California Condors, Megafauna, and Trophic Cascades

A long time ago I worked as an archaeologist near Santa Barbara.  I spent most of my days in the field excavating Chumash sites, recording evidence of looting, drawing maps, and hunting for unknown sites.  It was a fun job, I learned a lot, and it was my first exposure to California Condors.

The Chumash left behind a repository of exquisite petroglyphs, painted and carved into the soft sandstone that makes up much of the Transverse Range, an east-west oriented set of coastal Southern California mountains.  One of my jobs was to preserve this rock-art.  In the dust that makes up the floor of the caves and shelters the art is painted lives a bacteria that eats the organic pigments in the paint used by the Chumash.  Visitors would unwittingly kick up the dust, spreading the bacteria and speeding up the degradation of the rock art.  At several sites we paved the floor with stones to trap the dust.  One of these sites was Condor Cave in the San Rafael Wilderness; I’m sure you can guess how it came by that name.

Condor art at Condor Cave – from http://www.parks.ca.gov

It wasn’t until several years later I when was backpacking in the Ventana Wilderness with a friend that I saw my first wild California Condor.  We stopped and sat, mesmerized, watching five large birds swoop and soar around us.  Of course my camera was acting up at the time and the only photos I got were pathetic to say the best.  The experience stuck with me, all the more so because I had been studying anthropology and repercussions of the North American megafauna extinctions.  

About a week ago I was driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles along HWY 1.  It was one of those spectacular California days where the coast is shrouded by pockets of thick fog broken by regions of bright sunlight and the Pacific Ocean lives up to its name lying tranquil in its bed.

Sun, fog, and kelp-beds along the coast between Morro Bay and Big Sur

Sun, fog, and kelp-beds along the coast between Morro Bay and Big Sur

This stretch of road is made up entirely of corners and as I rounded one I saw a pocket of people pulled over in a turn-out looking up at something on the hill-side.   I caught a glimpse of a large bird on the slope, pulled over at the next turn-out, grabbed my camera, and jogged back to find a very calm California Condor sunning itself in the late afternoon light.

California Condor soaking up the last of the sunlight

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) soaking up the last of the sunlight

The California Condors are in rough shape.   DDT, hunting by mis-informed ranchers who believe that condors killed calves, egg collecting, habitat loss, and lead-poisoning are all implicated in modern times for the low numbers of  the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus).   Additionally, these long-lived birds have small clutch sizes (few eggs per breeding cycle) and reproduce extremely slowly; so slowly that a 1996 study by the Fish and Wildlife department found that it would take 1800 years at the current population growth rate of 1.0003 to achieve a stable wild population of 150 individuals.  This low population growth rate is part of why there is a captive breeding program.

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) in the Los Padres National Forest

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) in the Los Padres National Forest

In historic times the California Condor ranged from British Columbia to Baja, but during the 19th century its range was rapidly diminished to include only California.  Through captive breeding and release strategies the range has been re-expanded and now includes Arizona, northern Mexico, and a little of Utah, in addition to California.  These birds have what is known as a “relict distribution”, that is, they occupy only a fragment of their former range.

California Condor range map - from: IUCN Redlist http://www.iucnredlist.org/

California Condor range map – from: IUCN Redlist http://www.iucnredlist.org/

 

While it is certainly true that lead poisoning, DDT, and all the rest have been massively detrimental to present day condors this overlooks a very important aspect of the condor niche.  These are large birds, the largest flying birds in North America, with up to a 9.5 foot (2.9 me) wingspan and weighing up to 23 pounds (10.4 kg).  These birds are meat eaters and they need a lot of meat.  The historic population was highest along the coast, where aquatic megafauna would, and still does wash up on the beach.  Beached whales, elephant seals, sea lions, dolphins, seals, and large fish may be disturbing to see, but they provide a wealth of food for bears, foxes, coyotes, weasels, wolves, eagles, gulls, ravens, and condors.  It is true that there are still large gatherings of sea mammals along the coast, but it is also true that there are far fewer of them than there used to be and this has imparted an additional stress to the condors, among other species.

Northern Elephant Seals (Mirounga angustirostris) on the California Coast

Northern Elephant Seals (Mirounga angustirostris) on the California Coast

For birds further inland other sources of meat were, and are important.  Terrestrial megafauna is what fed and feeds inland condors.  We have nowhere near the diversity nor the biomass of large free-living terrestrial animals than we did even a few hundred years ago, let alone what we had when humans first arrived in North America.  Shortly after the arrival of humans most of the large animals, the megafauna (generally being defined as an animal with a body-mass greater than 100 pounds (45 kg) began going extinct.  The giant beavers disappeared, the mastodons vanished, the giant sloths, camel relatives, giant tortoises, horses, and various species of deer were wiped from the continent, and along with those animals also went other animals that relied upon them; dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, short-faced bears, American lions, American cheetah, tetratorns (think condors on steroids), dung beetles, and condors.

Tule Elk (Cervus canadensis ssp. nannodes) being restored to California grasslands

Tule Elk (Cervus canadensis ssp. nannodes) being restored to California grasslands

There is vociferous disagreement as to why the megafauna went extinct, but many, if not most, scholars believe that humans hunted these animals to extinction.  Humans arrived during an ice age and the rapid change in climate (rapid in an evolutionary sense) may have placed the animal populations in a position where enthusiastic hunting had a greater impact than would be otherwise expected; but whatever the exact details the short story is that humans arrived and within a few thousand years a majority of the megafauna went extinct.  This triggered what is known as a “trophic cascade”.

You can think of an ecosystem as being analogous to a game of Jenga.  All together the blocks form a solid tower, but as you remove blocks (species) the tower (ecosystem) becomes more and more unstable.  Eventually one too many blocks is removed and the whole structure comes tumbling down.  In essence, this is what a catastrophic trophic cascade looks like.  So many animals were removed from the ecosystem that now, eleven thousand years later, we are still seeing some of the effects.  Just as blocks you never touched in the Jenga game come tumbling down, species of plants, insects, and animals that were never hunted went extinct or had their life patterns radically altered.  Some plants lost their ability to disperse their seeds, forests and grasslands were no-longer grazed as heavily and the composition of species changed drastically, watersheds and rivers changed their patterns, soils changed as they were walked upon by different animals with different behaviors, concentrations of bacteria and fungus changed, altering soil and groundwater chemistry.  Trophic cascades are a big deal.  They are ongoing, but operate in the background, running smoothly and unnoticed until something breaks the chain of events and the whole tower of blocks comes tumbling down.

The current narrow range of Condors is due, in part to the cascading effects of the megafuna extinctions and more recent changes brought by colonizing Europeans.  We know from the fossil record that prior to the megafauna extinctions several species of condors lived in North America over a range that includes the historic range of the California Condor and stretched across the southern states and up the east coast to New York.

Prehistoric US fossil sites for North American condors, courtesy of the San Diego Zoo library

Seeing the California Condors in the wild is like catching a brief glimpse into the distant past, a time when North America had wildlife diversity to rival that of Africa.  The fate of the condors is far from certain.  They are from a time and place that no-longer exists and it remains to be seen if they can adapt to the world as we have made it, even with our assistance.  I hope the condors do succeed, the world is a richer place and better place for their presence.

Preening in the late afternoon sun

Preening in the late afternoon sun

Brown Pelicans: today’s Pterosaurs

I am a big fan of Pelicans. They may be my favorite birds, though claiming anything to be a favorite is a little silly. I like all pelicans, but it is the Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) and its cousin the Peruvian Pelican (Pelecanus thagus) that are at the top of my pelican list.

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) banking away from a landing at Point Dume, in Malibu

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) banking away from a landing at Point Dume, in Malibu

The Brown Pelican is the smallest of the 8 species of pelican in the world. Small is a relative term when it comes to pelicans, the Brown Pelican weighs up to 12 pounds (5.4kg) and has a wingspan up to a little more than 8 feet (2.4 meters). It and the Peruvian Pelican, which is nearly twice the size of the Brown Pelican, have a hunting strategy that differs from all other pelicans and one that is great fun to watch.

Pelicans are extremely successful apex predators. Their primary hunting tool, their beaks, have remained relatively unchanged for 30 million years as evidenced by a remarkably intact fossil from southern France. Pelicans have the largest beaks of any bird, a long affair with a sharp hook at the end and a large pouch underneath. Like baleen whales pelicans gulp huge mouthfuls of water and food (fish for pelicans) and strain the food from the water. Most pelicans do their fishing from the surface of the water, floating along like immense ducks, dipping their heads into schools of fish to grab a meal.

Brown Pelicans have an entirely different strategy.

Brown Pelican diving for fish.  View the fullsize image to see fpanicked fish leaping clear of the water to escape the pelican

Brown Pelican diving for fish. View the full-size image to see panicked fish leaping clear of the water to escape the pelican

Pelicans can see through the water well enough to spot fish near the surface. Brown and Peruvian pelicans hunt from the air in a delightfully cavalier fashion. When they spot a school of fish they dive for them, but this is not the elegant, dagger like dive of the gannet, this is the lumbering crash of a falling boulder. They fold their wings and plummet from the sky, more-or-less beak first, impacting with a great explosion of water. Their version of a dive is more akin to a drunken stumble into the pool than it is the clean Olympian dive. Despite the seeming lack of grace, their hunting strategy is effective.

While the dive of a pelican exhibits a singular lack of grace, they are elegant precision flyers. Pelicans of all species are probably best known for their surface skimming flight.

Brown Pelicans skimming the water - the lead pelican does not seem hindered by the loss of an eye

Brown Pelicans skimming the water – the lead pelican does not seem hindered by the loss of an eye

Being large, heavy birds (the largest species of pelicans weigh upwards of 20 pounds), pelicans use as little energy as possible when flying. We see them most often flying low over the water, wings nearly touching the surface of the ocean. The weight of their bodies compresses the air underneath them, making it more dense. As a result the air provides more lift, in effect they are riding on their own cushion of air. We make vehicles that do this, hover craft, and far more impressively, the Soviet ekranoplan vehicles.

Pelicans are adept surfers, riding the slight updraft of air above the curl of breaking waves.

Surfing Pelican

Surfing Pelican

Large air-sacks under the skin and hollow bones help pelicans float and a tough layer of fiber in their breast muscles helps pelicans keep their wings extended during long flights. Like other large birds pelicans search out thermals and other updrafts to climb into the sky for long flights.

I find Brown Pelicans to be surprisingly colorful.

Pelican eying me with suspicion

Pelican eying me with suspicion

Their heads have yellow, red, and a bluish tint as well. I suspect that the vibrancy of the colors changes in accordance with mating season. Peruvian Pelicans also share this colorful head, perhaps being even more colorful.

Peruvian Pelican (Pelecanus thagus)  in Paracas, Peru

Peruvian Pelican (Pelecanus thagus) in Paracas, Peru

Pelicans have a primeval aspect to them. We no-longer have Pterosaurs, but looking at Pelicans I feel a sense of what it must have been like when the sky was full of those wide-winged, short-tailed flying creatures.

Landing averted

Landing averted

Hummingbirds – miracles of evolution

Of all birds hummingbirds are one of the most fun to watch.  They are fast, colorful, and tiny, the smallest ones roughly the same size as a large moth or butterfly.  They are probably best known for their maneuverability.

Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) coming in for a landing. Note the small tail, the curve of the body, and the large wing muscles.

These birds are compact and extremely well muscled.  Their tails are short and flexible, notice how the tail of the Anna’s Hummingbird in the above photo is curved to the side and folded to cup the air to assist in guiding the bird in to its landing spot.  Their wings are short with thick muscles covering the limbs and have a range of motion far greater than that of other birds.

The name Hummingbird comes from the noise of their wings beating at 25 beats per second, about 1500 beats per minute. This high wing-beat and the extraordinary wing flexibility allows hummingbirds to hover far more effectively and energy efficiently than any other bird.

To hover they flap their wings in a figure-8 pattern, generating lift on both the down and upstroke.  Approximately 75% of the life of generated on the down-stroke with the remainder on the up-stroke.  The University of Texas has some nice graphs and charts providing more detailed information on how this works.

Anna’s Hummingbird hovering in front of Tobacco Tree (Nicotiana glauca) flowers

In to achieve this maneuverability hummingbirds give up the ability to glide.  In effect they have no low energy flight, they are always running at near full speed.  A 170 pound person would need to eat (and metabolize) 130 pounds of bread a day to keep up with energy output of a hummingbird.  Their energy output is so great that they enter torpor at night, a sort of hibernation.  If they did not do this the hummingbird would starve to death during the night.

Hummingbird flight characteristics are very nearly a blend of bird and insect methods of achieving lift.

Hummingbirds are generally extremely colorful, especially the males.  Like many birds this color is not pigment generated, but is the result of highly specialized feathers light refracting feathers.  Think of oil on water, that rainbow sheen that you see when light reflects from it.  Birds use the same technique, but in a far more specialized way.  Rather than an undifferentiated rainbow of colors the micro-structure of the feathers refracts only specific colors.  The natural color of the feathers is a dark brown, almost black.

Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) perched on a non-native Tobacco Tree (Nicotiana glauca)

I know I’ve used this photo before, but it illustrates the refraction vs pigment issue well.  The bold purple-pink behind the bird’s eyes is the color we associate with the male Anna’s Hummingbird’s head and gorget (the throat portion).  The dark, almost black, feathers are at the wrong angle to reflect the light and show the natural dark color of their pigment.

The tree in these photos is a Tobacco Tree (Nicotiana glauca), not native to North America, but native to South America, a place where there is a stunning variety of hummingbirds.  This tree and hummingbirds have a long relationship and have mutually evolved to reinforce that relationship.  Hummingbirds and may other birds and insects (and not a few mammals and reptiles as it turns out) drink nectar from flowers.  Not everyone who drinks the nectar will pollinate the plant, thus special relationships evolve.  Plants with long tube-like flowers (penstemon, humming-bird sage, tobacco, monkey flowers, heliconia, etc) are specialized to provide nectar for animals with long tongues that can reach the nectar.

Hummingbird tongue

Hummingbirds not only have long, narrow beaks, they have long, feathery tongues with which to lap up nectar hidden deep inside the tube-like flowers.  As they drink the plant deposits pollen on the beak and sometimes the bird’s head (two photos up you can see the pollen discoloring the hummingbird’s beak).  The next flower the bird visits gets a little pollen from the previous flower and the plant is happy.

A quick look at the shape and color of flowers will often give you a good sense of what type of animal the plant relies on for pollination.

Hummingbird catching insects under a Coast Live Oak

Hummingbirds need protein as well.  Some, such as the Anna’s Hummingbird, catch insects in flight, many others raid spiderwebs for insects.  Here in North America this is a relatively safe prospect, but in parts of South America there are spiders that will happily catch and eat a hummingbird and spin webs more than strong enough to trap the birds.

Hummingbirds have such a need for vast quantities of high energy foods that they are often extremely territorial, engaging in vicious fights and high speed chases.  Like most animals they would rather warn opponents off than waste energy fighting them.  Different species have various methods of letting others know how tough they are.

Anna’s Hummingbird staking out its territory

The little fellow above is marking out territory by fluffing out his head feathers.

One of the most amazing things about hummingbirds to me is that they migrate long distance, some species crossing the Gulf of Mexico in one long flight with no food.  At the shortest distance this is a flight of 480 miles, many birds fly closer to 600 miles to make this open water trip.  For a bird that only weights several ounces, cannot glide, and needs to eat constantly this is a truly remarkable voyage.

On a final note, hummingbirds are far more intelligent than most people realize.  Their memories are phenomenal, allowing them to keep track of individual flowers within their territories and when they were last visited for nectar.  They have the largest brain-to-body size of any bird.

How Does the Acorn Get from Here to There? – Scrub Jays and Oak Trees

With a few exceptions trees in the Oak genus (Quercus) are easily, if not immediately, recognizable.  There are approximately 600 species in the genus divided into two sub-genera.  Oaks are found in North and South America, Europe, North Africa, and Asia.  The oaks in Asia are in the sub-genera, the Ring-Cupped Oaks (Cyclobalanopsis), whereas oaks in the rest of the world are members of the Quercus sub-genera.

Oaks have complicated relationships with a number of other species ranging from symbiotic fungus to parasitic wasps to humans.  Oaks feature in our mythology, we use the bark of Quercus suber, Cork Oak, to make stoppers for wine and for soft flooring, we make furniture and barrels from some species of oak, we made cart and early car axles from particularity strong species, they make excellent firewood, and they are fun to climb.

Climbing a Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) when I was little

Oaks also make acorns.  Sometimes, particularly when mast fruiting, oaks produce enormous quantities of acorns.  Most of these acorns are eaten by animals; insects, humans, pigs, squirrels, birds, and a host of other animals.  The survival and reseeding rate for acorns is low, but oak trees tend to be long-lived, some reaching ages of 500 years or more.  In the absence of other factors this low seedling success rate is not an issue as the tree produces thousands of acorns each year for hundreds of years.  Some seeds are bound to survive and turn into new trees.

Oaks have a particular problem.  Their seeds (acorns) are large.

Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) acorns

By themselves the trees can only drop the acorns under their own drip-line, in the shade where they will not sprout.  How does the tree send its seeds to a new place where they can sprout and are not left in a dense mat of easily found and eaten food?

Plants, being clever and manipulative in their slow vegetative manner, have all manner of methods for getting animals to carry their seeds far and wide.  Oaks harness many species to do this work, bribing them with the highly nutritious seeds they produce.  Across much of North America scrub and blue jays are put to work distributing acorns across the landscape.

Western Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica) in the Santa Monica Mountains – possibly Belding’s Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica obscura)

Meet the Western Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica), also known as the California Scrub Jay, and sometimes known as, “That damned bird!”  It is a mid-sized bird, perhaps a foot long including tail, loud, strong, clever, and imperious.  Like all jays it is in the Crow family (Corvidae), one of, if not the, smartest of bird types.  Corvids are renowned for their problem solving abilities and feats of memorization.  Scrub jays are no exception.

When the acorns are ripe jays congregate on the trees, grab as many acorns as they can, and fly off to stash them for future use.

Scrub Jay carrying acorns to hide for lean times

Each bird seems able to carry 3 or 4 acorns at a time, in the picture above there are two in the jay’s beak and at least one more in its crop.

Jays will carry acorns up to a mile and a half, hiding them in widely distributed caches of 1-3 acorns per cache.  The bird memorizes the locations of each cache, that of any other caches it sees other birds store, and will move its own caches if it knows it has been observed making its own cache.  Some of these caches will be forgotten and in some of those the seeds will sprout.

One bird doesn’t seem like it would make much of an impact, but one must recognize both the diligence of each bird and the number of birds engaged in this activity.

Scrub Jays harvesting acorns (@ 40 photographs taken over @ 10 minutes)

The photo above is a compilation of about 40 photographs taken over roughly 10 minutes.  This level of activity has been constant on this tree throughout the day over the past 2 or 3 weeks.  The scale of the endeavor starts to become apparent.  Beneath the tree ground squirrels and gray squirrels gather seeds from the ground to add to their own larders as well.

The oak tree has effectively expanded its dispersal distance from a few feet to over a mile.  Not only that, the oak tree has found a way to have its seeds hidden in safe locations and planted in the ground.  Only a small proportion of the acorns will survive to make new trees, but over the 350 year expected life-span of this particular tree it is not unreasonable that several hundred acorns will survive to produce trees that will live long enough to produce seeds of their own.

Scrub Jay enjoying the sun

+++ Cathy commented that any discussion of oak trees in California is incomplete if Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) are not included.  They don’t live where I am at the moment, but last week I was up in my old stomping grounds and visited one of my favorite grainery trees.  Grainery trees are where these communal woodpeckers store and dry their collected acorns.  This particular tree is an ancient, wind-blasted Douglas Fir atop Mt Tamalpais, has a nearly 4 foot diameter, has been lightening struck numerous times, and sits amidst a copse of large moss enshrouded oak trees.

Old grainery trees will be used by many generations of these little woodpeckers and the trees look like an art project .

In any event, here is a photo of part of a grainery.+++

Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) use all surfaces of a tree to make their larders. They will use fence-posts and the sides of barns as well.

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As a final note, in many areas, but in California in particular, oaks of all species are severely imperiled.  Oak woodlands are often considered to be the most important ecosystem in the region, but they have been subject to a number of stresses.  Oaks have been extensively cleared for orchards, vineyards, farmland, and urban use.  Saplings are eaten by cattle in range-lands, non-native feral pigs sniff out and eat all the acorns they can find, sometimes damaging tree roots in the process, and an ill-considered introduction of turkeys to the state by Fish & Wildlife to raise hunting revenue has led to even more acorns consumed by these overly prolific birds.

On top of all this, Phytophthora ramorum, a pathogen in the fungus-like family of water-molds, was accidentally introduced to the state via exotic ornamental plants and is causing wide-spread devastation.  This is commonly called Sudden Oak Death Syndrome and foresters strongly recommend not transporting oak firewood and washing cutting tools and boots when moving between oak growing regions.

A Brief Stopover in the Santa Monica Mountains

I am back on the West Coast of the US for a few weeks before I fly off into tomorrow sometime in November.  The specific part of the west coast I am in is the Santa Monica Mountains, a rugged stretch of steep sided hills perched over the Pacific Ocean covered with blanket of dense chaparral.

Evening sunbeams in Topanga

The precipitous, heavily weathered mountain slopes are eroding from ancient sea-floor uplifted and broken by geologic stresses, frequently manifesting in the form of earthquakes.  The region is dry, though fog is common and periodic rainstorms can quickly drench the area, causing local flooding and landslides.  The dusty ground is colored a dull orange/tan with angular, flat, broken pebbles peeling out of shallow, soft bedrock with occasional anemonite and bivalve fossils.  Under the twelve foot chaparral canopy the gritty soil is overlain by several inches of slowly decomposing leaf-litter and twigs, loose in some places, held together by dense mycelial mats in other places, particularly under the scrub and live oaks.

Infrequent damp, cool places are home to massive coastal live oak (Quercus agrifolia) and California sycamore (Platanus racemosa) while a bewildering variety of woody shrubs make up the body of the chaparral cloaking the rest of the mountains.  Here and there small meadows, potreros in the southern California vernacular, and wind-blasted rock outcrops break up the gray/green vegetation.

Lemonade Berry (Rhus integrifolia) flower buds

Chamise, Toyon, Scrub Oak, Lemonade Berry, Ceanothus, Yucca, and various sages make up much of the more common large shrubs with Black Walnut, Elderberry, Coastal Live Oak, and California Sycamore making up the primary larger trees.  The softer vegetative plants of the understory tend be short-lived, only appearing to bloom and set seed after the rain.

The thick, leathery leaves of the Lemonade Berry (Rhus integrifolia) in the image above are fairly typical of chaparral plants in that they are mostly evergreen and have evolved to husband moisture.  Some plants steal their nutrients from other plants, Dodder (Cuscuta californica) is common in the chaparral, some years blanketing their hosts with yellow-orange leafless vines sporting nearly invisible flowers.

Dodder (Cuscuta californica) on Lemonade Berry. Dodder is most active after rains.

For such a dry region the diversity of both plant and animal life is astounding.  The most obvious animal life during the day are the birds.  Birds of all sizes everywhere, year round.  Little tiny acrobatic birds such as the Bushtit traveling in small noisy flocks.

Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) on scrub oak

Large birds of prey soaring overhead in search of thermals or their next meal.

Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) riding the wind

Meadowlarks, finches, wrens, thrashers, scrub jays, woodpeckers, hummingbirds quail, and a host of other birds flit about within earshot, if not within eyesight.

Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) atop a Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) shrub, a popular food bush for many birds. Toyon is also known as Hollywood, the plant Hollywood owes its name to.

Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) perched on a non-native Tobacco Tree (Nicotiana glauca)

Mammals abound as well.  Small rabbits scatter like frogs in a pond in the evenings, and in the mornings I find fresh coyote, fox, bobcat, skunk, raccoon, deer, and mountain lion tracks on the unused dirt roads.  In the potreros badgers are not uncommon, large woodrat piles abound, bats fly through the canyons in the evening, and ground squirrels are everywhere.  Sometimes, if you have a quiet foot, a lot of patience, and good deal of luck you sneak up on these animals.  A few years back I was out here and found a coyote sleeping in the sunlight.

Coyote (canis latrans) sleeping in the sunlight

This being a dry area there are numerous lizards and snakes, mostly hidden from sight, and insects of all sorts.

I prefer wet places, places that stay green, but I do appreciate and enjoy the diversity of life here in the steep chaparral.  It is strange to be here between damp New England and my next home in Borneo where I will receive 3-4 meters of rain a year.

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Some of these photos are taken with a Nikon D80, some with a Nikon D90, and several with a Nikon D600.  I am still learning the latter camera, but if any of you out there are debating buying the D600, I can honestly say I recommend it.  The Meadowlark and Hummingbird images were taken with the D600 and are cropped from much larger images.

The Frontenac Arch a Critical Linkage

(this is an article I wrote for the summer 2012 newsletter of A2A – Algonquin To Adirondacks Conservation Association – a bi-national conservation association I am an adviser for – I wanted to wait until it was included in the newsletter before posting it here as well)

Between the Algonquin and the St. Lawrence a finger of the Canadian Shield, called the Frontenac Arch, reaches down from the north.  The Canadian Shield is an ancient formation of rock, heavily weathered, marked with meteor craters, and bearing the polishing scars of the ebb and flow of glaciers miles deep. Soils are shallow on the Shield, in many places nonexistent.  Nutrients are hard to come by and wetlands abound.

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

The bedrock to the east and west of the Frontenac Arch is old seafloor with thicker soils that are rich in minerals and nutrients. Groundwater flows through breaks in the flat bedding planes and does not become trapped in pockets as easily as it does on the Canadian Shield.

When we look at a landscape we often look at the plants growing on the surface and leave our thoughts on the surface with them.  Plants grow where they do because of the chemistry of bedrock, soil, water, and temperature.

On the Frontenac Arch the chemistry of the northern and the southern Canadian forests mix.  This mix shows in the wide and unusual range of plants growing in and around the Frontenac Arch.  The diversity of plants attracts a corresponding diversity in animals. All these plant communities are separated and connected by the dense wetlands, and many animals are drawn to the wetlands.  Frogs, fish, ospreys, turtles, feeding moose, waterfowl of all sorts, beavers, blackbirds, otters, sparrows, loons, and many more.

Male Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)

Healthy wetlands are rich in species, both in number and diversity; plant, animal, insect, and bird.  Wetlands are the kidneys of the planet; they filter water and keep it clean.  They slowly recharge aquifers with cool, pure water, they keep rivers and streams clear, they trap sediment, and they eventually fill in, becoming rich, complex soils full of nutrients.

Oddly, perhaps counter intuitively, all this life, more specifically all this diversity, of living things in wetlands is what keeps the water clean.  The water is strained at a molecular level for nutrients by all those living organisms.  Each looks for different things and uses them differently.  Toxins and chemicals are swept up and broken down by this process, but only as long as the diversity of life is present.

When that fabric of diversity is broken the health of the land suffers.  A healthy environment is like good glass, so clear you don’t see it and tough enough to withstand storms.

A large male Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and feral biologists

The Frontenac Arch is one of the gems of the region and is critical in connecting the northern and southern forests.

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For those who are interested the Algonquin to Adirondacks Conservation Association website is here, and a map is below:

Algonquin to Adirondacks Conservation Association map of the Frontenac Arch

Loons – the clumsy birds

If you’ve spent time on an undeveloped lake in northern North America or Europe you’ve probably seen or heard loons.  Their calls are loud and eerie, ringing out over still water and carrying far before fading amongst the trees.

Here in Vermont the Common Loons (Gavia immer) have finished nesting, the young have hatched, and the adults are teaching their young how to survive.  Over the past few months they’ve flown in from their winter grounds, found nesting spots, defended them, reproduced, and will stay until the first ice begins to cover the lakes.  The adults carry immature young on their backs.

Kevin T. Karlson photography – common loon with chicks

When the time comes for over-wintering loons fly to the oceans.  In the US there is an excellent loon tracking program that allows you to watch the movements of individual loons over the seasons.

Loons are large waterfowl with a distinct black and white pattern, reminiscent of Penguins, Auks, Razorbills, Puffins, Terns, the questionably named Imperial Shag, and a host of others.  These birds are patterned white on the belly and black on the back for the same reason that Orca and other aquatic predators are; from below the white blends into the sky, and from the above the black blends into the water (or ground), providing camouflage from both prey and predators.

Loons are excellent fliers with long, surprisingly narrow wings

Loons are excellent flyer and fantastic swimmers, but have difficulty on the ground.  Their large bodies are front heavy and they cannot stand upright, as a result they push themselves along the ground, sliding on their bellies. The name Loon derives from Scandinavian names for lame or clumsy, “lúinn” in Icelandic and “lam” in Swedish.

Their inability to walk means that their nests must be close to the water and that the nests must be in well protected places, usually islands or extremely wet peninsulas.  As more and more lake sides are developed there is less and less nesting habitat for loons.  In addition a pair of loons needs 5-20 hectares (12-50 acres) of clear undisturbed water on a lake with many small bays and nooks and a healthy fish population.  Boats and swimmers can easily disturb nesting loons and studies indicate large reductions in nesting success in areas where people come into close contact with nesting loons.

There are few places that meet the nesting requirements and loons are highly territorial during nesting season.

Most of the time loons are heard, not seen, and when seen it is usually from at least a mild distance.  Several weeks ago I came across a freshly dead loon on the shore of a small pond.  Finding dead animals is always interesting as you have an opportunity to look at them up close and discover things you wouldn’t otherwise know.

The background of this particular loon is that it was an undersized male, blind in one eye, that (according to the banding codes) was new to the area.  It fought with the male of an established nesting pair and lost the fight.  A fellow from the Vermont Center for Ecosystem Studies moved the loon to a nearby lake where it stayed for several days, seemingly falling into poorer and poorer health until I found it on the beach.  Upon request I collected the loon so that it could be sent to one of the research labs and an autopsy done on it.

Small male loon found dead

Small male loon found dead

The first thing that caught my eye was the sleek iridescence of the feathers, tending towards a blue-purple on the neck and with an oily sheen on the black back feathers, but it was the legs that fascinated me.  Chicken, duck, and most other familiar birds have round legs.  This makes sense, these birds must support their weight while walking, or waddling in some cases.  Loons don’t walk so their legs don’t need to be especially strong side-to side.  They do need to cut smoothly through the water however, and as such they are blade-like in shape presenting a narrow front to reduce drag.

The white neck feathers stand proud from the black feathers

The white feathers that ring the neck stand proud, rising 2-3mm above a background of short, fine, dense black feathers.  Loons are cold weather birds and, like all water birds, they have dense feathers.  I did not realize just how dense those feathers are though.  Loon feathers feel like rich fur, not feathers, almost felt-like in texture and density.

White speckled back feathers

The white speckles on the loon’s back remind me of an Escher print.

Here in Vermont loons are popular animals and there has been some good work done to protect loon habitat.  As a result, loon breeding success is higher in this state than the national average.  Bans on lead sinkers for fishing have helped the loon population as well as fewer individuals are swallowing the lead and getting poisoned from the metal.