Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

Retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Leave a comment

NOTE: I have been remiss in posting my blog notes and photos for the last few months. I’ve been resorting to “quick and dirty” posting on Facebook on both my personal page and my more professional “Carla Brennan Photography” page. However, now that I have been sheltering-in-place for a few weeks, I am knuckling down to resume regular posts. I have no shortage of photographs to share.

When I wrote the first draft of this narrative in January, I did not know that my self-retreating skills would soon be put to good use while sheltering-in-place for the pandemic!

THE SELF-RETREAT

Santa Cruz Mountains, CA
December 2019

Every so often – but not often enough – I arrange a self-retreat, a period of time to be alone and silent. The days are spent following a loose schedule of meditation, exercise, meals and moseying about with my camera. This past December I spent four nights at a friend’s estate in the Santa Cruz Mountains while they were away.

For this self-retreat I tried something new. I shared the experience with a friend. We both contributed to preparing meals and we ate together in silence, only speaking to communicate practical concerns. We also meditated together several times a day. Otherwise, we kept our own schedules. We had separate but nearby rooms. Maybe this is new kind of retreat, a buddy-retreat instead of a self-retreat.

Despite forecasts for sun, it was overcast and rainy most of the week. Thick fog often obscured the surrounding mountains. This weather added to a mood of quiet introspection.

The property had beautiful gardens with small man-made ponds and pathways. Large and small sculptures, stonework and inviting seating areas were dispersed among the plantings. Despite the rain and chilliness, I wandered outdoors for a few hours each day. I did not hike, mind you, but only sauntered, as John Muir recommended, slowly and lovingly taking in the sights, smells and sounds of the sacred land in a leisurely manner.

This area of thoughtfully cultivated land is completely surrounded by wild redwood forest creating a feeling of remoteness and welcomed isolation, even though it was only a few miles from my home (as the raven flies) and even closer to the not-so-bustling center of downtown Ben Lomond. I felt delightfully removed from my ordinary life as if I were far away in a magical kingdom.

CALIFORNIA NEWTS
Each day, whether raining or not, I’d zigzag through the gardens of fruit trees and flowering plants. Several ponds, created for water storage and for beauty, dotted the landscape. Within these pools, California newts had begun their mating rituals, lazily floating in embracing pairs. This was engrossing to watch even though it was, for the most part, serene with little activity.

Occasionally there would be a sudden upheaval and disturbance. A third newt would approach a mating pair and attempt to takeover. I assume it was a male trying to win over mating rights with the female. Suddenly the three newts would become a writhing ball of hard-to-identify amphibious parts struggling for supremacy. Eventually one newt would leave and the pair would again settle into their gentle mating embrace, floating dreamily in the murky water. I never knew if it was the intruder or the original male who left.

Some newts had also taken to traveling across land through the forest so I had to be careful where I stepped. They were perhaps on their way to another pond to reproduce.

WATER STRIDERS
The other primary inhabitant of the ponds were water striders, those insects who magically glide on water, taking advantage of its natural surface tension. Being the large, clumsy creatures that we are, we rarely get to experience this feature of water. I tried to photograph the delicate balance of insect resting on water.

DROPS AND BUBBLES
I enjoy photographing water in all its many forms. The rain during the week left glistening beads of water on stems and leaves and flowers. I even found myself reflected in large bubbles created in ponds by droplets falling from trees.

OLIVES
Do you love olives? I do. I love eating them but I also love photographing them. I am enchanted to see them growing and ripening on their trees, something you don’t see, of course, in the Northeast where I am from. Olives do well in the climate here, with weather similar to their origins along the Mediterranean Sea. I now understand why olives are a popular motif in Southern European designs. I have, for example, a lovely French oilcloth tablecloth and napkins decorated with a black olive pattern.

RETREATING
A retreat is a chance to slow down, to return to simplicity and celebrate silence. It is a break from the relentless demand of our to-do list and a respite from the powerful intrusive “weapons of mass distraction.” For a while we can be relieved of the pressure to get things done, to fulfill agendas and pursue accomplishments.

Having engaged in many long silent retreats over four decades, I know the transformative power of relinquishing our daily routines and hurried activities. We can return to a rhythm connected to the lifeblood of the living planet rather than the demands of societal pressures and electronic devices.

It is a sorrowful state of affairs that most people don’t know that there is an inner depth available – still, silent and peaceful – just below the stormy wave-tossed surface of our thought-driven minds. Nature provides the surest doorway to this other way of being.

The first day of the retreat I slept a lot, surrendering to a fatigue I didn’t know was there. The second day, I was consumed by aches and stiffness in my body. The third day I was pursued by a torrent of thoughts and memories trailing me like an inescapable bad smell. The last day I finally fully arrived, body relaxed, heart and mind present and at ease. I was sad to be leaving the following day.

This is the way most retreats are. It takes 3-4 days to release the layers of built-up tension from daily life. This is why even longer retreats can have a more profound effect. Over many days of silence and simplicity we relax more fully into the open expanse of our inner being.

 

This gallery contains 29 photos

More at Moss Landing

2 Comments

More at Moss Landing, CA
September 2019

If you’ve you been following my blog, then you’re already familiar with Moss Landing. It sits in the middle of the great crescent of Monterey Bay with Santa Cruz at the top and Monterey at the bottom. The harbor at Moss Landing is a draw for many coastal creatures: birds, sea otters, sea lions and seals. Even though it is busy with human activity it’s a place where you are almost guaranteed to see wildlife.

Chris was scheduled for surgery and we wanted a one night getaway before then. In the center of the crowded harbor is a KOA RV park. We’d talked many times about staying there but never had. I was excited to have the extra time to wander the harbor with my cameras. Usually I visit Moss Landing for only 2 to 3 hours stints. (This post actually includes photos from my most recent shorter visit as well as the overnight.)

The RV park was nothing special and was expensive by our standards but it worked well for us anyway. We could walk to the beach (Salinas River State Beach) and the harbor channel. We could also walk to several restaurants. We enjoyed a better-than-average Mexican dinner at the Haute Enchilada and a better-than-average Thai lunch at the Lemongrass Seafood Bar and Grill. We could even walk to a small museum and store devoted to Shakespeare. What more do you need?

As I said, Moss Landing is a busy place, not like our usual preferred camping locations. It has commercial fishing, recreational fishing, whale watching excursions, sailboats, marine supply businesses, restaurants, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the nearby Highway One. And let’s not forget the huge powerplant that allows you to locate Moss Landing from a distance by its two towering smokestacks. Even during the night there was traffic on the highway, people coming and going in the harbor and groups of sea lions erupting into excited barking.

Highlights:
• Next to us at our campsite was a pristine late 60’s VW bus. Bright orange without a dent or speck of dirt anywhere. The 60s live on in California.

• During a previous visit to Moss Landing I discovered several Monterey cypresses where egrets and herons like to roost. These trees were an easy hike from our campsite and I visited them several times a day.

• In the low light of dusk, two otters were singlehandedly ridding the docks of their accumulated mussels. One otter took a large shell and whacked it against a cement piling, essentially using the dock structure as a tool to open the mollusk.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Contact Carla Brennan: brennan.carla@gmail.com

 

This gallery contains 57 photos

Snow!

Leave a comment

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

Mostly Moss Landing

Leave a comment

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

Leave a comment

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

.

This gallery contains 32 photos

Another Trip Up the Coast to Gualala, CA

3 Comments

Another Trip Up the Coast to Gualala, CA
July 19-23, 2018

This was my first trip since my surgeries in May and June. I was eager to have time outdoors to sit under the big sky and breathe in wild air.

The first night we drove from Stanford, where I had an appointment, to Jenner along the ocean at the mouth of the Russian River. A friend had mentioned that there were a few good spots along Highway 1 where we could boondock (that is, stay for free.)

Sure enough, we found several small areas squeezed in between the road and the precipitous cliff edge. These pullouts are most often used by tourists to stop and gawk at the incredible views. But there wasn’t much of a view that night as the fog was too dense to see the beach below much less the vast ocean before us. There was only the 360° expanse of gray thick mist. We were still happy to be there for the night and settled into dinner and some reading. Before sunset the fog lifted just enough to tantalize us with a peek at the jagged rocks emerging from the ocean. Just minutes before they had been completely invisible.

In the morning the sky was still overcast and heavy but we could see the Russian River Estuary and beyond to Goat Rock. I will included a video of our view in Jenner from both our trip up and back in another post.

In Gualala, we stayed with Chris’s sister and brother-in-law, just relaxing and enjoying the perspective from their home on a high bluff above the Pacific. Turkey vultures, ravens and gulls soared at eye level with an occasional timid deer or California quail on the ground below. We drove to a few beaches looking for beachcombing or photographic treasures. Chris hoped to boogie board but the ocean was unusually flat with low lapping waves.

We headed for Jenner again on our way home, first stopping at Salt Point State Park and Fort Ross. Fort Ross is the remains of a 19th century Russian fort and settlement when this area was frequented by Russian hunters and trappers. To see more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Ross,_California

Below are a range of photos, including ocean views, a few persisting wildflowers, tafoni – the honeycomb sandstone erosion caused by sea and wind, languorous harbor seals, energetic pelicans and a few other discoveries. I will include several videos in another blog post.

Please do not reproduce any photographs or videos without permission.

 

This gallery contains 70 photos

Watch My Cormorant Videos!

1 Comment

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.

Please do not reproduce without permission.

 

 

 

 

 

Last of the Wildflowers 2018

2 Comments

Because of health issues, I missed much of the June wildflower season. Still I was able to capture a few over the past six weeks on several short walks and have included some of those flowers here. To see many more flowers, at this point, I would have to go to higher elevations in the Sierras but I don’t think I will make it there this summer.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission.

This gallery contains 65 photos

Another Day in the Life of Brandt’s Cormorants

Leave a comment

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

Cormorants 6-28-18

Leave a comment

Natural Bridges State Park, West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz
6-28-18

I got back to the Brandt’s cormorant colony today after a three week absence. I wasn’t sure how many young would still be there. Possibly some of the babies were finally mature enough to be on their own. But the colony was more crowded than ever and abuzz with activity. The oldest young we’re getting harder to distinguish from their parents.

Flight feathers were fully formed and many excitedly flapped their wings. Some birds ran through the colony with wings extended like overexcited toddlers racing through a crowd. I watched several birds play with and fight over a ziplock bag. A few adults still sat on nests; I don’t know if they were tending any eggs or tiny birds.

There was also a group of six juveniles standing together on the small beach 30 feet below. This is the first time I had seen any young birds separated from the group on the cliff. They seemed to have been evicted from the colony but still lacked the skill or confidence to be totally on their own. Periodically, one would venture out and step into the surf but then dash quickly back to the dry sandy ground as if they literally had cold feet. Soon most of their life would be spent diving and fishing in the frigid Pacific waters.

These six birds had graduated from being large adolescents – that are as tall as the parents but still awkward and goofy – to becoming what are called “juveniles.” If human, we might call them young adults. Their backs were now sleek and dark instead of fuzzy and speckled. Their fronts were taking on the deep bronze color of a juvenile; they would look like this for another year before turning into the solid iridescent black of an adult.

The parent of two of the juveniles walked out of the surf and was greeted eagerly by its offspring. It had brought lunch. Only one of the young was aggressive enough to get fed by plunging it’s entire head down the parent’s throat to receive the regurgitated fish. This group was like gang of older teenagers who should have been on their own but we’re still living in their parents basement mooching food.

This spot had an unusually strong, foul fishy smell which I assume was emanating from the colony.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission.

This gallery contains 22 photos