WordCraft.NatureFocus

Color on the dunes

Blue bush lupine Lupinus chamissonis

Blue bush lupine
Lupinus chamissonis

Despite the sometimes cold wind, springtime is gentle and subtle along Monterey Bay’s edge.
You have to look closely for it. Here’s a dunes spring sampler.

California poppyEschscholzia californica

California poppy
Eschscholzia californica

Pink sand verbenaAbronia umbellata

Pink sand verbena
Abronia umbellata

Pink sand verbenaAbronia umbellata

Pink sand verbena
Abronia umbellata

Beach primroseCamissoniopsis cheiranthifolia

Beach primrose
Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia

Sea pinkArmeria meritima

Sea pink
Armeria meritima

Monterey paintbrushCastilleja latifolia

Monterey paintbrush
Castilleja latifolia

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References & Resources
Calflora Monterey Coastal Strand Native Taxon List (with photos and info)
California Native Plant Society website
Wildflowers of the Central California Coast website
My thanks to my friend Patti at Sunset Coast Nursery for her help identifying these (and any errors are mine).

Young sea lions in distress

Young California sea lions have been in the news lately. Sea Lion on Mooring by Chris ParsonsEmaciated, dehydrated, hungry, and in some cases dying or dead, hundreds have appeared on the beaches and shorelines of southern California this year. (So far about 1,300 have been rescued; last year the number was about 100. For updated numbers, visit NOAA’s strandings website.) Many marine mammal rescue centers are crowded and their resources stretched thin.

Most of these animals are last year’s pups according to NOAA (U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Starving yearlings are not unusual. Their first year is tough. What is unusual this year is the number of animals, their age and the time of year. So far no one is sure why so many so young are in such need.

In response, NOAA Fisheries declared this an Unusual Mortality Event starting in January due to the significant numbers of California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) strandings in five counties — from San Diego north to Santa Barbara. This designation means that the current situation is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of a marine mammal population, and demands immediate response, including investigation into the cause. Similar mortality events in the past have been caused by leptospirosis, El Niño conditions resulting in food scarcity, or diatom blooms producing toxic domoic acid.

Monterey Bay is north of the areas hardest hit and I haven’t seen or encountered reports of similar sea lion conditions in our area. However, local marine mammal rescue centers are supporting the centers in the south by taking some of the animals, and so are feeling the strain, too. In a couple of months, pregnant sea lions will be giving birth on offshore islands. Many people will be watching this summer to see if the current problem is restricted to last year’s pups.

What can you do?
If you see a sea lion (or any marine mammal) in distress, the only thing to do is call for help and keep others away from the animal until help arrives. Do NOT get close (these animals bite) or attempt a rescue of any marine mammal! You need to know what you’re doing. (Note: Harbor seals will start pupping soon and a young seal on the beach this time of year is a pup just waiting for mom to return. It doesn’t need your assistance. Again, if in doubt, call for expert help.)

If you’re on the central or northern California coast, contact The Marine Mammal Center rescue hotline at 415-289-7325. (Their range is about 600 miles from San Luis Obispo to Mendocino counties.) For Monterey Bay, they have a base in Moss Landing and the rescue hotline is 831-633-6298. You can also help by donating to The Marine Mammal Center or a wildlife rescue center near you. To keep up-to-date on the situation, visit NOAA’s UME website.

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Sources
Drake, Nadia. (2013, Mar. 28). Stranded sea lion pups arrive in northern California. Wired.
Manning, Sue (2013, Mar. 29).  Starving sea lion pups overwhelm southern California rescue organizations. Huffington Post.
The Marine Mammal Center: SoCal Rescue Centers Get Helping Hand
Resources
SIMoN Species Database: California Sea Lion

Do you know your gulls?

All winter I’ve been working on learning to identify our local gulls. So far I’ve learned that it’s really challenging!Gulls at Plaza by Chris Parsons The difficulty comes from not only recognizing different species (15+ commonly visit our area), but also different year classes within a species (there are 3 or 4 four classes each with different plumage, bill and leg colors). In addition, individuals vary and gulls crossbreed (mixed species really confuse matters). But like all challenges, I’m taking fledgling steps and tackling one gull at a time. (I’ve always called these birds seagulls, but it’s more correct to use the term gulls because not all live near the sea, so I’m using gull/gulls in this post.)

To identify a gull, according to local birding instructor Brian Weed, start by identifying the age of the bird — Is it an adult or immature, and if immature, of what age class? (This isn’t intuitive. I want to start with what it is, not how old it is.) Once the age is pinpointed, then work on identifying the species (all before the bird flies off). Brian provided a simple illustrated guide showing the characteristics of age classes of species that mature over four years — years 1, 2 and 3 are immature and year 4 is an adult. (Of course, some species mature over 3 years instead of 4, a complication I’m ignoring here.)

And now show-and-tell time. Gulls 3 at Roberts Lake by Chris ParsonsAlong this railing are three gulls that look different. They are, in fact, birds of different ages. The farthest is a year 1 gull: It’s all brown from head to wing covers (coverts) to underside. The rump (which you can’t see) is the same color as the back, and the wingtips are a solid brown. The bill and eyes are dark. The closest gull is a mature (year 4+) gull: Its head, neck and underside are all white (no dark streaks or smudges). The tail and rump are also white (easier to see in the photo at the start of this post). The back and wing coverts are dark gray. The bill is yellow and legs pink. The bird in the middle is of an age class between the other two birds (nice of them to line up this way for me). It’s head, neck and underside are mostly white. The back is dark gray, but the coverts are brown. The bill is pale with a darkish tip and legs pink. This middle bird is between the ages of the other two, either a year 2 or year 3 bird (I know, not exact, but this isn’t rocket science). It’s probably closer to year 2 because the back and coverts are different colors.Immature Gulls by Chris Parsons

Here’s another shot of two immature birds at the same location. The farthest is a year 1 bird. The closest has the back and coverts characteristic of a year 2 bird. (Making an ID is so much easier when they’re standing than when on the fly.)

If you haven’t guessed already, all of the birds shown so far are western gulls. The giveaway for me was the similar size of the adults and youngsters in this group, and the adults’ white head, yellow bill, dark gray back and pink legs. Also, they’re the most abundant gulls here.

Now it’s your turn (if you want to join my challenge). Remember: Age first, then species. Can you distinguish between the adult and immature birds in these shots? Click on them to get a closer look. (Unfortunately, they didn’t cooperatively line up by age.) To help you focus on age, I’ll divulge that there are California gulls, western gulls and mew gulls in these shots.

Gull Group Monterey by Chris Parsons

Gull Group Carmel by Chris Parsons
As you can see, this challenge will keep me busy on my walks for quite some time.

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Resources

Don Roberson’s Creagrus website: Gull Subfamily
Also, Creagrus California List (with photos): California gulls
Santa Cruz Bird Club: Identifying Gulls
Also via Santa Cruz Bird Club, Morlan’s Flowcharts for Identifying Gulls (without pictures though)

Another odd goose

Odd Goose2 by Chris ParsonsThis is the second goose in a week that has tested by fledgling bird identification skills. I took this shot at the Hopkins Marine Station beach while watching the snoozing harbor seals. This goose, as you can see, is about the size of the Canada geese, but is more white than those birds or the one I showed you in my Carmel Bay walk post. Another Canada goose hybrid maybe, or an escaped domestic?

Winter walk along Carmel Bay

Carmel Bay is a lovely, exposed bay just south of Monterey Bay, and a good walking site almost any day. Carmel Bay by Chris ParsonsIt’s nestled between a southern rocky peninsula that is Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and a northern rocky peninsula that includes Pebble Beach — about 4 miles (6.4 km) of ocean, rocky shores and sandy beaches. The town Carmel (officially Carmel-by-the-Sea) straddles mid-coast. From a land perspective, Carmel Bay is separate from Monterey Bay. From an ocean perspective, submarine canyons — the Monterey Canyon System — connect the smaller Carmel Bay with the larger Monterey Bay. Because of that connection, and frequent Carmel visits, I feel justified writing about Carmel Bay in a Monterey Bay blog.

After a mild winter storm last week, I walked the Carmel Bay shoreline from south to north — from Point Lobos to the Carmel-Pebble Beach border. I’ve never walked the entire stretch before. The day was cloudy, breezy and cold, but that didn’t matter because the scenery was so amazing. Point Lobos by Chris Parsons(I’ll probably be using many superlatives in this post as this is a spectacular coastline.)

I started my walk at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, which according to the map and guide is considered “the crown jewel of California’s state park system.” Artist Francis McComas claimed (and I agree) it’s “…the greatest meeting of land and water in the world.” Point Lobos Pines by Chris ParsonsPoint Lobos (referring to the sea lions on rocky points) is a mosaic of headlands and coves shaped by tectonics and pounding surf, as well as forests and meadows buffeted by stiff winds, blanketed in drifting fog and baked dry the rest of the time. (You could easily spend an entire day exploring this place.) It’s a dynamic, life-rich environment that presents a different face each time I visit. This time there were signs of winter (wet from rain) and spring: leafy green poison oak, dusty yellow pine pollen and bright flowering Indian paintbrush. With hardly anyone else there, I was able to soak in the varied, and sometimes eerie, beauty.

To continue my stroll toward Carmel, unfortunately, I had to walk about a half-mile (.8 km) along Highway 1. It’s a very busy road. There is a broad shoulder and the walk is short, so it’s not too bad, however, a more natural path between the park boundary and Monastery Beach would certainly enhance the experience. Along the way, I was stopped by two different sets of visitors seeking directions. (I guess I looked like I belonged.)

The next leg was Monastery Beach (the local’s name due to the nearby Carmelite Sisters Monastery), but also shown on maps as San Jose Creek Beach (due to the creek that flows to it, although I’ve never heard anyone call it that). Monastery Beach by Chris ParsonsThis beach is awe-inspiring and, for locals, fear-inducing. It’s gorgeous with pebbly sand and breathtaking surf. On a sunny day, it’s irresistibly attractive. What many visitors don’t realize, even though there are warning signs, is that this beach is deadly — people die here just about every year. (Some call it Mortuary Beach, but I’ve only seen that in the media.) The attractive surf is extremely dangerous due to its power, the steep angle of the beach and the coarse sand that gives way underfoot. It’s easy to be hit by a wave, get swept away and drown. The beach also attracts SCUBA divers. The diving is probably exquisite, but again, the water is rough and only for the most experienced on the calmest days.

Last year I kayaked along this side of Point Lobos with friends and Monterey Bay Kayaks guides. We launched and landed successfully from the south end of Monastery Beach making use of the water-calming kelp beds to protect us. I’m not sure I’d do it again though. (I’ll post about that adventure another time.) Trekking across the loose sand of Monastery Beach was challenging, but necessary to reach the Carmel River Beach Trail and continue on my way to Carmel.

The Carmel River Beach Trail (map) is part trail and part service road, and was a wonderful surprise. It was a broad path that followed a rocky shore dotted with beaches. It looked like a great secluded spot to enjoy on a warm day, but was chilly in the wind and so I kept walking to where the Carmel River flows into the ocean (sometimes). Carmel River Mouth by Chris ParsonsWhere river and sea met was a broad, shallow freshwater lagoon. In the water on this day, there were a flock of gulls, a few cormorants and two pairs of buffleheads in full breeding plumage.

Mystery Goose by Chris ParsonsI also spotted an odd bird on the shore, and still haven’t figured out what it was (any guesses?). It was about the size of a Canada goose, maybe a bit smaller, but as you can see, its coloration, neck and feet were all wrong (right for this goose, but wrong for identification). My best guess was that it may be a Canada goose hybrid, but with what?

Blocking the mouth of the Carmel River was a sand berm (which sometimes is cut open to let the river flow into the sea and not flood homes). However, this year we’ve had little rain (one of our driest winters on record) and the river was just a trickle. (I got only one shoe wet during my crossing.) Gulls at Carmel River Lagoon by Chris ParsonsAll along the berm were gulls — different species and age classes. I identified the larger ones as Western gulls (year-round residents) and most of the smaller ones with yellow legs as California gulls (which are now starting to migrate out of our area). When I have time, this could be a great place to work on my gull identification skills, especially when we have so many over-wintering species and there’s such a crowd of gulls.

After crossing the northern section of Carmel River State Beach, my path took Scenic Road around Cypress Point, still along the coast but also past Carmel homes. This area is all part of the Carmel Bay State Marine Conservation Area (I’ve written more about local state marine protected areas in a previous post). The tidepools on my left were spectacular, as were the homes on my right. Scenic Road leads to the dog-friendliest city and beach that I know. Carmel Beach by Chris ParsonsWe raised our German shepherd on Carmel Beach, and I’m sure she’s a friendlier and healthier dog because of it. The beach is leash-free for well-behaved canines. Dogs of all sizes and ages get to socialize and learn proper manners from both canines and people But I have push-pull about the dogs running free. It prevents shorebirds from feeding along the beach. We’ve never allowed our dog to chase birds, but not everyone is so mindful. My justification is that there are many other areas along our coast where wildlife are protected from human disturbances. And, I think Carmel’s economy is closely tied to its welcoming policies toward canine companions. I certainly appreciate it when I visit with my dog.

I continued my walk until the rocks jutting into the surf blocked my progress at the Carmel-Pebble Beach boundary. If I had wanted to continue, I could have by following the California Coastal Trail (Section 11) off the beach (using a set of wooden stairs) and winding along trails through the Del Monte Forest to Fanshell Beach and 17-Mile Drive on the north side of Pebble Beach. That’s a walk I plan to tackle another day.

Peb Beach view of Pt. Lobos by Chris ParsonsI looked back at Point Lobos, where I had started. Noticing that the sky was turning dark and it was getting windier, I decided it was a good time to finish. I trudged off the beach into Carmel (that hill is tough) and ended my walk with a treat at Doris Day’s Cypress Inn.

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Sources

MBARI: Monterey Canyon System
Monterey County Parks & Beaches: List and interactive map
Resources
Point Lobos Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), includes Carmel area: Brochure (note: pdf document)
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve: Point Lobos Foundation