The Lonely Stars

Seeing as I haven’t blogged since January, it seems prime time to write something. This is the first weekend since that last post in which I didn’t feel buried by projects and class. It’s kinda tough finding precisely where to draw that “line in the sand” between personal time and work time when it’s all at home. Especially when you have a really driven husband who says “You just keep working ’til you’re done. That’s when you can stop.”  Gee…thanks! ;)

Anyway, enough about me. There are sea stars feeling LONELY out therein the Pacific!

High and Dry

High and Dry

Joking aside, they are indeed sparsely dispersed. Yesterday, I saw around 7. None of which were touching a neighbor. They were all separated by tens of feet. Maybe they are now avoiding contact with each other for fear of spreading cooties. (Can’t you tell I’ve been inside way too much?! We now return you to your regularly scheduled seriousness. Because, this is actually serious.)

The ochre sea stars (Pisaster ochraceus) are suffering from what has been labeled Sea Star Wasting Syndrome. ‘Syndrome’ because for a long time, scientists couldn’t figure out what was causing the disintegration of living sea stars. For some gruesome photos of the chronology of symptoms, click over to the University of California, Santa Cruz’s page.

Just last summer, they pinned down a likely culprit, a densovirus in the large Parvoviridae family, that has been present since 1942. Now, the elusive details are the variables that allow this virus to run rampant through various sea star and sea urchin populations.

While it’s tempting to shrug and say they are just sea stars, just like us, they are keystone species. They are capable of influencing the population sizes of other animals, of who lives where. Mussels serve as their primary prey. Keeping those numbers in check, other, more squishy-bodied animals, like the colonial anemones present in both the below photos, can have a chance at clinging to prime rocky real estate.

Sea Stars with their Mussel Prey

Ochre Sea Stars with their Mussel Prey

Ochre Stars between Mussels and Anemones

Ochre Stars between Mussels and Anemones

While scientists know the population crash is going to have rippling effects, what is unknown is what’s in store for the future. What else will ride in on the tides of change? Here’s likely a sneak peak of things to come: warm water this winter brought us these wandering beauties.

Lonely Sea Star 1

Lonely Sea Star 1

Lonely Sea Star 2

Lonely Sea Star 2

The Black Bear that Came to a Ranger-led Walk

It was one of those days where the cell phone was left at home by accident. No calls and no photos, either. It was also one of those days where you say something and immediately the universe sets out to prove you wrong.

I had just finished saying to the group that joined me for a morning forest walk that we don’t often see larger wild animals on this heavily visited trail when a lady came running off the trail saying there was a bear at stop #2. Surprising, but not totally shocked, as this bear had been down farther on the road for weeks, stripping trees of their bark. See Photo. As she was showing the group photos she had taken on her ipad, someone in my group blurted out, “I think the bear just walked onto the bridge! Unless I am seeing things, but I caught a dark figure out of the corner of my eye.”

This bridge is an odd one. Its walls come up about 4 feet or so, making it impossible to see through it. It also has a 90 degree turn, which at this moment I was cursing. I told the group to remain in the parking lot while I checked. Tip-toeing up the bridge, I peered around the corner to see a small bear peering right back. Uff. 

I commenced hollering and whooping and smacking the side of the bridge [which didn’t make the loud noise I was looking for, just hurt my hand, and apparently served as a visitor call to action, cameras in tow]. The bear didn’t run, just walked calmly off the bridge as if it had read our directions for wildlife encounters [“Don’t panic, make yourself look big and back up slowly. DO NOT RUN.”].

Once the bear was off the bridge, it milled around on the hillside for its photo op and slowly was working its way away. I was trying to think of ideas on how to get the group back together, as well as pondering if it was wise to leave the parking lot folks to their own devices if the bear were to return. The brainstorming session was abruptly halted when some folks next to the parking lot were trying to get a better view of the bear, noisily walking through some vegetation. The bear’s head snapped up, it located the source of the noise, and then went galloping straight towards them!

For Pete’s sake, I thought, am I supposed to smack those visitors or the bear first?? Running back down the bridge, I started the yelling again. I think the sound of me running down the bridge spooked the bear, so he tried halfheartedly to climb a tree, paused, and decided on a stump next to the bridge about 15 feet away from me. I was hoping he would scramble away, but I had him pinned against the bridge and he started to look a little more panicked. Backing up a step or two, I started banging on the metal trailhead sign. Later that day, I would forget all the banging on things I had done and wonder why my hand tingled so much. The bear, still not as terrified as I would have liked him, took a few steps towards me and the parking lot of wildlife point-and-shoot paparazzi. This is it, I thought, I’m going to have to tackle him. I didn’t see what the people were doing behind me, although all the exclamation was enough to indicate a frenzied crowd that likely wouldn’t run fast enough. Luckily, as he reached the edge of the bridge, he decided not to run into the parking lot or back up the bridge, but head for the edge of the hill and flail down it [and probably ran across the road below without looking both ways, too].  

Letting go of my trailhead sign drum, I walked to the edge of the hill. No visual of him, nor any noise. Good. I went to address the parking lot crowd to tell them the proper techniques of encountering a bear. An adrenaline-rushed lady, one of the family that triggered the bear’s gallop into the parking lot, ran over to me, squealing “THAT WAS SO COOL!” Some days, I am glad I don’t have ears like a cat, because at that moment, they would have been flat against my head in annoyance. 

I spent the rest of that hour giving my forest walk, a mundanely insightful look at an old growth forest that was nothing as exciting as a bear…

This happened a few weeks ago, and reports of the bear have kept coming in. A visitor submitted photo to our facebook page shows just how hard this bear is having it: Visitor’s Bear Photo

Someone took misguided pity on him and threw him a whole loaf [plastic bag and all]. With that handout, the chances of his survival have greatly lessened. If he’s not hit by a car first, he could likely either starve or, if adverse conditioning attempts don’t work and he becomes aggressive, be put down. 

Solitude, but Not Alone

Solitude, but Not Alone

Trying out a new way to post blogs, since I have so much trouble with the wordpress formatter. It will be interesting to see how it pans out with regard to SEO. To me, this manner lets me add more of a personal touch that I can tailor according to how much time I have. Hope you enjoy!

2014-3-29 Houda Point Post

California Rattlesnake Encounter of the Close Kind

We usually don’t stray far from the coast. On a typical week during the summer, I usually don’t make it more than 10 miles from the coast, buried in the fog and salty air or under towers of redwoods.

Recently, fires broke out in the mountains to our east. We debated which high vantage point to visit to see the fires, or at least the smoke and opted for the one farthest away, hoping to avoid the commotion.

Smoky and Foggy View

The Road Less Traveled [or less shot at]

At the top of Horse Mountain, we didn’t really have a clear view from the usual vantage points, so we trekked up a hill covered in waist-high hoary manzanita and huckleberry oak. Unfortunately, as we just crested the hill, some teenagers pulled up to our car and began their target practicing. Without a clear visual on which way they were shooting, we decided to abandon the little goat path we were on and bushwhack down to the dirt road.

Oops.

See it?!

Bashing through the huckleberry oak wasn’t my favorite–too many spiderwebs [of imaginary black widows, of course], so reaching an open rocky patch was a relief. Just then, the boys with guns broke out their larger arms [a shotgun, I guess], and BOOM! My husband and I, a little PTSD-y from the last time we were shot at, ducked. To my surprise, my husband then took a flying leap, like a wide receiver catching a hail Mary. A low insect buzz accompanied the flying leap: our first meeting with Crotalus oreganus oreganus. Apparently, they don’t like loud booms and people stepping within 6 inches of them.

Here Be Dragons

I’m not going to lie, we were both scared.  I still am not sure how scared of the snake we would have been without the pop and boom of the guns. Considering we stood in that rocky patch for quite a while with the snake pondering our options, I guess we were more worried [or at least I was] about the target-shooting teenagers and the blind approach up to them than standing within a few feet of a rattlesnake.

A Less Hostile Reptile

Eventually we left the rattlesnake, made it to the road, tried to get back to the car, gave up, and walked the other direction until the boys left. No holes in the car and no holes from rattlesnakes. It all worked out in the end, but I’m pretty sure my husband won’t go back until those rattlesnakes are buried under feet of snow again.

Layers of Hills

Evening on the Wing

It wasn’t the dog nor I that were winging anything. We were on our evening walk [is 4:30 evening??] and found our sunset spot staked out by another.  Considering Bear is the size of a love seat, making it awkward to share a cozy view with another sunset gazer, I decided to try another little side trail for a view.  Full of black berries, the thorns of which are still in my jeans, it wasn’t an affording view.

We ended up down by the Mad River, me juggling a camera and a bag of dog feces; the maker of said feces was pulling as hard as she could on the leash to go roll on the sand bar.

The View from the Top

Looking behind, heading down to the river.

Going Down. To the River.

Muddy Mad River

River Panoramic

Water Vapor Reflecting off Liquid Water

Show's Over, Time to Refresh

It was a nice sunset, but while the light show came to a close, another show just started. Several flocks of geese followed the river downstream [North], surveying the water way intently for a quiet spot.

After climbing back up the bluff, seeing a large creature scurry across our path and hearing an owl [who didn’t think much of my imitation of him…], we walked down the middle of the road.

As we walked on the impermanent path of asphalt, winged creatures were utilizing a more ancient route of navigation under the cover of an evening sky too dark for my camera. Above our heads flew small groups of ducks, silent except for the tell-tale whistling of their wings.  They navigated South, appearing unorganized, but their whistling wings never collided nor did they ever falter on their course.

The geese provided a contrast to the duck melody in both size and method. The larger geese bodies silhouetted against the falling night tried has hard as their bird brains would let them to stay in orderly formation while they seemed to squawk commands and complaints at each other. Their noisy conversations carried them North, opposite of the quietly whistling ducks.

The duck groups were more numerous, providing the beat, while the geese acted as punctuating notes in the avian aerial ballet and symphony.

As the dog and I rounded the corner to our house, the bird ballet wound down. I paused for a car to pass before going to the mail box when the grand finale occurred.  Dark shapes with wide rounded wings flew over head, making some other worldly gurgling hiss. Though I won’t ever know for sure, I watched the two winged figures chasing each other as they disappeared into the dark, imagining them as owls settling a dispute over mousing grounds.

[Nerdily dedicated to Carey!]

Charles Towne Sepia Scenes

Visit Sepia Scenes, a great blog meme for the ‘Sepia Inclined’!

Paid a visit to Charles Town Landing State Historic Site the last time we had days off. I was very impressed with their elegantly modern and informative visitor center. The exhibits took you through life as one who arrived and subsequently settled Charles Towne for brevity that they were there; they moved to the present-day location of Charleston a few years later.

I was especially taken by the fancy wood panelling–you don’t often see that in interpretive exhibits–and it beautifully contrasted the very modern lobby from which you enter.

Directly outside the entrance were some intriguing hibiscus. As you entered the visitor center and to the left was a panel with the flower featured–apparently it’s the subject of many questions! While they labeled it the Star Hibiscus, it also goes by the common name of Scarlet Hibiscus (Hibiscus coccineus).

There were not many animals visible in the zoo, the majority were probably hiding from the heat, but there was an aviary full of rehabilitated but unreleasable birds. There is a boardwalk within the enclosure that allows you to get a bit closer.

We also found a little bit of wildlife, although, these fellows were extremely habituated. When you walk to the edge of the pond on the property [do be aware that there are alligators!], a dozen turtles will greet you and beg…hopefully they are being fed something ‘turtle-healthy’ and not cheetos!

Horseshoe Crab: Monster or Miracle

This post was insired by a Twitter conversation I had with @oceanshaman and by the fact that it is one of many creatures that I was terrified of as a kid, but as I learn more, I realize my fears are unfounded.

I went to North Carolina with about 20 other family members every summer for a handful of years. I played in the water a lot, but was completely terrified of anything that moved and lived in the ocean–fish especially. But one afternoon while waist-deep in the water, I felt something crawl over my left foot and by the time I had looked down, it was going over my right one.  As soon as my foot was free of its prickly, slow gait, I fled the water screaming to seek refuge at my ‘safe’ beach towel. 

What Is A Horseshoe Crab?

Like many things, this creature is misnamed. It is not a true crab, but

more closely related to spiders, ticks, and scorpions.  It is a remnant of its ancient lineage and hasn’t physically changed much for 250 million years.  In fact, their shape is really the only thing that resembles a crabs, who have gills while these ‘crabs’ have book lungs. 

In fact, its taxonomy explains this creature very well:

Phylum: Arthropoda Subphylum: Cheilcerata Class: Merostomata Subclass: Xiphosura  Order: Xiphosurida  Family: Limulidae
Genus: Limulus Species: polyphemus

…Or a joint-legged animal with no jaws having a mouth surrounded by legs and a sword-like tail with one living member left in the family having large compound eyes on the sides of its head.

Sounds like I just described a monster, doesn’t it?  It fits perfectly with the creature I felt crawling over my foot. But this fierce, primative-looking creature from the deep is nothing more than a worm slurper.

Dangerous or A Passive Predator

Remember reading above that this creature had no jaws and a mouth surrounded by legs? With this in mind, I am sure you are thinking that it would be rather difficult to chew. Indeed! When a horseshoe crab crawls over the sandy bottoms, it senses worms and mollusks with its claw-tipped feet. Once a food item is found, it picks it up with those claws, passes it to where its legs meet its shell.  Once there, the legs rip up the food as the horseshoe crab walks and the food bits that make it to the bristles near its shell are eventually passed to the mouth to be consumed. The horseshoe crab also has a gizzard-like organ in which sand helps further grind up the food. 

Book gills are to the right

So all the armor and fierce decoration on this creature works more as a deterrent than as a weapon.  The little claws on the end of the legs are not strong enough to break a person’s skin and since it has no jaw, it can’t bite, but it is possible to get pinched by placing your fingers near where the legs meet the body. The tail looks sharp as if it were the same as a stingray, but if you watch a horseshoe crab for a while, you’ll see the tail is necessary for maneuvering in the sand and surf. In fact, this creature is docile enough to keep in aquarium touch tanks that you can find across the country.

Interesting Features

It’s often stated that horseshoe crabs have 10 eyes, but more specifically they have one set of compound eyes, which look most like eyes to us, and a pair of simple eyes towards the front of the shell and then a collection of light sensing cells scattered around the top. In total, areas that can ‘see’ and detect light equal ten, but not ten blinking eyes that most people picture.

It’s really easy to tell males and females apart. Females, for one, are much larger than their male counterparts, but to be sure flip the crab over and look at the first clawed foot.  If it looks like they rest of them, then it’s a female [or maybe an immature male].  But if the first claw looks like an oven mit or boxing glove, then it’s a male.  He uses this specialized claw to hang on to an egg laying female while she digs holes in which to deposit her eggs. As the male is along for the ride, he is pulled over the newly deposited eggs and fertilizes them. It takes almost a decade for horseshoe crabs to mature.

Important–Of Course!

Since there really isn’t anything to worry about when handling a horseshoe crab and it only eats worms and other invertebrates, is there really any reason to worry about this creature?

Indeed, there is! As an important spoke in the food web, the horseshoe crab serves as a food item for many creatures, as do the eggs of the horseshoe crabs and the larvae that briefly float around in the water column. Birds, fish, and crabs eat the eggs and larva of the crabs and adults are eaten by sea turtles.  Not just a food source, they also house many creatures, from barnacles to worms in their gills. Though not listed as endangered, they do warrant protection.

But if you’re not interested in who eats whom out in the deep, then maybe this will be of interest.  In some states you are not allowed to harvest horseshoe crabs except to allow for their blood to be drawn.  Their blood is used in standard testing for detecting impurities in our IVs and other medical fluids. They don’t go and bleed the horseshoe crabs dry, though. They catch wild individuals, draw some blood, and then release them back to the same location from which they were caught.  So if you’ve ever been to the hospital, you have a horseshoe crab to thank for not getting any microbial infections from your IVs!

Sources/Good Reads:

Horseshoe Crab Biology

Horseshoe Crabs, SCDNR

Horseshoe Crab.org