January, 2003 - Wildlife Report
© 2003 by John Varley; all rights reserved
We walk on the beach nearly every day. At low tide there is a LOT of beach, and at high tide the water comes close enough to the State Park kiosk as to be almost alarming, considering that Pier Avenue slopes gently AWAY from the water. A real big wave could crest the three or four feet of elevation that backs the high-tide line and come surging down the street, or at least it seems that way. There are signs advising what to do in case you hear the sustained sirens warning of an approaching tsunami. The signs say "Get your ass to high ground!" though not in those words. High ground is about three miles east of us, over a single road that would probably be gridlocked in about thirty seconds. We figure that if we feel so much as an earth tremor, weíre in the car and OUTTA there, donít wait for the sirens, and hope for the best.
The most fascinating---and ugliest---beach Iíve ever known was the stretch between Port Arthur and Galveston while I was living at home down there in southeast Texas. It wasnít beach youíd put in a tourist brochure, but our family went there regularly and it was always exciting. One day it would be carpeted in dead jellyfish, or Portuguese man-o-war. Some days there would be millions of tiny fiddler crabs running away from you, sideways, wherever you looked. People used to drag long, long seine nets along the beach for a mile or so. When they pulled the net to the beach theyíd take out the fish they wanted and leave everything else on the sand to rot. That "everything else" could include ten-foot hammerhead sharks, or porpoises, which would remain on the beach for weeks or months. And STINK? Fuhgeddaboutit. But hey, I was young and curious, and it was one heck of a biology lesson. The dead sharks were another kind of lesson, the kind that made me less than eager to learn to swim, or even to go out in the water deeper than my knees.
Compared to that cornucopia of garbage, Oceano beach is pristine, but we always carefully catalog all the sea life we find, bring it home if possible and identify it in our library of Audubon books. The tally so far: millions and millions of "sand crabs" (mole crabs, Emerita analoga, according to Audubon), sort of the plankton of the tidal zone, creatures that EVERYBODY grazes on, from gulls to kittiwakes to sanderlings to guys with shovels and buckets digging for bait, whose picked carcasses sometimes pile up in actual heaps at the high tide line; dozens of spiny mole crabs (Blepharipoda occidentalis), which are larger versions of the mole crab, with an attitude; one (well, technically, 1/2, it had been eaten a bit) shield-back kelp crab (Pugettia producta), a fascinating beastie; and the usual assortment of blue crab shells, snail shells, razor clam shells, and great big Pismo clam shells. And, the remains of a bat ray (Myliobatis californica), looking like a gulf stingray about four feet across. (I canít say "bat ray" without thinking of comic books: "Robin, go get the bat ray out of the batmobile! I think I left it in the batglove compartment under the box of batkleenex!")
One day a lot of immature Dungeness crabs (Cancer magister) washed up, maybe 50 of them, but all within the same 20-yard stretch of beach. Why so small an area? I havenít a clue. Nearby was some of the more exotic sea life we have seen so far: a group of Indians or Pakistanis, playing some weird half-court version of cricket with only one wicket. The bowler would let fly with a tennis ball, which the batsman would miss, and the ball would then be seized by one of the girls standing around and she would pay keep-away, or else everyone would spend five to ten minutes discussing who should bowl the next one. I understand cricket matches can last several days, and now I understand why. I thought of asking one of them if he could bowl a googlie, so I could see what the heck it is Ö but I didnít. I suppose baseball looks weird to them.
Then there are the birds Ögulls and kittiwakes and terns and shearwaters are devilishly hard to pin down. In the books, their pictures can look very similar. There are huge flocks of them, the prettiest being Heermanís gull (Larus heermani), which has a lovely red beak.
We have seen Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocarax auritus). A volunteer at the nature center half a block from here pointed out a rare Rossí Goose (Chen rossii) strayed way out of his central California territory. Though they seldom show up in Oceano, we have seen big flocks of Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) perched on fishing sheds at Avila Beach. They line and take turns stealing filleted rock cod from a big waste barrel. These are big fish, and distend their pouches and throats enormously. They are not shy, often wonít fly until youíre no more than three feet away.
There have been examples of a long-billed something, either the marbled godwit (Limosa fedoa), whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus), or long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus), depending on whether its needle nose bends up (as I recall it) or down (as Lee insists); further observation is called for. This critter sticks its eight-inch beak way, way down into the sand at the surf line and probes for something. Probably sand crabs.
(LATER: We were both right! Lee had seen a flock of birds with beaks that curved down. Later, we both witnessed one whose beak I remembered to be mostly pink, and curved up, but which she was sure curved down. Then we saw one long-billed godwit mixed in with about 30 whimbrels or curlews, species too similar for me to separate without further study.)
Ducks are also often hard to identify. Iíve spotted, for sure, redheads and cinnamon teals, canvasbacks, wood ducks, scaups, ruddy ducks, and lots and lots of coots and mallards. There is a resident group of white-fronted geese around the pond to the east of us who have pretty much dedicated their lives to begging, and do very well at it.
But our favorites are birds everyone calls Sandpipers. They look very much like Western Sandpipers (Calidris mauri) Ö but they are also dead ringers for the winter plumage of the Sanderling (Calidris alba). And it is a pretty important difference. Sandpipers are said to like mudflats and such, while Sanderlings like to skitter in and out with the surf. They flee just ahead of approaching waves, and when the water starts to suck back into the sea they pursue it and then root frantically for mole crabs, digging for about ten seconds, tops, before another wave comes in and they flee in front of it. Thatís exactly what these birds do. Itís hectic existence, but pretty to watch.
We concluded that Sanderlings have three basic speeds: 1) Stopped. They seldom use this one except, I presume, at night, sleeping. 2) Running VERY FAST. 3) Flying VERY FAST. But then one day we discovered another speed. For some reason, several little knots of birds had stopped following the waves and were just standing there. On one leg. Now, Iíve seen a lot of birds that rest on one leg. I donít know why they do it, but they do. These little birds eyed us as we approached, and as we got what they felt was too near Ö they hopped. On one leg. Not going very fast, just Ö hopping. Getting out of our way. Why didnít they run? Was it too much trouble to drop that other leg, once they had it tucked up under them? I have no idea. Nature is marvelous, and sometimes weird.
We found what turned out to be a thornback skate (Platyrhinoidis triseriata), which would look like a banjo if full grown but this one was juvenile, more like a ukulele. It was so fresh it still had a live parasitic worm clinging to it, unaware that his lunch ticket had just been punched. We brought it home in a plastic sack with a few sand dollars, and it fascinated the group of semi-feral cats that lurk around the park.
In the category of sea mammals, one afternoon in Morro Bay we watched as a sea otter (Enhydra lutris) dived for shellfish, which he set on his chest and smashed open with a rock, just like in the nature documentaries on Discovery Channel. I love it when wild animals watch the same shows I watch, so they know how to behave Ö We also saw Northern "Steller" sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) hauled out on bait barges in Port San Luis.
We revisited the elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) colony a couple of times. The pups are fascinating. They are about 60 pounds when born, which we have not witnessed. One of the volunteer docents who are always there said birth is a quick event, over in seconds, and the female gives very little warning of it. The pup is born with too much skin, like a Shar-pei dog. Now, the earliest pups have been there on the sand over a month, feeding on milk that is about 54% fat, the richest milk of all mammals. You could not have blown them up much quicker if youíd stuck a compressed air hose in their mouths. They have doubled in length, and are fat as sausages. Thirty days old, and they are now 400 pounds! Some of them will make nice meals for the great white sharks that will gather offshore when they venture out to sea for the first time. Their mothers have already abandoned them, returning to the deep after fulfilling the elephant seal version of the duties of motherhood, which, as far as I can tell, consists entirely of lying on the sand, sleeping, and turning on her side from time to time so the pups can nurse. Not a great deal of affection displayed. The bloated youngsters group together, like month-old adolescents hanging out at the mall, probably feeling alienated and misunderstood. Such is family life at Piedras Blancas.
I am told females are capable of an angry defense if somebody tries to hurt their pups. So are the males, though there is probably more of the defense of territory and mates going on there. A short time ago some genius wanted to get some real good close-ups of a mother and her pups, so he waited until the evening when the beach guardians who might have stopped him had gone home. He went down the short cliff and approached a mother and pup and started snapping away. A 4000 pound male sneaked up behind him and grabbed him by the thigh. (How does a 2-ton tub of lard with virtually no legs "sneak?" Well, they can be amazingly fast and quiet for short distances, and when just lying there they look like sand dunes.) Doctors were able to save the manís leg, but heíll walk funny for the rest of his life. Tsk tsk.
For several thousand animals engaged in nothing much but catching a few months worth of snooze time before returning to the water for three to four months when they may not sleep at all (I donít think anybody knows for sure), there is a surprising amount of activity on the beach. There are constant skirmishes along the edges of territories, one male either wandering where he shouldnít be or blundering into another bullís harem. The alpha male will always rear up and make a sound like a two-ton bullfrog at the bottom of a mile-deep well, then heave his blubbery carcass in the direction of the hopeful Romeo. 99% of the time the intruder quickly backs off. Only once did we witness an interloper stand his ground. The alpha bull grabbed the smaller one by the neck, then let him go, and watched him back into the surf. The message could not have been clearer: "I could have eviscerated your epiglottis. You wanna mix it up some more?" Or whatever the elephant seal bark for "epiglottis" is.
During his charges, the bull often overruns a female, who always barks a protest and tries to get out of his way. After the boarder is repelled, the male sometimes bites the female and half-heartedly tries to mount her. (At least, all the times weíve seen it hasnít gone any further.) All these bursts of activity usually last a minute or less, and then everybody flops on the sand again. Then the main activity resumes: the flipping of sand onto broad backs. When youíve got a couple thousand seals on the beach, this is a lot of flipping.
Nature is always fascinating, not always pretty. There was one dead pup on the beach. The seagulls had bored a hole in its side and were busy pulling out its liver. Much worse, there was a newborn whose eyes had been pecked out. The was no mother in sight, he was quite alone, gathering his strength every few minutes to flop himself along a little further. Every time he stopped, a seagull would go over and peck at his eyes. Did the mother abandon him, or die herself? Couldnít tell. The most pathetic thing, to me, was that from time to time heíd flip some sand onto his back. A reflex, I guess. He was obviously doomed.
You want to reach out and help, your impulse is to mount an expedition to rescue him, put him in the hands of a sympathetic vet, save his life, let him live in a zoo. But thatís wrong. Ugly as it is, nature should be allowed to take its course, I believe. Besides, I wonder if the elephant seal, with its incredibly alien life style, is one of those animals like the great white shark that may simply never be sustained in captivity. Iíve never seen one in a zoo. Have you?
One more critter sighting: At the side of Hwy 1 one morning I spied a large furry animal. Not really expecting to get a good look at it, I pulled over anyway Ö and it didnít flee. I grabbed my one-use Kodak and got out to look and sure enough, it was a beaver (Bucktoothius cleaveria*). There was another guy there, he had a camera with a lens as long as my arm, but he wasnít staying back, he got in as close as five feet or so, snapping away. The beaver was eating grass, ignoring us. I took some pics, and me and the guy discussed it. Beavers are supposed to be shy. He thought this one might be sick, self-medicating by eating plants that might cure what ailed him. It made sense to me. I went home, told Lee about it, and we went back, and it was still there but no longer eating. Iím pretty sure it was dying.
*actually, Castor canadensis