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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The tail end

Went to watch the sun set on 2014 and got distracted by spouts on the horizon: 

A small group of Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) were passing by offshore: 

Their flukes were visible, too, but the whales were so far out that they were tough to photograph.  I decided to include one shot anyway — to represent the tail end of the year.  ;)

Best wishes for a new year filled with inspiring natural history observations!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Hermit in the Dunes

I've been seeing a lot of Townsend's Warblers (Setophaga townsendi) lately.  A few days ago, on 26 December, I ran into a flock of them in the Bodega Dunes.  I started looking at each bird, wondering if there were any other species in the flock.  I thought I had checked them all and just started studying plumage variations see one example below:

And then my camera landed on this bird:

A Hermit Warbler (Setophaga occidentalis)!  Although more common during the summer and as a spring/fall migrant, Hermit Warblers are rare in Sonoma County during the winter.  Most of them spend the non-breeding season between Mexico and Nicaragua.

Not sure how long this flock will stay together, but if you're near the Bodega Dunes Campground and run into some Townsend's Warblers, you might want to keep an eye out for a Hermit, too.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Creeping up 4th Street

On 27 December 2014, we were running an errand on 4th Street in downtown Santa Rosa.  I heard a familiar bird sound, but based on where we were (a city street) and the type of bird I thought it was (a woodland species), I wondered if I had identified the sound correctly.

I looked around to find the source and sure enough, there it was, among the holiday lights on a tree along the sidewalk:

I ran back to the car to get my camera and then walked over to take a few pictures: 

It brightened my day to see a Brown Creeper in such an unexpected location.  There were a few redwoods nearby, so perhaps creepers show up here occasionally.  I don't spend enough time on 4th Street to know, but if you've seen creepers there, I'd love to hear about your observations.

Here's one more of the creeper probing deeply into the bark of the tree:

We debated about a title for this post.  An alternative was "Street Creeper" which we liked because it reminded us of "street sweeper," but I worried that it sounded, well, creepy.  Perhaps you can come up with an interesting title of your own?  

And no matter which title you prefer, I hope you can appreciate the wonder of seeing a Brown Creeper at eye-level working its way up the holiday-decorated trees on a busy city street!

Sunday, December 28, 2014


Large numbers of Varied Thrushes (Ixoreus naevius) have been reported in California this year.  They're known for having "irruption years" when more individuals than expected move to areas beyond their normal wintering range.  Irruptions occur in irregular cycles (i.e., not every year) and are unpredictable.  Although I've probably missed them in the past, this is the first time I can recall seeing Varied Thrushes on Bodega Head since moving here in 2005.

[Varied Thrushes normally winter from Alaska to southern California (Ventura County).  But during irruption years, larger numbers are seen in California, and some may appear in areas where they're not typically found, including further south.  Some individuals may stray quite far from their normal range, e.g., to the Midwest or to the East Coast.]

There were at least four birds under the cypress trees across from Gaffney Point on 25 December 2014.  The male below had soil on its bill, making me wonder what the thrushes had been eating.  The Birds of North America account says that along with fruits and berries, Varied Thrushes will eat litter-dwelling arthropods.

Rich Stallcup wrote an article about Varied Thrush invasions for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory newsletter during the winter of 1994-1995.  Interestingly, he mentions that "...Varied Thrush invasions to California are followed here by record-making rains in winter."  We'll see if it holds true this year.

I happened to take a quick photo of two Varied Thrushes in flight over Owl Canyon on 12 October 2014perhaps at the onset of this irruption.  Although it could be better, it's a valuable photo to learn from, as Varied Thrushes have an unusual appearance in flight.  Look for the short tail and two wing bars:

If you'd like to read Rich's article about Varied Thrush irruptions (or invasions), click here

And click here to read a BirdCast article demonstrating how eBird (an online bird checklist program) data can be used to document an irruption, using Varied Thrushes in 2014 as an example.

This is a good year to keep an eye out for these beautiful thrushes!

Saturday, December 27, 2014


This afternoon I watched some Chestnut-backed Chickadees (Poecile rufescens) feeding in pine trees near the Bodega Dunes campground.  Sometimes they extracted small seeds from the cones (see above, and next picture).

Other times, they pulled out the seed still embedded within the wing, and then landed elsewhere to extract the seed:

The chickadees worked really hard, occasionally wedging themselves in between cones.  It looked like they might have been using their feet to pry open the scales of the cones.

This was the object of their attention (next image).  The pine seed is within the dark area at the base of the wing.  I didn't time myself, but I'm guessing it took me quite a bit longer than a chickadee to find a seed: 

I've always struggled to get pictures of Chestnut-backed Chickadees.  Today it was fun to observe them feeding and to think about their seed-finding and extraction strategies.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Winter fliers

The forecast is calling for possible frost in low-lying areas tonight/tomorrow morning, but it felt warm in the afternoon sun today, and air temperatures reached ~59°F (15°C).

Insects seemed to respond to the recent warm afternoons.  Skip had written to me about seeing some local Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), so I went out looking.

I found quite a few, but most were in flight: 

I also encountered at least four Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta):

And three Variegated Meadowhawks (Sympetrum corruptum):

If you've been following this blog for a while, you might remember that I wrote about seeing a Variegated Meadowhawk in December 2013 (and in January 2013).  After several years of seeing this species in late December/early January, I'm now starting to think this is a regular early emergence time for Variegated Meadowhawk.  The dragonflies I saw today looked shiny and new, so I'm guessing they were young and had emerged from wetlands very recently.

Although chilly temperatures will discourage these winter fliers, if it warms up again watch for these butterflies and dragonflies in sunny locations that are out of the wind.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A tip of the bill

Two male Common Goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula) at the north end of Bodega Harbor this afternoon (near Porto Bodega)the adult has a glossy green head, while the younger male has a chestnut brown head (note the beginnings of the white loral patch between the eye and the bill in the following photos).

Over and over again, these birds would lower their bills to the surface of the water and then tilt their heads back.  See photo above and next image, too.  Do you have a guess about what this behavior is about?

Goldeneyes have a dramatic courtship display, but in that case they arch their heads all the way back to their rumps, and the entire display involves even more ritualized movements.  I didn't mention it, but we didn't see any females nearby today.

So we think this was drinking behaviorscooping up water from the surface and then using gravity to let it run down their throats.  I mentioned that this was near Porto Bodega, so perhaps there was fresh water at the surface where Johnson Creek runs into the harbor.

It would be interesting to keep an eye out for this behavior to see if it occurs more frequently near creek outflows or other sources of fresh water.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

White(cap) Christmas

These pictures were officially taken on Christmas Eve, but I couldn't resist the title...and many of you will probably be seeing these pictures on Christmas Day. 

There were whitecaps everywhere we looked today.  At the time the images were taken, the wind was blowing ~28 mph (25 knots) out of the northwest with higher gusts, and there was about a 10-foot swell. 

May you all find peaceful moments during this holiday season.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Icebergs on the beach?

Large masses of sea foam on Salmon Creek Beach, 23 December 2014.   Some of the foam was knee-high.

The winter lighting and low tide conditions sometimes made this seascape look like "icebergs."

With a light breeze off the ocean, the foam sailed across the surface towards the beach.  Look for the trails of bubbles left behind by the foam patches (below).

 A close-up of a sea foam cloud:

Sea foam can be associated with high concentrations of diatoms, phytoplankton cells, seaweed mucilage, proteins or lipids.  Its formation also requires a source of gas bubbles, e.g., via mechanical agitation such as large waves.

Facts above from Schilling and Zessner.  2011.  Foam in the aquatic environment.  Water Research 45: 4355-4366.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Ode at high tide

We took a quick look at a couple of spots around Bodega Harbor near the peak of the 6.5' high tide this morning (that's on the high end of high tides for this area).

I wasn't expecting to see this:

Although I've often seen phoebes taking advantage of insects being flushed by tides in the salt marsh during winter, I think this is a first for me on Bodega Head a December darner!

This dragonfly was actively feeding on smaller insects over the salt marsh vegetation.  It was backlit, so hard to identify at first.  Then I walked around for better light and saw this:

Anax decemberus?  No, just kidding.  This is Anax junius, otherwise known as a Common Green Darner.  But it was fun to play with the name.  Anax junius means "Lord of June," and refers to this species' abundance at that time of year.  It's much easier to see Common Green Darners around the summer solstice than near the winter solstice!

I've heard that Common Green Darners have been observed in Santa Barbara County recently, but I'm not sure how often they're seen in northern California at this time of year.  I'll have to inquire and get back to you.

P.S.  If you're wondering about the title of this post — "ode" is sometimes used as an informal abbreviation for "odonate," the group encompassing dragonflies and damselflies.  [I also had this crazy thought that "Ode at high tide" sounded somewhat similar to "Auld Lang Syne" — perhaps the season is getting to me!]

Sunday, December 21, 2014


Pretty amazing, isn't it?  I love the abstract patterns created by the septa, or internal walls of this barnacle's plates.  It's like a maze.

Not all barnacles look like this.  And this barnacle isn't one you're likely to encounter very often.  Meet Chelonibia testudinaria.  If you're familiar with Greek and Latin, by looking at the scientific name you'll be able to tell where this species of barnacle livesthey grow on sea turtles!

So why am I showing a turtle barnacle tonight?  Well, it's a long story.  I didn't find it locallythe one in this picture is from Massachusetts.  But it would be possible to find Chelonibia here, although it would be rare.  During the last few days I haven't been able to get out in the field much, and I've been feeling nostalgic.  I'm usually in New England for the holidays, and unfortunately, I can't be there this year.

And not long ago I read in The New York Times about the record number of sea turtles strandings on Cape Cod this year.  Before I started working in California, I helped out with those strandings, so I've been thinking about sea turtles and turtle barnacles.

Although sea turtle strandings are much rarer in northern California, they do occurI showed one on 18 September 2013, and a green turtle was caught off San Francisco this year.  So here are a few sea turtle photos.  They're all from New England.  These individuals were cold-stunned, washed up on beaches, and then were transferred to the New England Aquarium in Boston for rehabilitation.

Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas)

Kemp's Ridley Turtle (Lepidochelys kempii)

Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta)

To read more about the 2014 Cape Cod sea turtle strandings, click here

P.S.  I hope you enjoyed the Solstice!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Different coasts

I grew up on a beach in southern New England — looking for sea glass among the beach stones, watching minnows in shallow salt marsh pools, searching the horizon for diving terns revealing the presence of Bluefish or Striped Bass, skipping stones across a tidal river, digging softshell clams in thick mud and feeling for quahogs with our toes, rolling down sand dunes, skating across cranberry bogs....and yes, handlining for cod from a skiff within sight of shore!  But it was not a place where we saw wild cats.

Here's me in the Provincetown dunes I can't remember the year, so I'll have to check with my mom.  It's somewhat appropriate to share a picture of me from long ago since my birthday's approaching three cheers for Capricorns!

And about that cat.

This Bobcat padded across our path in the middle of the day today.  Although I'm used to seeing Bobcats now, I'll never get tired of them.  They're so beautiful, and I'll always be curious about what they're up to.

This individual seemed to be listening intently, and then it lowered its head and started to sniff around some branches.  Its tail was twitching.  After it decided there wasn't enough of interest, it started walking faster and left the area.

Although at times the rufous coloration and the stripes and spots stand out, against other backgrounds you can see how they really blend in: 

I miss New England, but I'm thankful for these special moments learning about Lynx rufus.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sneaker waves

I had been paying so much attention to the rain forecast, somehow I missed that the waves were going to reach 14-15 feet this morning.  They were impressive!  Especially with the interesting light and clouds and the south-southeast winds.  I only had a few minutes, but here a few images for the record.

With pelican:

With rainbow:

 With white water: 

All images from Bodega Head on 16 December 2014.  Although today the waves snuck up on me, tomorrow the waves are predicted to be 12-15 feet, this time with westerly winds. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Straps and stalks

After the big waves on Thursday and Friday, we took a short walk to see if anything interesting had washed up on the beach.

We noticed quite a bit of Strap Kelp (Lessoniopsis littoralis).  I showed pictures of this species in April 2012, so click here to review what Strap Kelp looks like when it's attached to the rocks.

Below is an example of one specimen washed up on the beach:

Did you notice anything growing on the kelp?  You can look again if you need to.

If you need a better view, here's a close-up of the base of the kelp:

What was interesting about the Strap Kelp washed ashore this weekend was that almost every specimen had significant clumps of Gooseneck Barnacles (Pollicipes polymerus) growing on them.

Many of the barnacles were juveniles note the small size, gray coloration, and pale stalks (above).  A few of the barnacles were older — note the larger size, whiter plates, and darker stalks (below):

This observation confirmed something, but also led to a somewhat frustrating question.

This fall we've noticed that it seems to have been a very good year for Gooseneck Barnacle settlement.  That is, we've seen lots of juveniles around.  Seeing so many juveniles growing on Strap Kelp just confirms the observations of good Gooseneck Barnacle settlement at other sites.

But I also realized that I couldn't remember if I'd ever seen Gooseneck Barnacles growing on Strap Kelp before.  This always frustrates me.  I've seen both species quite often, but now I can't remember if I've ever been observant enough to notice if Gooseneck Barnacles regularly grow on Strap Kelp, or if it only happens in good settlement years for the barnacles?  Do you know?

And one more interesting question to ponder — Do you think the barnacles would help, harm, or have no effect on the kelp in terms of its susceptibility to waves?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Clouds and pirates

I arrived at Salmon Creek Beach to see this:

But I went there to see this:

In late November, I wrote about an interesting behaviorBonaparte's Gulls pirating food from Sanderlings.  I was intrigued enough by this behavior that I went back to watch some more.  This time, the gulls were pirating food from Marbled Godwits.

Here's a series of shots as the gulls approached the godwits:

The gulls were fairly aggressive about it running towards the godwits when it looked like they might have prey, vocalizing, and entering the "godwits' space."  Several times I saw the godwits poke or chase the gulls away.

I'm not sure if all Bonaparte's Gulls do this, or if some individuals decide it's a productive way to obtain food.  Later I checked Salmon Creek itself, and there were at least 30 Bonaparte's Gulls feeding along the shoreline there, without exhibiting pirating behavior.  Or do individuals alternate between feeding strategies?

By the way, because there are so many Bonaparte's Gulls there right now (near the mouth of the Creek), and for some reason they're quite vocal, it's a great opportunity to listen to them and to learn their calls (perhaps I'll try to record them).