Is this the smartest pelican on the West Coast?

C84 dark for blog- transp maybec84 tag

In the winter of 2009-2010 West Coast populations of small schooling fish, the principal food of brown pelicans, crashed. These large, regal and elegant birds, a population battling their way back from DDT poisoning at the hand of man, died en mass.   The International Bird Rescue facility in LA was overwhelmed with birds in trouble.

One pelican, emaciated, contaminated and weak, flew over the facility and noticed his cousins-the birds inside the aviary- were doing pretty well. He thought about it then checked himself in- On January 10, 2010 he landed in the yard next to the fence and waited for someone to usher him in for dinner and a checkup. His patent chart reads “Self Admitted“, he’s the only bird on record ever to do so.

Three short weeks later, feeling much better, he passed his physical and was fitted with a numbered bright blue plastic band. On January 29, 2010 the banded pelican C84 was released. California brown pelicans range from Mexico to Washington, and most of that coast is wild and uninhabited, so many released birds are not resighted. But nearly three years later, on November 11, 2012, he was seen in Moss Landing, Monterey ._DSC5804

Fast forward a few more years to July 30, 2015 in Pillar Point- the harbor of Half Moon Bay, California.   I was paddling along the breakwater marveling at the number of pelicans in the harbor- well into the thousands, maybe over ten thousand.   I noticed the bright blue tag on his left leg and snapped C84’s picture.   I’ve since seen him five more times- August 16th and 29th, September 13th, 15th and 17th.

C84 for blog-8788

He  was already at least three years old when he checked into rehab, so when I saw him in Half Moon Bay in 2015 he was over eight, in the prime of life, and hopefully adding more smart pelicans into a population still recovering. It’s nice to see that once in a while we can help right the wrongs of our past; he is still a wild bird and intervention does work, thanks to the International Bird Rescue guys!

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Chasing Mavericks

Chasing Mavericks

Even Caltrans gets in the mood…

I just saw the trailer for Chasing Mavericks, it’s a movie about Jay Moriarity, the big wave surfer from Santa Cruz that opens next Friday, on October 26, 2012. I was surprised to see so much of the coast from Santa Cruz to Half Moon Bay in the many one or two second clips that make up the trailer. I happened upon the film crew last year, on one (big wave) day when they were filming at Steamer’s. The filming itself was news, and I read the local press accounts of Gerard Butler, the film’s big name star getting held under by a wave in the course of filming after which he was helicoptered to Stanford for treatment. The implied story was he was not hurt badly, perhaps the press folks encouraged a little drama or someone over reacted.

The crew, and it was many semi trucks big, was in the area for a few weeks, waiting for waves. That must have been tough to budget, big waves can’t be ordered in advance as the Maverick contest promoters can attest.

The scenes in the trailer include views of the residential areas of Santa Cruz behind Steamers, action in the water close in SC and HMB, the obligatory attractive girl in bikini shots and a few scenic vistas on Highway 1 between SC and HMB, where Mavericks is located. If you know the area you will see a lot of familiar turf.

2008 Mavericks Contest

The trailer has a cool shot of a surfer jumping off the rocks into the ocean near the Surfing Museum, the action was shown from two perspectives and is very dramatic. One clip was shot looking down from directly overhead, either from a crane or a helicopter. It came across like it was taken from the space shuttle or the Red Bull balloon. The other view was from the cliff adjacent to the viewing corral just south of the lighthouse. I’ve taken the identical shot, it’s dramatic. The difference in real life is the surfers wait for a lull in waves, so they don’t get maytagged. In the trailer the jump is into white water.

Above is a mosaic of a set of images I shot last year of one surfer jumping from the cliff. Most guys would walk out to the point and drop in from a few feet, a very few did it with the drama you see here. It may become be a signature “take a picture of me ” location for local surfers. In the trailer it is shown at 1:50.

Below are a few images from the same locations shot in the film, and some “old” Mavericks competition shots from 2008-2010.

Cliffside viewers north of the Golfball

Mavericks is now closed to the public for the contest, it has been declared too dangerous and for the crowds that show up, which is sad. The bluffs are steep and crumbly, falls and slides caused injuries, and a few years ago a wave swept over the breakwater and cleared the beach, injuring a few spectators.

A long way away.... But truth be told the action is so far offshore the scale of the waves is hard to appreciate, and you can’t see much unless you have the space telescope bolted to your camera. It was more or less a party supporting the big wave surfers and enjoying a good day on the coast.

I’ll look forward to the movie, if for nothing other than to see how Hollywood’s pros shoot the coast and the waves I so love.

The walk to the point, taken just after the wave washed over the breakwater.

At Steamer’s in Santa Cruz

Everyone learns to share, in Santa Cruz wildlife and people get along fairly well.

The camera work looks great in the trailer.

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Puffing Pigs

I was paddling through kelp just outside the breakwater in Half Moon bay when I heard something breathe, but it was an unusual sound. It was not a place I expected to hear a seal, so I stopped and tried to find the animal. I heard it a few more times but was unable to locate the source. This was perplexing, sea lions or harbor seals, the only suspects, are easy to find. I gave up after a few minutes and headed out to Maverick’s, it was a fairly flat day and I wanted to poke around the offshore rocks.

As I was returning to the harbor I swung wide past the entrance and wandered down the breakwater towards Surfer’s beach I heard it again, this time about half a mile from the kelp beds. It was close to me, but it did not sound like a seal or a sea lion, or even an otter. It reminded me of a free diver clearing his lungs through his snorkel after a deep dive. It was a distinctive sound I’d never heard on the water, short and sharp, a puff and draw. Now I was in flat water with no wind and no kelp to hide objects on the surface, so again I started to search for the source.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw one, then a second small, short, triangular black dorsal fin just break the surface and disappear.

A close encounter with a harbor porpoise.

Harbor porpoises, a very rare sight! Over the next thirty minutes I was able to watch the pod, it was at least 5 strong, mostly in pairs, they silently patrolled back and forth in 200 meter paths at the harbor’s entrance. I don’t think they realized I was there; they avoided two sailboats heading to sea but swam right past me a couple of times.

Harbor porpoise and breakwater, with the buildings of Princeton Harbor in the background

They are not very photogenic, they don’t often breach or tail slap, but it was great to see them and take a few pictures. Once common in San Francisco bay, pollution drove them away after WWII. Until recently they have been sighted only rarely, but they are now making a comeback. By nature they are very shy, something all coastal marine mammals have learned- avoid boats and people and you will live longer. They were nicknamed ‘puffing pigs’ by sailors centuries ago, because of the unique sound of their breathing.

I’ve seen them three times since. Once from a kayak in Drakes bay, just off the beach in front of the visitors center. On that occasion I only saw one surfacing cycle, despite perfect conditions- flat water and no wind- even after fifteen minutes of searching they did not reappear. I’ve seen them from whale watch boats, in Monterey and Bodega bay. I’m told they are often seen from the deck of the Golden Gate bridge, if you know what to look for. There is a a group of researchers studying them, and they appreciate hearing about confirmable sightings.

The only other local cetacean you could confuse with a harbor porpoise is a Dall’s

Pair of Dall’s, illustrating white coloration and forward angle of dorsal

porpoise, they are about the same size, but are usually seen in open water, move fast and have dorsals that are more triangular and often have light markings, as seen here.

Dall’s porpoise, near Cordell Bank, note white markings on side of body

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Tangled up in blues

Three humpbacks finishing a lunge in Monterey Bay. Click on any image to enlarge.

Whales that is, but not literally. Tuesday was an amazing day for whales in Monterey. There were at least a dozen blues feeding on krill just in one small area of Monterey Bay. And there were two or three times that number of humpbacks sharing the same patch of water. The krill were shallow, so the blues were on the surface most of the time.

Blue whale tail flukes, notice how thick his body is at the base of his tail, and contrast that with the thin tailstock on a humpback. This is also a good illustration of the tail’s triangular shape.

Blues, who usually forage down hundreds of feet, don’t spend much time at the surface when feeding, and they cover a lot of ocean on deep dives. After a ten minute dive they may come up a quarter of a mile from where they started. Then they recharge their blood with oxygen in a few minutes of shallow dives at the surface and repeat the pattern with a deep dive.

About half of the back half of a blue. The blue water at the horizon is reflected sky, the fog is burning off.

Many times boats shadowing blues have to cover large distances when they surface far away after a long dive, by the time the boat gets back to the whales they are ready to go deep again. Not today, all the action was up top; short and shallow dives.

Lucky for us blues ignore boats, they don’t mind our company. Other cetaceans, such as minkes and beaked whales, avoid boats.

A good view of the pectoral fin as the blue whale lunge feeds on his side at the surface.

A rare view of the bottom of a blue whale lunge feeding on krill showing extended throat pleats.

Humpbacks were also plentiful, and in cooperative feeding groups of two to four whales. They were very active above and below the surface. We were treated to half a dozen breaches, lots of pectoral slaps, surface lunges, and more tail slaps than you could shake a stick at.

Humpbacks are my favorite whale to photograph; their patterns of black coloration and white scars from barnacles, or the barnacles themselves are easy for autofocus systems to work with, and contrasts well with blue water. Other marine mammals with less contrast are much harder to capture in sharp images. They are unafraid of boats, gregarious, very acrobatic and just plain charismatic.

Today we saw threesomes and foursomes cooperatively feeding in very tight formations.

Two groups of feeding humpbacks in one image

This is shaping up to be a good year for whales, as long as the winds stay strong and cyclical. It’s a welcome reprieve after a slow summer in 2011.

Detail image showing the roof of the humpback’s mouth as he finishes a surface lunge. The baleen is clearly visible.

Two humpbacks finishing lunge

As the Pacific whale populations begin their slow crawl back from the abyss (we killed over 95% of all the world’s whales) the threat to their return is still mankind, but no longer just harpoons.

Blue from just behind the head to before the dorsal fin.

There is still pressure from whaling- Japan and Norway and Iceland are the worst offenders, but we are killing whales here too, with shipstrikes and fishing gear. A shipstruck fin whale washed ashore in Marin last week, two years ago a blue and the fetus she was carrying came ashore at Bean Hollow in San Mateo county. Whales killed in deep water will not come ashore, so we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

This year saw a plethora of entangled whales off the California coast, some were saved, some not. I’m very concerned about the timing of our crab season; we fill the nearshore waters gray whales migrate through with tens of thousands of snares at just the time they arrive. The grays had a good calving season this year, but are still at less than a third of their pre-whaling numbers.

Good detail of baleen as lunge ends, showing extended throat pleats and water pouring out of his mouth above the surface of the sea, as he starts to expel it.

We can use newly developed technology like drones and remote sensing to know where whales are and try to kill fewer of them. In the not too distant future, if we apply ourselves we will be able to both warn and teach them how to avoid us.

A side lunge. Can you find his eye? Click on the image to see a larger copy.

The Point Sur Clipper.

A sailboat gets a close encounter tail slap.

The whales we visited today knew we were there and know we are not a threat.

Unusual display of both pectoral fins as the humpback swims on his back.

I hope we can all just get along.

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Osprey Fishing

Last Sunday I happened on a group of Osprey working the eel grass beds between Nick’s and Hog island on Tomales bay. It was a strong minus tide, so the water was very shallow. The mid day light was less than ideal for photography, but you can get an idea of how they fish from these images. There were three or four birds coming and going, they averaged about one fish every four dives, and typically less than five minutes between attempts.

They seem to prefer the edges of the beds, where they transition into deeper water. The bottom is sand, and some of the areas they were in are less than a foot deep. As you can see one of them caught a fish that had to weigh at least half as much as he did. It’s amazing watching them lift out of the water with a fish that large.

They also ignored the eel grass that was wrapped over their wings, which surprised me.

Very impressive raptors!

He hovers 30 meters above Tomales bay searching for fish, ignoring the eel grass streamer wrapped around his wing.


Screaming towards the water like a dive bomber he rotates his feet into position as the target approaches.


He hits the water feet first and disappears completely.

Now the hard part, getting back in the air.


Heading home with lunch for the mate and kids.


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Friendly White Pelicans

Pelicans in front of oyster floats and bags

I ran into a somewhat friendly group of white pelicans last weekend on Tomales bay. I see whites almost exclusively in flocks, only rarely singularly. Unlike browns, they usually keep their distance from humans. One thing I have learned about birds is generally the larger the flock the larger the distance you have to maintain to avoid spooking them. I believe this is because when one bolts the rest will follow, so they behave like their most nervous member. Often I find when encountering an individual bird they are much more tolerant. The smaller the group generally the less fearful they are. This was a tiny group so we got close without them taking flight. If you are careful you will notice the telltale behaviors that proceed flight, then back off without changing their behavior, or let them move to a point they are comfortable.

Each bird species also has it’s own comfort zone, I suspect developed by predation, the benefits of human association and the cost of behavioral disruption- feeding or resting being disturbed.

Brown pelicans are one of my favorite birds, they are very tolerant of humans. In Monterey they hang out on the wharf, in anticipation of the party fishing boats returning, waiting for scraps from fish cleaning. They also “steal” fish from fishermen on the piers, (it is not stealing to them) and this results in many injuries and deaths from line and hooks.

Seagulls are scavengers. This gets them a bad rap, but it’s an important niche. They also steal eggs from other birds and have learned that humans provide meals. The gulls at the downtown San Francisco stadium have figured out how to tell the game is in the 8th inning regardless of time of day or length of the game. When the game moves into the 8th they assault the stadium en masse. I find it humorous that people are indignant when they show up for free food, that’s a “Hello McFly” moment if I’ve ever seen one. There was a very funny plea to the gulls published in the SF Chron, you can read it here, I guess the issue is not the food going in, but the digested food coming out.

Gulls are not just approachable, but will approach people, as anyone who leaves food out at the beach quickly learns. This also hurts them; in the Bay Area last year there was rash of sightings of gulls with ring segments of beer cans jammed over their heads.

Cormorants are very tolerant birds, they ignore kayakers in Monterey, paddling a few feet from boats without worry. Pigeon Guillemots display similar behaviors. Black footed albatross, pelagic birds we see on whale watching trips, are pretty casual around boats too.

The wild parrots in San Francisco are a great example of learned tolerance, but since these pictures were taken you can no longer feed them, as people were abusing the privilege and grabbing then selling them.

I expect if we continue to show restraint towards birds they will become more and more friendly. We are starting to see crows and ravens move into cities on the peninsula. They are very smart birds, and will quickly learn to trust us. Here is a fascinating story illustrating just how smart they are.

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More Wind Means More Whales

A pair of humpbacks feeding surrounded by sooty shearwaters and a gull or two.

Sailboat racers, windsurfers and those of us who appreciate marine life in Northern California welcome our seasonal northwest winds, they can start as early as April but more typically in May. Their arrival signals the start of our ocean upwelling season, and the end of our winter rains. Their ferocity, timing, pattern and duration largely determine how productive our ocean will be in a given year.

Last year we had weak winds and very little upwelling, and many of the transient populations of marine mammals who usually spend their summers with us searched elsewhere for food.

A blue whale feeding off Point Pinos, a few miles west of Monterey.

The start of this year’s upwelling season has been a completely different story. The northwest winds have been strong and cyclical, providing our near-shore environment with sustained upwelling of cold nutrient rich water, and Northern California’s ocean is awash in life, starting with krill and the pelagic nutrients they eat then all the way up to the largest creature the planet has known, the blue whale.

A pair of brown pelicans soar over thousands of sooty shearwaters feeding on krill and the small fish eating the krill in Monterey Bay.

On Sunday over 100 humpbacks were feeding in Monterey Bay, joined by a few blues who were also lunging through the vast schools of krill.

Krill spend most of their time way down the water column, but at times come to the surface, here they are jumping out of the water, most likely to get away from the boat.

Krill were at the surface in concentrations so thick they darkened vast stretches of the bay, and whales swam back and forth at the surface lunging through the thick clouds, impervious to the boatloads of amazed visitors witnessing the spectacle. Seabirds carpeted the area; sooty shearwaters by the thousands, gulls, and brown pelicans too. It was suggestive of bay conditions reported by California’s first European visitors, before whale and fish populations were reduced to single digit percentages, where they now hover.

An individual krill, which I am told taste like shrimp, the biggest ones we see are just over an inch. They would be hard to grill, and some people eat them sushi style…

Krill are in the shrimp family, as you can clearly see in this image.

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