I recently discovered surfbirds (Aphriza virgata) with the help of a local birding group. Unless you’re looking for them,
or watching rocks and one happens by, they’re hard to spot. I’ve seen them at the surfline on Monterey’s Coast Guard breakwater and along our rocky shores. They’re small, stocky gray birds (I know, non-descript) and easy to confuse with turnstones, which share the same space, however surfbirds have yellow legs.
Scientists have had a tough time classifying surfbirds. They’re in their own genus in the sandpiper family (Scolopacidae). But there’s question about whether or not that’s right. They’re viewed as an intermediate between turnstones (genus Arenaria) and knots (genus Calidris) with characteristics of both (Livezey 2010). Some think that they may be more closely related to knots.
Along Monterey Bay, most surfbirds are winter visitors (although some stay on as residents according to the SIMoN species database). They actually winter along the shore from Alaska to Chile. I’m not sure why I’ve never noticed them before, maybe not paying attention or mistaking them for turnstones (this photo shows a surfbird in front of a turnstone — they do look different when side-by-side). Like turnstones, surfbirds dodge the surf while probing rocks for molluscs (snails, barnacles, etc.) and crustaceans (crabs, etc.) The Cornell Lab All about Birds site says they pull up mussels and barnacles and swallow them whole (one wonders how the rest of the digestive process goes).
I admire anything that can make a living in the intertidal, especially along the surfline. It’s a physically rough place. These small, tough birds, amid the raucous sea lions and gulls, are interesting to watch when you can find them.
Livezey, B.C. (2010). Phylogenetics of modern shorebirds (Charadriiformes) based on phenotypic evidence: analysis and discussion. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 160: 567–618. doi: 10.1111/j.1096-3642.2010.00635.x
SIMoN (Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network) Species Database: Surfbird
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds: Surfbird
During my walk today I checked on the harbor seals that regularly line the west beach at Hopkins Marine Station (Pacific Grove, CA). The pregnant females looked like overstuffed sausages ready to burst. When harbor seals start giving birth we know it’s spring, and from the looks of them today, spring should arrive soon. Each female has a single pup and nurses it for only about 4 to 6 weeks. Then the youngsters must fend for themselves.
I’ll let you know when the moms start popping out pups. But remember, don’t disturb or approach adults or pups on any beach. For more about harbor seals, visit my bestiary or the Hopkins’ site with information about marine mammals on the beach.
Yesterday I took a long beach walk as a storm threatened, and witnessed a surprising sanderling (Calidris alba) and Heermann’s gull (Larus heermanni) interaction. This time of year I often see sanderlings, which are winter Monterey Bay visitors. They’re the busy little shorebirds running up and down the beach with each successive wave, probing the sand for invertebrates (crabs, worms, etc.). Heermann’s gulls, also visitors, are the easiest of the adult gull species to identify (for me) with their red bills, black legs, and dark bodies and wings. Sanderlings and gulls accompany most of my winter walks and so I don’t usually pay much attention to them.
At one point a group of sanderlings that I had been shadowing took flight as if spooked. I looked around for a jogger or a dog (none) or an overhead predator (none). I couldn’t figure out what had disturbed them — all I saw were sanderlings and gulls.
I stood there and waited. An immature gull took flight… and took off after a sanderling.
The small bird dodged and darted, and the young gull followed in pursuit till it lost the sanderling. It landed, then took off again, after another (or maybe the same) sanderling. During these chases, the other sanderlings continued feeding at the surf’s edge (although they appeared a bit wary). The gull continued several attempts until it actually caught a sanderling. But when it landed in the surf with the little bird, the frantically flapping sanderling managed to pull loose.
There were three Heermann’s gulls on the beach, two immature and one mature, and over a period of about 15 minutes, I watched as each chased the sanderlings in the same manner. The drama ended when a dog pursuing a ball ran down to the surf.
All of the birds scattered. (Some of our beaches allow leash-free dogs.)
I’ve read that gulls will harass other shorebirds to get the prey that the smaller birds are catching (a bit of thievery), but this looked like predation by the gulls on the sanderlings (although I didn’t see a kill).
This experience captivated and startled me. We all know about predator-prey interactions and that we’re all part of a vast food web. (I think about that every time I paddle my kayak out into the bay.) And yet, we’re seldom confronted by it as I was on this walk. Empathetically, I wanted to vilify the predator and cheer the escaping prey, even though I knew it was natural and necessary. I reacted emotionally to the dog as well: it interrupted my experience while saving the sanderlings (at least temporarily). When I thought about it, the dog (and its owner) were just enjoying a day on the beach, as I was.
This event is a microcosm of current events on this planet — living our lives changes how everything else lives. The gulls, sanderlings and dog woke me from a somnambulist morning walk, and reminded me that whether we’re aware or not, we’re all active participants in our planet’s future, for better or worse, or both.
My blog postings offer a snapshot of what I see in or along Monterey Bay’s coast while kayaking or walking. They are not in-depth comprehensive views of all that’s happening in the bay at that time. (There’s so much year-round that I can’t imagine one website or book covering it all.) For bigger vistas I rely on several online resources to fill in my gaps (in knowledge and space), and I thought I’d share them with you in case you want to dive or dig a little deeper.
Seasons in the Sea by Kim Fulton-Bennett is a new site for me. It’s an ambitious work-in-progress (a bit frustrating because not everything is up yet, however what’s there is outstanding), and is tagged as: “A month-to-month guide to Central California sea life.” It’s that and much more. For each month there’s an overview, then weather, winds and currents, and then the sea life organized by coastal habitats and megafauna (mammals and birds). For example, you may know that gray whales are migrating through our waters this time of year, but did you know that great white sharks are moving out of our waters too (after hanging around elephant seal rookeries through fall)? From what I can tell, Kim has January to May completed. Even as is, this is a basket of seasonal goodies — great reading before going outdoors. I’ll continue to use it to inform my writing and I encourage him to continue with the rest.
SIMoN is the Sanctuaries Integrated Monitoring Network, which I’ve listed on some of my blog posts. What I find most useful is the Monterey Bay menu tab (which is for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary encompassing much more than just the bay) with information about geology, oceanography, habitats and megafauna (mammals, birds and fishes), as well as sanctuary projects, a searchable photo library, and links to even more information. (Side note: The National Marine Sanctuaries has a searchable media library that they encourage people to use. Some of the photos in my blog are from this resource.) I use the SIMoN website mostly for facts about Monterey Bay, especially geology, and to search the images and species database.
When I need a diversion, I go to MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute) to be wowed by the unseen happenings below my kayak (not directly below, but in our deep bay). Their info hasn’t informed my blog (yet), but MBARI’s research topics include marine biology, marine geology, marine chemistry, physical oceanography and marine technology, and the news or image/video views are so engaging (you should check out the MBARI YouTube channel). MBARI continually reminds us that there’s so much we don’t know about the bay and our oceans.
A resource list wouldn’t be complete without the Monterey Bay Aquarium. For my blogs I sometimes use their searchable Animal Guide (with facts on species in the bay as well as non-bay species on display), but what I find most interesting is the Save the Oceans section. The aquarium’s focus is on inspiring ocean conservation — threats and actions — that should concern all of us. This section also includes related conservation research. It’s a good resource if you’re interested in ocean issues and want to help.
For me the grand dame of bay background sites is Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Site Characterization (although she needs a better name). This website has been around for a while: Phase 1 was completed in 1996. I believe much of the original work came out of the Moss Landing Marine Labs (which also does interesting bay research). According to the Phase 2 Executive Summary, human impact info has been added (although I couldn’t find anything newer than 2004) and the bibliographic database has moved to SIMoN. But don’t discount this site based on the age — it contains a wealth of information about the bay’s physical setting (geology, oceanography, climate and meteorology), biological communities (habitats) and human impacts. This old-timer is a treasure.
On this blog’s sidebar, you’ll find a link to Monterey Bay Marine Research Institutions (if research is your interest) and a link to Upwell’s Big Blue Blogs (which cover a wide range of ocean and ocean conservation topics worldwide).
Hope these help you get more familiar with the bay. If you know of other websites with great Monterey Bay background info, let me know.
(Disclaimer: During my long career as a writer and educator I’ve worked with all of the institutions highlighted in this blog. Monterey Bay is a wonderfully small community.)
Resources (good, but not used for this post)
USGS Monterey Bay Science
Deans, N. (Ed.). (1997). A Natural History of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Monterey, CA: Monterey Bay Aquarium, in cooperation with NOAA Sanctuaries and Reserves Division.
Emory, J. (1999). The Monterey Bay Shoreline Guide. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Langstroth, L. & Langstroth, L. (2000). A Living Bay: The underwater world of Monterey Bay. Berkeley: University of California Press and Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Lydon, S. (1985). Chinese Gold: The Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region. Capitola, CA: Capitola Book Company.
Palumbi, S. R. & Sotka, C. (2011). The Death & Life of Monterey Bay: A story of revival. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
A favorite sighting when I walk Monterey Bay’s most deserted beaches is of turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), and that’s because of the associated detective story — the whodunit. This is how today’s saga unfolded.
On my walk this morning, I noticed a vulture perched on a rock in the warm morning sun. I stopped. I usually happen upon these birds on the beach, and they blend with the sand and kelp wrack so well that I often spook them before I can get a close-up look. This vulture didn’t seem to be bothered by me so I moved around to get a closer view. That’s when I saw them all.
There were four vultures on the rocks, which meant a dinner party and something dead nearby. On our beaches I find vultures dining most often on seals and sea lions. They’re common along our coast, but like all animals, they have to deal with the elements, find food, not get eaten, and avoid the hazards of living near humans. It’s tough and many don’t succeed.
I scanned the beach for the vultures’ meal. On the sand among the wrack at the high tide line was a dead young sea lion. From where I stood I should have been able to smell it, but couldn’t, so the carcass wasn’t very old. There was a vulture eyeing it, but not eating. My approach may have interrupted the feast, or the vultures were taking a break to warm in the sun and let the carcass ripen.
The reason why vultures on the beach fascinate me is, in part, being able to witness the drama of life, but mostly because the scene is so primordial. Turkey vultures, along with California condors and other scavenging birds of prey, have been dining on the carcasses of marine mammals on our beaches for millions of years. These scenes are a rare view back in time that don’t last long. These days we (municipalities) pull the decaying whale off the beach or bury the carcass. And I understand why — they’re gross. They’re not pleasant to smell or behold, and vultures, gulls and others are such slow decomposers. But the scenes are so real — not today’s reality TV version of real, but normal life and death real.
The whodunit story, though, isn’t about the vultures, but the killer: what caused the death of the vultures’ meal? It’s nearly impossible to tell just by looking at the body and I’m not equipped to conduct a necropsy (the examination of a non-human body to determine cause of death). Mostly the cause is “natural” starvation, parasites or disease. Sometimes though it is obvious, like a shark bite or interaction with humans, as in the case of the rope around this seal that I found vultures feeding on last fall.
The human-caused deaths are the ones that most disturb me. Even though vultures and others get a meal from such deaths, it feels tragic, like a wasted life, because it’s due to our carelessness.
I’ve worked on issues of wildlife and their human-caused deaths for nearly 40 years. When I started, many people said that we shouldn’t worry about one life — one vole caught by a cat, one owl hit by a car, one entangled whale or sea lion. And, they’d be right if it was only a few here and there. But we know from the news, from wildlife rescuers, from researchers that the cumulative actions of so many of us are devastating — so much of our debris on beaches and in the ocean. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. We could reverse our cumulative course. If each of us picked up beach trash, carried a reusable bottle/mug, walked more and drove less, and voiced our concerns, our cumulative impact could become hugely positive. (Chris Rowan has a great article about cumulative effects entitled 10 million feet upon the stair.)
So the next time you see a vulture circling or on the beach, think about the modern-day whodunit we’re living and your role in making the ending happy.