The Rainy Season

This is our first winter here in the North Coast. We are at nearly the same latitude as Salt Lake City, Omaha, and Indianapolis and yet have no snow.  Thanks to the Pacific Ocean, we often don’t see temperatures below freezing. While that could be a consolation for some, we also get the majority of our precipitation during this time of year. Winter has been replaced with the rainy season.

The rainy season is beckoned in by radio ads talking about getting the greenhouses up as to not get caught off guard [certain cash crops can be severely damaged by the slightest rainfall], spiders disappearing, worms appearing [inside!], and birds coming down from the higher altitudes to stay warm.  I rather enjoy having company at the feeders, but I’m not too fond of peeling half desiccated worm bodies off the entry floor.

Glad to have enough light to catch this "Oregon" Dark-eyed Junco finally!

When the rains and wind let up, everyone floods outside. It is strange one day to walk the dog and see very few people moving about, and then the moment the sun breaks, people pop up like mushrooms. I guess it’s not so bad though, since looking like a drown rat walking something that looks like a drown polar bear isn’t really what I want everyone to see, just the other drown rats.

Chickens Enjoy Sunshine, but Most of All, Bugs

On a couple of fine days in between storms, we joined the crowds and headed to the beach. We really like walking around the beaches of Trinidad, and since in North Coast California, a busy day really isn’t all that busy.  The only place that has felt busy recently was Moonstone Beach with its dog walkers, rock climbers, hula hoopers, tight rope walkers, bocce ball players, kayakers, surfers, and general beach goers. Every time we go there is someone doing something you wouldn’t expect. And it’s not a developed beach, it’s a little cove blocked by cliffs on one side and the Little River on the other. It’s just easy to get to and has a cool name, I guess.

Anyway, we made it to Trinidad twice now between the sputtering showers and heaving, wind-driven downpours. 

It is one of my favorite places to mill around because of the color in the rocks. I feel like every time I go, I see a new rainbow in a rock. I believe most of that can be attributed to the hodge podge geologic composition of the North Coast Range that butts up against the ocean. Farther East you have mountain building due to volcanic activity. Out here, the North American plate is scraping against the Pacific plate, peeling off sea floor sediments and piling them up as the Coast Range. It’s essentially like mounding up what you can scrape off the top of a gravel road; it’s going to be a mix of whatever is in the way.

A Rainbow Rock in College Cove

Getting past this geology tangent, it is the rainy season when the land and sea really battle it out. Large waves are more frequent, chipping away at the cliffs and bluffs, but the rains do their part to put as much of the earth into the sea as possible.  All this sediment contributes to our murky seas, and possibly to the higher rate of shark attacks here. Since the visibility is reduced, sharks likely rely more on their electromagnetic sense than sight. Obviously, sharks don’t have hands, so they ‘feel’ around with their mouths.  There aren’t many people in the water, thankfully, but if we were as busy as southern California, yikes!

The Creeks are Swelling Fast

It is a dynamic coast that seems to be caught in a never-ending cycle of washing away, scraping up, and washing away again. Of course, it’s not just the rock sediment that gets caught up in this battle. On Pewetole Island, Sitka Spruce hangs on precariously to what used to be connected land. I’m not sure what species of tree that has been wedged between the boulders, but it attests to the force needed to place it there.

Pewetole Island Between Boulders

Waves Crashing on Pewetole

Remember when I mentioned that people pop up like mushrooms when it doesn’t rain?  The same fair weather rules apply to the crab fishermen. In the summer months, you hardly see a boat on the water [if you can see the water through the dense fog], but come the rainy season, boats line the Pacific’s horizon like streetlights on a major highway.  They have to battle the waves [most of the boats are fairly small], plow through the rain, and avoid the sea stacks that guard the rocky cliffs.  While I am sure they have a lot more on their mind, the crab fishermen can likely thank the rainy season to rush sediments down to the ocean where the prey items of the dungeness crabs feed, allowing the crabs to feast on the small, well-fed  shrimp and fish. From there, the now well-fed crabs are traded for bills to land on a plate. Cycles within the cycles of the rainy season.

Crab Boat Horizon

 

Appraising Parks

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  As long as parks are appreciated and beauty on some level is found within them, I assume they can withstand economic hard times.  I’m not sure I could say the same when natural resources and land become extremely scarce.

Sometimes my appreciation for a park isn’t immediate. Crater Lake, after the cold numbed me and the snow fell, grew on me. I appreciated the Badlands immediately. Redwood is slowly but surely growing on me, too. But it’s the smaller urban parks that take me the most time.

Hiller Park in McKinleyville is near my home. I walk through it nearly daily. It features a dog park full of dug-out gopher holes, baseball fields, and a sometimes rancid smelling set of water treatment ponds. Sounds like paradise, right?!

This park is neither exotic, overly scenic, nor free of invasive species, but I have to say, it’s growing on me.  I’d attribute this growing love to toting my camera and dog around so much in it. It seems to me that the more you spend time in a place, the more you like it. In fact, that probably could be said about many things; the more time, the better the appreciation.

Here is my photographic appreciation for Hiller Park:

A West Coast Lady [thanks Katie!] enjoying the January sunshine.

An American Robin gobbling a worm near a treatment pond.

A Chestnut-backed Chickadee hunting for pine seeds.

A female Northern Shoveler getting ready for a dip in a treatment pond.

Goats and geese are fenced in and trim the grass around the treatment ponds.

Enjoying the view.

There are various forms of the Canada goose tribes inside the fence. Most have broken wings, like this fellow, who might be a Aleutian goose. [Supposedly, the white band has to be 10mm wide. I never have a ruler on me!]

The ravens are skiddish.

Sunbeams and Sitkas.

‘Old Man’s Beard’ looks lacy in the canopy.

Mass Commute of Mallards

An Anna’s Hummingbird in December. I saw my first hummer at my feeder today [1.9.2012].

A cold shoulder from a Red-shouldered Hawk.

Some ninja needs to come knock the camera out of my hands when I go for sunbeams again–they’re going to eat up half my hard drive!

Mad River View. I believe that is Pampas grass to the left. An invasive pain in the neck.

Same view at night. I think that’s Venus.

A sunset on the riverbank

That large log has long washed out to sea by now.

A drying sandbar under a fiery sky

A Cormorant enjoying a dip in the river.

Back up on the trails.

Banana slugs cross over the trails often. They don’t withstand feet well. That hole you see is where the slug exchanges gases [breathes] and its feces also exit through that same hole. Rough life.

To sum up this overwhelming bombardment of pixels; the land surrounding the treatment ponds could have remained unaltered forest, or they could have been developed, but instead they serve as one of the rare accessible green spaces. While maybe the wildlife would have preferred untouched land, this little urban park offers something for everyone; little leaguers to dog park goers. And while many may not consciously appreciate the park on the same level as others, I’m sure they have at least one fond memory within its boundaries.  Perhaps enough fond memories are what it takes to keep parks large and small off closure lists!

The Newly Discovered Scent Hound: Birds?!

Apparently Toucan Sam’s sniffer wasn’t as fictional as once thought.

Common thought in the past has led most to believe that birds had an underdeveloped sense of smell. Exceptions were made for the carrion eaters, but otherwise, it was thought that not much happened inside the beak of a bird, olfactory-wise.

Recent research has been changing these views. While it is unknown if birds prefer floral or fruity scents, it has been established that behavior modification occurs when birds detect the scent of a predator.¹ Using the scent of a mustelid’s [like a mink] feces, researchers noted a difference in behavior compared to control tests of quail feces scents and water.

When testing House Finches with mammal feces of both a predator and non-predator,  the finches paused before feeding and did so more often with the predator scents. They also ate faster and fed for less time when fecal scents were present.³

Not only do birds use scent to sniff out predators, but there is mounting evidence they use scents to recognize mates.  Scientists cite less brain activity in birds when faced with a potential, but scentless, mate.²

What an amazing world!

 

 

1. Amo, L., Galván, I., Tomás, G. and Sanz, J. J. (2008), Predator odour
recognition and avoidance in a songbird
. Functional Ecology, 22: 289–293.

2. Jacques Balthazart, Mélanie Taziaux, The underestimated role of olfaction in avian reproduction?, Behavioural Brain Research, Volume 200, Issue 2, 25 June 2009, Pages 248-259

3. Timothy C. Roth II, Jonathan G. Cox, Steven L. Lima, Can foraging birds assess predation risk by scent?, Animal Behaviour, Volume 76, Issue 6, December 2008, Pages 2021-2027

 

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!]

Subtle Changes in the Seasons

When we moved here to north of Northern California, also known as the North Coast, we were told that there aren’t seasons here, just rain during the winter and fog during the summer. The temperature only fluctuates by about 20 or 30 degrees, so that seasonal indicator isn’t of much help, either.

While there aren’t traditional seasons right here on the coast, you can go 20 or 30 miles inland and find them, complete with snow or scorching temperatures! But, if you keep your eyes peeled and pay attention to nature, you’ll notice that the seasons are in fact here, even if the temperature is the same every day.

For example, the flowers here on the North Coast go through a seasonal succession. They progress, just like other places with more ‘typical’ weather, from the Spring beauties to the final blooms of Fall.

Animals, too, follow the  subtle seasonal rhythms.  The Roosevelt Elk are starting to bugle and compete with each other, marking the start of the rut that most elk herd ritualistically participate in during the month of September.

Birds have come and gone, and others have arrived. Varied and Swainsons thrushes have migrated elsewhere, leaving the Redwood forests nearly silent, but others, like the Band-tailed Pigeon have come crashing into the cascara and alder thickets.  Swallows, both Cliff and Barn,  as well as Marbled Murrelets, hit their peak mid-summer while raising their young, and most have now completed the task and are enjoying their time “off”.

During the Spring, it was hard to find a spider anywhere, but now, especially early in the morning, you find them everywhere.  You know you are the first one to walk a trail when you walk through webs every 4 feet!

So even though we don’t get feet of snow and hot weather, Nature is still marching on and changing to the “invisible” seasons that are controlled by the Earth’s tilt and rotation around the Sun.  The breezes carry only the smell of the Pacific Ocean and its kelp, but Autumn and its sunshine are seeping in through the fog!

Birds and Beach

I have managed to pry myself out of the grasp of homework a few times over the past two weeks. Those rare moments can be grouped into three categories: Birds, Beach, and Edisto [which will be the next post].

We’ll start with birds:

We walked the short trails of Patriots Point State ‘Park’ and found an abundance of robins with a smattering of other feathered species.

The Noisy Robins

I’m at a loss on this one…a duck.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Cedar Waxwing

Yellow-rumped Warbler

And transitioning from birds to beach, here are some birds at the beach:

Double-crested Cormorants

Willets

Willet again

Piping Plover [I think the same individual I saw last winter]

And more rare [down here] than the Plover, a Snow Bunting! They aren’t often found on SC beaches. Thanks to BirdChick for the ID.

On to the beach:

Click to enlarge.

And just to prove it hasn’t been cloudy the whole time:

The Yorktown at sunset.

Apologies for the super long post!

Picasa Album: https://picasaweb.google.com/sniehans/20110201GrandmaAndBirds#5573750912795129538

National Seashore Becomes Battleground over Endangered Species

*Note, theses are my personal views. If you disagree and decide to comment, please do so in a respectful manner.

What is everyone talking about in the Outer Banks? A bird, but no, they aren’t birders and they don’t want to see them. I’ve watched this story and gathered some facts over the past couple months:

Anyone who calls themselves a conservationist, preservationist, or nature-lover will agree that saving a species, no matter the size or look, is important and should take priority over our recreational preferences. That feeling isn’t echoed by the residents of the Outer Banks, whose lineage in the area goes back into the 1930s when the North Carolina Coast. They believe the National Park Service, which runs Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and the Audubon Society, which forced the Park Service to include endangered species management by creating official off-road vehicle guidelines, are destroying the local economy with beach closures meant to protect nesting birds.  See the video below for a brief explanation of their views.

YouTube – Fox News Interviews John Couch.

What’s at Stake

A few species of birds have evolved [read: been there longer than the 1930s] to nest on barrier islands that were void of predators, making it safe to raise young. Enter bridge-building humans that have created a way for predators to spread on to the barrier islands [like foxes and raccoons, species that easily adapt to human landscapes] and that have a preference not to walk down the beach, but to drive their four-wheel drive vehicles on it instead. These ground-nesting species of birds are understandably threatened or endangered now with their prime breeding habitat converted into our playground and invaded by new predators. Most notable is the Piping Plover, whose numbers are lower than 2000 breeding pairs [http://www.fws.gov/northeast/pipingplover/overview.html].  This bird benefitted in the 1940s from the passing of the Migratory Species Act but the increased recreational activity on beaches since World War II has caused the numbered to plummet once again.

In response to the diving population size, the National Park Service, through legal provocation by the Audubon Society and others, has created a temporary management plan that limits beach access when a Piping Plover nest is spotted. This plan includes closing off a radius of 1,000 yards around the nest site in order to provide the hatchlings and parents enough undisturbed habitat to feed in the intertidal zone and to prevent excessive disturbance upon parents tending and protecting the nest, which increases hatching success rates. As a benefit, other species are protected, but the target species, with the lowest population numbers, is the Piping Plover.

Residents have felt economic impacts that they pin on the confusion and hassle caused by the beach closures and many have been forced to close businesses and foreclose on homes, seeking employment elsewhere.  The heritage that they have built there has been devastated. While they are facing hard times, their employment rates aren’t the lowest in the country, nor in their state.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Both sides are very heated and communication has all but broken down between the major groups involved. Confusion has led to distorted facts, unwillingness to listen to arguments, and all-and-all out anger by some stakeholders.

The main problem lies in distrust. Locals don’t believe the numbers that the Park Service and others have gathered, ranging from facts such as buffer zone necessary to prevent the disturbance of the birds [motorized recreation has more of an impact on wildlife; increased nest desertion. See: Wildlife and Recreationists: Ch 5] to the increased visitation to the National Seashore over the past several years. In fact, they are nearly convinced there is some kind of government conspiracy to kick them off their island [the government employees want the place all to themselves and the birds with absolutely no amenities nearby? No visitors = no budget].

On the other hand, can the NPS  trust that off-road vehicle users and other visitors who feel displaced will obey the rules, drive and walk only where they are supposed to, and not run over wildlife and nests?

From 9/10/2010 Resource Management Summary:

“Bodie District:

8/27- Two sets of pedestrian tracks entered the filter fence and one individual defecated next to

the nest marker 1.8 miles N of Ramp 23.”

 Although the perhaps the love for one particular species isn’t there, the locals do love the land and feel a deep connection to the Outer Banks. 

If the numbers are crunched, during the nesting season there were no more than approximately 27 miles of 60 closed at any given time, although the locals will mention that the best fishing spots, like Cape Point, were inaccessible [Island Free Press Beach Closures Weekly Report]. Even though there are large buffer zones around the nests, the vast majority do not produce hatchlings. This is in part due to predators that were not indigenous to the previously safe islands, like foxes and raccoons, which the Park Service, under public opposition as well, is trying manage [See “A Plan to Rid Keys of Predator Species“]. In total this year, only 15 Piping Plover chicks fledged out of 33, with 12 breeding pairs, 6 of which nested at Cape Point.²

It’s All about Appearances

While it’s no doubt the local Outer Banks economy has taken a hit, so has the rest of the country.  Interestingly, tourism numbers are up at the National Seashore this past year and that trend is reflected country-wide as well. New York City experienced a rise in tourists, as did Las Vegas¹ last year. The same can be said for other North Carolina National Park Service Units along the coast as well, such as the Fort Raleigh and Cape Lookout [NPS Stats: Visitation by Month/Year http://www.nature.nps.gov/stats/viewReport.cfm]. Seemingly out of frustration, Outer Banks residents can’t blame the intangible tourism industry and instead point to one species of bird.

The National Seashore, forced into compliance with the rest of the units in the National Park Service to uphold the mission to protect for future generations the cultural and natural resources, has found itself incapable of calming the locals and the environmental groups.  Confusion has resulted from different management practices for different species. For example, a national practice for sea turtle nests is to mark off a small area around the nest since sea turtles do not forge on the beach but immediately leave and enter the water.  Since sea turtle hatch out primarily at night, the National Seashore has night closures to prevent turtles from being run over. Birds, on the other hand, linger on the beach until the hatchlings can fly and are diurnal, meaning they roam during the day when peak visitor usage occurs.  Their foraging habits require them to cover some beach in order to secure proper food intake. If repeatedly flushed from an area, the amount of food that the bird consumes greatly diminishes. Hence, the two different species requiring the same habitat for widely varying amounts of time has confused many as to why such strict guidelines are now in place.

It seems the anger over these management issues has peaked due to increased attention paid to the management proposal and temporary management plans.  Piping Mad: Fair People at the Mercy of a Government Gone Fowl is a documentary style portrayal of the hardships that the locals face. While very short on actual facts, the pain the people have is tangible. A noticeable omission in the film is the lack of explanation as to why the species is being protected, methods and research in determining how to do so, and federal laws stating it must be so [Migratory Species Act, anyone?]. Also omitted is the amount, where and duration of beach closures. Like stated above, it’s never been all of the beach.

The Bottom Line

It is imperative that all parties involved find a way to protect the Piping Plover while allowing for recreational access.  If the species disappears, it’s not only a failure  for the National Park Service, in charge of protecting our wild treasures, but the locals and ultimately the American public, who have successfully saved other species from extinction in the past through preservation efforts by those like John Muir and conservation movements by leaders such as Aldo Leopold.

To let the Piping Plover go the way of the Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet would be a travesty and undo what so many, for generations, worked for. A success story like the Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon on the other hand would shine the proverbial spotlight of history on the Seashore and local community as champions of conservation and cooperation.

¹ http://www.salon.com/wires/techbiz/2011/01/04/D9KHKG680_us_nyc_tourism/index.html

http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/01/02/1997846/a-plan-to-rid-keys-of-predator.html

² 9/10/2010 Resource Management Summary