Monday, May 30, 2011

Sea Otters of Monterey Bay

We found this solitary Sea Otter busily feeding quite close to shore the other day. We have read that Sea Otters must consume large amounts of food - up to 15% of their body weight daily - in order to stay healthy. This Sea Otter was alone and very busy feeding - we concluded it was a female judging by the damage to her nose and face - typical of mating behavior where the males grab the females by the nose during mating. After observing her for several minutes, we have to conclude she is a very efficient foraging animal.
It is always fascinating to be able to closely watch the behavior of these marine mammals in their own environment - one of the benefits of living so close to Monterey Bay.
The first catch we observed by the Sea Otter was a red crab which she attacked by first removing the large claws. Note her damaged nose as well as the bite marks on her muzzle.

Here she pauses a moment after removing the large claws and all the small legs on one side.

After removing all the legs, the Otter opens the shell and consumes the interior organs. Note the empty main shell on her chest while she scoops out the inside.

Then when the red crab is gone she is down once again - this time returning with a  dark colored crab. This one is gone too in a few seconds - legs first - then body.

And finally after her feeding, she raises up for a final dive. We note the marking tags on her feet. We know the population is closely monitored by the Monterey Bay Aquarium - information on their Sea Otter activities is here. And, The Otter Project is also dedicated to protecting the California Sea Otter. Their web site information is here
I am sure this individual Sea Otter is well known to the organizations that track them and advocate for their recovery. She certainly seemed in good health this day.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Killdeer Revisited at Point Pinos Light

We went back again to Point Pinos to see if we could see the Killdeer family we saw about a week ago. From the same vantage point I could see one Killdeer grooming in the morning sun so I decided to approach behind a large log to get a better shot. As soon as I got in position, the Killdeer came towards me (luckily) and I got a few good shots with him about 20 feet away.
It was an interesting day as the commercial fishing fleet had moved from the Lover's Point area to the very rocky area protected by the lighthouse. First a shot of the lighthouse to set the scene.
The Monterey Bay shoreline is one of the most beautiful in California. The Ocean Drive runs along the shore in this location and we see a constant stream of tour buses that slowly move along the road, taking in the breathtaking scenery.

The fishing fleet was just offshore this morning on their quest for squid. These boats were already scooping up the squid in their nets.
The first Killdeer we saw was grooming himself in the thick ground cover in this location. Although I was quite far away at first, he seemed to be watching me carefully. Note the invasive non-native ground cover.

As I approached the Killdeer, hiding behind a large log on the beach, he came towards me and I got some really good poses. These from about 20 feet away and are cropped a bit.

Then my luck continued as I saw another Killdeer right in front of the log - this one perhaps on a nest (so I'll call her "she"). She didn't move other than moving her head slightly as she watched me very carefully from about 10 feet away.

I watched both Killdeer while being ignored by them - but they were watching me carefully. Maybe we will be fortunate to have another chick running around in the days ahead. We will keep checking on them.

New Harbor Seal Arrival, Monterey Bay

Harbor Seals are found along the coastal waters throughout the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as well as the Baltic and North Seas making them the most widely distributed seal population. They are very common in the Monterey Bay area.
Harbor Seal mothers are giving birth from mid-April to mid-May at several locations along the sandy and rocky Monterey Bay shore, where they can sometimes be observed from the nearby walking trail. It is a fascinating time as the births come quickly and the ever-present gulls are there to help with cleaning up after the birth process. Wikipedia has very good information on all aspects of the Harbor Seal life cycle here.
The typical beach location where the births occur looks like the photo below. Mothers and pups share the beach and the nearby ocean where they give birth, nurse and learn to swim - all in the protected location where they have been returning for years. The beach location is close enough for watchers to get a good view but also well protected from overly inquisitive observers.
The birth process is one that we rarely see with the detail shown below and it is over in minutes. The next tide clears the beach and the Gulls do their part as well. The photos below are quite explicit and we recommend that one is prepared for seeing the detail of this natural process.  
Here a new mother and her pup get acquainted just after birth. The nearby Gull is ready as a scavenger for his part of the process. We can see the area where the birth occurred - just behind the Gull.

The birth comes fast and we arrived just afterwards - likely within minutes of the birth. We got this shot of the mother, her pup and the ever-present Gull together.

The umbilical is still attached to the pup and the scavenging Gull is "helpful" in trying to hasten it's removal. Note also a portion of the mother's placenta is yet to be fully expelled.

The Gull is aggressive in trying to benefit from the high protein food source. First gathering any placenta material and then washing it in the ocean before devouring the meal.

The pup attempts to nurse while the Gull remains busy trying to help with the removal of the remaining placenta from the mother.

Finally the mother and pup have an undisturbed moment to get acquainted. The mother and pup "bonding" seems to be immediate. The look on the mothers face tells the whole story of the unique bond mothers have with their offspring.

There may be as many as 60 - 80 births that will have occurred during the pupping season along the beaches in this immediate Monterey Bay area.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Wintereing Grebes of Pacific Grove

We have reported earlier about the Western Grebes that winter along the shore at Pacific Grove. During the past few months we have seen the group of about 60 grebes "rafted" together. A few days ago the population had decreased to 17 individuals.
The group has stayed in the same location all winter - never moving more than 100 meters from their usual location - sometimes closer to shore and other times further out. This day they were quite far off shore. Here we show seven of the group relatively close together.

This one Western Grebe seemed quite unconcerned as a Pelagic Cormorant come in for a landing within the group. Although aware, the grebe apparently never sensed any particular danger.

Then, a few minutes later, the grebe and the cormorant were peacfully sharing their safe location offshore. The grebe continues grooming while another remains on watch.

We expect the majority of the wintering group have gone inland to their usual nesting locations. An important one is at Lake San Antonio about 120 miles South East of our Monterey Bay location. We hope to get there this Spring to see if we can observe their unique courting display which we have never observed here in their wintering ocean location.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Killdeer Family Encounter Along Monterey Bay

The Killdeer is a very common bird in North America and they are seen often in open spaces. It was not at all unusual to find some very near the ocean along the Monterey Bay shore. Wikipedia has a very complete summary of Killdeer information here. It is a good reference.

We were out a few days ago, sitting at a quiet spot near the Bay and soon observed an adult Killdeer in the nearby dried ground cover  - with the Killdeer colors blending nicely into the background (recently sprayed we think as it is non-native and very invasive).

The lone adult posed for a while giving us a good opportunity to record his relatively quiet behavior even though we were very close.
The quiet scene soon came to life as we observed the adult pictured above watching a newly hatched chick as it was exploring the sandy beach nearby. The chick was very active; running rapidly a few steps then stopping to observe the surroundings - all under the watchful eye of the adult.

At about this time, a Crow flew over after apparently noticing the chick and began to get too close. The adult Killdeer immediately took flight - chasing the Crow. The single adult Killdeer was joined by two other adults who continued harassing the Crow until he flew off. 
Then something very unusual happened. There were three adult Killdeer on the beach directly in front of us. The chick had run further away and was out of sight.

The encounter didn't look exactly friendly and there was no apparent celebration of having chased off the invading Crow. The dynamics were unusual and began to change rapidly. The two Killdeer at the rear of this shot began fighting. Was this some form of mating display, a territorial dispute or a family feud? We'll never know.

A few seconds later the fighting grew more intense as one male (we assume) took a large chunk of feathers out of the other male while the third Killdeer looked on. The fighting continued for only a minute or two and soon there seemed to be a stand-off between the two adversaries.

Then, the chick returned back across the exposed beach towards a more protected area in the scrub growth. The two adults continued sparring a while longer until one flew off. The scene was calm again as the new chick continued exploring his surroundings - apparently totally unaware of the recent adult fighting. 
We returned to this spot a few days later and saw no evidence of the Killdeer family. Life goes on in the wild in ways that we simply don't fully understand. The encounter we observed was a moment in the life of a Killdeer family - the next chapter in that family life will remain unknown.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Brown Pelicans Return to Monterey Bay - - - - - - - - and other signs of Spring

The Blog has been quiet for a few days - not being as able to get out as the aging body has brought on some limitations. But -

We were out for a few hours yesterday and saw the beginning of the return of the Brown Pelicans to the area. They have been gone for the winter and it's a nice sight to see them gliding back into their local habitat. After being declared endangered in 1970 they had recovered sufficiently by December 2009 to be taken of the endangered list with a condition that they be monitored for the next 15 years. It is a welcome sight to see them recovering from their serious decline. The Elkhorn Slough Organization has excellent information on the Brown Pelican on their web site here.

The following quote from the web site describes the Brown Pelican decline: "In the late 19th and early 20th century Brown Pelicans were hunted for their feathers to adorn women’s hats. After World War I, they were slaughtered by the thousands to avoid fishing competition, and their nests were raided for eggs. In the late 1940’s, widespread use of DDT contaminated fish the pelicans ate which resulted in egg-shell thinning and chick deformities. By the 1960’s Brown Pelican populations were in serious decline."

Although most of the Brown Pelicans in this area are post-breeding visitors from Mexican and southern California nesting sites, they have nested successfully at nearby Point Lobos where they have been observed exhibiting breeding behavior in recent years. At times when the population was low their arrival dates were in June but now with a growing numbers pelicans have begun to arrive as early as April in some years.

We saw three "flights" of the recovering pelican population within a few minutes - all heading north along the shore near Point Pinos. It certainly was a welcome sight - not having seen them in quantity during the winter months. I was able to get this shot of an individual by cropping him from one of the "flights" as they soared overhead. Note the under-wing feather detail and texture.

There were more opportunities to get groups of the Pelicans soaring over head. This shot shows several in "formation" apparently gaining some benefit from their close proximity.

Another shot of an individual shows their magnificent ability to effortlessly soar along the shoreline.

We also saw a lone Canada Goose begging with visible anticipation in the parking lot near the shore. You can imagine he has been fed (illegally) before.

At nearby Crespi Pond we saw a certain sign of spring. A successful breeding pair of Canada Geese with their new little goslings. Spring is a wonderful time of the year - bringing new life and opportunity for all our wildlife neighbors.

Another sure sign of spring at Crespi Pond is this male deer with his "velvet" rack covering - enjoying a patch of lush grass near an unconcerned Canada Goose. There are many deer that share the open space of the Pacific Grove local golf course with the golfers. We see them all over this end of the Town - often eating any unprotected delicacies in the nearby neighbors yards.