drove down California Route 1 (the famous Pacific Coast Highway) from Monterey to Malibu yesterday. This coastline is amazingly beautiful, and huge stretches have been saved from the depredations of property developers (which is quite astonishing considering their political influence around here and what they’ve shamelessly done to other bits of the US shore). It was clear but extremely cold and windy. As you can see, it’s the type of place that photographers with more patience than me make a lot of money from (you’ll have to live with these quick snaps, I’m afraid).
Anyhow, so there I was, just me and a bunch of hokey radio stations, driving down hundreds of miles of something like the Garden Route (before the golf estate mafiosos got it) and Chapman’s Peak combined,
when I came round a bend and – holy smoke – there are hundreds of dead seals on that beach! The first thing that came to mind was the classic crane shot from Gone With the Wind, where the camera rises up to show us litter-loads of battle casualties from the US Civil War.
I stopped the car and had a closer look. Their bodies were kind-of saggy and flattened, and some had skin peeling off them, like rotten week-old Cape Buffalo carcases in Kruger.
Some were clearly not yet dead – they lifted their heads and made plaintive noises, then flopped down again. Others weakly struggled, their flippers unable to move their large bodies, merely succeeding in throwing sand in the air.
It took me half a minute to realise that there was a parking lot next to the beach. A few people were milling about ineffectually, seemingly led by three-odd middle aged ladies in blue bibs – the rescue team, I surmised. I pulled into the parking lot, eager to find what I thought might be an interesting news story. I then discovered that my take on the seals was utterly, completely, wrong.
The pinnipeds that I had seen from the road are Elephant Seals. Since 1990 or therabouts they have been coming to the beach to breed, socialise, and complete their annual moult (which, for females, happens this time of year). This involves lying on the beach, not feeding and hardly moving (inc. hardly breathing) for a whole month while their old fur falls out and new fur grows in – hence the ‘peeling skin’ look. Why they flip sand on to themselves is a bit of mystery – perhaps it’s to keep the sun off their sensitive skin or maybe “just to give themselves something to do”, according to one of the blue-bibbed Elephant Seal volunteers. They’re huge – the females in these photos are about double the size of Cali Sea Lions, I reckon.
For some, the moult was clearly more than a little itchy.
These beasts are called Elephant Seals because the males develop a big trunk-like nose as they get older. This time of year the males are all supposed to be feeding in the waters off Alaska – the guidebooks say they only arrive at this beach in June, when they barge each other around making noises like – well – hippos. One young male (6 years old, according to his small trunk) had arrived early, and floated about grunting, looking for other males to fight with and females to seduce.
He came up on to the beach while I was there, finding no fighting partners and eliciting no more than silent, unmoving disinterest from the girls (clearly the dumb kid in the back of the class who never looked over the marine mammal field guides closely enough. Need to read to pull the chicks, buddy!)
So, actually a happy scene. Yellow flowers, itchy seals, etc. etc., and a fun 20 min leg-stretching diversion for me.
I stayed overnight with Randy Olsen, a filmmaker (and ex evolutionary biologist) who makes movies about the failure of scientists to communicate. He’s into working with comedy actors to turn science and enviro education into entertainment, which is really refreshing to me.
I’m off now, driving back up the coast. I gotta make it all the way to San Francisco by midday tomorrow to catch my flight to Alaska…
From Malibu, from just near Cher’s giant hillside mansion, with love
one of the most intriguing raptors (just about still) around is the California Condor. When I last passed down the California coast for a few days early in 1991 I had no chance of seeing them – the last 22 birds had all been captured and taken into captivity by 1987. Modernity does not agree too well with this scavenger with its 9-foot wingspan – birds were being electrocuted by powerlines and poisoned by the remnants of lead bullets left in the carcases of deer. Many experts believed that, even if the they could be bred in captivity, there were simply too few left to allow the species to last as inbreeding would simply, gradually finish the job that industrial society had started.
Dedicated efforts by conservationists, and not a small amount of money ($35 million to date), saw this Condor thrive in zoos and captive breeding facilities. In late 1991 the first individuals were released back into the California skies. Since then they have been followed by many others. Today 148 birds fly free in California, Arizona, and western Mexico and similar number exist in captivity.
Of course, 300 birds is still too few. Although they can live for up to 60 years, they only find their life partners and start breeding successfully between eight and fourteen years of age, and then only produce one youngster every two years. Although some birds are now breeding in the wild, they are heavily assisted. New eggs are removed by climbers to be artificially kept warm in a super-safe incubator, and an artificial dummy egg is left behind to fool the parents into thinking they’re doing what they’re meant to do. Just before these eggs hatch they are spirited back into the nest, and the parents take over.
Powerlines and lead bullet fragments left in deer carcases still kill them and nestlings have been dying after being fed with small bits of junk (bottle caps, PVC plastic shards, etc.). Condors survive outside zoos because conservationists feed them (stillborn cattle, mainly) and each free-flying bird is closely monitored – every single one is electronically tagged. Every few years each is recaptured and its tag batteries replaced. If a Condor seems too unafraid of people or is seen perching on powerlines, it is captured and taken back to live inside a cage, the value of its genes higher than that of its freedom; the wild California Condor is in some sense extinct.
I went down the Big Sur coast today (April 28, 2008) with Sayre Flannagan, a wildlife biologist with the Ventura Wildlife Society. We saw two nests and – amazingly – five condors. My bird-eyes are clearly still working despite chronic sleep deprivation because I saw the fourth bird through a tiny gap in the trees as we were whizzing by a small valley on Route 1. Most birds were too far away to photograph and, trust my luck, the only flying photograph-able one (Condor no. 222) decided to flap past with my camera unset-up and in shocking light.
A few blurry grab shots are better than nowt, so that’s what you’ve gowt.
Unwild or wild, cosseted or free, I’m very glad that some of these huge, bare-bulge faced birdies (their skin colour changes with emotion) still soar on the uprising air of the California coast. Thanks, Sayre, for a great day – and my first Cali Condors!
PS Midd Fellows will be pleased to learn that we passed within a quarter-mile of two (separate) just-hatched nestling Condors on our excursion. I won’t tell you where, though – I’ve been sworn to secrecy! The nest sites are just too vulnerable to talk about.
is an interesting story regarding Condors which raises the old question: How ‘objective’ can experts be when they’re paid by developers?
I worked on admin stuff for most of the day, but took a late walk down to Monterey’s harbour (having heard there might be some good birds down there).
I’ve had my Nikon D300 for just over a week now and it’s starting to feel like it belongs in my hands. I’ve not photographed ‘properly’ since about 2000 (back in the film era) and the whole taking-digital-seriously thing is a huge learning curve! Nontheless, the camera is very responsive and a joy to use. All these images were taken with the rapidly-becoming-classic AFS-Nikkor 18-200mm, an ultra range zoom that’s nonetheless surprisingly sharp.
I keep telling myself that photography is like riding a bike, and I’ll never forget how to do it, though I remain unconvinced. I never rode a bike with a 500 page instruction manual.
The first animals of interest I encountered down at the harbour were fairly large numbers of grunting, honking California Sea Lion, which remind me of Cape Fur Seal in terms of voice, temperament and looks (they’re apparently reasonably closely related).
Here’s a portrait of what I suspect is a female:
And a definite male (fighting scars, bone-bump on forehead):
Cali Sea Lion seem to spend a huge amount of time arguing about small bits of rock on which to haul out on. They’re not at all afraid of taking chunks out of each other for the right to park flippers on the tiniest bit of dry land. Fights take place in heaps, with half the heap taking part and half snoozing though the mindless violence ripping loose around them. I could not figure out what made a Sea Lion decide to get involved or sleep through a fight in its pile…
Every now and again they stopped to serenade a passing Coke bottle.
A few hundred Brandt’s Cormorant were launching into the breeding season with throat-baring gusto behind a fence on the harbour breakwater.
Although my Sibley guide makes no mention of this, it seems they have a bright blue gular flap that comes in handy for attracting mates. I watched in amazement as, one by one, the birds spasmed backwards into a skypointing display, throat flap stretched, wings held up etc. Who needs internet dating when you’ve got a ‘lectric blue Adam’s Apple… wowee!
Closer… with some visual texture courtesy of the fence
Also in the area was one of today’s new trip birds, Heermann’s Gull, a very attractive sooty gull. This one wasn’t quite in its tight-looking breeding plumage. (The other trip bird was a transitional-plumage Long-tailed Duck that I had good but distant views of.)
Just before I left I found this cormorant bringing a jelliness of seaweed to line its nest. Cormorants and – uh – flowers; what a great combination!
Walking home I found the best image I’ve yet trapped in my D300. I’m hugely drawn to this country’s street corners. They’re good places to find some essence of the US of America.
That’s it – figured out how to blog photos and now I’m off to bed. Spending tomorrow tracking California Condors down in the Big Sur.
Hello All (Birders)
herewith my Cali birds since arriving until yesterday. Birding has been done in a rather seriously unserious fashion, as you’ll see by the patchy list & low total, but there are some fun ones in there. Bold species name indicates that I’ve snapped a photo of the sp. and ‘ph?’ means I can’t remember if I did. Names are according to Sibley’s latest field guides to E and W North America. My Excel list formatting did not come through; info is a) number (my total) b) species name c) state abbreviation d) date 1st seen in state e) place 1st seen in state f) random notes.
I’d doubtless have a few tens more spp. if I’d actually managed to hook up w a local birder – so far it’s been just me in relax mode, my ropey New World knowledge and the increasingly frustrating Sibley guides (they appear at first glance to be super-complete, but actually leave a lot of vital info & drawings out).
Random record photos, mostly crap quality, will follow as soon as I’ve figured out how to optimise them for the blog.
- Red-throated Loon CA 22-Apr-08 Pacific Grove Intermediate plumage
- Pacific Loon CA 22-Apr-08 Pacific Grove
- Common Loon CA 19-Apr-08 Brighton Bch, Santa Cruz
- Eared Grebe CA 22-Apr-08 Pacific Grove
- Pied-billed Grebe ph? CA 17-Apr-08 Neary Lagoon, Santa Cruz
- Western Grebe CA 19-Apr-08 Brighton Bch, Santa Cruz ID: Extent of white on face, bill colour
- Clark’s Grebe CA 19-Apr-08 Brighton Bch, Santa Cruz ID: Extent of white on face, bill colour
- Brown Pelican CA 17-Apr-08 Pleasure Pt, Santa Cruz
- Brandt’s Cormorant CA 17-Apr-08 Pleasure Pt, Santa Cruz White filaments not shown Sibley
- Pelagic Cormorant CA 19-Apr-08 Santa Cruz NB: Red face while breeding!
- Great Egret ph? CA 16-Apr-08 San Francisco
- Green Heron ph? CA 17-Apr-08 Neary Lagoon Catching fish
- Canada Goose CA 22-Apr-08 Pacific Grove
- Mallard ph? CA 16-Apr-08 near San Francisco
- Surf Scoter CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz
- Common Merganser CA 26-Apr-08 Andrew Molera St Pk
- Red-breasted Merganser CA 22-Apr-08 Pacific Grove
- Turkey Vulture CA 24-Apr-08 Big Sur area
- Cooper’s Hawk CA 20-Apr-08 Pogonip, Santa Cruz
- Red-shouldered Hawk CA 22-Apr-08 Asilomar
- Red-tailed Hawk ph? CA 26-Apr-08 Big Sur area Typical adult
- California Quail CA 26-Apr-08 Andrew Molera St Pk
- American Coot ph? CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz
- Black-bell. Plover CA 19-Apr-08 Brighton Bch, Santa Cruz Juv & Adt Br
- Killdeer CA 23-Apr-08 Asilomar
- (American) Black Oystercatcher CA 22-Apr-08 Pacific Grove
- Spott. Sandpiper ph? CA 17-Apr-08 Pleasure Pt, Santa Cruz
- Whimbrel CA 21-Apr-08 Asilomar
- Marbled Godwit CA 21-Apr-08 Asilomar
- Black Turnstone CA 21-Apr-08 Asilomar
- Sanderling CA 19-Apr-08 Brighton Bch, Santa Cruz
- Least Sandpiper CA 26-Apr-08 Andrew Molera St Pk
- mystery Phalarope CA 20-Apr-08 Santa Cruz
- Western Gull CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz
- Caspian Tern CA 22-Apr-08 Pacific Grove
- Pigeon Guillemot CA 20-Apr-08 Santa Cruz
- Feral Pigeon CA 16-Apr-08 San Francisco
- Mourning Dove CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz
- White-throated Swift CA 20-Apr-08 Pogonip, Santa Cruz
- Anna’s Hummingbird CA 17-Apr-08 Neary Lag., Santa Cruz
- Allen’s Hummingbird CA 26-Apr-08 Andrew Molera St Pk Orange-rumped adt male
- Acorn Woodpecker CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz
- Hairy Woodpecker CA 22-Apr-08 Asilomar
- Pacific-slope Flycatcher CA 26-Apr-08 Andrew Molera St Pk
- Black Phoebe CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz
- Steller’s Jay CA 18-Apr-08 Soquel
- West. Scrub-Jay ph? CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz
- American Crow CA 16-Apr-08 San Francisco
- Tree Swallow CA 21-Apr-08 Pacific Grove
- Violet-green Swallow CA 22-Apr-08 Pacific Grove
- N. Rough-w. Swallow CA 22-Apr-08 Pacific Grove
- Barn Swallow CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz
- Cliff Swallow CA 17-Apr-08 Neary Lag., Santa Cruz
- Purple Martin CA 21-Apr-08 Asilomar
- Oak Titmouse CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz
- Chestnut-backed Chickadee CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz CA central-coast form
- Bushtit CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz
- Marsh Wren CA 17-Apr-08 Neary Lag., Santa Cruz
- Bewick’s Wren CA 20-Apr-08 Pogonip, Santa Cruz
- House Wren CA 24-Apr-08 Esalen
- American Robin CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz w nesting material
- N. Mockingbird CA 17-Apr-08 Neary Lag., Santa Cruz
- Cedar Waxwing CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz
- European Starling CA 16-Apr-08 San Francisco
- Black-Throated Gray Warbler CA 17-Apr-08 Neary Lagoon, Santa Cruz
- Wilson’s Warbler CA 20-Apr-08 Pogonip, Santa Cruz
- Black-hd. Grosbeak CA 18-Apr-08 Soquel
- California Towhee CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz
- Spotted Towhee CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz
- Song Sparrow CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz CA coastal form
- Dark-eyed Junco CA 18-Apr-08 Soquel Oregon form
- White-crowned Sparrow CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz
- Golden-crowned Sparrow CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz
- Red-wing Blackbird CA 18-Apr-08 Soquel bicoloured form
- Brewer’s Blackbird CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz
- House Finch CA 16-Apr-08 San Jose yellow form also seen later
- Purple Finch CA 26-Apr-08 Andrew Molera St Pk
- Lsr. Goldfinch CA 18-Apr-08 Soquel
- House Sparrow CA 17-Apr-08 Santa Cruz much bigger than S African birds
herewith first blog post. I’ve decided to set up a leetle blog to accelerate my carpal tunnel syndrome, post vaguely interesting yet unsaleable observations, display photographs of hugely variable quality (cruddy record shots of wildlife right through to the results of me clawing my eye back into action (new camera)), and archive my plodding, incomplete bird lists (because they’ve got to escape their tatty notebooks before they die, and there are freaks that will read them).
Things might change somewhat erratically around here while I figure out the software that hangs this all together, even come to a grinding halt if I decide to chuck it.
Right now I’m in a youth hostel with free WiFi in Monterey, California. Cannery Row is just down the hill. It no longer looks like Steinbeck wrote it, and I need to do my laundry.