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Friday, November 30, 2012

Papa Bear

The second storm of the week (deemed "Papa Bear" by some) continued into the morning, but blue skies and sun broke through this afternoon.  (Baby Bear was the smaller storm on Wednesday, Papa Bear was the bigger storm Thursday/Friday, and Mama Bear arrives Saturday night!)

Here are a few more wave shots, and a Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) that was hunting along the shoreline during the break between storms.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


The weather has been putting on a good show today, with strong winds, rain, and rough seas. 

I took these pictures around lunchtime, when there were SSE winds at ~25 knots (28 mph) and a WSW swell with ~12-14 foot waves.



And one more, because you know how much I like waves.  This one has a bird for scale.  Can you find it?

There is a Pacific Loon in the bottom right corner (it looks very tiny!).

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Purple above, purple below

Sunset from Coleman Valley Road, 28 November 2012

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Four Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina) hauled out on a rock in Tomales Bay on 23 November 2012.  Note the variable fur colors and patterns.

Here's a closer view from a slightly different angle.  Not such a bad place to take a nap!

Speaking of naps — when exploring rocky shores, I've occasionally come across a Harbor Seal submerged in a deep channel or pool (see photo below from August 2012).  I'm not sure if they're just resting down there or actually sleeping, but I always feel like I need to tip-toe away so as not to disturb them.

When diving, a Harbor Seal can hold its breath for up to 35 minutes, but most of their dives last 5-8 minutes.  I haven't timed Harbor Seals in this underwater position yet, but l'll have to try that (from a distance) in the future. 

And now it's time for me to submerge under the covers for some rest before tomorrow's storm!

Monday, November 26, 2012

The smallest duck

At this time of year, it's easy to observe Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) along the shoreline of Bodega Harbor, especially at high tide.  This is one of the smallest ducks to visit our area (at 13.5 inches long, it's the smallest duck in North America).

Adult males are boldly patterned with black and white, while females are brown with a smaller white cheek patch.  (Young males look similar to females.)

In the right light, you can see purple/blue/green iridescence on the heads of the males:

Adult males have a white stripe running across the entire wing from front to back (see below). 

In females this white patch is confined to a smaller square at the trailing edge of the wing (see center bird in next image).

Although they don't nest around here, you may see the males performing courtship displays (e.g., head-bobbing and wing-lifting).  Buffleheads nest farther north near small lakes and ponds in boreal forests (primarily in Canada).  I remember being surprised when I first learned that Buffleheads are cavity nesters.  They use old tree holes excavated by woodpeckers such as Northern Flickers.  Most nests are ~3-14 meters above the ground, but apparently there's at least one record of a nest 27 meters (88 feet) high!

This flock was alternating between bouts of feeding and preening.  Below two males are flipped on their sides while cleaning their belly feathers.  This position reveals their pink feet.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Warming up

At the end of the day on 23 November 2012, there were some warm, sunny spots in our backyard in Sebastopol.  This butterfly found one of them!

Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta) overwinter as adults in this area, so occasionally may be seen basking in the sun on mild days in fall or winter.  This a medium-sized butterfly, ~5 cm (2 inches) across.

Here's a view from above (next photo).  Note the dark brown background with a broad orange stripe in the middle of each forewing.  The trailing edge of each hindwing is also orange.

With a slightly closer view, you can see the subtle hints of coppery iridescence and the bright blue accents on the inside corners of the hindwings.

The white spots at the tips of the forewings might remind you of the butterflies known as ladies.  Red Admirals are in the same genus, but they're more boldy and simply patterned (at least on the upper surface of the wings).  If you'd like to compare, review previous posts on American Ladies, Painted Ladies, and West Coast Ladies.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Jellies in the WGC

Yesterday we sailed over to White Gulch on Tomales Point (northern tip of Point Reyes) for a picnic lunch.  When leaving White Gulch, we encountered fairly high densities of two jellies: a hydromedusa called Polyorchis penicillatus and Moon Jellies (Aurelia sp., probably A. labiata).

Polyorchis is a relatively large hydromedusa — most of the individuals we saw yesterday had bell lengths of ~2-3 cm.  There is red pigment at the base of each tentacle (see below).  (The red coloration is part of the ocelli, or eye spots that are sensitive to light.)

The tentacles are highly contractile, short when pulled in (as above) but extending to 2-3 times the length of the bell when "fishing" (next photo).  Polyorchis trolls for zooplankton such as copepods, and may also feed on the bottom while elevated on its tentacles.

I had a tough time photographing the Moon Jellies while under sail, but here are a couple of shots for the record.  Most of them were ~10-15 cm across.  Note the hundreds of very fine, thread-like tentacles along the margin.

Below you can see the slightly scalloped edge, as well as the four pinkish horseshoe-shaped gonads in the center.

These two species may also be seen in Bodega Harbor, so keep an eye out for them if you're on the marina docks or walking the Spud Point breakwater.

P.S.  For fans of Finding Nemo, do you remember when Marlin (Nemo's dad) and Dory are navigating a dense swarm of jellies in the EAC, or East Australian Current?  The concentration of jellies in White Gulch reminded us of this scene, so we started joking that we were sailing through the jellies in the WGC, or White Gulch Current. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Perched up high

A mild November day led us to a sailing adventure on Tomales Bay.  We launched from Nick's Cove and headed west towards Point Reyes.  

After passing Hog Island, I heard a series of high-pitched, descending whistles.  I recognized the call as a species I don't hear very often, so we started scanning to see if we could find the bird responsible for the call.  Eventually we located two birds perched up high in a tree on the north end of Hog Island.  Can you spot them?

We decided to sail past the north end of the island for a closer view.  This image, taken as we approached the island, should help you with the identification:

And although we were still pretty far away and the birds were perched at the top of the tree, luckily I had a zoom lens with me which resulted in a couple of decent close-ups:

Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) are rare migrants, winter residents, and recently re-established breeders in Sonoma County.  (Hog Island is in Marin County, but this blog is mostly about Sonoma County, so I'm describing their status in the latter.)

Bald Eagles were more common in northern California in the early 1900s.  Their populations suffered steep declines in the mid-late 1900s (e.g., from persecution and pesticide impacts), but with protection they have recovered. They are still rare in this area, but sightings are now regular and there are two breeding sites in Sonoma County — Lake Sonoma (first recorded in 2001) and Laguna de Santa Rosa (first recorded in 2007).  [If you're interested in looking for Bald Eagles locally, two have been observed recently on Penny Island near the mouth of the Russian River.]

The call of the Bald Eagle is somewhat unusual.  You may see it described as "weak," "trivial," or "insignificant."  It's known as a chatter call and consists of several short descending notes sometimes written as kee kee kee kee ker.  

Interestingly, if you've ever seen a Bald Eagle in a movie, you may have heard a dramatic high-pitched scream.  This is not the true call of a Bald Eagle, but instead a Red-tailed Hawk.  I've never known if the movie-makers used the wrong call by mistake (lack of attention to detail) or on purpose — e.g., if the true call of the eagle was too "wimpy" for the powerful image of this majestic bird of prey.  But it always distracts me to hear a Red-tailed Hawk call when watching a Bald Eagle on-screen.  Movies are hardly ever accurate when it comes to bird sounds, but this is one of the most bothersome examples.

If you'd like to compare the two, listen to the Bald Eagle call and the Red-tailed Hawk call at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's web pages.

P.S.  Now this is a little weird, but it may help with imagining what a Bald Eagle call sounds like.  As I was writing this, I was puzzled in that I thought I heard eagle call notes, but I wasn't playing a recording.  It turns out that there was a basketball game in the background (Celtics vs. Thunder), and the sounds of sneakers squeaking on the court are somewhat similar to eagle call notes!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The little things

I'm thankful for many, many things.  But at the top of the list would have to be "the little things."  That phrase could be a metaphor for different things in life, including the knowing look from someone who loves you, the twinkle in a friend's eyes, finding treasure, being proud of someone you don't even know, experiencing the collective cheer for a team.

For me, "the little things" also include natural history observations.  I'm thankful beyond words that there's always something to discover every time we step outside.

Here are a few of "the little things" that live on Bodega Head.  (They really are little!)

A tiny chiton crawling among sand grains (!).

Dark-eyed Gilia (Gilia millefoliata) flowering in the dunes.  
(The flowers are ~8-11 mm across.  They bloom in spring/early summer.)

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) photographed in Owl Canyon on 20 October 2012.  
(Total length = 4.25 inches.)

I usually have a hard time finding cards with wording I like.  But this one resonated with me, so I'm passing it on to you:

"Sing a song of gratitude,
Dance a little, too...
Feel the autumn's magic
In everything you do...

Wrap yourself in laughter, 
Give some love away...
Pass around the goodness
Have a happy Thanksgiving Day!"

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

You guessed it

Whew!  It was raining pretty hard tonight.  During the last 24 hours, about an inch of rain has fallen.  Knowing that this is the first significant rain of the season, do you have a guess about what type of animal will be featured tonight?  (You can have a few guesses.)

Seemed like good weather for amphibians, so I went out after dinner and found a few of these small vertebrates crawling among the redwood needles:

This is a California Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus).

It was raining hard enough that taking pictures of them was a bit of a challenge.  But here are views of two different individuals next to our garage.  Sometimes they're more red, other times more gray.

I can't help thinking that the rain must feel pretty good to them!

I first wrote about slender salamanders last March, so if you'd like to learn more about them, check out that post here.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Crystals on the beach

In August, I posted several pictures of the gelatinous pseudoconch of a pelagic snail called Corolla spectabilis (review that post for an introduction to Corolla).  

I've observed quite a few of these transparent shells washing up recently.  They look like small, oblong, sparkling crystals on the beach.  I don't remember seeing so many before (e.g., ~25 over a 300-ft stretch of beach), although it's possible I just haven't noticed.  I'll have to keep better notes!

Reviewing the photos I started wondering about the tubercles.  I often think of spines like this being deterrents to predators.  But if this is an internal shell, why do they have tubercles?

Some smaller individuals, ~1 cm long, have also been washing ashore (see next photo).  

Finding smaller individuals made me think about reproduction in this species.  Online there are several sites that state Corolla lays strings of eggs.  But I'm wondering — How do males and females find each other at sea?  What do the juvenile stages look like?  How fast do they grow?  How long before they become mature?  Is this a typical time of year to find smaller individuals?  And is there something about recent water conditions that's driving more of them on shore right now?  (Seawater temperatures have been relatively warm, ~12.5-13.5°C.)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Big wave season

Passing storms during the last few days have generated some of the largest waves of the season so far.  Today there was a west swell, with ~12-14 foot waves, and a wave period of ~15 seconds.  (Wave period is basically how fast the waves are traveling — it's the time it takes for two successive wave crests to pass the same point.)

It's often hard to judge the size of a wave from a picture.  It helps to have something nearby for scale.  

Here are two images, the first with Brown Pelicans (wing span of ~2 meters or 79 inches) and the second with a Western Gull (wing span of ~1.5 meters or 58 inches).

One more view from the side:

Although these waves are large, the most energetic winter storms can produce waves up to 20 feet, and in extreme events we've seen waves up to 30 feet.  When those waves slam into Bodega Head, it feels like the entire headland is rumbling and shaking!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Resting time

Some of the sandpipers that feed in Bodega Harbor at low tide leave to rest on outer coast beaches during high tide.

On 15 November 2012, hundreds of Dunlin were roosting on Salmon Creek Beach.  

If you look closely, you'll also be able to spot a few Western Sandpipers here and there (smaller and grayer, with shorter bills —  easiest to find in the photo above and especially in the next image).

These pictures were taken from a distance so as not to disturb the birds during this important downtime.  Sometimes I visualize this in an unusual way — imagine what it would feel like if every time you tried to relax in your house, someone opened the door, flushed you outside, and made you run around the yard (again and again).  We all need a little rest now and then!

Friday, November 16, 2012

In the rain

Okay, these are pretty marginal photos, but perhaps you can help solve a mystery!

I was driving to work along Coleman Valley Road this morning.  It was raining, but in the distance I could see a sizable bird perched on a utility pole.  It looked larger than a vulture, but I wasn't sure if the rain and dim conditions were playing tricks on me.

When I finally got close enough, the bird flew off, but I snapped a few photos from the car.

Here's a better view of the tail (I said better, not good!):

And one from the side:

A Red-tailed Hawk appeared (on the left in the image below) and started to dive on the larger raptor:

I had one more view before the bird was too far away:

The very large size and broad, plank-like wings make me guess eagle, but I'm not 100% certain which species.  Eagles take ~5 years to develop full adult plumage.  Prior to that, Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles can look pretty similar to each other.

I paid attention to the following:

- overall dark coloration
- distinct white at the base of the tail
- a small amount of white at the base of the primary feathers
- a relatively small head (but larger than a vulture's)
- a relatively long tail (the head appears to be less than half the length of the tail)

These characters make me lean towards an immature Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), but I'm open to other ideas.  Do you agree?  Do you see something that makes you think differently?