Friday, May 8, 2015


When you live in a college town everyone feels the rhythm of the academic year. Summer is relatively quiet. Come August, though, excitement builds as students arrive. The stores and roads are busier, nighttime near campus is rowdier, and everyone wears school colors as the football season begins again. There is a lull during the winter holidays, but the bustle returns once the Spring semester gets underway. In March and April the mood becomes more serious. Shorts and flip flops are replaced with business clothes and briefcases as the soon-to-be graduates apply for internships and attend job fairs. Graduation weekend comes at the end of April or beginning of May and proud families commemorate the event with photos of their young adults taken in front of the local landmarks. Hope and possibility fill the air. Young people step up and try their wings and their parents step back and trust that their offspring have learned what they need to make it on their own.

Common Gallinule and 6 Chicks, Growing Fast!

I am happy to say that our own daughters fledged successfully several years ago, but I remember each and every benchmark along the way. Pre-school, elementary school, middle, high school, and college, lessons, clubs, summer programs, student loans and study abroad, dating, marriage, jobs. We tried to teach them how to be kind and ethical people, did our best to keep them healthy, and worried about them when they were not. Together we navigated the emotional ups and downs of growing up--making and losing friends, moving, academic pressure, boys, and just the general unease of the teenage years. I remember at each stage agonizing over how to let them go and do what they needed to do without having their parents by their side. I never stopped worrying. But we gave them independence, little by little. And, just like when you are learning to ride a bicycle, when we let go, they glided off as smooth as can be.

Successful Fledgling--Mockingbird

In our yard, and pretty much everywhere I go, birds are nesting, chicks are hatching and fledglings are fledging. The butterflies are laying eggs, caterpillars are munching host plants, and chrysalids are already appearing on unfortunate places like my front door. Spiderlings have emerged from eggsacs left by their mothers before the cold weather killed them. Paper wasps build nests under leaves. Softshell turtles lay eggs on the banks of the water. Tiny offspring of watersnakes that mated in March have hatched and are fending for themselves. Mama gators watch last fall's young, even as they prepare nests for the next clutch. Parents of all shapes and sizes will be guarding, feeding and preparing their young in the best way they can so they can reach maturity and continue the cycle of life.

Spiderlings on Lyreleaf Sage (Salvia lyriata)

Mama Gator and Young

Hungry Titmouse Chick
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher on a Lichen Nest

Blue Grosbeak Nest with Eggs

I am constantly filling and refilling the suet feeders in our yard because exhausted bird parents stop there to inhale some quick energy when they get a break from sitting quietly on a nest for days and weeks, not moving or making a sound so as not to draw attention to themselves. Or between flights back and forth taking caterpillars to their hungry young. A recent article about the importance of native trees in the landscape said that a Carolina Chickadee would need 5000 caterpillars to feed each clutch of eggs! Pity the poor, exhausted Chickadee parents. Hungry baby birds make such a ruckus calling for food that it's a wonder they don't all get eaten by predators. At Paynes Prairie, the poor Great Blue Heron adults hunt and hunt to feed themselves as well as their offspring that have nearly reached adult size. These babies are hungry and they sound like fighting bobcats screeching in the trees when mother or father return with food. It's full time working feeding baby birds!

Hungry Herons

White Eyed Vireo on Nest

Carolina Wrens Need Food Now!

Mama Thrasher and her 3 Hungry Chicks

Boat Tailed Grackle is Hungry!

Baby Crow gets the Last of the Suet

Daddy Cardinal Feeding Young

This Mississippi Kite Chick Cries All Day Until the Food Comes!

The perils are great as the young hatch and grow. My friend Rex Rowan talked about this in a recent blog post titled "A Hard World for Little Things". (His nature blog, Field Guide, is fun and interesting, and very informative, and I recommend it to everyone, not just Gainesvillians.) The young are in danger from day one. Eggs of every kind are a quick and easy source of protein and lizards, snakes and raccoons all know it. Once the eggs hatch, the young, be they chick or larva, are choice targets. They are small and vulnerable, and easy pickings for birds, cats, coyotes, hawks and crows. As I mentioned, hungry chicks make a huge amount of noise and attract predators. They are still in danger, even after they learn to fly, because they are young and inexperienced, just like their human counterparts. Juvenile birds don't sense the cat stalking or hear the whoosh of the hawk, or they fly into the window, or in front of a car. And then there are the Brown Headed Cowbirds, nest parasites who lay their eggs in other birds' nests, letting them raise the Cowbird's young at the possible expense of their own. The parents become targets, too, when they stop to lay eggs or fly back and forth with food for their young, or chase of predators. A tiny Mockingbird will gladly take on a Crow or Hawk if it is threatening the nest. It's tough out there.

This Black Necked Stilt Bravely Challenges an Alligator Heading Toward its Nest

Stinkbug Eggs

Downy Woodpecker Feeds Sawfly Larva to Young

Tiny Bluejay is Noisy and Easy to Catch

Tiny Clapper Rail 

Northern Parula Feeds Giant Cowbird Chick

Mother's Day is this Sunday and I'd like to honor of all the Parents, Mothers and Fathers and supportive caretakers out there (it does take a village!), doing their best to raise and fledge the next generations. It takes a lot of work to get our young ready to launch; lots of love, patience and time. And the gratification comes in the end results. In the words of Barbara Kingsolver, "But kids don't stay with you if you do it right. It's the one job where, the better you are, the more surely you won't be needed in the long run."  Happy Mother's Day, Everyone.

Osprey Family

Monday, May 4, 2015

Santa Cruz, Part 2--Giants

I keep getting distracted! What with moving, spring, wildflowers and baby birds, it's hard to stay focused. Now, where was I? Oh yes, back to California and the Giants.

Our next adventure was one I had been nervously excited about for months. My mom booked us a cruise on a Whale Watching boat on the Monterey Bay! The thought of being out where the whales were moving and feeding was thrilling and I was really excited about getting some good photos. What made me nervous was that I had gone whale watching once before (in Hawaii) and it was a disaster. I got incredibly seasick. Every time the catamaran stopped to watch the whales, I got sick. The rest of the passengers oohed and ahhed at whale antics, but I didn't see anything. I'm sure my fellow passengers just loved having this person retching off the back of the boat for an entire afternoon. It makes me queazy just recalling. Anyway, I had mostly avoided ocean adventures since then. So as cool as this trip sounded, you can understand my trepidation. But it seemed like an opportunity of a lifetime, one I would really regret missing, so I followed all the preparatory instructions and I am happy to report that I felt nothing but elation! In fact, it was one of the neatest experiences I've ever had. So I'm going to take a lesson from this and try not to avoid things in the future because of a past bad experience.

Away we drove, onward to our great adventure. The ocean air was brisk and cool as we passed Sea Lions and Otters in the harbor. Pelagic Cormorants, with amethyst blue eyes perched on the piers. Seabirds like Rhinoceros Auklets, Ancient Muralettes and Murres swam and flew alongside of the boat. The crew told us that they were following reports from other boats of whale sightings as we headed out into the bay. About 20 minutes away from shore we saw large flocks of seagulls and pelicans circling and landing on the water. Suddenly, we saw huge pods of dolphins in the distance. There were hundreds of them and they were so active and excited that the water looked like it was boiling! There must have been a huge school of fish and lots of great food below. Some of the dolphins swam alongside the boat. They were so fast and sleek! I had a very hard time trying to aim my camera. The boat was moving forward, as well as rocking with the waves, and the dolphins were all over the place. I never knew just where to focus, so I just told myself, keep snapping! I filled an entire memory card and had to toss about half of the photos.

Sea Lions Soaking up Sun

Sea Otters, Holding Flippers

Pelagic Cormorants (See the Eyes?)

Rhinoceros Auklets

Ancient Muralette


Dolphins Everywhere!

Dolphins Racing with the Boat

And then came the whales. It was unbelievable. At first we saw distant spouts and sprays, then the the tails. The boat cruised closer and then we saw multiple backs and tails and spouts, all of Humpback whales.  I have no idea how many we saw. It's hard to count them because more than one part can stick out of the water at one time! They are huge, though it is hard to really understand how huge because you can't see the whole whale. According to Wikipedia, adults are from 39-52 feet long and can weigh 75,000 pounds. Humpback Whales come to the Monterrey Bay to feed in the winter and there can be several hundred in the bay at one time. They seemed completely gentle and content and the boat captain turned off the motor so we could just float near them and listen. The sound of a whale breathing is unforgettable. You could sometimes spot a whale by it's spray, and sometimes by the clear circular tracks they left in the water when they came up for a breath. (You can see what I mean from the photo). We never saw a whale jump or breach. We heard that a cruise the day before had seen some amazing acrobatics. But the tails and spouts were enough for me. I felt so lucky for having the opportunity to view these spectacular giants up close, and was very thankful for a powerful telephoto lens.

Whale Spout

Whale Tail

"Circles" in the Water From Surfacing
After a couple of hours of stopping and watching whales in several locations, the cruise wound down and we headed back to the harbor, still floating from the rush of seeing all these magnificent sea mammals. On the way back, we passed seabirds like Pelicans, Western Grebes and Heermann's Gulls and the captain pointed out a beautiful Peregrine Falcon that had taken up residence near the busy waterway. We learned that in the 1970's there were only 5 pairs of Peregrines in all of California, mostly due to DDT poisoning. According to the California Audubon website, protection from the Endangered Species act has brought that number up to 300 breeding sites, and we were looking at one very healthy specimen. Such a hopeful way to end a glorious expedition.

Western Grebe

Heermann's Gull

Peregrine Falcon
Continuing with the theme of the California Giants, a few days later we drove up into the Santa Cruz mountains to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park to see some Giant Redwoods. The trees are magnificent. They are so tall that I found it very difficult to take a photo with an entire tree in the frame. My smart husband figured out that you could make it work by taking a panoramic photo, spanning slowly from bottom to top. There is a little distortion, but you really get the feeling of the trees towering overhead. The tall trees don't let much light shine down through to the forest floor, so the forest was damp and dark with many varieties of moss, ferns and fungus. The ancient trees--some as many as 1400-1800 years old--muffle surrounding sound and walking among them feels solemn and sacred, as though you are in a chapel or sanctuary.

Giant Redwoods

The park was busy and close to the city so we didn't see much in the way of wildlife, though signs warned us about Mountain Lions. We did find a single, huge yellow Banana Slug on a fence post. The school mascot for UCSC, these day-glo giants can grow as big as 9 inches long! I was happy to see one during our trip out West and bought a Banana Slug Christmas ornament from the gift shop as a memento.

I Wish...

Banana Slug

For our last adventure we drove a very short way up the coast to Davenport and found tidal pools with Anemones and Mussels. No giants that day, unless you count the tall sea cliffs, but we saw West Coast species such as California Ground Squirrels, Black Phoebes, and a first for me--a Say's Phoebe.


Tidal Pool Anemone


California Ground Squirrel (There's Another in the rocks Behind This One)

Black Phoebe

Say's Phoebe
After a lovely week together, we wrapped up our family reunion and scattered again to our homes all over the country. I had a wonderful time in California, but I always end a trip wishing I could see and experience more. Santa Cruz is a wonderful place to explore and there is a lot more of California to see. Luckily for me, I have family that will draw me back again. And now that I know I can deal with ocean adventures, maybe we can see some more whales! Condors, anyone?