Cormorant hatchlings

June 15, 2013

Update: June 15, 2013: 
Wow, triplets in a nest!

June 11, 2013





Update: June 11, 2013:
More hatchlings and growing families this week.

June 5, 2013

June 5, 2013





Update: June 5, 2013:
Hatchlings are growing rapidly.

I started watching the Brandt’s cormorants on the breakwater in February when they evicted sea lions from the upper rocks. In April and May they worked ceaselessly building nests and tending them. I’ve watched the nest mounds grow, the rocks whiten and the sitting birds thin. This morning I spotted hatchlings.

Cormorant Hatchlings by CM Parsons

June 2, 2013

From the public overlook I was excited to find one nest with two young. This week I’ll kayak by to look for more on the less accessible end of the breakwater.

I look forward to watching the parents deliver meals to these young ones as they develop over the next few weeks.

Blown away by spring

Seaside signs of spring ~ color on dunes, birds on nests ~ wind-ruffled ocean

Spring along the edge of Monterey Bay is colorful, lusty and cold. Drab sand dunes gain dabs of color from flowering paintbrushes, lupines and seaside daisies. Songbirds and shorebirds brighten for courting and mating, build nests and busily nourish young. And the wind blows strong and cold. Our iconic sign of spring is the northwesterly wind.

Choppy Bay by CM ParsonsThis spring has been one of the windiest I recall. For weeks, we’ve had fairly steady 15 to 20 mph (13 – 17 knot) winds. From my window the bright blue sky entices me outside, but on a coast walk I get buffeted by cold winds until my bones chill. On the water, swells are fairly small (usually less than 4 feet or 1.2 m), but when combined with choppy wind waves that start building around 10 a.m., kayaking can get rough (I’m not a windy-water kayaker).

The northwesterly winds form along the boundary of low pressure that sits in the Gulf of Alaska and high pressure over the Pacific off California (called the Pacific High). Each morning we think we’ll get a reprieve when mild morning breezes flow offshore, but as the sun warms the land, the flow reverses, pulling onshore a cold wind that strengthens as the day progresses.

Kayak in Chop by CM ParsonsAlthough the strong winds are tough on beach walkers, kayakers and surfers, they’re great for sailors, kiters and whales. Because of the wind direction and the Coriolis effect, surface waters move to the right of the wind direction, that is, move offshore (not intuitive). This opens space along the coast for deep, cold ocean water to surface. The upwelling of deep nutrient-rich water feeds plankton blooms. Like blooming sand dunes plants, plankton blooms not only add color to the ocean but also food for a variety of plankton feasters — from krill and fishes to seabirds and whales. This is when humpback whales and blue whales arrive to scoop up giant mouthfuls of krill and fish (although the humpbacks arrived early this year).

Cormorant in spring wind by CM ParsonsThis is also a great time of year for raising young along the shore. With so much food in the bay, nesting cormorants can find fish for hungry chicks and just-weaned harbor seal pups can practice their hunting skills. So although the winds restrict some of my fun, it’s a high-flying time for wildlife in and around the bay.

NOAA Ocean Explorer: Upwelling
Seasons in the Sea: April and May
SIMoN Archives: Upwelling Along the Central California Coast
Pitcher,  G.C. et al. (2010). The physical oceanography of upwelling systems and the development of harmful algal blooms. Progress in Oceanography 85(1-2): 5-32.

Precious Point Lobos

Point Lobos South View by C. ParsonsAlthough not considered part of Monterey Bay (unless you’re a geologist), Point Lobos is a short drive to the south and on most days too gorgeous to ignore. I met my friend Deborah at the park and on this slightly cloudy, windy May morning, we walked, talked and snapped photos (despite both of us suffering from spring allergies). The dynamic interaction of ocean and rocks, wind and waves provided spectacular sights.

Iris Point Lobos by C. ParsonsAlong South Shore Trail and Lace Lichen Trail, small colorful flowers dotted the rough Monkeyflower Point Lobos by CM. Parsonslike jewels, each discovery a delight.

On Hidden Beach, we spotted mother-pup harbor seal pairs, some snoozing on the warm sand and others engaged in swimming lessons.

Cormorants Point Lobos by CM. ParsonsOn Bird Island and other granite outcroppings, determined cormorants were constructing nests despite the day’s building winds. We watched bustling colonies of Brandt’s and a few solitary pairs of pelagics. While we walked, a duet of pounding surf and wind-rocked trees accompanied us.

The spray of ocean saltwater and ceaseless buffeting by winds gnarl cypress trees along the shoreline and some appear as forest characters. Cypress Point Lobos by CM ParsonsOn the cliffs above Cypress Cove, we encountered a stunning rust-colored growth that blankets the trees and rocks. Algae on Cypress
I was surprised when I learned that the orange fuzz is a green alga. It is rust orange instead of chlorophyll green because of beta carotene (which gives carrots their color) and other carotenoids. One study (Mukherjee et al. 2010) found that the total carotenoid concentration is higher in winter (hence a brighter color) than in summer. This alga (Trentepohlia aurea var. polycarpa) is an epiphyte, that is, it uses cypress trees (Cupressus macrocarpa) only as a growing surface and causes no harm, unlike a parasite. From my reading, it appears the species is found worldwide in damp places similar to Point Lobos, but the variety polycarpa is specific to our coast.

It was a beautiful day and great walk. I can’t wait to return to this precious California State Park soon to make more discoveries. Thanks, Deborah.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve brochure and website
Mukherjee, R., Borah, S. & Goswami, B. (2010). Biochemical characterization of carotenoids in two species of Trentepohlia (Trentepohliales, Chlorophyta). Journal of Applied Phycology, 22(5), 569-571. doi: 10.1007/s10811-009-9495-9
UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research: Trentepohlia aurea (tentative)

Elbow crab and ladybug

I thrill at finding new Monterey Bay creatures (new to me) and learning about them. Elbow Crab by C.ParsonsThis morning I found this beauty on the beach. While taking photos, I spotted what looked like a dead crab or carapace. When I flipped it over, I was amazed by the purple and white details of a live sandflat elbow crab (Heterocrypta occidentalis), a species I had never seen before. Elbow crabs aren’t just new to me, they’re also relative newcomers to the bay.

In his 1969 book Seashore Life of Southern California, Sam Hinton wrote about the elbow crab, “It is mainly a tropical form, with Southern California representing the northernmost part of its range.” And, a 1995-1996 survey off Hopkins Marine Station by UC-Santa Cruz students, who were repeating a Pearse 1971-72 survey, found that elbow crabs, which had been rare or absent in the early 1970s, were common by 1996. It appears that the species has been moving northward.

These days we often see climate change reports of spring arriving earlier and terrestrial species moving north or to higher elevations. We’re less exposed (physically and via media) to species in our oceans making similar shifts. Less than 1% of the synthesis information on climate change on natural systems has come from marine life (Richardson et al 2012). Why has the elbow crab move into and become more common in the bay? What’s the impact of its expanding range? I couldn’t find answers — maybe no one knows. But we do know our world is changing and we need to pay attention to both the obvious and the subtle shifts. Have you noticed changes near you?

Elbow crab+ladybug by C. ParsonsI carefully picked up the elbow crab (not being sure about it little pincers) and tossed it into the wash. With each successive wave, it slowly crawled sideways into the ocean.

As I was reviewing the photos later, I saw that the elbow crab wasn’t alone (and I consider myself observant). Near it was a ladybug beetle — a subtle reminder to slow down and look more carefully in the future.

Hinton, S. (1969). Seashore Life of Southern California. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Lucas, S. S., Lonhart, S. I., Bernardi, G., et al. (1997). Comparative species survey of a coastal California marine refuge. Poster presented at the Sanctuary Currents Symposium, Monterey, CA. Abstract.
Richardson, A. J. et al. (2012). Climate change and marine life. Biology Letters 8(6): 907-909.

Seal pups arrive

The Monterey Bay Aquarium hosted its 12th annual Día del Niño/Day of the Child celebration today, and it seemed fitting that families walking to the aquarium witnessed another annual event — seal moms training new pups. Seal mom & new pup by C. ParsonsOn sheltered beaches throughout the bay during this time of year, harbor seals give birth. This morning on my walk, along with families going to the aquarium, we watched mothers and new pups on the beach of Hopkins Marine Station and a small cove to the west, both in Pacific Grove, California.

These pups have very short “puphoods.” Mothers feed and fatten them for 4 to 6 weeks, then wean them. In that short time, pups must learn to swim, dive and fend for themselves. This morning, I watched new pups comforted by mothers (photos), a pup while it nursed (see video), and a squealing pup get a swimming lesson (see video). I could have stayed all day.

Seal w swimming pup by C. ParsonsThe pups look so helpless at this stage and yet they’ll be on their own soon. Knowing that, it’s sometimes hard to watch them, but they’re so adorable. I know that in June I’ll have new curious harbor seals following my kayak as I paddle these shores.