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Friday, January 30, 2015

Only the second

Well, this is cheating a little bit.  But I thought it would be fun to share the news that this species has been seen in Santa Rosa during the last two days.  I haven't been able to go see it, but I have pictures of this species from Yosemite in October 2014.

Although my pictures show a male Williamson's Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus), the individual observed in Santa Rosa on 29-30 January 2015 is a female (and they look quite different).

This woodpecker is normally found in coniferous forests at higher elevations.  The recent sighting in Santa Rosa is only the second time a Williamson's Sapsucker has been documented in Sonoma County!

Here's one more view of this very striking woodpecker:

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Cool as a...

Here's the mystery close-up from last night:

Did you have any guesses about what type of animal this is?

Someone noticed the sand grains in the photo.  They're important.  This is a burrowing animal.  It also eats organic detritus stuck to the sand that's probably why it's picking up a sand grain with a long tentacle: so it can transfer it to its mouth.  The tentacles in this species are amazing: They're like little hands!

It is an echinoderm, but its only tube feet are the modified tentacles that you see in the picture above (!).

And yes, it's common name is also a vegetable.

Meet Leptosynapta albicans, the burrowing sea cucumber.
There are so many things to talk about with this species that it's hard to choose.

Their skin is fascinatinghere's a zoomed in view:

Can you see all of the little anchors?  There are also some small oval discs called plates.  These anchors and plates are the sea cucumber's ossicles (calcareous skeletal elements).  The anchors act like hooks and probably help with locomotion and traction.

Below are some amazing pictures of the anchors and plates from a closely related species taken with a scanning electron microscope:

From Stricker, S.A.  1985.  The ultrastructure and formation of the calcareous ossicles in the body wall of the sea cucumber Leptosynapta clarki (Echinodermata, Holothuroida).  Zoomorphology 105: 209-222.

One day when I was looking at an individual sea cucumber under a microscope, I noticed something interesting at the back end.

It's usually smooth there, but there was an unusual cluster of tiny objects.  I zoomed in and saw this:

The objects had "polka dots" and what looked like long tentacles!

Do you know what's coming next?

I finally found one that was separate from the rest:

This is a juvenile Leptosynapta, only about 1 mm long.  This sea cucumber broods its young internally (in the ovaries, or ovarian tubules).  When the young are around ~5-6 months old, they are released.

The "polka dots" are small ossiclesthe skeleton of this tiny sea cucumber. 

Can you see the opaque white ring at the base of the tentacles?  Here's an even better view of it:

This is a calcareous ring that surrounds the esophagus.  It's made up of adjoining plates that are different shapes and sizes and arrangements, depending on the species.  [Fun fact: The calcareous ring is one of the only parts of a sea cucumber that is left behind in the fossil record!]

Although you might not know it at first if you found one of these small pink blobs in the sand or under a rock, this is one cool cucumber!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What's this?

Do you love the challenge of the close-up mystery photos, and are you always looking forward to the next one?  Well, there's no need to wait!  ;)

I haven't been able to get out in the field recently, so I went back into the archives for this one.

It's also going to be tricky, but see what you think.  I'll post the answer soon.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Spiky -- Part 2

Apologies for the delay.  A couple of nights ago, I posted a mystery photo and asked if you recognized the type of animal it was:

This is a tough one!

But isn't it intriguing?

I can give you a small hint, and tell you that the picture shows the animal viewed from above.

And here's another clue: This is the larval stage of a marine invertebrate.  So it's quite small (microscopic).

What makes it look so "spiky" are very long cilia used for swimming.

As an adult, it's colonial and the feeding members of the colony extend beautiful, bell-like lophophores to capture food particles from the water (see pictures at the end of this post).

Here's a view of the same animal from the side:

Note the triangular shape.  You can see that the lower edge is fringed by cilia, and that there's an apical tuft at the top. 

This is a cyphonautes larva the swimming stage of some species of bryozoans (the most common example in this area would be Membranipora).

In the image above, perhaps you noticed the long, narrow "bar" in the middle of the cyphonautes larva (it looks like a straw)?  It's one of the ciliated ridges that the larva uses to feed.  

The diagram below illustrates the basic feeding process.  There are different types of cilia on the ridges.  They draw water into an incurrent chamber, sieve particles from that water, move the particles to the mouth, then the water exits through the excurrent chamber:

Diagram modified from Strathmann and McEdward.  1986.  Cyphonautes' ciliary sieve breaks a biological rule of inference.  Biol. Bull. 171: 694-700.

Below is a short video clip of a cyphonautes larva swimming — viewed from the side and from above.  After watching the video, be sure to scroll down to see photos of the adults, too.

The larva will swim in the open ocean for several weeks before finding a place to settle down.  You'll recognize adult bryozoan colonies as white, lacy crusts on kelps or other seaweeds.  Here's what they look like under a microscope:

The adult bryozoan colony and the cyphonautes larva look so different that it was a long time before the connection was made between the two stages.  It's easy to see why!

Sunday, January 25, 2015


Lots of chores today, so not much time tonight.  For now I'll leave you with a fun mystery photo.  Do you have any guesses about what type of animal this is?  I'll reveal the answer soon, but you have a little time to study and wonder.   ;)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Sunset and spindrift

The setting sun lit up the spray coming off the backsides of the waves tonight.  That's about a 9-9.5 foot swell, with an east wind blowing around 6-8 mph (5-7 knots).

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Scarlet O'Holothuroid

Once again, Eric's sharp eyes spotted a very special animal in the intertidal zone on Bodega Head.

Meet Lissothuria nutriens, also known as the Scarlet Sea Cucumber.  (Remember that sea cucumbers are in the echinoderm Class Holothuroidea).  Don't worry if you haven't seen this species beforethey're smallusually less than ~2 cm (~0.75 inches) long.

And this species is more common from Monterey Bay south.  It's probably rare in northern California.  There's only one record in the California Academy of Sciences collection for Marin and Sonoma counties (from Duxbury Reef).

Here's a close-up of the branched tentacles:

And one of my favorite viewsthe wonderful, elephantine tube feet on the ventral (under) surface.  Note the shiny ossicles.

Although Lissothuria can move around, they are mostly sedentary.  This individual was partially camouflaged by bits of shell, algae, and other debris held by its tube feet.

Interestingly, this sea cucumber is a brooderit releases eggs and broods them in pits on its dorsal surface, so the potential for long distance dispersal of its young is low.

This is our second time finding Lissothuria on Bodega Head.  It's intriguing to think about how they got here and to wonder about whether they'll become more common in the future (if water temperatures become warmer).

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Something new in the salt marsh

I've become quite enamored with pipits since moving to the West Coast.  This one was taking advantage of the high tide in the salt marsh in Bodega Harbor today, searching for insects among the vegetation along the water's edge.

I was having fun just observing the pipit in its habitat, watching it feeding, wondering about what it was finding...

...when I noticed something I hadn't seen before:

Sometimes the feathers above the pipit's eyes flared into little tufts!

I'm not sure what was going on, as I don't recall noticing this in pipits before, or seeing it mentioned when reading about them.  But it was definitely there on several occasions.  Have I just been missing it?  Have you seen this before?  Do you know what it's about?  I'd be interested in your observations and thoughts.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Rorschach test

If you walked by a tidepool and saw this, would you recognize it?

The brown substance in the water is distinctive once you've seen it a few times.  Here's another view, a few seconds later (below).  Note how it changes shape, and that it doesn't dissolve or disappear right away:

And the answer is?  Well, here's the animal responsible for it:

The brown substance in the water is octopus ink.  This octopus released a cloud of ink while jetting across a shallow tidepool.  Afterwards, the octopus settled on the bottom briefly and then crawled under a rock.

Octopus ink is a combination of pigment, e.g., melanin (released by the ink sac) and mucous (released by the funnel organ).  It's quite effective as a distraction.  The ink morphs into a variety of shapes, and stays visible for several minutesgiving the octopus plenty of time to escape while a potential predator is confused by the ink.

You might have seen some cephalopod ink that is black.  Ink color varies depending on the species.  Whenever we've seen Octopus rubescens ink, it's been orange-brown in color.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Orange peel

We had a few minutes after finishing some field work at Pinnacle Gulch, so we looked around in the intertidal zone.  A bright orange animal caught my eye:

A closer view revealed just how orange this nudibranch was!

In the picture above, you can also see relatively long papillae (or projections) that make the nudibranch look fuzzy, white flecks scattered across the surface, dark tips to the rhinophores (the sensory organs), and a hint of the white gill plumesall important characteristics of an Orange-peel Dorid (Acanthodoris lutea).

The orange color is important to the nudibranch.  It's an example of aposematic coloration, or "warning" coloration a signal to potential predators that the nudibranch is unpalatable or toxic.

Here's one more image, this time from above.   The water was flowing by at the time, so the rhinophores are leaning to the left.  This shot includes a better view of the extended white gill plumes.

Although they're known to occur from Cape Arago, Oregon to northern Baja California, Orange-peel Dorids appear to be uncommon in the Bodega Bay area.  This is the first time we've encountered this species locally.

Friday, January 16, 2015

What the eagle had landed on...

Was anyone else wondering about what the eagle was eating?

Did you notice the feathers behind the eagle?

Well, later in the day, long after the eagle (and vultures) had left the scene, I couldn't help it.  I walked out onto the tidal flats to look at the feathers to see if there were any that might be definitive for an identification.

I should mention that Eric thought he saw a lot of black and white when he was watching the eagle eating.  And my instinct said that the prey item was likely a duck.  (So it's helpful to start thinking about the types of ducks that are present in Bodega Harbor.)

If you'd like to try to guess, below are pictures of three feathers.  In the field, there were some feathers that were all black and some feathers that were all white, but these feathers with beautiful vermiculations provided the best clues:

Are you ready to guess?

I think the eagle was eating a scaup, probably a Greater Scaup (Aythya marila).

Check out this wonderful Greater Scaup picture that Len took at Lake Merced, compare the feathers on the upperparts, and see if you think it could be a match.

If you've seen eagles eating other interesting prey in this area, I'd love to hear about it.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Power hopping"

Driving by Gaffney Point in Bodega Harbor this morning, I noticed the vultures were interested in a bird that was larger than they were.  Do you recognize it?

The birds were out on the mudflats, but here's a zoomed in view (below).  I suppose I should clarify that the vultures were interested in what this young Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was eating, not necessarily in the bird itself:

More Turkey Vultures started to gather nearby:

At first the eagle was focused on eating its prey, but eventually it turned to defend its meal.  It "power hopped" (a new term! = using its wings along with its legs) among the vultures to force them to back away.

When the eagle left its partially eaten prey, the vultures wasted no time (next image).  How many vultures do you count?

Soon the eagle made its way back to finish off the rest of the prey.

There were several "scuffles" when the birds "shuffled," and I managed one flight shot:

Note the Western Gull below the eagle for scale.

Bald Eagles have been reported recently from the Russian River, Tomales Bay, and Bodega Harbor.  Perhaps this picture will be good enough to identify this individual so that we can tell if it's the same bird moving around among these different sites.

P.S.  Here's a nice shot of two adult Bald Eagles on Hog Island in Tomales Bay on 23 November 2012.

P.P.S.  A Bald Eagle won't show a completely white head until it's ~5 years old.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Looking west

Sunset from Bodega Head, 14 January 2015

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Looking east

Sunrise over Bodega Harbor, 12 January 2015

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Digger

While wandering yesterday and encountering those Northern Flicker feathers, I also noticed a small mammal nearby that perhaps had been left behind by a predator.  It wasn't in the best condition, but you don't get to see this species very often because it spends most of its life underground (in fact, I think these are my first photographs of this species from Bodega Head), so I've decided to show a few images:

Have you seen this species before?  I'm guessing you've at least noticed evidence of its subterranean runways on the surface of the ground. 

There are four species of moles that live in California, two of which have been recorded on Bodega Head.  I showed one species, the American Shrew-Mole, on 9 February 2013 (review that post here).  The mole pictured above is a Broad-footed Mole (Scapanus latimanus).

I used the name "Broad-footed Mole" because that's the name commonly used by other sources.  But I was tempted to rebel and use "Broad-handed Mole" because the species name, "latimanus" translates directly into "broad hand."  And a broad hand it is!

The entire mole was ~14 cm long.  The front "hand" was ~2 cm long and ~1.5 cm wide.  Note that the claws are quite long and take up ~50% of the hand!

On the opposite end, the hind feet are much, much smallernot so important for digging.

I'll point out one more important characteristic for nowthe tail.  If you review the first photo (I'll show it again below), note the length of the tail (is it short or long?) and whether it's covered with hairs or not.

The short, hairy tail helps identify this as a Broad-footed Mole.

P.S.  I know this might seem a little random, but whenever I see a mole I almost always think of two things from my past that triggered visualizations of what life might be like for a mole:

- A drawing by one of my favorite illustrators"Dead End Mole" by Peter Parnall.  You can see it here. (Click on the thumbnail to see the complete version.)

- A wonderful book that Julie recommended to me Duncton Wood by William Horwood.  It's written in the style of Watership Down, but with moles instead of rabbits. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

Feather puzzle #2

These are the first feathers I found (below).  They were scattered on the ground, but I lined them up for the photo.   

Do you have a guess about which species of bird they belong to? 

The largest feather is about 4.5 cm (1.75 inches) long and the smallest is about 2.5 cm (1 inch) long.

The patterning on the feathers made me think of one group of birds, but I couldn't be certain.  So I looked around for more clues.  

I finally found a different type of feather and it surprised me a bit.  I was right about the family, but I hadn't yet considered the species.

The next photo might give the answer away, so if you want to keep trying with the first feathers, don't scroll down until you're ready.

And this is what it looked like when I flipped it over:

Scanning around, I found one other feather type:

Did you guess Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)?  

The bright yellow coloration gives it awayalthough some of you probably know that the more common form of Northern Flicker in this area has red or salmon coloration on its feathers instead of yellow.

The next question is, what types of feathers are these, especially the first ones?  Can you picture where they might be found on a flicker?

The smaller, black-and-white feathers are uppertail-coverts.  The Birds of North America account includes a great description of them: "Uppertail-coverts are diversely patterned, white with black bars, chevrons, 'horseshoes,' or other marks (Short 1982)."

The middle photos highlight a long, pointed tail feather dominated by yellow on its underside.

And the last photo is a secondary featherone of the inner wing feathers.

Unfortunately, I realized that I don't have a good picture of a Northern Flicker.  :/  But you can see all three feather types in these illustrations:

Those first feathers had my mind twirling.  That was a fun puzzle!

P.S.  I read that possible predators of flickers include accipiters (e.g., Cooper's Hawks), Red-shouldered Hawks, and Northern Harriers.