Sunday, June 28, 2015

Out on the Ocean

I think the ocean is awesome, and I know so little about the creatures that live there, especially away from shore. Unfortunately, as I discovered on a whale-watching trip a few years ago, I get quite seasick if I actually go out on the open water. So when I learned that there's a jetty at the mouth of Humboldt Bay -- a short drive from our house -- where one can walk nearly half a mile out onto the ocean, I was intrigued. Open water with ocean birds, mammals, and waves, but no rocking floor to try to stand on? Yes please!

On Friday afternoon, at low tide (apparently this place gets dangerous when the tide is high), Paul and I took a trip out to the north jetty at the Samoa Dunes Recreation Area, and it was indeed awesome. I don't often get to see waves from this perspective:

And surfers are downright novel for me; there were several people out enjoying the waves on Friday:

Yes, the ocean is intense:

I'm learning that Common Murres are quite, well, common at the shores around here, and a few of these birds were swimming in the water close to the jetty. This is such a handsome bird up close; I love that line behind its eye, and those big paddling feet and sleek pointed wings (so useful for moving underwater):

This murre had just popped up from a dive in this next picture, and it's still got its protective nictitating membrane covering its eyes:

An Osprey was hunting over the fog-shrouded waves:

It made some impressive dives, although I didn't see it actually catch anything:

Brown Pelicans were cruising around; these birds are downright massive, especially compared to the gulls that kept trailing them hoping for fish:

A few ocean mammals showed up, too! This Harbor Seal seemed to be watching us for a bit:

And a few Harbor Porpoises went by!

I can't believe I live in a place where I can see marine mammals. The birds and scenery are awesome, too, of course, but whenever I'm near open ocean I'll certainly be watching the waves for fins and faces. There's so much to see around here, and I'm still just getting started!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Some Very Vocal Birds at Arcata Marsh

I've started exploring the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary over the past couple of days. Just a few minutes drive from my house, this place is a nice combination of fresh and saltwater marshes, grasslands, and bay. And it doubles as a wastewater treatment facility for the town, which is pretty cool (and not something I ever would have realized if it wasn't publicized).

Apparently the Arcata Marsh is a very popular spot for birdwatching (judging by its thousands of eBird checklists), and I certainly saw a lot of birds when I walked along some of its marshes and grasslands yesterday afternoon. There was so much activity! The air above the marshes was filled with swooping swallows and swifts -- I'm still figuring out how to identify all the swallow species we have here! -- and birds were calling all over the place. Pretty much everywhere I went, I heard Marsh Wrens, although I didn't know that's what I was hearing until this individual jumped boldly out of the cattails (where all the other birds were apparently hiding) and sang:

(You can hear a Song Sparrow singing in part of that video as well. I love Song Sparrows and I'm so glad to find them here.)

I saw a Marsh Wren only once while I lived in Connecticut, and that was a very brief glimpse through some dense reeds. The Arcata Marsh, by contrast, is practically overflowing with these small boisterous birds:

Sing it, Marsh Wren!

What a lovely little creature:

This wren made a few trips in and out of the cattails, and I eventually saw its nest, woven so neatly into the leaves at the marsh's edge:

Although much smaller in number -- at only four individuals -- the marsh's Common Ravens were certainly rivaling the Marsh Wrens for noisiness. This raven called from a tree near the path for several minutes, with other ravens nearby occasionally adding their voices; I love these birds' shaggy throats and their croaking calls, and I'm still getting used to the idea of ravens as "common" birds:


Most of the other creatures I met at the marsh were much less noisy, though still very active. Here's my first close encounter with a local hummingbird, a female, although I'm not sure whether she's an Allen's Hummingbird or a Rufous Hummingbird (I can't believe I live in a place with more than one hummingbird species):

Well, she's gorgeous, whatever she is:

I was happy to see so many familiar (to me) birds at the marsh as well. Male American Goldfinches are just as flashy out here in the west as they are in the east:

Hello, Black-capped Chickadee (post-bath):

A fly-by from a handsome Great Egret is always welcome:

I'm not sure what to make of these two Cedar Waxwings' behavior:

One waxwing was begging for food, and the other waxwing was feeding it, but it's awful early in the season for fledgelings (I think), and these birds both have the sleek filled-out costumes of adults. Perhaps this behavior falls under the umbrella of courtship? Or maybe this is a second-year bird falling back into old behaviors? Do either of those things even happen? In any case, there was certainly an exchange of food, which I'm sure made the begging waxwing very happy:

With bonus saliva:

There were other creatures besides birds out and about, of course. This Western Tiger Swallowtail was absolutely gorgeous; I don't know that I've ever seen such a pristine wild butterfly:

I also met my first Californian reptile! (I actually met this creature in another part of the marsh the previous afternoon.) This is one of the multiple types of Garter Snakes in the area, showing beautiful red markings; I haven't been able to quite narrow it down to species, but it's certainly a lovely creature:

I'm sure there are many, many more things still to discover in the Arcata Marsh. (I keep reading that there are River Otters there.... Otters!) I'm looking forward to exploring this place further in the months to come!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Orange and Blue on the Dunes

I saw lots of bright colors when I was out walking on the Manila dunes on Monday. Little Acmon Blue butterflies (Plebejus acmon) were flashing their blue and orange wings:

Goodness, but those orange bands are pretty:

This Acmon Blue was enjoying some Coast Buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium) flowers:

Coast Buckwheat seems to be quite popular with the insects around here -- including this unidentified bee -- and the little flowers are really lovely up close:

Speaking of bright colors, I have to share the abundant and phenomenal California Poppy:

And it's hard to find a brighter blue than in this sunny ocean scene:

There are so many bright and beautiful things in the sand! I love discovering these little treats at our new home.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Welcome to California's North Coast

And here we go! I'm excited to say that for the next year or so, I'll be living and working in Humboldt County, California, all the way up in the northwestern part of the state. Think Pacific Ocean, giant redwoods, moderate temperatures year round.... This is a huge change from anywhere I've lived before, and it's kind of amazing.

In the week and a half since we arrived at our new home, Paul and I (along with my parents, who generously helped us move) have briefly visited a broad range of nearby natural places; our goal has been to get a basic idea of what's around here so we can explore them in more detail in the months to come. Basically, this is the tourist phase. So here's a sampling from our preliminary adventures in this new and exciting place. Consider this a teaser of things to come!

We're living on a peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and Arcata Bay, which means that just a few minutes drive from our house (or a 20-minute walk), we have vast expanses of beach:

We spent some time walking among the dunes and beaches at the Humboldt Coastal Nature Center and the nearby Ma-le'l Dunes, and I was pretty impressed with this alien landscape:

There are so many specialized plants on the dunes, with lovely flowers and interesting growth patterns, and all of them are entirely foreign to me. I'm looking forward to getting more familiar with the plants in my new almost-backyard. Here's some Yellow Sand-verbena (Abronia latifolia) and Purple Owl's Clover (Castilleja exserta) to get things started:

I was happy to meet lots of White-crowned Sparrows who were raising families in the dunes' shrubby growth, since I'm at least passingly familiar with these birds from back east. This adult was chirping through a beakful of caterpillar:

A juvenile White-crowned Sparrow made an appearance as well:

I've never before lived in a place where Common Ravens are actually common, so it's pretty cool that I've already seen these birds several times around here. This raven sat on a tower near the nature center and made a weird gurgling sound that we thought at first might come from some sort of amphibian:

Another raven showed up on the same tower an hour or so later; with those bits of pink skin at the corners of its beak, I'm guessing this is a juvenile:

At the shore, there were even more things to see. Look, waves!

A big flock of Marbled Godwits was working over the wet sand:

I guess there are some tasty critters in there:

This godwit walked along the beach then did a double-take and rushed back to a spot it had just passed:

It pushed its beak deep into the sand and pulled up... I'm not sure what kind of creature:

It was a big prize, whatever it was, and the godwit had a bit of a hard time swallowing it:

But it got it down eventually. I have to say, I'm impressed by these birds' skills at hunting out such buried creatures:

One of the most amazing sights on the beach the day we visited was the hundreds of washed up By-the-wind Sailors (Velella velella), beautiful blue jellyfish-like creatures (actually colonies of hydrozoans) that float across the open ocean with the help of their stiff "sails":

I think I knew such creatures existed, but I'd certainly never seen one before, and apparently they only wash up on shore under certain unusual conditions. What an amazing encounter!

So we've got easiest access to sandy beaches and dunes, which I'm sure will provide us with tons of entertainment. Driving north up the coast, the shoreline becomes more rocky and intense. We explored a bit of Patrick's Point State Park, which features some dramatic cliffs along the ocean:

Big rocks just offshore are obviously popular resting spots for birds (like the assorted cormorants on the left):

There are a lot of ocean birds here that I'll need to learn. Small groups of Common Murres (this group accompanied by a cormorant) flew over the water and fished in the waves:

A family of hyperactive Chestnut-backed Chickadees was busily eating seeds from the conifers in the park:

It's so cool to see chickadees in these new costumes; I think the chestnut vest is very handsome indeed:

And it's nice to see a Turkey Vulture's familiar face (these big birds are all over the place out here):

This super fuzzy bee was feeding from almost-as-fuzzy Salal (Gaultheria shallon) blossoms:

And on a stone/sand beach neighboring Patrick's Point, we found a small grasshopper (possibly in the genus Microtes) with some of the best camouflage ever. See it?

How about now?

I especially love the grasshopper's patterning from above:

OK, beaches and dunes and rocky shores are all amazing, but here's maybe the coolest part about our new home: A half hour drive gets us to the Redwood National and State Parks, which protect over 40% of all remaining old-growth Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) forests. Some of these trees are really ancient (upwards of 2000 years old), and these are the tallest trees in the world. I mean, that's pretty awesome. For our first foray among these ancient trees, we walked the Lady Bird Johnson Grove trail, which features old-growth redwood and Douglas Fir trees; these aren't the biggest examples of these trees (because the trail is at a higher elevation than some other parts of the forest), but they're still pretty darn tall:

We spent a lot of time just looking up and marveling at these giants:

I absolutely loved wandering through this forest:

There were lots of interesting flowers growing on the forest floor. Here's a carpet of Two-leaved Solomon's Seal (Maianthemum dilatatum):

And a lovely mixture of Redwood Violet (Viola sempervirens) and Western Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia) -- my first northwestern orchid (although it's not blooming yet):

A warbler (Wilson's Warbler, I suspect, although I didn't get a good enough view to confirm that ID) quickly crossed our path with food for its family:

And that's it so far. I've got tons of new animals and plants to learn about (my Western North America bird book should be arriving any day now) and so many new environments to explore in more detail. I can't wait!