Monday, March 31, 2008

Elephant Seals

On the way back from Monterey we drove along the coast and stopped at the elephant seal rookery north of San Simeon. The website of the Friends of the Elephant Seals is full of great information about these animals. Click here to go to the site.

This time of year about the only seals on the beach were young of the year called at this point "weaners" since they were abruptly weaned when their mothers left to resume hunting in the ocean. These young seals will teach themselves to swim, and lose about one third of their body weight before learning to hunt.

Later in the fall, the males will come back to establish territories. While here, they do not hunt and by the time they return to the ocean in the late winter, they also will have lost about one third of their weight. The seals get their name from the large nose the male develops as he reaches sexual maturity.

Male seals may weigh as much as 5,000 pounds! Elephant seals were hunted almost to extinction for their blubber which was rendered into oil. A small population survived, and with the protection granted them by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the population has recovered to about 170,000 members.

Females begin to give birth in late December, and nurse their young with the richest milk of any mammal. The pups gain weight quickly, and are weaned by March. 

These animals are of particular interest to biologists, because of their amazing diving abilities.The record dive was to 5,000 feet! To compare the diving ability of elephant seals with other mammals click here

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Ahhh.. jellies

I recently visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium which has several spectacular displays of jellies.
These animals, formerly referred to as "jellyfish", are some of the simplest animals on Earth. The term jellyfish is misleading since these animals are not fish at all, but very different creatures. They typically catch their food using stinging cells which inject venom into the animal's prey. The name of their Phylum comes from "cnidos," which means stinging nettle. If you have come into contact with one of these animals then you understand the meaning on a very personal level. By the way, vinegar helps to relieve the pain of the sting.

Related to the Jellies are another group of animals you may have seen in tide pools called sea anemones. Anemones also have stinging cells, but like their relatives the coral, many farm algae in their bodies. The algae make food from sunlight, and in some cases provide up to 90% of the nutrition for the coral or anemone. It is the algae partner that gives this anemone its color. 

Some jellies also farm algae, such as these upside down jellies. They float up to the top of the water column during the day to provide sunlight to their algae partners. 

I am fascinated by these beautiful animals. It's true they pack a sting, but all animals have to eat right? If you would like to learn more about these animals, and see a short video of the way they move click here to go to one of Monterey Bay Aquarium's webpages about the jellies.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Alaskan Telephone Booth

Brrr. Good thing I had my cell phone with me.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


One of the things we did during the day was to visit Paws for Adventure for dog mushing. We were invited to visit the kennel which had dozens of dogs, and then two at a time, we went for a sled ride. 
The dogs seemed eager to pull the sled across the fields and through the forest. The ride was very quiet, with the sounds of panting dogs, the sled runners on the snow, and the musher occasionally calling out to the dogs.  
The team can carry a total weight of 500 pounds.

When we got back each dog got a snack of frozen salmon which they wolfed down in record time. The company was booked up for the afternoon and the next day because they were taking a couple out overnight to be married. The owner of the company was going to marry them, with a couple of the mushers as witnesses. The company offers overnight trips and mushing lessons. When I go back I plan to take a lesson, and I'd love to go on an overnight trip (they use heated tents.)    


How do these birds do it? How do they stay in Alaska all winter when the temperatures can drop below –40 degrees F.? These birds have a variety of adaptations to cold, and in fact can’t survive in warmer climates. The high temperatures (close to 90 degrees F.) during the summer in the interior of Alaska cause them stress more than the low temperatures of winter. During the winter they mainly eat seeds from birch and alder trees, and in the summer insects. They do have pouches in the esophagus where they can temporarily store seeds and digest them through the night to help them stay warm. Birch seeds are high in calories and by digesting them through the night, their metabolism helps keep them warm.
They also eat about 30-40 % of their body mass a day! The pouches can hold about 15% of their body mass in food. For a 100 pound person that would be like holding 15 pounds of food in your esophagus to digest during the night.

Alaskan redpolls also have heavier plumage in the winter than they do in the summer. The weight of the plumage can increase over 30% which provides them an important source of insulation against the cold. They also dive into the snow and create roosting burrows where they are protected against the bitterly cold wind. Notice how the bird in the picture above tucks it's bare legs into the insulating blanket of its feathers. I took dozens of photos of redpolls while I was in Alaska, and in all of them the birds have their legs covered by the feathers like this to retain body heat.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Aurora Borealis

For the last four nights I was north of Fairbanks Alaska along with two friends. We traveled up there to observe the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights. These amazing displays are created when particles in the solar wind interact with gases in our atmosphere, causing the release of light. 

The Auroras I observed started out as faint wisps of what looked like pale greenish clouds, but then they began to shimmer and flow across the sky in a way clouds never do. They moved vertically and horizontally and changed color as they danced across the early morning sky.I have read that the native people of Alaska believed the lights were the spirits of their ancestors, and can understand why they believed this. The Aurora is the most ghostly apparition I have ever seen.

We saw the most active lights between midnight and 2 AM. Yes it was cold. The temperature was 3 degrees F. without the wind chill taken into consideration. Here's what we looked like as we waited for the Aurora to appear.

We also had a great time during the day, and I'll post more about that later. For more information about what causes the Aurora, you can take a look here. We stayed at the Aurora Fairbanks Creek Lodge owned by Stephan and Brenda Birdsall. I highly recommend it. I have never felt so much at home in any lodge. The lodge is a converted mess hall and bunkhouse from and old gold mine. You go to their website here. They were exceptionally accommodating, and helpful as we planned our day's activities. They also own the ski area where we went to watch for the aurora. 

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Spring in the Mojave Desert

I've just returned from about a week in the Mojave Desert. Since we had some rain this year, the desert is blooming, especially in the lower elevations and on the warmer south facing slopes. 

Lupine in bloom in Joshua Tree National Park
One of the rare pollinators I spotted. While there are billions of blooms, I didn't see even dozens of pollinators. Where are they all? 

The view from Amboy Crater

Monday, March 10, 2008

Southern California wildflowers

My family and I went out to the Santa Rosa Plateau on Sunday. The wildflowers on the hills north of Lake Elsinore were beautiful. The hills on either side of I-15 were covered in patches of orange, yellow, and purple. Lupine, California poppies, baby blue eyes, were among the flowers in bloom.


Walking on trails through the flowers

Wild Hyacinths and California poppies

Ground pinks color the meadows at the Santa Rosa Plateau

Shooting stars in the grasses as the Santa Rosa Plateau

If you have never been to the Santa Rosa Plateau Reserve, I highly recommend a visit. There are a number of trails through the grasslands and oak savannas. It is quiet and peaceful. The entrance fee is $ 2.00 per person. Spring is a wonderful time to visit.
On the vernal pool trail one can walk on a boardwalk over a large vernal pool and see tadpoles and fairy shrimp. The pools are called vernal (spring) pools because they will be dry by the summer. All of the organisms in the pool have to complete their life cycles in just a few months.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Bolsa Chica Mesa is in Bloom!

The Coast Sunflower is blooming, purple sage is blooming, monkey flower is blooming, get out there and see for yourself! The Great Blue Herons are not blooming, but they are beginning to nest.

Water Enters Muted Tidal Area at Bolsa Chica

On Wed. March 5th, a floodgate was opened connecting the full tidal basin at Bolsa Chica with an area to the northwest. At higher tides, salt water flushes into the area. Here, Kelly O'Reilly with Cal. Fish and Game learns how to open and close the gate. 
Since the newly flooded area is surrounded by working oil fields, there are features in place to automatically close the gate if oil is detected in the water. One is the sensor you see here. If oil is detected, the gate automatically closes, reducing the amount of oil that could flow into the full tidal basin, and ultimately into the ocean. Also the metal box surrounding the tide gate has two foot openings near the bottom of the box for water to flow in and out of the muted tidal area through the west gate. Oil, being lighter than water will float on the top, and not through the holes at the bottom of the box. 
This is the gate on the full tidal basin side. Since the tide was so low when the gates were opened, no water moved into the muted tidal area. However at high tide water will flow until the tide rises high enough to cause the red floats near the top of the gate to move and close the gate. 

This photo was taken just after high tide Thursday morning, and you can see water has moved into the area behind the gate.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Wall of Death Surrounds Sacred Cemetery

Scene near the cemetery at Brightwater. Over 4,000 artifacts, and over 170 human remains were removed from this area so Hearthside Homes can build on the site of a Native American cemetery. It is maddening that the Coastal Act and other laws don't adequately protect sites sacred to Native people. 

You may remember from earlier posts about the 4,400 foot long glass wall surrounding the Brightwater development by Hearthside Homes at Bolsa Chica. The wall is a killer of birds and has been dubbed "The Wall of Death". Now it has been revealed that over 170 ancient human remains have been removed from the site, and while some have been reburied, 87 are stuffed into trailers awaiting re-internment.
Those of us in the Land Trust knew that ORA 83, the archeological site the developer has destroyed had a cemetery within it. However, we did not know the extent of it, nor did the Native American Heritage Commission, until a very late report was sent to them in December by the archeological firm SRS. The firm should have been reporting the discovery of human remains to the commission and the Orange County coroner, but failed to do so.
Huntington Beach Independent columnist Chris Epting has an excellent account of the stonewalling by the developer. You can read it by clicking here. The Orange County Register also has an article about the human remains here.
There is also a front page article in the Independent about the cover up of the human remains here
The Huntington Beach Independent also published an editorial requesting answers from the developer. Check it out here.
Ed Mountford and Hearthside it seems have learned nothing in the years of trying to develop this property. They have what is probably the most valuable piece of land approved for development on the coast in Orange County, but through one mis-step after another have received nothing but negative publicity about the development. One would think they would know the public would be watching since the project was so controversial, and so many of us care so deeply about Bolsa Chica.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Spring Arrives in Baja

Carpets of brown-eyed primrose cover the ground in the "Valley of the Giants", home to very large cardon cactus.

A carpet of sand verbena, along with popcorn flowers.
Where there are flowers, there are both insects to pollinate the flowers, and insects which eat the flowers. Sometimes the same insect may be both pollinator, and predator depending on what stage it is in of its life cycle.
Lupine backlit by the setting sun.

 Dew collects on the faded blossom of an evening primrose.

Great blue herons have started nest building in the cardons.