Friday, April 18, 2014

Point Reyes National Seashore--Northern Elephant Seals

Northern Elephant Seals (Mirounga  angustirotris) are marine mammals with a life story that reads like a bizarre collection of extremes.
Above you see a bull seal bellowing and displaying his "shield", the cornified or thickly calloused skin that develops on the male's chest as he matures.  He is trumpeting with the aid of his probiscus, his elongated snout and its unique resonating chamber.  Two weaned pups lie on the beach in front of him.
In February, arrival at the Elephant Seal Overlook at Chimney Rock in the Point Reyes Seashore places you right in the middle of birthing and breeding season, one of the two times during the year that elephant seals come ashore.  In the winter they arrive for pupping and mating, and in the summer females and juveniles come ashore for a complete molt of their fur.
The males arrive first, establishing their breeding territory on the beach and defending it against the challenges of other arriving males. The pregnant females arrive after the territories have been established, become part of the "beach master's" harem, and give birth to their pups.  The females fast and sleep while they are nursing their pups and survive on the fat they have stored while foraging in the ocean for the previous six to eight months. The males also fast once their harems are established, and spend their time defending territories and mating.  Other males are permitted on the beach if they remain flattened and still.
Because the female body is capable of delayed implantation, the season's births are timed for this period in the winter and many of the pups are born on the same day. The female nurses the pup for about 30 days and the baby gains weight quickly on her rich, pudding-like milk. Even though the pup is weaned after only a month, they have enough fat stored to sustain them for the next thirty days when they are ready to swim and forage for themselves.
Here's where the story gets rough.  Adult males measure from 12 to 18 feet in length and weigh 4400 to 6000 pounds.  A bull rearing up to bellow can measure eight feet in height.  Adult females range from 9 to 10 feet in length and weigh from 1300 to 1900 pounds, making them approximately one-third the size of males. Mating begins about three weeks after the females give birth, and the male lumbers through the harem of females and newborns to breed, sometimes trampling pups in the process.
In the image above, a weaned juvenile comes very close to being trampled.  In the image below, you can see that he managed to wiggle out of the way while the male reared up.
Soon after mating the females return to the ocean and feed continuously. "Continuously" is meant literally. Scientist believe that elephant seals don't sleep while they are feeding, at ocean depths of over a mile, but take "cat naps" instead.
Elephant seals can spend 90 minutes at a time underwater, coming back to the surface for only a few minutes before diving again.  One of their many unique adaptations is the ability to compress their lungs and carry sufficient oxygen in their blood stream to remain under water for long perods.  This compression also reduces their bouyancy and aids in their deep dives.      

Hunted to near extinction in the 19th Century, the come-back of the Elephant Seals attests to the importance of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act.  Many other factors continue to impact their survival today, including climate change, over fishing and consumption of plastics.

Links and Resources:

Visit all my posts on Stinson Beach and Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes Elephant Seals
The Northern Elephant Seal Newsletter full of interesting facts about their lives and amazing adaptations.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Rock Wrens at Point Reyes National Seashore

I had only taken a few steps past the gate leading to the Point Reyes Lighthouse when movement on the rocks ahead of me caught my attention.
Along the rocky slope, adjacent to the trail, I discovered a pair of Rock Wrens.  From my position, they looked so tiny, yet they are the size of our Carolina Wrens, and sometimes an inch taller.  Their plumage so closely matched the rocks around them, that if I looked away and they were standing still when I searched again, it took some effort to find them.  
Rock Wrens are at home year-round in this area of coastal California.  
They measure 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 inches from the top of their heads to the tip of their tails and, standing on tall legs, appear more slender than their Carolina Wren cousins. The Birds of North America account of this species describes these wrens as a "mysterious" bird that has been little studied.  That may be, in part, due to its inaccessible nesting habitat.   

And here is one of those mysterious things that little is known about.  A breeding pair creates a "pebble path" three or more inches wide that leads to the nest cavity and the nest. No one actually knows what purpose this structure serves, but a great deal of effort goes into it.  

As you can see in the images above and below, these loose surfaced, sloping, rock ledges that form the cliffs descending to the Pacific Ocean, are not the most inviting of habitats for extensive human observation. 
Rock wrens are found in western arid areas and usually nest on rocky slopes or any place where there are lots of crevices, passageways, cavities, and "nooks and crannies of diverse sizes and shapes." The male is described as an incredible singer and having a repertoir of over 100 songs.
Both members of the pair gather rocks, sticks, and other extraneous materials (which may include nails and bits of trash) to construct the "pavement" leading to the nest site and the platform on which the nest is built (which the female builds alone).  In one two-hour observation, the female of a pair made 91 trips during the construction of the pavement and nest platform.  All of those rocks were carried in that tiny little bill!  
I don't keep a "life list", but I do know when I've seen a species for the first time.  Another first encounter for me, among many on this trip, and a delightful one!

Next:  Elephant Seals

Point Reyes National Seashore
Stinson Beach
Rock Wren at Cornell's All About Birds
Other "life" birds seen on this trip:  Snowy Plover
Carolina Wren

Friday, March 28, 2014

Point Reyes National Seashore--Common Murre and Peregrines

The earth is stunningly beautiful and the state of California possesses a wealth of breath-taking coastal areas. 
Our first destination at the seashore--the light house.  
As we reached the first viewing platform, it was about 9:45 a.m. and the gate to the light house was still locked.  My birding companion and guide today (February 21st) was Talissa Ralph who lives in Knoxville, where I live, but is practically a native of Stinson Beach from a lifetime of exploring the area.   We stood on the deck looking down on the light house and checked out the colony of Common Murre crowded on a rock shelf below us.    
Lighthouse Rock Murre colony.
Common Murre are seabirds that weigh about two pounds, are about the size of a football and spend most of their life on the water.  During the nesting season, from April to July, they gather in crowded colonies on rock surfaces to nest. Their eggs are varied in colors and spots and are uniquely shaped with one end more pointed so that a disturbed egg rolls in a tight circle.  About 16,000 murres nest here on Lighthouse Rock.
As we observed the murres, we caught a glimpse of gray wings disappearing behind a boulder just as the park ranger arrived to open the gate to the stairs that lead to the lighthouse.  Talissa asked if there were falcons in the area. He answered, "yes", and walked closer to the fence on the other side of the bolder, motioning for us to join him.. "Look right down there." 

Not one, but a PAIR of Peregrine Falcons were perched on the rocks below!  A breathless view.  
One of the pair flew before I could get an image of them together but this beautiful peregrine remained for a while. See if you can locate her in the image below after I zoomed out to show the surrounding habitat.   (she is on a boulder on the left half of the image)
Zooming brings her closer, below.
and cropping, even closer.
Below, she assumes a pre-flight position just prior to lifting off and disappearing behind the cliffs to my right. Peregrines nest on cliff ledges and lay their eggs on simple rock scrapes, usually under a protective overhang. This was a breath-taking look at these resident falcons and their habitat with all the characteristics needed to sustain their life cycle.  
Her departure was actually a good thing.  We had a lot to see on our visit to the seashore and I'm not sure I would have left this spot with the opportunity to observe this falcon still possible!
"Peregrine Falcon" -- watercolor by Vickie Henderson

Next:  The light house and a pair of Rock Wrens!

Peregrine Falcon
My website:  Vickie Henderson Art
Painting a Peregrine at Vickie's Sketchbook
The Common Murre Restoration Project
A Day in the Life of a Murre Biologist
Point Reyes Light House history
Point Reyes National Seashore

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Dipsea Trail Part III--from Chaparral to Beach

We back-tracked to the descending trail head we had previously missed and paused for a break to take in the view and contemplate the distance we had left to travel! (Links Part I and II of our Dipsea Trail hike)
Photo credit:  Wendy Pitts Reeves     That's me, enjoying a leisurely rest with coastal scrub and a bit of the trail in view behind me.  

Below you see the stairs we are about to descend that add to the challenges of trail racing.  We encountered trainees running up these stairs as we went down.  You can also see why the trail is so popular.  In addition to the changing habitat, the views are stunning.
Photo credit:  Wendy Pitts Reeves

To the left in the image below, you can see the trail winding through the coastal scrub as it descends to the Pacific Ocean. Here we were among low-lying, draught-hardy shrubs with Anna's Hummingbirds hovering over our heads as they approach the spring blossoms.      
 Photo credit:  Wendy Pitts Reeves

From the hillside, a pair of coyotes surveyed the hikers on the trail, waiting for dusk to begin their hunt.  They were surprisingly unbothered by the presence of humans, perhaps because the area is protected by the state park system and people are a common sight.  Clever and adaptive to a variety of habitats, coyote populations are flourishing bringing them into frequent conflict with people and making them one of the most persecuted predators in our world, next to the wolf.
A young hiker alerted us to their presence.  It was a pleasure to witness this peaceful co-existence between humans and this intelligent canine in a protected shrub habitat.

Above and below, views of Stinson Beach and Bolinas Lagoon, located to the east of the beach.
At the base of the hills, we again entered a forest habitat and followed a winding trail through live oak and fragrant, arching bay laurel.

Photo credit:  Wendy Pitts Reeves

Here we found more flowering trillium.  The trillum in the next image was impressively the size of a dinner plate!  That's no exaggeration!

As we came out of the woods, a short trek through town brought us to the beach.
Photo credit:  Wendy Pitts Reeves

Above, one tired but happy hiker as we finish our Dipsea Trail hike only a short distance from our beach house accomodations.  Once there, with shoes and packs discarded, we settled into beach chairs on the dunes to enjoy a glass of wine and the beautiful sunset--a lovely ending to our first day!
Photo credit:  Wendy Pitts Reeves

All my posts on Stinson Beach, California.  The first post will be last in order.
Dipsea Trail hike

Dipsea Trail 
Wendy Pitts Reeves and Wendy's website
Coastal chaparral is an ecosystem dominated by woody-stemmed shrubs that are draught and saline tolerant.
Bay Nature

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Dipsea Trail Part II--Coastal Chaparral

At the end of the Muir Woods portion of the Dipsea Trail we emerged onto open chaparral hills offering spectacular panoramic views of the coastal shrub habitat, the Pacific Ocean, Stinson Beach and Bolinas Lagoon. 
As we slowed to take in the change in habitat we discovered flowers in bloom along the trail banks, sometimes nearly hidden by the dry shrubby plants.
Above, Fremont's Star lilies reaching up from the base of woody coyote brush.
Star Lilly (Zigadenus fremontii), Star Zigadene or Fremont's Star Lily is also called "deathcamas" because of its poisonous properties.  According to the Bay Nature website this creamy white star flower is one of the earliest to bloom in the spring and "is found on open summits or in brushy draws".
The plant is named after a famous western surveyor and map maker, John Fremont (1813-1890) who collected plants on several exploratory visits to western states.  He later became a California senator and a candidate for president.

It was our enjoyment of these spring flowers and preoccupation with identifying sparrows flitting around the base of shrubs that caused us to miss the connecting trail and wander, for a brief time, along the hillside headed westward and away from our destination.  Our high position on the chaparral made it easy to see that Stinson Beach was slowly drifting away from us!

Even with the certain realization we were headed the wrong way, we pushed on just a little farther to visit a lone Eucalyptus tree sporting a plank-seated rope swing and Wendy hopped on for a ride.
Despite the fatigue that was settling in on this last mile of our journey, I would not have wanted to miss the Star Lilies or the silvery lupines growing in bushy mounds as we back-tracked along the trail. 
As we progressed further, I was delighted to find that some of the lupines were opening their showy blossoms.   In no time, these vast coastal scrub hills will be covered with mounds of purple flowers.

Silver Lupine (Lupinus albifrons), white-leafed bush lupine (pronounced lupin) or evergreen lupine is native to California and one of three lupine species that are the crucial food source for the Mission Blue Butterfly. Unfortunately the lupine's toxicity to livestock has caused ranchers to remove it on grazing lands which has contributed to the rapid decline and endangerment of the California endemic Mission Blue Butterfly (Aricia icariodes missioniensis).  This butterfly is found in limited areas and depends entirely on three native lupine species that support its life cycle.

The video below discusses the Marin County area, which includes Stinson Beach, and describes the many factors contributing to the butterfly's decline.

Next:  The beach at the end of the trail!

Visit this link to see all my posts on Stinson Beach, California
Dipsea Trail hike posts

Dipsea Trail 
Coastal chaparral is an ecosystem dominated by woody-stemmed, draught tolerant shrubs
Wendy Pitts Reeves and Wendy's website
Mission Blue Butterfly conservation and life history
More on the Mission Blue Butterfly and Mission Blue Butterfly from Berkeley
The El Segundo Blue Butterfly, another endangered California blue
Bay Nature
Star Zigadene lily or Fremont's Star Lily

For the Love of It...

...the sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror, and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the knowledge which it reveals.
Sendivogius (1750)

Your Uncapped Creativity...

Your Uncapped Creativity...
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly." ----the great dancer, Martha Graham