If you're interested in using any of these photographs in any way, please contact me. Send an e-mail to naturalhistoryphotos(at)gmail.com. Thanks!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

In the lee

It was breezy this afternoonthe wind was out of the east, blowing at about 12-15 mph (10-13 knots).  We went for a short walk at Doran Beach and noticed Snowy Plovers (Charadrius nivosus) sheltering in the lee of various objects.  My favorite was this dried-up kelp holdfast.  It was just the right height for the plover to hide behind.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Pears? Or...

The other day, as we were driving along the Coast Highway, my mother (who is visiting from Massachusetts) said, "I think I just saw some pears!"  I've been in California long enough now that I knew what she had seen...but do you have a guess?

Warning: The picture below might give the answer away. 

Although not the actual ones that she saw, these are the same type of "pear-look-alikes":

Did you guess the fruit of the California Buckeye (Aesculus californica)?

These large, pear-shaped leathery capsules split to reveal a beautiful, shiny, swirled-with-brown-patterned seed: 

Today we were walking at Crane Creek Regional Park (in Santa Rosa), and while stopping to admire California Buckeye trees, we heard a few loud thuds as the seeds dropped to the ground.  Then we noticed quite a few picnic tables under these large California Buckeye trees.  It crossed our minds that it might be a risky time of year to sit at those tables (see below):

(Just kidding...no mothers were hurt in the creation of this image!)

While researching California Buckeyes, I came across a wonderful article by Roger Raiche.  He did such a great job, I'm just going to direct you to Roger's article here California Buckeye: A Tree for All Seasons.  It's totally worth reading.  I especially like his description of how well matched this species is to a Mediterranean-type landscape. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

The smallest falcon

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), photographed at Point Reyes on 26 November 2014.

At a length of about 25 cm (or 10 inches), American Kestrels are the smallest of the North American falcons.  Although they used to be called Sparrow Hawks, they're more often seen eating invertebrates (e.g., crickets and grasshoppers) and small mammals (e.g., mice and voles).  On Bodega Head, I've occasionally see them eating lizards.  Have you observed them with other prey?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Nice views of Harbor Porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) in Drakes Bay today, 26 November 2014: 

This was my favorite image: 

It might not seem like much at first, but you don't see Harbor Porpoise spouts that often, so I was happy to get a picture of one.  And it also felt appropriate to capture a picture of a "breath" today.

On the day and night before Thanksgiving, it felt appropriate to pause, breathe, and say thank you.

I'm very grateful for your support during the past year...for sharing a passion for natural history...for accompanying me on this journey to explore local landscapes and seascapes and all of the organisms and patterns that surround us.

Maintaining this blog this year was harder than ever, but meant more to me than I can express, so I thank you for your interest and patience.  I so appreciate all of your comments and inquiries and observations.  I hope you can see me smiling and nodding with understanding when I read them, and that you know they inspire me to continue.  I'm so glad you're out there, reading and learning with me.  Thank you.

P.S.  Now it's your turn to breathe.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Identify the Prey in the Pellet

I know, you've been waiting and waiting for the answers to the Identify the Prey in the Pellet game.

Last night I showed this picture of a gull pellet with the remains of mystery prey items:

The next image is the same picture with some of the mystery items identified.  Are you ready?

There are at least four identifiable prey items: a Channeled Whelk (Nucella canaliculata); two species of crabsa Flat Porcelain Crab (Petrolisthes cinctipes) and a Granular Claw Crab (Oedignathus inermis); and what I think is a fish bone.  Let me know if you can identify more!

I've shown pictures of a Granular Claw Crab before see the post from 23 April 2013.

I haven't shown a Flat Porcelain Crab (Petrolisthes cinctipes).  So here you go — a gull's-eye view (below).  Note the elongate, smooth, flattened claws.  Their size, shape, and texture made them easy to identify in the pellet.

And if you're interested in playing another round of Identify the Prey in the Pellet, here's another gull pellet.  (The identity of the prey is below the picture.)

This gull pellet is dominated by one species found growing in clumps along wave-exposed rocky shores. 

The picture below reveals this species when it's alive, so don't scroll down unless you're ready for the answer:

The pellet was full of individual Gooseneck Barnacle plates (Pollicipes polymerus), a common prey item of gulls in this area.

I hope you enjoyed playing the game!

Monday, November 24, 2014

A new game

Here's a new game for you — Identify the prey in the pellet!

Below is a picture of a gull pellet.  Gulls cough up compacted pellets of previously swallowed prey parts that they can't digest.  Pellets are interesting because they offer clues about the gull's recent food items.  They're miniature treasure chests of mystery objects that tell a story about the gull's interactions.

Can you identify the different types of prey in this pellet?  I'll show you two pictures one of the pellet in its original state when I first found it.  And a second photo when I spread the pieces apart to make it a little easier to see the individual items.

If you're into playing games at different levels, the hardest level in this game would be to look at only the first photo (above) no peeking at the second photo (below)!  However, if you need some help (like I did), go ahead and look at the second photo, too.  I'll reveal the answers regarding some of the prey items tomorrow.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Is there someone following me?

A couple of nights ago we watched an interesting interaction on Salmon Creek Beach.  A couple of young Bonaparte's Gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) were following a flock of Sanderlings along the shoreline.  

Although we never saw it actually happen, I'm pretty sure the Bonaparte's Gulls were waiting for the Sanderlings to come up with prey items so they could steal them a form of kleptoparasitism.

As they usually do, the Sanderlings were feeding intensively along the swash zone.  The Bonaparte's Gulls would sometimes run along with the Sanderlings (as above), other times they would fly in from another location and land in the middle of the Sanderling flock, and yet another strategy would be just to stand and watch the Sanderlings from slightly higher up the beach.

Bonaparte's Gulls are known to steal food from other species of birds.  Has anyone else noticed them kleptoparasitizing Sanderlings before?

As one of the smallest gulls in North America, Bonaparte's Gulls can appear diminutive and "innocent," but watch for the little "bandits" in them!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Crab trap surprise!

What fun to open my e-mail, to see a request for help with identifying a local animal, and then to see this photo:

This animal came up in Doug Wilgis's crab trap!  He was in Bodega Bay, off the Estero de San Antonio, on November 12th.  The trap had been set at about 25 fathoms (150 feet).  This curious animal was about 4 inches (10 cm) long.  Do you recognize it?

I've mentioned this type of animal on the blog before (a couple of years ago), but I haven't shown this stage because I've never seen it!

This is the solitary stage of a salp (or pelagic tunicate) called Thetys vagina.  Note the two fascinating amber-colored projections they're on the back end.  And I'm sure you can also see the banding in the mid-section.  These are muscle bands that the salp uses for swimming and pumping water for filter-feeding.

A salp spends its entire life in the open ocean.  Its life cycle includes two stagesa solitary stage and an aggregate stage.  [For comparison, on 30 July 2012, I showed a picture of a Thetys from the aggregate stage.]

The solitary stage shown in Doug's picture is asexual and produces chains of aggregates (shown in my July 2012 picture, and see below).  The aggregate stage is sexual and produces the solitary stage.

In late October, I found some small aggregate stage Thetys washed up on the beach, which made me wonder if there were some actively reproducing solitary stage individuals around.  Doug's observation confirms that there are!

Here are the small aggregate stage individuals that I encountered in October (see below).  They don't look like much after being washed up on the sand, but I thought it would be useful to document these smaller individuals.

You can see that the first is ~8 cm (3 inches) long, and the second is only ~4 cm (1.5 inches) long.

I'm very thankful to Doug for sharing his picture.  Not many people get to see these offshore animals, so it's fun to pass along this story to you!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Just a few quick shots to document the large swell today:

That's about a 10-foot west swell.  In the morning, many of the wave faces had a very interesting texture like pebbled glass (see below).  The fact that the faces of the waves (as they approached Bodega Head) looked like this provides a clue about the wind speed and direction at the time.  Do you want to guess?  

The wind was blowing at about 18 mph (15 knots) from the east.  Because it was basically blowing directly at the waves, it created a dramatic rippled surface.  Even before the waves broke, as in the last picture, you could see small riffles of water being blown back off the tops of waves.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dreaming of green

I don't know about you, but I'm ready to see the landscape turn green.  I'm hoping for some much-needed rain.  I rummaged through some older pictures and this was one of the first "green landscapes" that I found.  I haven't shown this view before, so it seemed like a fun choice.  I'm guessing many of you will recognize this scenic vista.  (And if you don't, it's a nice one to be introduced to!)

This picture was taken from Tomales Point on the northern end of the Point Reyes peninsula.  The view is looking north across Bodega Bay towards Bodega Head and Doran Beach.  That's Bird Rock off to the left (or west) of the Point.

The image above was taken in December 2007.  Seven years later, I'm hoping that December 2014 will be as green or greener!

Monday, November 17, 2014


Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus), Bodega Dunes, 8 November 2014

Saturday, November 15, 2014


A couple of days ago I mentioned Chihuly's Bridge of Glass.  Although I was in presentations for most of today, we took a brief walk in the late afternoon to visit the Bridge.  

These pictures are from an installation called the Seaform Pavilion.  The ceiling is made up of 2,364 glass objects.

Do you see different marine organisms in them?  I'll show you another picture and then reveal some of the things we saw.

We saw sea urchins and sea anemones and sea pansies and scallops, among other things!

Here's a quick shot of Eric and Annaliese reflected in the glass ceiling.  I liked the way their images were filled with the colors of Chihuly's sculptures!

Friday, November 14, 2014

The mountain

I was indoors all day, but I took one photo of Mount Rainier from the hotel room early this morning.

Do you want to guess how tall Mount Rainier is and how it ranks compared to other peaks in the U.S. (excluding Alaska because it has so many tall peaks)?  For example, is Mount Rainier the tallest?  Or are there higher peaks?

Mount Rainier is 14,417 feet high.  It's the fifth highest peak in the "Lower 48."  Mount Whitney (in California) is the tallest at 14,505 feet, followed by three peaks in Colorado Mount Elbert at 14,440 feet, Mount Massive at 14,428, and Mount Harvard at 14,421 feet.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Where am I?

Okay, this is a bit of a traveling game.  I'm attending a meeting outside of California.  I arrived late in the afternoon, but went for a brisk walk before heading in for the night.  I took a couple of quick photos.  Do you want to try to guess which city I'm in?

If you need some more clues: The city is named after a famous mountain.  There are three syllables in its name.  The picture above provides a couple of hints, too.  There's ice at the base of those sculptures — it's cold here!  And the sculptures are made of glass.  There's a famous museum in this city the Museum of Glass.  This is the third largest city in the state.  There's a significant port nearby, and the city's motto is "When rails meet sails."

I'll tell a brief story, then give you the answer.  

The sculpture above is called Fluent Steps (by Martin Blank).  It rises from a reflecting pool outside the Museum of Glass.  When we encountered it, we didn't know what it was, but we were drawn to it, and then we were excited to see the ice.  People have obviously tossed coins into this pool when there isn't any ice.  But tonight, a few locals introduced us to a different game.  From the other side of the pool, they tossed coins onto the ice to see if they could get them to skim to where we were standing on the other side.  Fun!  And challenging.  If you've been ice skating, or played ice hockey outdoors, you'll know about this.  There can be lots of irregularities in the ice (see below), making it hard to predict the trajectory of the coin.

I had read that the Pacific Northwest would be seeing its first major winter storm this weekend.  However, we were grateful for the warm, but icy!, welcome from the locals in Tacoma, WA.  We loved the skimming-coin-across-the-ice-in-the-reflecting-pool game!

P.S.  Mt. Rainier used to be called Mount Tahoma.

P.P.S.  Now I also know about Chihuly's Bridge of Glass.  I'm going to have to try to find time to see it before we leave Tacoma!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

No essscape

A silhouette, unfortunately, but I hardly ever get to show pictures of snakes.  I'm not sure if this counts, but it still seemed worth posting.  This Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) had just flown up to the wire after catching this snake in a grassland on Bodega Head.

I was hoping to read about what types of snakes Red-shouldered Hawks have been known to catch, but I couldn't find much information about that (at least quickly).  However, if you do a Google Image search, you'll find some amazing pictures of Red-shouldered Hawks with different species of snakes.  I'm not certain which species of snake is in the photograph above, but the most likely is a garter snake (based on their abundance on Bodega Head).

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The importance of landscape

Some people never leave you.  I think of Bob Clem more often than I can say.  But the times I think of him most are when I see birds (especially raptors) in large, open landscapes.

It's hard not to like all of Bob's paintings, but some of my favorites are the scenes where the landscapes dominate and you have to look around for the bird at first.  You know the bird is going to be there, but it's small, perhaps sitting on a dune ridge, or perched on a tree limb somewhere in the distance.  

I like these paintings because they emphasize not only the attractiveness of the landscape itself, but the importance of the entire habitat to the bird.  And how well matched the bird is to landscape.

Tonight I watched a Peregrine Falcon hunting in the dim evening light.  From the cliffs of Bodega Head, the falcon looked very small against the enormity of the open ocean.  Yet it was incredibly fast and powerful as it flew low over the water.  Peregrine Falcons will use landscape features, e.g., cliffs, dunes, and even waves, to conceal their approach until they're close to potential prey.  This falcon seemed interested in birds sitting on the water.

I can't help thinking that Bob would have liked this view. 

P.S.  If you're not familiar with Bob Clem's work, you might be able to see some examples of his paintings online.  His earlier paintings can be found in The Shorebirds of North America.  And if you ever find yourself in Chatham, Massachusetts, consider yourself lucky and stop by The Atwood House Museum to see some of Bob's paintings in person!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Risky business

Tonight I was simply going to share a nice photo of a juvenile Short-spined Sea Star (Pisaster brevispinus):

And a photo of an adult for comparisonthis one was taken on a piling at the Spud Point Marina in October:

But when I was evaluating the pictures to choose the best one to share, something caught my eye that raised a question.

I noticed that one of the barnacles next to the sea star appeared to have its cirral fan (feeding structure) extended.

Do you want to try to spot it in the picture below?  It's subtle, but you can see a delicate fan extending upward from one of the barnacles (it's a side view).

I've highlighted the feeding barnacle in the next picture.  The arrow points to the extended cirral fan: 

Many species of sea stars eat barnacles. So this made me wonder: Can barnacles sense the presence of sea stars?  If so, why would one have its appendages out if a sea star was so close?  Why wouldn't it withdraw its cirral net and close its plates to discourage the sea star? 

Has someone studied this?  I did a quick search on the Internet and found that someone has.  In 1982, Richard Palmer et al. published a paper where they discovered that barnacles (Balanus glandula, the same species shown in these photographs) withdrew and stayed closed longer in response to predators compared to non-predators.

But Short-spined Sea Stars do eat barnacles.  So why was the barnacle in my picture still out feeding?

I don't know the answer, but it was fun to wonder about.

Sunday, November 9, 2014


Here's a mystery close-up for you.  Can you guess what this is?

If you'd like to see a little more, scroll to the next image:

Perhaps you have some ideas now?  If not, I'll zoom out one more time.  Warning: The next picture will reveal most of the animal:

Those wonderful spines belong to a brittle star known as Ophiothrix spiculata, sometimes called a Glass-spined Brittle Star.  Eric spotted it among the rocks in the intertidal zone last week.  This is the first time we've seen this species in Sonoma County.

The jagged edges of the spines are an important characteristic for identifying this species.  (The smaller spines along the edges of the larger spines are formally called spinelets.)  Ophiothrix spiculata belongs to a family of brittle stars that's primarily tropical in distribution.  It ranges from about San Mateo County to the Galapagos Islands.  There's a record from Victoria, B.C., but otherwise it seems most sightings are from Moss Beach and south.  It can be abundant in southern California.

The arms are usually very long, but this species is prone to autotomizing dropping its arms (often in self defense, e.g., to escape a predator).  This individual had lost the tips of its arms, but it was regrowing them.  Here's a picture from the field:

One more fun fact about the Glass-spined Brittle Star.  Those spinelets come in handy when feeding.  After suspended particles in the water are trapped on the spines, the tubefeet wipe them off and move the food particles to the mouth on the underside of the disc.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Curved needles

On 5 November, Emily e-mailed that she had found more pteropods, or sea butterflies — and this time it looked like a different species (i.e., not Hyalocylis striata, the pteropod she identified in September).

These animals were from a plankton tow about 24 km (15 miles) off Bodega Head.

Emily noticed that the shell was smooth and the wings had a different shape and were of different proportions.

When we looked under high magnification, we could see those characteristics.  We also noticed that the wings had two very intriguing features something that looked like small "hooks" about halfway along the inside edge of each wing and two oval rough patches in the middle of each wing just below those "hooks."

After consulting a few sources, we believe this is Creseis virgula.  We've seen one common name for it — Curved Needle Pteropod. 

I was excited to find an older drawing of this species which matched perfectly with what we were seeing:

Modified from Tesch, J.J.  1946.  The Thecosomatous Pteropods. I. The Atlantic.  Dana-Reports, 28, pp. 1-82.

We learned that the "hooks" are wing protrusions and the "rough patches" are ciliated fields.  This pteropod feeds by capturing suspended food particles in a large mucous net.  The ciliated fields aid in hauling in the mucous net.

Creseis virgula is a warm-water species.  Although the CalCOFI Atlas for pelagic molluscs (McGowan 1967) shows one record for 37°N, most are from south of Point Conception (approximately 34°N).

Because it was important to document the occurrence of this pteropod in northern California, Eric captured some wonderful video footage and compiled the best clips.  

There are many things to watch for in this video:

- the way Creseis frequently holds its wings far forward
- at about 20 seconds, a food particle moves between the wings towards the mouth
- when a side view is shown, note the slight curvature of the shell
- there's a close-up of the rhythmic mouth movements
- throughout the video, the heart is visible beating about 1/3 of the way up from the tip of the shell
- and one of the last segments is a bonus — it's a veliger, or the larval stage, of this pteropod.  The veliger doesn't have its wings yet, but instead has a velum, a lobed ciliated swimming organ around the opening of its tiny shell.

P.S.  Nearshore ocean temperatures are still quite warm, especially for this time of year 14-15°C (57-59°F).

Thursday, November 6, 2014

"the sleeping one"

Coming back from field work just after sunset, I was surprised to hear Eric say, "There's a poorwill."  I had to ask again to make sure I heard him correctly.  Sure enough, there was a Common Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) sitting on the trail ahead of us.

I didn't have the right lens on the camera, so I had to make a change as quickly as possible.  And it was very dark, except for the full moon and our headlamps.  I took two pictures before the poorwill flew off.  They're not the best, but since they're my first pictures of this species, and this is one of my favorite families of birds, I decided to go ahead and show them.

Common Poorwills are members of the nightjar family which also includes nighthawks and whip-poor-wills.  They're known for their cryptic plumage, and being crepuscular (active near dawn/dusk) or nocturnal (active at night).

Poorwills are one of the smallest nightjars, at only 19-21 cm (7.5-8 inches) long.  They have very large eyes with a tapetum lucidum, a layer that reflects light back to the retina and helps with vision in low light conditions (it's the reason for the glow in these images).

According to the Birds of North America account, the Hopi Indians called Common Poorwills, "Hölchoko" or "the sleeping one."  They were aware of its ability to enter torpora state of physical inactivity usually marked by reduced body temperature and metabolic rate.  Poorwills will enter torpor in response to low temperatures or lack of food.  When in a state of torpor, body temperatures as low as 5°C (41°F) have been recorded and oxygen consumption rates may be reduced by over 90%!  

In Sonoma County, Common Poorwills are uncommon during the summer and rare during the winter, so consider yourself lucky if you see one!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Tropical butterflies -- Part 2

On 28 September, I wrote about a pteropod, or sea butterfly, Hyalocylis striata, found near Bodega Canyon.

On 21 October, we were very excited to receive an e-mail from Carol letting us know that she had found another one in a plankton sample from about 1 km off Bodega Head.

It turns out that Carol's specimen was in very good condition.  And because Hyalocylis is rare in northern California, we took some time to document this individual carefully.  We learned a lot along the way!

Note the very broad wings.  And that the tip (lower third) of the shell is smooth, lacking striations.  At first we didn't know what this meant, but Eric eventually found a description that led us to understand that the smooth tip of the shell is a protoconch, or larval shell.  Hyalocylis retains its protoconch for a while, but eventually sheds it and then seals the opening with a membrane!  See illustration below:

 Modified from van der Spoel, S. and L. Newman.  1990.  Juveniles of the pteropod Hyalocylis striata (Gastropoda, Pteropoda).  Basteria 54: 203-2010.
Van Der Spoel, S. and L. Newman (1990). Juveniles of the pteropod Hyalocylis striata (Gastropoda, Pteropoda). Basteria, 54: 203-210. - See more at: http://australianmuseum.net.au/Publications-1990#sthash.t8AyVi6z.dpuf
Van Der Spoel, S. and L. Newman (1990). Juveniles of the pteropod Hyalocylis striata (Gastropoda, Pteropoda). Basteria, 54: 203-210. - See more at: http://australianmuseum.net.au/Publications-1990#sthash.t8AyVi6z.dpuf
Van Der Spoel, S. and L. Newman (1990). Juveniles of the pteropod Hyalocylis striata (Gastropoda, Pteropoda). Basteria, 54: 203-210. - See more at: http://australianmuseum.net.au/Publications-1990#sthash.t8AyVi6z.dpuf

Here's another view of this juvenile found in October: 

Because we don't get a chance to look at pteropods very often, we also zoomed in for a closer view of the head region and the base of the wings:

There's a lot to see, and we were curious about all of it!  We've labeled some of the anatomy in the next picture (below).  Our attention was  drawn especially to the two paired circles in the center of the image.  These are statocysts sense organs that assist with balance and orientation as the pteropod moves through the water.

The story doesn't end here because last night, on 4 November, we received another e-mail, this time from Emily saying that she had discovered some more pteropods in a plankton tow offshore of Bodega Head.

When we went to look at them, we found a tiny Hyalocylis — even smaller than the juvenile from October! (see next image):

This small shell lacked striations, and all of the other characteristics looked good for Hyalocylis.

To make it easier to appreciate the size differences among these individuals, we put together a composite picture with all three side-by-side.  An explanationthe first two pteropods didn't survive and are now important specimens at the California Academy of Sciences documenting their occurrence in northern California during the 2014 warm-water event.  From top to bottom, the picture below shows the shell of the September adult (note that it's missing its protoconch), the October juvenile, and the November juvenile.  Approximate shell sizes = 4.75 mm, 0.93 mm, and 0.33 mm.

It's potentially significant that juveniles have been documented in the plankton here, as it suggests that Hyalocylis was reproducing in California this year.

Okay, I hope you're still with me.  If so, you won't be disappointed.  You're in for a treat, as the next music video from Spineless Studios has been released!  

Click on the link below for wonderful video footage of Hyalocylis striata.  Note that some of the sequences were slowed down to allow observation and appreciation of the swimming behavior.