Today, November 17, 2013:
Sunset hike in the Santa Cruz Mountains, at Djerassi/SMIP Ranch.
Today, November 17, 2013:
Sunset hike in the Santa Cruz Mountains, at Djerassi/SMIP Ranch.
Of Polliwogs and Red Winged Blackbirds
I spent most of yesterday (okay, 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.) removing invasives by a pond at Driscoll Ranch, one of the Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District’s preserves. Ooooh, there were lots of red winged blackbirds darting about as we made the ascent up over the hills. (A four-wheel drive was necessary!) Numerous cows lazed about near the large drinking hole (an enormous man-made pond fed by underground springs) while deer watched our caravan of three pass by.
No Sugar Cane Here
Down by our little pond (a small man-made one, fed by a trickle from the mountain above), there were polliwogs galore! Seeing them took me back to my childhood in Jamaica, to a year spent playing by the gullies that irrigated the cane fields. These gullies were a treasure trove of tikki tikkis (baby fish) and polliwogs. A little girl and boy, could and did, lay side by side on the banks of the gullies catching tikki tikkis and tadpoles, then releasing them back into the water. When we got tired we’d watch clouds drift overhead as we chewed on freshly broken cane.
There is no cane growing at Driscoll Ranch but just as on the plains in Jamaica, the mountain heat here is unforgiving. One of the nearby ponds had completely dried up leaving behind a landscape scarred by fissures. Any polliwogs remaining in that environment are all dead by now. Hopefully, the adult frogs were able to make it to a pond filled with water like this one.
Saving the California Red-Legged Frog
Most of the tadpoles here are the babies of the rare California red-legged frog. They are the reason my fellow volunteers and I were breaking our backs under an exceedingly hot sun, to remove invasive plants and restore this riparian habitat. How did the slaves do it? How did they work from sun up to sun down, seven days a week? Some of us were on the brink of heat stroke yesterday, and we didn’t even put in a full day’s work! With my volunteer work done at around 2:30 p.m., I headed down to the beach to enjoy the rest of the afternoon.
(Note: Driscoll Ranch – near the town of La Honda – is not yet open to the public.)
Pomponio State Beach
Where: On the San Mateo Coast (a few miles from the towns of San Gregorio and Pescadero)
Notes about Pomponio
ACTIVITIES: Hiking trails, beaches, picnics (has charcoal barbecue grills by parking area) bird watching.
REGION: San Mateo County, on Highway One (not too far from the intersection of La Honda Road/Route 84), San Mateo County
HOURS: 8:00 a.m. to sunset
COST: $8.00 per vehicle; pay at the kiosk during the summer months; self-pay at other times of the year
LOCATION: Pomponio State Beach, Highway One, San Gregorio, CA 94074
What are Elephant Seals? We are deep sea divers and long distance travelers. We fast for long periods of time while on land. Our food sources, skates and squids, small sharks and other seafood are so far away – thousands upon thousands of miles – that once we arrive on land, we have to wait a very long time before eating again.
Northern and Southern Elephant Seals
There are two types of elephant seals: the northern (found along the Pacific islands and coasts of Mexico and California); and the southern (found along the Atlantic islands and coasts of Patagonia, Chile, Tierra del Fuego, et al). This article is only about the Northern elephant seal.
Northern Elephant Seals
Northern elephant seals spend most of their time in the ocean, coming ashore twice each year, once to mate, breed and give birth, and the other time to molt (shed and grow new skin/fur). Between the molting and breeding seasons, the northern elephant seal is at sea for six to eight months, swimming, diving and feeding. Incredibly, they remain submerged for nearly ninety percent of their time in the ocean, surfacing a mere two to four minutes during dives.
Season Change at Ano Nuevo
Now that the breeding/mating/birthing season is over, so too are the guided hikes at Ano Nuevo. That means pretty soon we will be entering the roving season. This is when the public can access areas that up to two weeks ago, were only accessible by guided hikes (led by volunteer naturalists like me). The roving season will be less hectic, more laid back and so, I am hoping to do some sketching and painting while volunteering out by the coast.
During the breeding season (December to March), many of the adult males (the alphas, for sure) are on the beach for about 100 days without food. The mature females are on land for about five weeks. The females who are coming in pregnant during the breeding season give birth within 4-5 days of arrival. They nurse their pup for about 24-28 days, mate during the last 3-5 days of nursing and then head back into the ocean to find food to eat.
Elephant Seal Pups
Elephant seal pups weigh about 70 pounds at birth. They quadruple their birth weight while nursing, but lose about 1/3 of that weight during the weaning period. The common belief is that the mom weans her pup, leaves it all alone and it then has to figure out how to survive. The mom in me thinks this cannot be! Momma elephant seal, while nursing her baby is saying things, teaching him/her how to survive and us dumb humans don’t even realize it. That is what I think. I watch mom and pup bonding during those 28 days before weaning occurs and I imagine mom passing on the following tidbits: “Baby, you see that far side of the island over there? Don’t stray there, my love. There are these pretty white sharks who are just waiting to greet and eat my plump little baby. Steer clear my love. Swim in the open. Swim toward the deep my love. Head in that direction over there. If you pay attention to what I’m saying, you’ll be just fine. Good luck my baby. I love you.” That is what I think the mom is telling her baby all the while that she is nursing him or her.
Incredible Divers and Swimmers
Elephant seals dive as deep as 2,000 t o 5,000 feet for food. The average dive lasts about 20 minutes, but they can dive for an hour or more. They resurface for 2-4 minutes and continue this diving pattern 24 hours a day! The females eat mostly squid; the males eat small sharks, rays and bottom-dwelling fish.
The male elephant seals from Ano Nuevo typically travel 5,000 miles round trip, towards the Aleutians where they feed along the Continental Shelf. They make this trip twice per year. The female elephant seal travels a shorter distance, about 3,000 miles along the Northeast Pacific, in the direction of Hawaii. She too, makes this trip twice per year.
The northern elephant seal was hunted to near extinction for their blubber. By the early 19o0s, only a small group of between 20-100 managed to survive the hunts. Protected first by Mexico (where this small group was found) and later by the United States (as they multiplied and expanded their range), the elephant seals have managed to multiply and increase their population. Today’s population is estimated to be around 175,000 to 185,000 seals. All of them are from the bottleneck, the same gene pool, that was discovered on Guadalupe Island, Mexico, a little over 100 years ago. Researchers at the nearby University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), are tracking and building a database on the movement and habits of the Ano Nuevo population of elephant seals. With each year comes new revelations. For a brief overview of the work being done on elephant seals by the UCSC, visit their site at http://news.ucsc.edu/2012/05/elephant-seals.html.
The adult females can weigh up to around 1,700 pounds and the males, up to around 5,000 pounds. The mature male has a bulbous appendage for a nose. It is called a proboscis. He uses it to honk and to assert dominance. For more interesting facts about the northern elephant seal, visit the National Marine Mammal Laboratory’s site at:
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About the Photographs
Photo credit for the male juvenile elephant seal at the top of the post belongs to The Marine Mammal Center. You can see his proboscis is just barely starting to form. Only the males of the specie grow this nose and it seems to serve no other purpose except for asserting dominance, which is crucial in the breeding season. (Not all males get a chance to mate.)
I took the second photograph of a colony of what is mostly young pups, at Ano Nuevo State Park, two weeks ago. The seals in this photograph will be heading out to the ocean soon. They will have many challenges along the way, including figuring out where to go, what to eat, and how to avoid predators like the great white sharks that lay in wait not too far from where they are now. The mortality rate for young elephant seals is extremely high. Only about twenty six percent of them make it to age two. Some of the young die at the rookery but the majority of deaths occur at sea. For more details on elephant seals’ mortality rate, see the UCS”s 1971-78 Ano Nuevo study at:
No wonder then, that once a female is mature enough to have a pup, she continues to have one every year, for the rest of her life.
The old guy below is an alpha male. He has been in many a battle as is evident from the scarring on his chest shield. This photo is the property of Marinebio.org.
Where: Pescadero, CA (25 miles south of Half Moon Bay, and 35 miles north of Santa Cruz)
Note: The Calypso Orchid blooms only in the spring. It tends to bloom from the middle to the end of March in Butano State Park, Pescadero.
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Seen last weekend at Butano State Park, the tiny Calypso Orchid (also called Fairy Slippers). When John Muir came across these rare plants in the 1890s he wrote:
“I never before saw a plant so full of life, so perfectly spiritual, it seemed pure enough for the throne of its Creator.”
Mini Ghirl doesn’t handle right: She needs new tires. We’ve done twenty-one thousand miles in twenty months, mostly up and down the Northern California mountains and coastal areas.
From East Bay to PCH (Pacific Coast Highway, i.e.), to Santa Cruz (and places in between), to Yosemite (Aah, Yosemite, I’m coming back to you soon), to Mount Diablo in Clayton and Mount Tam in Marin (Don’t get jealous of Yosemite, Mount Tam! I’m going to check out one of your pancake breakfasts next spring and your play in the woods next summer), to Point Reyes Seashore, to San Rafael. It’s no wonder my poor little birdie has worn out her threads!
Then there were trips up and down Alpine and Page Mill Road, Skyline Boulevard and Highway 17, into lots and lots of lovely Open Spaces (mostly the MROSD’s). That’s a whole lot of miles and plenty more to go!
Thanks to my friends over at Petrol Blog, I’ve learned about the Michelin Super Saver+ tyre. But why can’t I find it here in the United States? Michelin is an American company, isn’t it? And we here in the Bay Area try to be environmentally (i) friendly, (ii) conservative, and (iii) aware. All the better, when you save money by reducing gas (petrol) consumption.
So Michelin! Why the lower level/standard energy savers in America??? I want my American resident Mini Ghirl to have what her European cousins have: super saver, energy saver tires. Do something about it, Micheline Man!!! I’m late! I’m late! My Mini wants only the same things you offer to Europe — the best energy saver tires/tyres that Michelin makes. And just so you know, mountains and coasts up Mendicino way and beyond, and as far afield as Oregon and Washington states are calling meeeee! (There is the Sylvia Beach Hotel on the Oregon Coast, for example, just waiting, waiting for me and Mini Ghirl!!)
Oh, the places I have been