related genetically to animals than plants? Once considered part of the plant world (which is what I was taught in school) they now have their own separate kingdom.
Watch this TED talk, “Six Ways that Mushrooms Can Save the World.”

So please do not harm the mushrooms. If not for the mushroom’s sake in its attempt to reproduce, then for the nature lovers who share these trails with you. Each time a mushroom is spotted, respect its essential role in the forest and its rare appearance like an exquisite wildflower.

All mushroom photographs were taken in the Santa Cruz Mountains in Santa Cruz County, CA between November 2016 and March 2017. Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):

This gallery contains 49 photos

Carrizo Plain National Monument – March 2017


Carrizo Plain National Monument, CA
March 2017

The main event was yellow. Pale yellows, golden yellows, lemon yellows, schoolbus yellows. Acres of yellow carpeted the wide flat plain, yellow crowned the foothills, yellow stretched up the mountain sides, yellow was underfoot everywhere. It reminded me of the spectacular autumnal display of yellow aspens in the Rockies and Sierras but here there are no trees, the color flows along the ground.

The next color in competition was green. There were at least fifty shades of green (and much sexier than gray.) It was our first trip to Carrizo Plain but I knew that green is not its usual color. Most of the year it is dry, dusty and brown. It is semi-arid natural grassland (the last great stretch of it in California) and the annual rainfall is only 9 inches per year.

Other shades of the rainbow were blooming too, if you looked closely. Purples made a show of it and highlighted the yellows. One hillside was painted sky blue with baby blue eyes. Pinks, oranges and whites were scattered about. Below the taller plants, tiny many-colored flowers vied for their place in the sun close to the earth.

After an exceptional season of rain and previous years of drought, it is a superbloom of tremendous proportions. In the Santa Cruz Mountains where I live, this rain brought down trees and power lines, washed out roads and triggered land, mud, and rockslides. We are gradually cleaning up the mess and rebuilding our roads. But in the deserts in central and southern California these rains created great masses of flowering plants. The most stunning superblooms are supposedly in the deserts much farther south, but we could only fit in the four hour drive to Carrizo Plain.

I was in my bliss and glory among the blossoms!

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):

This gallery contains 46 photos

DAYS 131-133 Lake Texana, Texas


February 6-8, 2013

When we arrived at Lake Texana State Park we discovered it is no longer a state park but now run by a separate non-profit. This meant our Texas State Park pass (which offered significant savings every time we used it) wasn’t applicable. Since it was late, we decided to stay anyway. I asked if there were alligators in the lake. “Ah . . . . yup,” said the ranger, hesitating a bit, perhaps not wanting to scare us off. The maintenance worker nearby perked up and said, “Yeah. I saw two last week!” This was going to be our first experience with alligator infested waters! They had warning signs around the lake, cautioning against harassing or feeding the gators. We had no intention of doing either.

On our way there from Goose Island, we were waylaid for an hour or so by a torrential rain and electrical storm in Rockland, TX. We lost visibility for driving. Water ran down the windows in a solid sheet. Rainfall was so heavy that we would have gotten immediately soaked if we opened our doors to find rain gear in the back. The wind blew hard, projecting the rain into stinging, wet pellets.

We finally made a break for it into a coffee shop. Connected to the cafe was a talkative photographer and his studio; he was selling his images of Texas wildlife and local landmarks. We talked to him for quite a while and gathered information about the area and photography. He told us about The Crane House, a vacation rental nearby that abuts Aransas Wildlife Refuge. It is the best place to photograph whooping cranes since they wander through the property. You can set up your tripod outside on the deck of the house. As you might guess, reservations must be made many months in advance. Maybe we’ll try that on a future vacation.

The Texana Park was attractive with grassy expanses and spacious campsites, many along the shoreline. Chris didn’t like it, saying it looked like a manicured lawn, but I thought it was pleasant and inviting. When we opened the camper we found the rain had been driven inside and all the bedding was wet. It was no longer raining so we took everything out to dry in the blustery wind.

Here was another birder’s paradise, waterfowl circled the lake in groups. Wading birds of all kinds stood near the edge. The next day I launched my kayak with some trepidation. How safe is it to kayak with alligators? And in an inflatable boat? Boating and even swimming was allowed (at your own risk) so I figured it was okay.

At one end of the lake, dead trees and limbs reached out of the water. I thought I would go there since it looked interesting. As I approached, I saw a dark shape moving slowly through the water. Large eyes and the end of a snout were the only parts visible. But I knew it was an alligator and the soundtrack of “Jaws” sounded in my head as my heart started to pound. I stopped; it stopped. I paddled elsewhere. My first alligator!

I saw many birds. A brown pelican gave a big yawn with its oversized mouth and then stretched its strange elastic pouch toward the sky (see photos below). Two black vultures sat on the shore, watching everything with their gray crinkly heads. Great egrets, snowy egrets, great blue herons, white ibises, roseate spoonbills, glossy ibises, a white morph of a little blue heron. Terns dove in the water, cormorants swam like low riders, ducks and coots busied themselves with preening and eating. Although I took photos, a kayak being blown about by wind is not a good base.

I saw something large break the surface like a sea serpent, arching its large curved body, showing smooth, tan skin. I guessed that it was an alligator gar, a fish in these lakes that can reach ten feet. It was not an alligator, since gators are gray, with patterned skin, much of it rough with bony plates.

Among a carpet of floating plants, I saw two more alligators, motionless. At the other end of the lake across from our campsite, I kayaked into a a small cove. There was a moderate sized gator sunning itself, mostly out of water, on a log. I eyed two more milling about in the shallows nearby. Large turtles also basked in the warm light and cormorants spread and dried their wings perched on dead branches. I soon left the cove and returned, feeling uneasy but excited by meeting the big lizards of the swamp. Six alligators on my first trip!

Back at camp, I looked up the dangers of kayak-meets-alligator online. I guess I should have done that before paddling. Is it dangerous? Yes and no. When its still cool in winter and spring, they aren’t very active. It recommended not boating at dawn or dusk when alligators feed. Later in spring, when breeding starts, males can get territorial and lunge at anything that resembles another male; kayaks are a pretty good imitation. And in summer, mothers can be quite pugnacious defending their nest of eggs or little hatchlings. If alligators are fed they will approach people, sometimes aggressively, looking for food. Mostly, however, alligators don’t want much to do with people and their boats.

NOTE ONE: If you click on the ”WHERE WE ARE” link at the top right of this page, you will see where we are now (or within a few days of now.) I have also added some tantalizing photos of what is coming. If you have suggestions or recommendations of things to see or places to stay near where we are, please let me know! Leave a comment here or email me at

NOTE TWO: It’s great getting your comments. And you can also “Like” or comment on photographs. So if you feel inspired to say something, please do. It encourages me and makes me feel more connected to friends, family and even strangers.

This gallery contains 22 photos