Monday, April 30, 2007

Our First Stranded Marine Mammal Call

We received our first post-training Marine Mammal Stranding call on Saturday. Someone reported an injured sea lion on a small point on the west side of Quimper Peninsula. We headed out right away with our clipboard, Marine Mammal Stranding Report Level A Data form, and camera, but found nothing. I called the Marine Science Center and reported seeing no sea lion. Later in the afternoon on Saturday, we received an email that thanked us for our assistance, and told us that the sea lion was in fact seen again. It was able to go back and forth between the water and shore, which seemed like behavior that didn't warrant any further investigation. Oh well, we thought, we missed our first opportunity. C'est la vie.
Early Sunday morning we received another call from the volunteer coordinator. She told me that the animal was not a sea lion, but a juvenile elephant seal. It was not injured but was going through its yearly catastrophic molt. She wanted to know if we could go back and photograph it. I controlled myself and didn't scream an ear-splitting YES directly into the phone.

Before we left the house, we did a bit of elephant seal research online to better familiarize ourselves with the molting process and prepare ourselves for what we were about to see. Here is how the process is described:
Human beings shed hair and skin all the time, but elephant seals go through a catastrophic molt, in which the entire layer of epidermis with the hairs attached is sloughed off in one concentrated time. The reason for this abrupt molt is that while at sea they spend most of their time in cold deep water. As part of the dive process the blood is diverted away from the skin. This helps them conserve energy and avoid losing body heat. By coming up on land to molt the blood can be circulated to the skin so a new layer of epidermis and hair can be grown.
Our own little handout from the local Marine Science Center had this to say:
Elephant Seals come ashore once a year to molt. This natural process takes weeks on the beach to complete. During this time their breathing is irregular, eyes weep, noses run, and the skin looks horrible. This is normal.
We arrived at the beach and some of the locals pointed the seal out to us. It was much closer to the houses and into the driftwood, than we had expected. It was lying there, eyes closed, breathing heavily. Its skin was definitely a mess. If I didn't know better, I too would have assumed it had been in a fight with something. It did lift its head to take notice of us, but our intention was to let it be. So, we snapped a few pics and headed home. Despite looking rather small in the photos, we both guessed this creature was about 6 feet from head to hind limbs. Commonly, bull elephant seals reach a length of 18 ft (5.5 m) and a weight of 5,000 lbs (2,270 kg), which are much larger than the females that usually measure about 10 ft (3 m) in length.

Even though Roger and I lived in Santa Cruz for 15 years, only 25 miles south of Ano Nuevo, home of the largest breeding colony of Northern Elephant Seals in the world, this is the first time we've ever seen one.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Self-Promotion at its best

Found a link to a website for a new book No One Belongs Here More Than You at the blog My Poor Fool is Hanged. The site is so smart, good-humored, and inspired that it warranted a post. Please take a look.

Remember that today is the last day to submit a photo for this weekend's Good Planets. Send your water-themed pics to Vicki of A Mark on My Wall, email vbennett at umich dot edu.

Hope you all have a great weekend.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Suddenly We Have Ducks

Late Sunday afternoon a pair of mallards landed in our very tiny pond. It seemed a fluke, something incredibly sweet, but certainly not something that would be repeated.
However, on Monday, Mrs. Duck arrived at 6:30 pm, floated in the pond a while, and then took her dinner under the birdfeeder. Seeing her reminded me that I heard something the other day when I was out in the garden. I mentioned to Roger, I thought I heard from somewhere off in the border trees a sound like a decoy duck call, not real but duck-like. Now I wonder if they actually have a real nest there. If they show up again tomorrow, I'm going to buy duck food. I should, shouldn't I? Would it be wrong to encourage them?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Talking to Strangers

Recently, Roger and I broke with tradition and went out to meet two fellow bloggers one week, and then some local folks who comment on our blog the following week. We were, of course, full of trepidation. We've read their blogs, and the emails sent by people we don't know in "real life," and even though we found their writing delightful, we wondered if we'd be disappointed by the real thing. Now, I wouldn't be writing this if I had to report that the bloggers Phil and Isabelita were wacky people who we'd be afraid to meet again. Nope, they were as charming, interesting, and full of insight and humor as they are on their respective blogs. We met them in Seattle (we finally ventured in a few weeks ago to look for tile for our kitchen), and had a great lunch on the waterfront with them. We picked up right where blogging leaves off. The conversation went from family to politics to kayaking; from novels to birdwatching to cameras. We were meeting old friends for the first time, and it was good. In fact we hope to meet up again here on the peninsula and do some serious hiking with them. (Above photo taken when Phil and Isabelita showed us how to get out of town, and let us pull in front of them when we wound up in the wrong lane.)
So, fresh with that experience in our blood, we thought we'd try again with Dawn and Rich. Dawn comments on our blog, and sends us emails with lots of photos of wildlife. She's a great photographer, and my personal call for reference when I need to ID a bird. We planned a meet-up with her and her husband for a minus tide walk on Saturday. Lucky us, we had another really excellent time. They turned out to be easy-going and relaxed people who could spend hours looking at wildlife. They are practiced watchers with very keen eyes. They spotted three deer so far down the beach that I could barely see them even after they were pointed out. Dawn has a great camera, which she let Roger use on our walk. Wow wow wow. Roger got the absolute best eagle pic that either one of us has ever shot (definitely click on above photo). We wanted to continue the walk all the way to the mouth of the Chimacum Creek, but the wind kicked up fiercely, so instead of having the picnic lunch we prepared for the beach, we came back to our house to eat in comfort.
After lunch, we showed them around the yard, and Dawn pointed out the Golden-crowned sparrows that were flitting around the raspberry vines. Sometimes all it takes is a fresh pair of eyes to see what's been right in front of us all along.

After these two experiences, I think I can safely say that we'd be delighted to meet all the bloggers on our blogroll, and everyone who comments here. The quality of hearts and minds that we meet on these pages comes as close as anything to restoring our confidence in humanity.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Signs of the Season

This moth, Mesoleuca gratulata, was alone on our garage door.
Here are two together deeply engaged on our sidewalk.
These two moths were connected for hours and hours. I emailed Bev at Burning Silo to ask her if this was typical moth reproductive behavior. She replied:
I asked Bill Oehlke (who has a silk moths website) about that last year when I found the mating pair of One-eyed Sphinx moths (Smerinthus cerisyi).
Here's a page that he put up about them.
On it, he writes:
The female (upper moth) is carrying a load of eggs as evidenced by her enlarged abdomen. Females usually do not fly until after they have mated. Pairing takes place at night and the moths often remain in copula until the following evening.
I don't know if that is true of all species of moths, but I would think it may well be the case for quite a few. I've occasionally found paired moths and they remain very still and are often in place an hour or more later.
It is like this all around our yard. The birds and bees are busy, seriously. This black-capped chickadee is pulling apart our doormat to make her nest. Ah, spring.

Have a great weekend, friends.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Unthinkable

I was 14 years old in 1966 when the word "sniper" became a part of my lexicon. It was the year that Charles Whitman took a rifle up to the clocktower at the University of Texas, Austin. It was the moment I learned the world was really not as safe as I thought it was. It was a charged and irreversible moment. For some time afterwards, my friend Binnie and I walked around our small town and turned sniper into a verb. We wondered if people would "snipe" us; we were afraid of being sniped. We laughed and cried at our fear. We learned to be afraid.

I feel a very personal connection to Virginia Tech. My brother's stepson is a student in the Engineering Department there. Yes, I held my breath all morning yesterday until I heard that he was safe. My ex-SIL teaches there, as does a friend in the Mechanical Engineering Department. I have had family living in Blacksburg, VA since 1972, and I have spent many summers there on and off for nearly 20 years. I was admitted to Virginia Tech in 1988, after my first marriage ended, to resume my graduate work in literature, but chose to move back to California instead. Still, I have always loved Blacksburg and for many years considered it my second home. I feel very deeply about what has happened. I can hardly believe that such a little bucolic town has now become a place in our common history named for being the site of the worst mass murder (so far) in our country.

Yet, as senseless and horrific as all of these murders are, I see what they are not. They are not political. They are not state-sponsored. They are not acts of terrorism. They are the isolated acts of madmen exercising the randomness of their contempt for humanity. That does not diminish the pain they inflict, only the scope. As an adult, 40 years after Charles Whitman, I recognize that it is our responsbility to know the difference. As citizens we must mourn, but carry on. We should not be afraid to pursue the important work that faces our country today. It is not an insult to these poor victims for Congress to continue their investigations. The Senate Judiciary Committee will question Alberto Gonzales on Thursday, and that is how it should be. Mourn, but carry on.

We extend our deepest sympathies to the families and friends who lost loved ones at Virginia Tech.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The One-Bunny Lesson

After dinner Saturday night something caught our attention running very fast in the yard. It was a rabbit. The night before we had watched two large bunnies eating the tall grass beneath the bird feeder (pictured above), so we knew the bunnies were back. But Saturday evening's bunny was much younger, much smaller. A skinny little stretched-out thing that was tearing around the yard like it was trying to find a way out. It ran along the fence. It ran around the bird feeder. It ran hither and yon. It ran back to the fence. Everywhere we looked, this little bun was running for all it was worth. The cat was watching from the house, quite frantic to get into the yard. The bunny seemed just as frantic to find its way out of the yard.

I tried to take my attention off of it. I looked away. I had practiced this same avoidance behavior Thursday night at dusk when a single, young quail appeared separated from its covey. It too ran along the fence back and forth, back and forth, in what looked like abject despair and desperation. Roger said it would probably make some distress call that would be answered by its family. We assume that must have occurred because it soon disappeared into the woods.

So, I looked away from this distressed bunny. I made myself believe it would find its way out, just like it had found its way in. But there it was again flitting across my field of vision. Now running by the door off the sunroom, next running by the mock cherry tree. Then back to the fence. The cat ran from window to door to window again to watch. The poor rabbit was running everywhere, and it looked anxious to flee. I knew I had to go out and help it. My plan was to go along the fence and prop up a bit of the "rabbit-proof fencing" to let the little hapless hopper go. Roger, of course, thought I was crazy, but offered to accompany me on my chore. He both loves and humors me.

When we opened the door, we saw the bunny run. I just hoped we wouldn't scare it into doing something reckless (run into the jaws of a coyote or bobcat, what else?). Poor scared bun. But then we saw another little rabbit, And then another. Suddenly we were aware that there were in fact three identical lanky lopers crossing the yard every which way like some crazy cartoon playground. We hadn't be watching one scared and manic bunny, but three wild exuberant things. They were playing like kids pumped up on adrenaline. They hopped, ran, zigged and zagged their way across the yard, chasing each other without a care in the world. When they arrived at the fence this time, they hopped right through it with absolute ease. And once on the other side, I assume, they resumed their bunny antics.

We had a really good deep laugh about those rabbits, but even more about how completely wrong I could be. Roger suggested that I add how completely wrong we both could be. Don't you just love him?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Hawk and Mouse Snake

I took a walk Tuesday and watched a Red-tailed hawk swoop out of the sky and catch a rodent in the high spring grass. He flew off with it, and its tail hung down.
I watched hoping to find something to extrapolate to my human world.
I wanted something more than a photograph: a lesson, a secret, meaningful contemplation.
But there was only a hawk eating a mouse high up in the evergreen.

Afterwards he flew to the snag and looked down at me. I looked up and was really glad that I'm not a mouse.

Update: Thanks to some very observant commenters, I have learned that the prey is actually a snake. That really explains so much, like why that tail seemed incredibly long and big for a mouse.

Monday, April 09, 2007

48 Degrees 03' North; 122 Degrees 47' West

We just made it through the toughest winter we've ever had here. Okay, it was only our third winter, so we don't have much comparative evidence, but we heard from old timers that the winter was particularly grim and bleak. It drove me a little crazy. It's not just my psyche that cowered in the gloom, but my brown skin simply needed more sunlight to derive any benefit from the uv spectrum. There's a reason why paler skinned people could adapt to northern climes, and why Inuit make it through the dark season by living on fish. It all works out so well in a Darwinian sense. So what is a nice, non-fish-eating, semitic daughter of the desert doing in a place like this?
It's the modern world. We thought we could live anywhere. Who thinks about their skin pigment and latitude lines when considering where to retire? Certainly not us. We came for the natural beauty, the wildlife, the quiet. We came to be in a place where we could look down the beach and see a river otter scolding a gull. (Sorry for not having the gull in the shot, but this was taken at 48X digital zoom. You need to click on it to see how close the otter was to shore.) I wasn't even sure what I was seeing. I actually thought it was a stand-off between the gull and another larger shorebird! Maybe they were arguing over who could get the food here at this very spot.
But that otter spotted us before he could make his point, took off, and then watched us from the water with a rather toothy grin.
We came to be in a place where we could just turn our gaze from the water and look up into the trees to see eagles or a pileated woodpecker madly pecking, bark flying in all directions. We hushed and walked quietly, but this bird was not fazed by our presence one bit. He let us get very, very close. (Click on this for a redheaded treat.)
We came for all of this magnificence. We were the only people on the beach for miles. We came for that solitude too.

So, how do we survive the dark winter next? We've been doing research on the full spectrum lights to see if they stimulate the production of Vitamin D. So far, we haven't found anything conclusive. Does anyone out there know about full spectrum lights and Vitamin D?
Don't forget to submit your Good Planets photos to Vicki at A Mark on the Wall. Send your pics that depict the beauty of our planet to vbennett at umich dot edu.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

One Bird, Again

Last year we noticed an injured robin in our yard. He was injured in the sense that he had a foreign object protruding from his chest that went all through and out his back. We saw him all summer long. We wrote about him last June in a post called Our Robin. We are glad to say that we noticed him back in the yard the other day. He is still our special robin, an individual bird among many outstanding individuals, and we are especially pleased to see that he survives so well under these circumstances.

Isn't he a beauty? He reminds us that some living things endure so much. Sometimes they're lucky and their chests swell with life, even when they are broken and punctured. Would that we all could live so well with such burdens.

Can anyone out there identify the little flowers behind the robin in the first pic? They grow everywhere in our yard, and I have not been able to identify what they are.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Seeds in Spring

The birds are wild with song and sex. All around our yard and on the trails, there's happy singing and feathers fanning. Their preening elegance knows no bounds. Soon there will be nests.
We have been out and about. There have been a few sunny days. Not enough to make up for the months and months of dreary bleakness-- but still we saw our own shadows, and we didn't run and hide. There are blossoms on the fruit trees and veggie starts in the greenhouse. The promise of a future always begins like this.
We are heartened by the seeds of change taking root in Washington. A Democratic congress is finally using its power of checks and balances. We heard Henry Waxman described as a bulldog, who, once he has a hold of your pant leg is not going to let go. He's got a few very interesting pant legs in his jaws. His relentless tenacity holds a promise. This is very good and interesting. We feel the new winds blowing in Washington, blowing the dust off of the old stories and the new. We feel optimistic and hopeful, but that could very well be the simple result of the ultraviolets streaming into our psyches.
Are you basking in the ultraviolets of spring and planting seeds out there? What do you think will happen with the US Attorney scandal? Do you think Gonzales will resign? Do you know if Monica Goodling ever passed the bar exam? Will Karl Rove and Harriet Miers testify under oath? Will we bomb Iran this month? These are the questions the winds of spring swirl in the dust of seeds.

(If you are going to click on any of these pics, click on the Great Blue Heron. It's a color photo, but it looks so much like black and white.)