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!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Plus two

Okay, so I have a soft spot for sea stars...and for learning new things!  And I'm thankful that each day offers an opportunity for a new natural history sighting.

Remember the small Sunflower Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides) with eight arms?  (Review the post from 17 December.)  I mentioned that Sunflower Stars start out with 5 arms, add a 6th, and then continue adding arms in pairs adjacent to the newest arms until they end up with 20 arms (or more).

Today I found my first 10-armed Sunflower Star.  It was very small, only ~2 cm across, but offered a chance to see the addition of the next two arms.

In the picture above, arm 6 is at 1 o'clock, arms 7 and 8 are at 12 and 3 o'clock, and arms 9 and 10, the newest additions, are the smallest arms just outside of 7 and 8.  What fun to see this process in action!

Here's wishing for many exciting natural history observations for everyone in 2014!

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Double take

Driving to work early this morning along the Bodega Highway, I did a double take while looking out the window (Eric was driving).  Just outside of the town of Bodega, one of the utility poles didn't look quite right!

Can you see why?

Here's another view: 

And one of the top of the pole that's even closer and cropped:

A Bobcat was perched at the very top of the utility pole!  When we first saw it, the light was dim and the cat had its eyes closed much of the time.

But as the sun rose above the hills, the Bobcat started to look around:

Over the years, I've heard several stories of Bobcats being observed at the tops of utility poles.  Whenever hearing about it, or seeing pictures of them in this position, I've often wondered what this behavior is about.

During one incident, the observer thought perhaps the Bobcat had been chased up the pole by a Mountain Lion.  Other possibilities Are they just looking for a place to rest?  Using it as a lookout?  Did the Bobcat chase something up there?  What do you think?  Why do Bobcats climb to the tops of utility poles?

If you haven't done so already, check out those large paws and handsome spots!

We continued on our way to work, leaving while the Bobcat was still perched on the pole.  But throughout the day I kept wondering about it.  What was the Bobcat doing up there, and when (and how) did it climb down?

ADDENDUM (2 January 2014): As a follow-up to John's comment below, I can't help but post one more image.  Just before we were about to leave, a pair of ravens came by and one bird swooped in extremely close to the Bobcat (see below).  The cat didn't seem to react, and the raven just flew off and landed on a nearby pole.  I don't know if they interacted further after we left.  I didn't share this picture because it's blurry (I wasn't quite ready and it happened very quickly), but now I can't resist...and perhaps it's appropriate, especially as this unfolded within sight of the former schoolhouse where a scene from The Birds was filmed.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Christmas Dragonfly Count?

I helped out with the Western Sonoma County Christmas Bird Count today.  We saw some interesting birds, but one non-bird caught my eye in the afternoon:

I was surprised to see this Variegated Meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum) in the Bodega Dunes this afternoon — my first-ever dragonfly on a Christmas Bird Count!  It flew by us and then landed on this dried branch above some open sand.

This dragonfly appears to be a fairly young individual — that is, the colors are not fully developed and it isn't worn.  This means that it may have emerged from a pond recently.  

I heard that it was quite warm in the Bay Area while we were away in New England last week.  Could it have been warm enough to cause some dragonflies to metamorphose?  Where did this individual come from?  Where will it go now?  (There isn't much fresh water on Bodega Head.)

Here's another view from the side:

While writing this post, I vaguely remembered that I photographed this species in the Bodega Dunes Campground last winter, so I double-checked that date it was on January 4th (see that post here)!  So I guess today's sighting on December 29th isn't too far off last winter's sighting.  Does this mean that late December/early January is a regular early emergence time for Variegated Meadowhawk in Sonoma County?

Friday, December 27, 2013


We returned to Sebastopol just in time to see radiant colors lighting up the sky behind the redwood trees.  'Tis the season for vivid sunsets!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A taste of the Arctic

A few more pictures of winter in New England before we head back to California.

Even though I had seen Snowy Owls earlier in the week, Eric wasn't with us that day.  So we went back to Duxbury Beach for a quick look and were lucky to find two owls.  This was one of our favorite views today:

We also spotted this Snow Bunting feeding on seeds along the edge of the road:

And then we saw a larger flock of Snow Buntings foraging in the drift line between the salt marsh and a small sand dune.  It was impressive to see how well the colors of the Snow Buntings matched the sand and the vegetation white, grays, browns, and rust-colored tones.

Now that you've seen one isolated Snow Bunting, how many individuals can you find in the picture below?  (Warning: The answer is below the image.)

There are eight Snow Buntings in the picture above.  Two on the left, two in the center, and four on the right. 

And now that you're warmed up, here's a harder one.  How many Snow Buntings can you find in the next picture?  (Click on the picture to enlarge it.)

There are fourteen Snow Buntings in the picture above.  From left to right: one in the upper left, then a fairly tight cluster of seven, two just to the right of center (one above the other), a group of three at the upper right, and one in the lower right.

Although it would be fun to see a Snowy Owl or Snow Buntings on Bodega Head, I hope you've enjoyed this brief interlude featuring two beautiful species from the Arctic!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

"Flocks of snow"

A few more photos from our afternoon on Duxbury Beach, MA, on 23 December 2013:

As the light was becoming dim at the end of the day, we encountered a large flock of Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis).

Snow Buntings breed on the high arctic tundra and generally winter across the central plains.  On the East Coast, the southern limit of their winter range extends to the Mid-Atlantic states; on the West Coast, the regular winter range extends to Washington.  They occasionally make it to California, and with a quick scan of the Rare Birds of California, it appears that there are about 6-7 records for Sonoma County.

The birds we encountered on Duxbury Beach were very active and challenging to photograph.  In fact, I didn't really end up with any good quality images.  But this is another species that I miss since moving to California and a few of the pictures are interesting.

Here's a close-up where you can focus on identifying males and females.  Note that the white wing patch in males is very broad, while in females it is much more restricted.  The black wing tips in males are also more distinct.  (There's a male and a female side-by-side in the very center of the photograph.)

And you know how much I'm intrigued by the challenge of counting flocks.  Unfortunately, this flock was restless and it didn't really give us a chance to make a satisfactory count in the field before it took off again and disappeared into the distance.  But I took a few quick photos for the record.

Here's one image that doesn't capture the entire flock, but comes fairly close (below).  It's fun to take a quick look at the image and to come up with a guess about the number of birds...and then to do a real count.  Want to try?  (Remember you can click on the image for a larger version.)

When my mother and I saw this flock in the field, we both agreed that there were more than 100 birds.  When using the picture above, two different counters came up with 171 and 172 individual Snow Buntings.  How many did you count?

Two more pictures, highlighting those black-and-white flashes and the sense of restlessness:

P.S.  Because there is so much white in their plumage and they often occur in tight active flocks, to some people Snow Buntings can look like snowflakes swirling around in the air.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Snow in the rain

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) on Duxbury Beach, Massachusetts, 23 December 2013. 

In total we observed five Snowy Owls on Duxbury Beach today quite a birthday present!  I was reminded how much I miss seeing these occasional visitors from the far north.

There is an historic irruption of Snowy Owls occurring in the Northeast this winter.  I haven't yet heard the details of where it stands in comparison to other years with high numbers of Snowy Owls (perhaps someone can help me out?), but I'm glad to have seen a very small glimpse of it.

Wayne Peterson (with the Massachusetts Audubon Society) sent around a link to Bruce Mactavish's blog with some information about the incredible numbers of Snowy Owls in Newfoundland and hinting that these birds may be originating from northern Quebec after a very successful breeding season there this past summer.

Here are two more photos of different individuals from Duxbury Beach today.  The next one shows very dark barring, indicating that this may be a young female (females tend to be darker than males).

This individual is much paler (see below).  Note that all of these photos were taken from far away with a long lens and then heavily cropped.  If you look closely, you'll find some wet feathers on these owls as all of us (the owls and my mother and I) were out in the rain today.

I have very fond memories of watching Snowy Owls on Cape Cod.  One of my favorite experiences involved a Snowy Owl that had caught a Common Eider and a Northern Harrier that wanted some of the eider, too.  The owl was perched on the ground holding onto the duck.  The harrier would walk slowly towards the owl and then try to grab hold of the eider by reaching backward with one of its long legs.  Eventually the owl would respond by raising its wings and screeching at the harrier, and the harrier would retreat.  But the harrier kept trying over and over again!  It never succeeded as far as I know, but it was an unforgettable wildlife observation.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Fluid and evanescent

Two of the items on my birthday wish list included a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to see the John Singer Sargent Watercolors exhibit and a walk to look for a Snowy Owl.  Today we accomplished the first and tomorrow we'll attempt the second!

I've always been awestruck by Sargent's ability to depict reflections on water.  And seeing his paintings in person just increased my wonder and appreciation for his skill.  You can understand why the Wall Street Journal used words like fluid and evanescent when describing his work.

I didn't take any pictures today, but here's an image of reflections on water from Tomales Bay in August 2012.  It's very abstract, but it's the first picture that came to mind when I thought about the Sargent paintings.

If you happen to be in the Boston area and can make it to the Sargent exhibit, I highly recommend it!  And around the corner in a smaller gallery room, don't miss Audubon's Birds, Audubon's Words.  The extra large John James Audubon prints include American White Pelican, Great Auk, and Ivory-billed Woodpecker among others. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Dao of Ice

We've been traveling and settling in for an East Coast visit.  Tonight I barely made it outside for a quick walk in the backyard before the sun set.  I was drawn to the snowy banks of a small ice-covered stream.  We just don't get to see those wintery black-and-white scenes in Bodega Bay!

Not too many photo opportunities today, but here's a close-up of the ice:

I hope you enjoyed the winter solstice, and that you're able to find much peace and happiness and inspiration in the outdoors in the year to come!

P.S.  Eric thought the pattern in the ice resembled the yin-yang symbol, hence the title of this post.  I didn't see that until he mentioned it, but then it was fun to think about.  What else do you see in the ice?  Can you visualize how those patterns were formed?

Friday, December 20, 2013

An amazing transformation

Earlier in December I wrote about finding the first larvae of an unusual hydroid, Candelabrum fritchmanii, in California.  Well, we have continued to follow some of these larvae in the lab, and I have a few more fun photos to share.

First, here's a nice image showing a newly hatched actinula larva next to an empty egg case (the egg case is clear and partially torn).  I'm guessing the larva had emerged from this case very recently.  (If you look closely, you can see that the egg case is being held from below by a slender clasper tentacle.)

Next, two of my best pictures of a young Candelabrum fritchmanii larva.  These images are of the same individual, but they show how extensible the larva isstretching outward and pulling back in.  This larva is ~1 mm long.

When the larvae are about a week old, the posterior region elongates and develops an attachment disc at the end.  Here are two different individuals, the first with the attachment disc at the bottom of the photo (a bit blurry), and the second with the disc at the top.

The next stage in the transformation is dramatic.  Once the larva attaches to the substrate (in this case the substrate is kelp), it basically collapses into a sphere.  During this process of metamorphosis, the long primary larval tentacles are resorbed, so all you see are short stubby tentacles:

And then it very quickly becomes a tiny polyp!  Two days after I took the picture above, here is what this polyp looked like:

It was amazing to see the process from hatching to a crawling actinula larva with long outstretched tentacles to an attached rounded sphere and then a tiny polyp, all within about a week and a half!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Streaming by

For at least the last week, as I've been getting ready to leave for work, I've noticed very large flocks of birds streaming by overhead.  These pictures don't really do them justice, but look for the small dark specks against the blue sky and gray and white clouds.

By the time I found my camera this morning, the largest flocks had gone by already.  But here are a few more images to document this phenomenon.  Today many of the birds were so high that it was difficult to see them at first.  (You can click on the pictures to enlarge them slightly.)

All told, there were thousands of birds.  Although it will be a challenge, if they're flying by tomorrow, I'll have to try to count.

Do you have any guesses yet about which species this might be?  I'll show two more photos of flocks high in the sky...and then two closer shots that may help you identify the species involved.

I know they're not great shots, but it's the best I could do this morning.

These are American Robins (Turdus migratorius), the largest North American thrush.

There are lots of questions surrounding these morning flights of robins.  Is there a communal roost somewhere to the west?  If so, how many birds are using it?  Is there a food source somewhere to the east?  (All of the birds were flying west to east.)  Did the cold temperatures cause large numbers of robins to gather in this area?  Have I missed seeing morning flights of robins here before?

It's impressive to see such large numbers of birds flying by.  Fun fact: In the early 1900s, an American Robin roost of 250,000 birds was documented in Arkansas.  Wow!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Something new

One of my favorite things is learning something new about a familiar species.

Here's a picture of a juvenile marine invertebrate that is more easily recognized as an adult:

Can you tell which species of sea star this is?

The number of rays, or arms, is a clue.  As is its speed.  I had trouble taking pictures of this individual because it kept crawling very quickly out of view!

Have you counted the number of rays?  There are 8 total, of 3 different lengths.  Five long, one medium, and two short.

This number of rays rules out most of the local sea stars.  I'll also tell you that this individual was found in the rocky intertidal zone, that it was flexible (not stiff), and spiny (not smooth).

Have you guessed?  I'll reveal the answer below the next photo.  This one shows the size, at about 14 mm (~1/2 inch).

This is a juvenile Sunflower Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides)!  The adults are much larger (up to 4 feet across) and have many more rays (sometimes over 20).

Interestingly, when they first undergo metamorphosis from the planktonic larval stage, Sunflower Stars only have five rays.  Then they add one more to make an even six.  After that they start adding rays in pairs.  So that's what you're seeing in this tiny juvenile.  

This process was first discovered and illustrated by William Ritter and Guilelma Crocker in 1900.  Below is a drawing from their paper.  It shows the first five rays (I-V), the sixth ray (A), and the two newest rays (small buds to either side of A).  Future rays will be added in a bilateral arrangement adjacent to the newest rays.  [Compare this drawing to the pictures above!]

Illustration modified from Ritter, W.E. and G.R. Crocker. 1900.  Multiplication of rays and bilateral symmetry in the twenty-rayed starfish, Pycnopodia helianthoides (Stimpson). Proc. Wash. Acad. Sci. 2: 248-274.

Before Eric found this tiny Sunflower Star, I had no idea that this is how they added their rays...and that William Ritter, the first marine biologist at the University of California and the founder of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was involved in the discovery!

One more Pycnopodia picture for you an adult Sunflower Star, so you can visualize what this juvenile will become!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Just swell

I've been waiting for a morning like this with a large, long period westerly swell and offshore winds. 

The waves were about 10-11 feet.  Swell period was about 16 seconds.  Winds were out of the east at about 14 mph (12.5 knots).  These are some of my favorite conditions for wave pictures on Bodega Head.


P.S.  Note that although some of these pictures are a little scary, they were all taken from a very safe place with a long lens.