WordCraft.NatureFocus

Gulls, sanderlings and a dog

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. Gull-Sanderling Standoff by Chris ParsonsThis 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. Young Gull Chases Sanderling by Chris Parsons
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. Adult Gull Chases Sanderling by Chris ParsonsThe 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.

Monterey Bay basics

My blog postings offer a snapshot of what I see in or along Monterey Bay’s coast while kayaking or walking.MBay Walk by Chris Parsons 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.)

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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.

Vultures on the beach

A favorite sighting when I walk Monterey Bay’s most deserted beaches is of turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), and tLone vulture by Chris Parsonshat’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.

Turkey Vulture Group by Chris ParsonsThere 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. TurkeyVulture&Meal by Chris ParsonsMy 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, Dead Seal by Chris Parsonsas 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.

VultureinFlight2 by Chris Parsons

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Resources
California Nature Mapping Project: Turkey vulture

Pacific Rowing Race June 2014

For the latest, visit my new post.
I know you’re not ready for 2014 (I’m not), but I just learned from a blogger in the UK (How to Cross an Ocean) that there’s a scheme in the works for a Pacific Rowing Race from Monterey to Hawaii in June of next year. (The Internet is an amazing place to learn about your own backyard — thanks Sarah.) I’m bring this up now because How to Cross an Ocean is a daily diary of “four birds” who plan to enter the race, row to Hawaii, then to Australia, and continue across land and sea to England.

The Pacific Rowing Race organizers are in California for the next few weeks to raise awareness. And you might be interested in following the daily diary (link above) or four birds in their efforts to educate children as part of their journey.

Birder or not?

I’ve never thought of myself as a birder. I don’t go looking for birds specifically when I kayak or walk the bay. I’m more of a wildlife-watcher who sees birds. They are fascinating and I see a fair share (according to Don Roberson’s Monterey Birds book there are 482 bird species in the Monterey Bay area). I’m entertained by busily nesting cormorants. I’ve chuckled at the bright clown feet of pigeon guillemots. Great Egret by C. ParsonsI admire the zenlike focus of a great egret fishing on an undulating kelp canopy. But I’ve never considered myself a birder. However, this blog is a confession. I’m becoming one.

I decided to learn more about my local birds (an interest but serious weakness) and signed up for a bird-watching class with Brian Weed through the Pacific Grove Adult School. We meet once a week. Most of my classmates are well-seasoned birders and they’ve been very nice and patient with me (especially with identifying little brown birds — it is winter!).

I recently learned that as a non-birder, I’m in a minority group. According to the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation (which includes wildlife- and bird-watching), 71.8 million people in the U.S. last year spent time watching wildlife and “birds attracted the biggest following” — about 46.7 million people over 16 years of age. (That’s a lot of people.) What I found even more amazing was that wildlife-watchers (including birders) spent about 55 billion U.S. dollars (yes, billions) to watch wildlife — for everything from food and plants at home to equipment, meals and lodging for trips away from home.

After last week’s birding class, I understand why. Our group was standing along the shoreline identifying what we could see. PG Coast by C. ParsonsThere were pelagic cormorants flying by, Brandt’s cormorants and Western gulls on the rocks, a pair of red-breasted mergansers  in the water with a few small grebes (eared or pied-billed — I know, they’re different). Our teacher, Brian, mentioned that the trees behind us usually host a peregrine falcon, but it wasn’t there. (For those of you who don’t know, peregrines hunt birds, which was what we were watching.) Then Brian spotted the falcon flying toward us. I was thrilled. The magnificent bird flew directly over us, and I have to admit that my binoculars were glued on him/her during the entire brief pass. [One study calculated a peregrine dive at 238 mph, (383 km/h), but cruise speed is more like 25 to 35 mph (40 to 56 km/h)].

This sighting is precious given our history with this species (as well as pelicans and others). Peregrine falcons were gone from our skies by 1970 due to the use of the pesticide DDT, which weakened egg shells. The 1972 ban on the use of DDT in the U.S., along with reintroductions of peregrines, especially in cities where they eat pigeons, have resulted in an amazing comeback. In 1999, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service removed the species from the Endangered and Threatened Species List; in 2009, California removed it from the state endangered species list.

When the peregrine we were watching got close to the water, a group of gulls starting mobbing it (a bird harassment tactic). The falcon mostly ignored them and kept circling over the shallow wave wash between offshore rocks and the shoreline. Brian explained that typical peregrine hunting behavior is to circle multiple times over potential prey until the angle and time are right. We were mesmerized. Then boom. In an instant, the peregrine dropped onto the water and lifted off with a little grebe. We were stunned, thrilled and a bit sad (for the grebe). With its catch, the peregrine flew into trees beyond our view. Our lovely morning birding walk had turned dramatic, and this was just the first 10 minutes of class! (For some amazing photos of peregrines catching shorebirds, visit Will James Sooter’s website, but not if you love shorebirds.)

For the next two hours we identified about 25 different seabird and shorebird species, some locals and many migrants. I got to see five different species of gull on one rock so that I could compare and contrast them (one of my goals is to learn my gulls).

I had always been a bit dismissive of birders with binoculars, making notes on life lists, and blocking my walking path. No more. I now have a great appreciation for what birding is all about — and I’m hooked.

A Few Annual Birding Events (by dates)
RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, England, Jan. 26 & 27 (this weekend)
The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), U.S. & Canada, Feb. 15 – 18
Monterey Bay Birding Festival held in September
Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) held in December/January
Birdwatching Magazine Calendar of Events
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Sources
2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Peregrine falcon
Resources
Don Roberson’s Creagrus (general bird information) and Monterey County Bird Checklist (with photos)
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary: Seabirds & Shorebirds
Avifauna of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS)
The Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group: Research Info & Falcon Nestcams