Monday, July 17, 2017

Hooded Orioles: My 200th Bird of 2017

I am an ardent list-maker.  I love lists of all kinds.  Grocery lists, packing lists, to-do lists.  Lists of trails hiked, books read, birds seen.  So naturally, I have a "Life List" of bird species I've encountered in the wild.  This year I decided to see how many different species of birds I can see in California in one calendar year: my own "Big Year," scaled-down to more manageable proportions. 

I am happy to report that as of July 14, 2017, I have recorded 200 species of birds in California since January 1, 2017. 

My 200th bird was one I have looked for unsuccessfully several times this year: a Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus).  More than once, I've stood and watched a palm tree not too far from where I live that was reported to be a Hooded Oriole nesting site.  And more than once, I've turned away without a new bird for my list.

Hooded Orioles are birds of the southwest, inhabiting open woodlands of sycamores, willows and cottonwoods trees.  But perhaps the most important arboreal element for suitable Hooded Oriole habitat is the humble palm tree.  These birds almost invariably choose nesting sites in palms, literally sewing their hanging nests onto the undersides of palm fronds by poking holes in the thick leaves and pushing fibers through to create stitches.  In the southwestern United Sates, desert oases and suburban yards landscaped with palm trees are good places to look for this bird.

Much like the success Anna's Hummingbirds have experienced in expanding their range to follow landscape plantings of flowering ornamentals, Hooded Orioles have expanded their range north as ornamental palm trees have been planted in cities and suburban neighborhoods.  (As of 2017, Hooded Orioles can be found in suburban areas as far north as Arcata, California.)  This explains why I found my Hooded Oriole not at a lush desert oasis, but in a suburban backyard in Santa Rosa, California.

The credit for spotting the bird first goes to Eric.  We were visiting family in Santa Rosa over the weekend, relaxing in the backyard, when Eric pointed out what looked to him like a Yellow-headed Blackbird (which are the same colors and a similar size and shape - a respectable guess, especially since the two species are both in the blackbird family, Icteridae).  Because we were nowhere near suitable habitat for Yellow-headed Blackbirds (and possibly because I was otherwise engaged... jumping on a trampoline...) I didn't even look for the bird right away.  But a few minutes later, a flash of brilliant yellow caught my eye and I saw it: a beautiful , unmistakable Hooded Oriole!  Even without binoculars, there was no mistaking this bird.  Luckily, my camera was on hand, and I managed to snap a few photos.  I watched the pair of orioles for the rest of the evening as they foraged in the trees, flying from tree to tree and always returning to their chosen suburban palm tree.

One of the neat things about birding is the element of surprise.  You never know when you'll see something really special.  You may visit the confirmed nesting site of a certain bird, wait there for an hour and never see anything, only to have that same bird fly directly into your path in a completely unexpected place.  Such was the case with my Hooded Orioles!

For those who are interested, at the end of this year I will publish a list of all the bird species I encountered in 2017!

Friday, July 7, 2017

Kick the Plastic Habit: Plastic bags and other single-use packaging

A mother sea otter attempts to remove a plastic bag from her pup.
Photo credit:

As residents of this beautiful planet we call Earth, we are charged with its stewardship.  Regardless of nationality, economic status or religious beliefs, we are all temporarily tethered to this breathtaking sphere of rock, suspended miraculously in space.  From the earth, we all derive life-giving sustenance: clean air, pure water, nutritious food.  We bathe in its waters, feast on its abundance, and revel in its beauty.  The care of our planet and our finite resources should be the easiest thing in the world (no pun intended) for us all to agree on.

And yet... we are clearly failing, somewhat miserably.

Worldwide, one million plastic bags are used every minute.  In one year, our world of brilliant, talented, beautiful human beings manages to use 500 billion single-use plastic bags. 

For what purpose?!  To carry items (also wrapped in plastic) a few yards from the trunks of our cars into our homes.  How have we come to this?!

Americans alone use 100 billion plastic bags every year.  That's just over 300 bags per person each year!  Multiply that by all of your family members, young and old alike, and that adds up to nearly 1,500 bags used by the average American family in one year.

The vast majority of these bags are used for just a few minutes before being discarded (or waded up under the sink or... stuffed into the space beside the refrigerator??  Who does that?!  I've seen it more than once...).  A shocking number of these bags end up in the ocean, where 80% of the plastic pollution has entered the water from land-based sources.  (Next time it's windy outside... notice the magical way plastic bags can travel great distances as they drift on endless air currents.  You may suddenly realize the ocean is closer than you thought.)

Photo credit: One Green

About one percent of plastic bags are actually recycled.  (Good job, Average American Family, on recycling those 15 bags per year!)

One plastic bag may take up to 500 years (or more) to degrade; but plastics do not biodegrade, or return to the earth; they never go away.  Instead, plastics photodegrade, which means they continue to break down into smaller and smaller pieces, persisting in the environment (and the food web) as microplastics. 

California's recent plastic bag ban, enacted in November of 2016, is certainly a step in the right direction.  The flimsy single-use grocery bags are hopefully becoming a thing of the past (though as I just mentioned, they're still going to be around for a long, long time).  Stores now sell "reusable" plastic bags at checkout, which are basically just thicker single-use bags.  They're intended (and certified) for 125 uses, but I've already seen plenty of them littering the roadways in my area.  They represent a loophole and are far from ideal.  And in my opinion... we need to look toward phasing out other plastic packaging and wrapping as well - sandwich bags, plastic cling wrap, etc.

Photo credit: Sierra

Happily, there are plenty of easy things you can do at home to help the environment, and using reusable shopping bags has got to be one of the easiest.  The initial investment is small; you might already have a seldom-used beach tote or basket laying around that will work perfectly well as a shopping bag.  Reusable mesh or fabric produce bags are excellent as well. 

Shopping for favorite items sans plastic packaging gets a little bit more complicated, but do what you can.  Of course, the holy grail of the plastic free quest is a massive selection of affordable foods in bulk bins.  I would love to pop into my local grocery store, armed with my assortment of reusable bags, and fill them will all manner of staple goods - beans, rice, cereal, nuts, crackers, etc. - for a reasonable price.  And if this is a reality for you, then be thankful!  (I'm jealous.)  Where I live, a small-ish town in California's Central Valley, this kind of grocery store set-up is difficult to find, especially for those of us trying to stretch our dollars (as most of us in the valley are, by the way).

Bulk bin heaven: how all grocery stores should function.  This is the stuff of dreams, my friend!
Photo credit:

But, let us not lose hope.  There are a few key ways to reduce your plastic consumption:

1.  Use reusable grocery bags.  Use them at every store you visit, for every purchase.  Keep them on your person at all times so you will remember!  (They make neat little bags that fold up inside themselves for convenient storage in your purse or pocket.)

2.  Use reusable produce bags.  Those little filmy produce bags at the grocery store hold even less potential for future use at home than regular grocery bags.  Plus, they're a pain to open; just don't bother.

3.  Avoid plastic packaging.  Choose loose potatoes, onions, oranges and apples instead of those that are prepackaged.  Select items in glass or paper/cardboard packaging instead of plastic, since glass and paper both have more recycling potential than plastic. 

Maybe you'll think of this seal the next time you reach for a neat little mesh bag of oranges at the grocery store.
Photo credit:

4.  In the kitchen, find viable alternatives to plastic sandwich bags, Ziploc bags and plastic wrap.  There are plenty of food storage alternatives to explore, like reusable sandwich bags, bees wax fabric wraps, and glass food storage containers (ranging from lidded bowls and traditional Tupperware-type containers to trusty glass jars - either the canning type, or pickle jars you have washed out!)

5.  As a last resort, if you absolutely must buy plastic packaging, take care to recycle it properly
Recycling - or more accurately, downcycling, since the material loses quality as it is recycled - is never the perfect solution, but it's better than nothing.

Pay attention to the plastic resin codes, the triangular symbols on all plastics.  Just because a plastic has the "recycling" symbol doesn't mean it's recyclable!  The numbers inside the triangle indicate the type of plastic and it's potential for recycling. 

Best plastics in terms of health and recyclability:
Number 2 (HDPE, high density polyethylene: white or colored plastic, like milk bottles, shampoo bottles, and plastic grocery bags - these can be downcycled)
Number 4 (LDPE, low density polyethylene: soft, flexible plastic, like squeeze bottles)
Number 5 (PP, polypropylene: hard, flexible plastic, like yogurt containers and other "tubs")

*Number 1 plastics are middle-of-the-road in terms of both health and recyclability.  Avoiding them is best!  And yet, this type of plastic is extremely prevalent.  Number 1 plastics are PET, polyethylene terephthalate; they are designed for single-use only, and further use can cause chemical leaching.  This type of plastic is tough and clear - the type that makes up our despised plastic water bottles and other bottles, including salad dressing bottles.   

Avoid these plastics:
Number 3 (V or PVC, polyvinyl chloride: this is arguably the nastiest plastic out there, and takes numerous forms, from the well-known PVC pipes and garden hoses, to shower curtains, plastic toys and plastic cling wrap.  It's not easy to recycle and contains the most dangerous chemicals.
Number 6 (PS, polystyrene: the infamous Styrofoam, which crops up in packaging, cups, take-out containers, egg cartons, cd and dvd cases and more.  Plastic cutlery is also number 6.)
Number 7 (OTHER, or commonly PC, polycarbonate: a catch-all category for all the plastics of mysterious origin that have wormed their way into our lives.  Best to leave these alone as often as possible, though that is difficult since this category encompasses such ubiquitous things as sunglasses and car parts, acrylic and nylon.)

Now, I'd like to make a caveat.  The use of plastics isn't all bad.  My laptop, phone and camera?  All partially plastic.  Plenty of life-saving medical instruments and supplies?  Plastic, or made up of some plastic components.  Certain nifty lightweight camping and backpacking pieces of gear that I enjoy using (like my four season tent, backpack, sleeping pad and fleece sweater)?  Definitely synthetic products.  But these things are all destined for long and useful lives when we care for them properly and change our throw-away mentality.  (My five-year-old laptop is still kicking, much to the disappointment of the guys at Best Buy.)

The point is, we must be wise in our stewardship of plastics (and the oil they are derived from) just like any other resource.  Single-use items of any material are generally unwise, wasteful and unsustainable in the long run.  Should plastics be avoided entirely?  Well, sure, that would be great.  But it's unlikely to happen. 

A more realistic goal is to phase out the plastics that are the easiest to live without.  At the top of the list of utterly unnecessary plastics are plastic bags (and other plastic packaging), plastic bottles, all types of take-away cups (like coffees and fast food sodas), and straws.  Take the Plastic Free July challenge this summer and see what habits you are able to change.

Below is a [somewhat graphic] photo of the stomach contents of a Cuvier's Beaked Whale that died after ingesting 30 plastic bags and other pieces of plastic.  I'd love to tell you that finding this story was difficult since this sort of occurrence is such a rarity, but a quick Google search will yield plenty of results of this nature.  Plastics in our oceans has become a huge epidemic.

photo courtesy of

Somewhere around one million sea birds and 100,000 mammals (whales, seals, etc.) die each year from ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic pollution.  And I haven't even mentioned the effects of plastic pollution on human populations around the world!

Plastic removed from the stomach of a dead Cuvier's Beaked Whale.  Read the full story here:
photo courtesy of

A few simple lifestyle changes have the potential for dramatic positive results.  It wasn't that long ago that plastics and single-use plastic bags and packaging were unheard of!  And yet, folks managed to live perfectly productive, fulfilled lives without them.  Let's imagine a world where we carry groceries in reusable bags and wrap our food and other products in sustainable materials, like paper, glass and fabric.  Let's imagine a world where children don't have to swim through scummy layers of plastic in their local waterways, where whales, turtles and birds don't die of starvation from stomachs full of plastic.

Check my facts and learn more here:
and here:

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Kick the Plastic Habit: Plastic water bottles and other single-use beverage containers

I'm a few days late (blame another beautiful camping trip!) but... Happy Plastic Free July!!! 

Single-use plastics have become a HUGE problem in recent decades, persisting in the environment indefinitely and posing life-threatening hazards to wildlife.  Even if you don't care about the sea turtles, birds, whales and the like, realize this: plastics do not "break down."  They break up into little pieces, and those little pieces become part of the food chain.  If you remain unconvinced... surely you can relate to the feeling of disgust that comes with seeing plastic trash covering our roadsides, beaches and other wild areas.

The premise of having of Plastic Free July (or summer, or life!) is simple: Refuse the single-use plastic items in your life.  They have GOT TO GO.  All of them.

This sea turtle died after trying to eat a plastic bag, which turtles commonly mistake for jellyfish. 
(Photo courtesy of

Single-use plastics have become so ubiquitous in our convenience- and consumer-driven culture that I would wager you hardly notice them anymore.  If we were to be completely strict (or honest with ourselves) everything from toothpaste tubes to bottles of motor oil count as disposable plastics.  But for the sake of simplicity (and scaling down to a manageable task), my next few blog posts will focus on the most commonly used and abused throw-away plastics.

A sea bird, dead after getting its beak stuck in a plastic bottle cap.  (Photo credit: 

By the way... the graphic photographs will keep coming until my point is made, with no apologies; we must see these images and face what we've done.

Coyote in New Hampshire, dead after getting its head stuck in a plastic jar (Photo credit: NH1 news)

A line-up of the top single-use plastic offenders includes the following:

Plastic bottles and other single-use beverage containers (think all fast food and coffee shop drinks)

Plastic packaging of all types (it's truly everywhere, and it is all equally despicable)

Plastic bags (grocery bags, Ziploc bags, etc.)

Plastic drinking straws (utterly unnecessary, and a much bigger problem than most people realize.  Learn about it at Plastic Pollution Coalition and The Last Plastic Straw.)

Balloons (Visit Balloons for more information on these nefarious pollutants) and other single-use or easily broken party supplies (think plastic table cloths and cheap plastic party "decorations" and favors)

Single-use plates, cups, bowls, knives, forks, spoons, etc.  (It's disgusting to me that we have reached a point where "elegant" disposable plastic tableware is successfully marketed and so highly praised.)

But today, I'll target my most dastardly and despised foe: I'm looking at you, plastic water bottles! 

Photo credit: Environmental Investigation Agency

Walking the dogs the other day, I paused to let a large delivery truck rumble past, holding my breath against the inevitable cloud of exhaust that followed.  Painted in bright colors on the side of the truck was the logo and advertising slogan of a popular bottled water company.  And I was struck by the insanity of the situation before me. 

Here we are in America, a wealthy, developed country, with far, far more than we need to meet our physical needs.  We have layers upon layers of brilliant infrastructure designed to deliver clean running water to our homes and businesses - even to our outdoor faucets, sprinkler systems and swimming pools.  Our water is tested regularly and kept safe - for drinking! 

The small miracle of this infrastructure and the technology that goes along with it is not lost on me.  It is astounding.  It is beautiful.  It is something to be thankful for. 

We turn on the tap and life-giving water flows freely.  We are entirely without fear or even passing concern for the water's cleanliness, safety, drinkability. 

And yet, Americans will happily pay 2,000 times more for their water to come packaged in little, clear, petroleum-based single-use plastic water bottles.  Two thousand times more! 

According to Business Insider, in 2012 (the most recent data available), Americans spent $11.8 billion dollars on bottled water, an increase of 6.5% from the previous year.  That 11.8 billion dollars bought 9.7 billion gallons of water - all in plastic bottles.  If you do the quick math, this puts the cost per gallon at $1.22. 

But let me remind you that a huge amount of additional resources are behind the bottled water industry; it's not just about the water.  The plastic for the bottles and the fuel to ship them across the country are the two most obvious examples of additional resources consumed in the bottled water industry - and both are derived from oil.  According to estimates by the Earth Policy Institute, more than 15 million barrels of oil are used every year to make plastic water bottles for the United States alone.  And that's just for manufacturing.  Add in fuel to transport bottled water to stores... and fuel to transport empty bottles to recycling facilities, or more likely, incinerators and landfills.... and the number skyrockets.

Which brings me to my next point: recycling. 

"I recycle all of my plastic bottles," you say.  As you should.  Recycling is not an entirely useless endeavor... but it is far, far less sustainable and redeeming than most believe.  The quality of recycled plastic is less than that of virgin material and continues to degrade with each subsequent recycling...
until one way or another, all plastic is eventually destined for landfills and incinerators, or to persist as minute particles in the environment and food web (especially in our oceans).  When you can, choose glass, which can be recycled nearly indefinitely without losing quality, or sustainably sourced paper products, which can also be recycled or composted.

Simply not buying plastic bottles and therefore decreasing the demand for them will do far more good in the long run than recycling ever will. 

We should not have to spend money and resources to "recycle" items that should never have been manufactured in the first place!

"More than 60 million plastic bottles end up in landfills and incinerators every day – a total of about 22 billion last year. Six times as many plastic water bottles were thrown away in the US in 2004 as in 1997."  - Container Recycling Institute

In 2004, America's national recycling rate was 17%.  One in six plastic water bottles was recycled.  So clearly, even you faithful recyclers are grossly outnumbered.

Photo credit: Parley for the Oceans

Sometimes I do despair; I can't help but wonder what have we done?  How did we get to this point without noticing - or caring - about the damage our throw-away society has created?  How can we possibly go back to fix the damage and change our atrocious habits?  Why does it seem that no one else sees the problems I see?  Why do so few seem to care?

And, most importantly, what are we to do?  Am I saying we must all dehydrate?  No, of course not!

Reusable water bottles are a thing of beauty as well as convenience, once you get the hang of them.  Believe it or not, we humans have done quite well over the millennia without single-use plastic water bottles.  From hunter-gatherer-era flasks made of animal skins, to metal Civil War era canteens, to modern favorites like stainless steel canteens and BPA-free Nalgene bottles, we have always found a way to carry water, our most basic need.  I assure you, it can be done!  All it takes is a very little bit of training and discipline. 

Rocks, shells, driftwood, seaweed: the only things that should be littering our beaches! 
On this particular beach walk, I picked up (and disposed of) assorted plastic bags, balloons and their strings, bottle caps,
flip flops and a broken iPhone, in addition to plastic water bottles.

Start the Plastic Free July challenge today by swapping your plastic water bottles for reusable ones, and refuse to go back! 

If cost seems to be an issue, your first step is to do some quick math: add up how much you spend in one month on bottled water (and soda and juice and tea and......).  Step two is even easier: don't buy the bottled water (or other beverages) and save that money instead.  It will add up surprisingly fast.  (Plus, it's a fact: if something is a priority for you, you will find both the time and the money for it.) 

Finally, just do it: buy yourself, your spouse, your kids and your dog all reusable water bottles! 

To ensure that you use your new water bottles, keep them filled and chilled in the refrigerator, just like you  would plastic bottles of water.  (Never let them hide in kitchen cabinets!  This is not where you store other refreshing bottled beverages, is it?)

Grab a bottle on your way out the door, every time you head out the door.  Leave yourself a note if you have to in order to remember at first; it will take time to become a habit, but you'll get there.  Tuck your bottle in your purse, backpack, briefcase or gym bag.  Maybe stash an extra bottle in your car or at work.  Acquaint yourself with drinking fountains and the handy water bottle filling stations that are happily gaining popularity.  Then, enjoy the taste of guilt-free refreshment all day.

Read more about how I combat waste in the kitchen here.

Check my facts and learn more here:

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Campground Spotlight: Gold Bluffs Beach, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

The summer camping season is well underway, and what better way to escape the heat of California's Central Valley than to head for the north coast?  The northern "Redwood Coast" of California offers a cool, foggy, forested respite for those of us who reside in the warmer and drier parts of the state.  Redwood National and State Parks offer a selection of campgrounds and a network of hiking trails to suit all types of outdoorsy folk, from tent campers and backpackers to day hikers and sightseers.  If you're into rugged coastline, lush redwood forests, wildflower meadows and herds of roaming elk, then Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, located about an hour north of Eureka on Highway 101, is the place for you.

During a recent trip, Eric and I spent several days at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, hiking and observing the local flora and fauna.  We camped for two nights at Gold Bluffs Beach campground and two nights at Elk Prairie campground, both of which exceeded all expectations.

The small campground at Gold Bluffs Beach is nestled among dunes just a couple hundred yards from the breaking surf.  Above the campground are the "gold bluffs," which prospectors mined (with little success) during the late 19th and early 20th century.  The campground is accessed by Davison Road, 5 miles of steep, winding, rough unpaved track through the forest.  To add one extra element, the road was wet and muddy when we drove in, which greatly added to our adventure (and Eric's trepidation).  Even so, our little Corolla managed just fine, and we saw plenty of other small two-wheel drive cars at the campground.  (No trailers of any kind are allowed on the road, and vehicles must be no wider than 8 feet and no longer than 24 feet.  Trust me, this rule is in place for a reason!)  One mile from the campground is the trailhead to the popular Fern Canyon, so despite it all, the road is heavily trafficked.

The view from the Gold Bluffs Beach campground can't be beat.  Choose a site facing the ocean (reservations are required May through September) and you'll have an unobstructed view of the mighty Pacific all to yourself.  Provided the weather cooperates, the sunsets here are phenomenal.  (In the event that the weather does not cooperate, be prepared for heavy, misting fog that has the penetrating capability of a soaking rain.  Put the rain fly on your tent regardless of the weather, and bring a raincoat and waterproof footwear.  We were certainly glad we were prepared!) 

Rain, fog or shine, the sea is always magnificent, and falling asleep to the sound of breaking waves is an experience you'll not soon forget.

In the morning, don't be surprised if you find large (very large) elk tracks in the sand not too far from your tent!  Roosevelt Elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti) roam the campground freely, browsing as they move across meadows between the forest and coastal strand.  They may look tame, but they are very much wild; like all other wild animals, do not approach the elk and never feed wildlife

Because California's redwood forests are home to the endangered Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) Prairie Creek Redwoods and all other redwoods state and national parks have adopted a serious policy for protecting these special birds.  Marbled Murrelets are small sea birds; they belong to a group known as alcids, which includes puffins, murres and auklets.  While they spend most of their lives at sea, Marbled Murrelets nest high in old growth redwood trees (a curious habit that is unique among seabirds, and was not discovered by scientists until  1974) and both eggs and young are vulnerable to predation by corvids - that intrepid group of birds that includes crows, ravens and jays.  Predatory corvids are drawn to campgrounds and picnic areas by the food scraps and garbage that people leave behind.  With a virtually unlimited, unnaturally rich supply of food at their disposal, crow, raven and jay populations have experienced significant growth, resulting in artificially high numbers of these individuals.  This translates to an artificially high number of murrelet predators, and a decrease in the already threatened murrelet population. 

To combat this problem, parks require that visitors watch a short video on keeping campsites "crumb clean," as well as sign a statement acknowledging that you understand the rules and will be responsible in keeping your campsite free of garbage, food scraps, unattended food and anything else that might attract corvids, down to the very last crumb!  It may sound extreme, but it's really common sense and good practice to follow anytime you are anywhere in nature, in keeping with the "Leave No Trace" ethic.  The campgrounds also require that you store your food and other scented items (like toothpaste, deodorant, etc.) in the bear-proof lockers provided, or out of sight in your vehicle. 

The campsites at Gold Bluffs Beach are equipped with picnic tables, fire rings and bear-proof lockers.  The campground has potable water spigots, flush toilets and hot showers (a real luxury!)  And of course, don't forget the incredible views!

For more information, visit Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park's website:

Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Flora of California's North Coast: Beyond the Redwoods

The magnetic draw of California's North Coast has a lot to do with its stunning forests of towering Coast Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens).  But as is always the case, there is more to this ecosystem than a cursory glance would indicate.  High rainfall and fog-drip allow a lush understory of ferns and forest wildflowers to thrive among the redwoods.  May and June are good months to visit the redwoods and experience the spring wildflower show.  The following collection of photographs are wildflowers of the redwood forests, found in Prairie Creek Redwoods, Grizzly Creek Redwoods and Patrick's Point State Parks on our recent trip north.

Western Azalea (Rhododendron occidentale)
These shrubs are absolutely stunning in full bloom, along with the similar Coast Rhododendron, pictured below. 
Western Azaleas are also found in the Sierra Nevada.
Coast Rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum)

Columbian Windflower (Anemone deltoidea)
These beautiful white Anemones brighten up the forest floor and are one of my favorites!

Columbian Windflower (Anemone deltoidea)

Pacific Starflower (Lysimachia latifolia)
These small flowers grow close to the ground and may be easily over-looked.  A few moments to look more closely is
time well-spent.

Andrew's Clintonia (Clintonia andrewsiana)

Douglas Iris (Iris douglasiana)

Buttercup (Ranunculus sp.)
In damp, creek-side locations, look for the shiny, glowing flowers of Buttercups.

Western Wakerobin (Trillium ovatum)
Unfortunately, the lovely white blooms had already dropped from the Trilliums by late May. 

False Lily of the Valley (Maianthemum racemosum)

Claspleaf Twistedstalk (Streptopus amplexifolius)
A quick glance down at this plant won't reveal its flowers; peek underneath the leaves to
find the delicate bells.

Salal (Gaultheria shallon)
A member of Ericaceae, the same family as heath, heather and our familiar Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos sp.), Salal
is synonymous with the Pacific Northwest. 

Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana)
This photo doesn't do this plant justice: a green, "clovery" carpet of Redwood Sorrel in bloom beneath towering
redwoods is a beautiful sight indeed!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Pacific Giant Salamander at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Recently, Eric and I spent several days camping and hiking in the redwood forests of Northern California, visiting Prairie Creek Redwoods, Grizzly Creek Redwoods and Patrick's Point State Parks.  In four days, we hiked just over thirty miles of absolutely stunning terrain, always alert for interesting flora and fauna.  The temperatures were cool and ideal for hiking, the forest wildflowers were in bloom, and the birds were not entirely uncooperative: in the depths of night, a pair of Barred Owls caterwauled for a solid 45 minutes from the redwoods above our tent, and many other diurnal species enchanted us with their songs.  Very few birds actually showed themselves, though, instead remaining hidden in the dense verdant undergrowth and high above in the redwood canopy.  Quick glimpses of thrushes and warblers were all we were allowed.  The gulls at Gold Bluffs Beach were obliging, as they typically are, and I was excited to spot a very far-off flock of Pacific Loons rafting beyond the surf.  The Roosevelt Elk, for which Prairie Creek Redwoods is famous, were bold and unconcerned by the presence of gawking tourists. 

But the most exciting discovery I made during our explorations was that of a humble salamander.

But this is not just any salamander: this is the Pacific Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon tenebrosus), the largest terrestrial salamander in North America.  One may wonder why finding a salamander was so exciting for me, as a naturalist whose interests more commonly lie in plants, birds and mammals.   At the most basic level, I was excited because not everyone who visits the redwoods gets to see a salamander.  The redwoods are a given sight for anyone driving highway 101; the wildflowers bloom in predictable seasons.  The elk are almost guaranteed to be seen at Elk Meadow and Elk Prairie.  And the birds of the redwoods, while elusive, make themselves known through song.  But it's not every day one gets the privilege of observing a salamander!

Pacific Giant Salamanders measure from 7 to 11 inches long, their bodies mottled browns and grays to perfectly blend in with the damp forest floor.  Salamanders are amphibians, and as such their reproduction depends on water.  Adults are terrestrial, though never far from rivers and their tributaries.  Terrestrial adults spend their days hidden in damp retreats beneath logs, rocks and leaf litter on the forest floor.  They emerge to forage most commonly during rainy nights, though the overcast and foggy days which grace California's northwest coast favor some diurnal activity. 

Pacific Giant Salamanders, recently earning distinct species-hood after being separated from the similar California Giant Salamander (D. ensatus), inhabit cool, humid forests of California's North Coast Range, north of the Gualala River in Mendocino County.  Their range extends north to the border of Washington and British Columbia.   (California Salamanders are found in similar habitat from approximately the northern border of Sonoma county south through Santa Cruz county.) 

After spring breeding has occurred in clear streams, larvae of the Pacific Giant Salamander hatch in late fall or winter.  Larvae metamorphose into adult salamanders during the second summer after hatching.  Pacific Giant Salamanders feed on insects and other invertebrates (like Banana Slugs) as well as small snakes, lizards, other salamanders and rodents.  Prey is hunted by the sit-and-wait approach, the salamander sitting quietly before lunging out to capture whatever happens by.  They are not particular, provided the prey item can fit in the salamander's mouth! 

Pacific Giant Salamanders rely on clear, shallow water for reproduction.  Clear-cut logging and the erosion that follows severely degrades this habitat by allowing previously clear streams to become silted, or filled with sediment.  Though there is no official protection for this salamander, it luckily shares habitat with Steelhead Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and Coho Salmon (O. kisutch), two species of considerable concern.  The creeks in which these two endangered fish species breed are protected, and as a result, salamander habitat is also preserved.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Common Loons: The Spirit of the North Woods Visits California

For whatever reason, I have long been fascinated by loons.  Like the mournful call of the Gray Wolf echoing across a frozen wilderness, there is something in the cry of the Common Loon that embodies the very essence of wilderness, inspiring a sense of adventure while also instilling a feeling of peace and tranquility.

Or at least, that's what I've led myself to believe, having never heard the call of the loon in person.  (It's on my to-do list.) 

Common Loons visit coastal California during the non-breeding winter season.  As it would happen, loons are generally silent during this time of year, and cry their eerily beautiful and plaintive song primarily during the breeding season (i.e. when they're not in California).  Common Loons are synonymous with wilderness lakes of the north woods, breeding across Alaska and Canada, as well as the very northern reaches of the United States.  (Minnesota seems to be known for its loons, and breeding loons also reside in Glacier National Park.)  During the winter, Common Loons wear drab non-breeding plumage; this is how they are typically dressed in California.  But in the spring, just before they migrate north to breed, they change into the classic and elegant breeding plumage typically associated with Common Loons.

During the breeding season, loons prefer quiet, open lakes sheltered by conifer forests, but may also breed on tundra ponds beyond the treeline.  They are particularly sensitive to human disturbance, and tend to favor remote stretches of wilderness.  In the winter, Common Loons migrate to ocean waters, typically staying in shallow, nearshore areas where they are usually solitary.  The loons in these photos were seen at Moss Landing, in the vicinity of Elkhorn Slough
Loons are designed for fishing.  They have dagger-like bills and their streamlined bodies are propelled through the water by large webbed feet set far back on the body.  The feet are set so far back that these birds are very awkward and top-heavy on land (picture a duck, standing or walking with its body balanced over its legs, then imagine the legs moved back toward the tail).  Loons very rarely come ashore other than to breed and nest.  Loons are excellent divers, submersing silently and without a splash to pursue fish.  When fish are scarce, loons may also feed on invertebrates like mollusks, crustaceans and insects.
Common Loon in drab winter plumage
Loons are highly submersible; unlike other birds, they have dense bones that allow them to be less buoyant and better suited to swimming underwater great distances in pursuit of fish.  Like grebes, loons can submerge themselves in the water, leaving just their head exposed above the surface.  They frequently dip their head below the surface to look for fish.

Loons require large, open lakes, as they need a sort of "runway" before taking flight.  Up to a quarter of a mile of unobstructed water is required as the loons flap their wings and run along the surface of the water before takeoff.  Like many other species of wildlife, loons also depend on clear, unpolluted water. Acid rain reduces the fish populations loons depend on, and oil spills, especially common in ocean waters where loons spend the winter, are death sentences for loons.  Lead poisoning is caused when loons ingest lead fishing sinkers along with pebbles from the lake bottom (necessary for grinding food in the gizzard), and has caused a significant number of loon deaths.  Human activity on lakes and along their shores - particularly the use of motorboats - has led to the abandonment of numerous historic nesting sites.  Climate change is also a major threat to loon populations.

If you plan on visiting the northern woods and lakes that are home to breeding loons, consider your impact on local wildlife.  Create as little disturbance as possible.  Whether you're camping, hiking, fishing or boating in the north woods, along coastal waters or anywhere else, always always practice "Leave No Trace" ethics and clean up after yourself - and others!
Since I've talked so much about it, listen to the call of the Common Loon at Cornell's All About Birds: 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Sanderlings: Arctic Swashbucklers

Sanderlings (Calidris alba) are smallish sandpipers of the swash zone, perhaps the "peeps" seen most commonly on the beaches of central California.  They stick together in flocks as they run up and down the beach, chasing the waves as they forage in the swash zone.  (The swash zone is the part of the beach that is covered with each incoming wave, and uncovered again to reveal potential tasty morsels beneath the sand.)

The rather cute, gentle appearance of Sanderlings belies their amazing life strategy.  These birds may not look it, but they are truly daring, swashbuckling adventurers, flying thousands of miles between overwintering grounds around the world and breeding grounds high above the Arctic Circle. 

Sanderlings are one of the most widespread shorebirds in the world, found during the winter on most temperate and tropical beaches.  For most of the year, they can be found in California, though numbers are lowest in June when they return to the Arctic to breed.  A few nonbreeding adults may stay behind during the summer, saving themselves the energy required to migrate. 

After incredible long-distance migrations, Sanderlings breed on the tundra far above the Arctic Circle.  They nest on dry tundra with low growing plants, such as lichens and mosses, building nests on the ground.  These nests are little more than shallow scrapes, perhaps lined with small leaves.

A favorite food of Sanderlings is sand crab (Emerita analoga), thumb-sized crustaceans that spend most of their time buried in the sand.  Sanderlings also eat other invertebrates, such as amphipods (shrimplike crustaceans with laterally compressed bodies, sometimes called beach fleas or sand hoppers) and isopods ("pillbug"-like crustaceans with dorso-ventrally compressed, or flattened, bodies), as well as marine worms and small mollusks. 

Aside: If you happen to be interested in the dazzling array of invertebrates that inhabit California's enchanting coastline, I highly recommend Ed Ricketts' classic book, Between Pacific Tides.  It has yet to be surpassed in breadth and depth in the nearly 80 years since its original publication in 1939, and I find it to be very readable and enlightening.

Sanderlings in May, beginning to show colorful breeding plumage

Sanderlings are pale most of the year, gray above with extensive pure white on chest and bellies.  Most commonly, this is how we see them during the winter months in California.  During the summer breeding season, Sanderlings' backs and heads become flecked or spangled with black, white and red.  The birds we saw at Moss Landing recently, during the second week in May, were beginning to show their brighter breeding plumage (see photo above).

Sanderling in March, much paler in color as they appear through the winter.
Though this is a common and widespread species, its future is not considered entirely certain.  According to Cornell's All About Birds website, between 1959 and 1988, the number of Sanderlings in California decreased by 3.7% each year.  This decrease is likely due to development of shoreline habitat as well as exposure to toxins.  Pesticide runoff from nearby agricultural fields, oil spills, municipal runoff (chemicals, oils, etc. from cities' storm drains) and ever-increasing plastic pollution on our beaches and in our oceans pose very real threats to shorebirds and the greater ecosystem.  Overwintering habitat is critical for migrant shorebirds like Sanderlings, and in California much of that habitat is protected by California's State Beaches.

Next time you visit the beach, pay special attention to the small shorebirds chasing the waves in the swash zone.  Learning to identify Sanderlings is the first step in decoding the sometimes mystifying group of sandpipers and other shorebirds.