Αύγουστος 02, 2016

Swimming with the Big Guys

Two days from now I will pile into a car packed to the brim with 3 different types of acoustical devices, snorkeling gear, trail mix and peanut butter, sleeping bags, and (in my corner) a stack of field guides, and join a caravan of students from Moss Landing Marine Laboratories on a two day drive from the Central Coast to San Diego to Bahia de los Angeles on the Sea of Cortez. One of the perks of mentoring young interns is the possibility that they will embark on their own adventures in the future and, if you're lucky, will invite you along for the ride. In this case, a young woman who worked with me through many sea otter research adventures will now be my boss as our team heads south for her first field season as a graduate student at MLML.

Her research question is a fascinating one: Do whale sharks make sounds? On previous trips to BDLA, she recorded mysterious and unique sounds while assisting with a photo ID project and we are returning this year to try to obtain more recordings and definitively establish the source of the sounds. If successful, this young woman will have found the first evidence of ANY SHARK making a sound!

We are traveling with a crew of six and will be tagging along (so to speak) with a local research crew that's working on a long-term photo ID project. Team members will swim with a camera in one hand and a recording device (one of the 3 types) near slow moving sharks to try to obtain photos suitable for ID (there is a rectangle shaped target area behind the gills) and recordings of any sounds. The boat team will record data and manage the second acoustic recorder (the third will be mounted underwater). Sometimes I emit an audible giggle of glee just thinking about it.

Mornings with glassy conditions will be optimal, with afternoons off for siesta and exploration (heat permitting). The area offers spectacular scenery with its network of islands large and small and is rich with wildlife. Most of it will be brand new to me: four species of sea turtle, numerous small cetacean species, marine invertebrates straight from the Log of the Sea of Cortez, seabirds, desert plants, herps, and apparently an abundance of scorpions! The temperature may soar to 110 F, but I'll be iNatting even if it's while lying on my face under a bush with an ice pack on my neck ("There's a lizard!"). I am taking along "Common Seaweeds of the Gulf of California" by Mark Readdie, "Baja CA Plant Field Guide" by Rebman and Roberts, Gotshall's "Sea of Cortez Marine Animals", "Amphibians and Reptiles of BC" by McPeak, and a few general guides.

We will work for 14 days straight, then make the return trip. Internet is uncertain at our destination, so I may not be able to share observations until my return. I will share a Google Photos album of the trip in a follow up journal post. Any insights from iNatters that know Bahia de los Angeles are welcome! The moral of this story: Be kind to your interns!

Posted on Αύγουστος 02, 2016 0355 ΜΜ by gbentall gbentall | 3σχόλια | Αφήστε ένα σχόλιο

Μάρτιος 02, 2016

Place Intimacy

One of the lessons in self awareness from last year's 3 month, 8,500 mile, cross-country road trip that surprised me the most was the realization that I prefer to sit back and stay for a while. Don't get me wrong, I love adventure and exploration beyond---the life of a field biologist over the last decade and a half has carried me to the most remote of places and has cloaked future destinations and projects in mystery. Despite a certain unpredictability about where "home" might be, I have consistently circled, traversed, and nested (even if fleetingly) along the central California coast---my truest of loves. I was first introduced to iNaturalist when stationed at the Kenneth S. Norris Rancho Marino Reserve in Cambria, in San Luis Obispo county, which is part of the University of CA's Natural Reserve System. I was there to study sea otters, of course, but I immediately became devoted to exploring the reserve's rocky intertidal, grasslands, coastal chaparral, and Monterey Pine forest (which is among the few natural stands remaining in the state) and posting what species I could manage to photograph on iNat, guided by the various species lists for the reserve and my friend and reserve manager, Don Canestro. While I am interested in the many wild places SLO county has to offer, my greatest joy comes from knowing this particular place deeply. Identifying a new algal species is good, if I've found it at Rancho Marino, it's better. So far, I have only scratched the surface of this place's rich biota: http://www.inaturalist.org/lists/295074-Wildlife-of-Rancho-Marino-Reserve . I am no longer a full-time resident of Rancho Marino, but I am fortunate that my work still takes me back at least monthly to revisit well-known species and discover new ones. My most recent return saw me armed with a new field guide to mushrooms and, if not the knowledge to identify them, at least a better understanding of what parts I needed to photograph. It was like seeing the woods all dressed up in a new suit!

In Monterey county, where I currently reside, I have found a second place to love in a small, humble regional park in Prunedale, just a mile down the road. I first met Manzanita Park while searching for trails I could share with my beagle, Harry, but as I followed its rambling main trail through manzanita and oak woodlands I knew it was going to be more than just a place to walk my dog. The main vehicle access to this park is gated and controlled by the local youth athletic league and on weekdays hikers must walk up a short incline to reach the trail head, an obstacle I feel has limited the use of the trail and protected some of the more interesting flora. At the center of the main loop is a web of narrow paths through manzanita thickets and willow and cottonwood riparian zones. In 15 months of hiking these smaller paths several times a week, I have rarely encountered another human. With the Calflora "What Grows Here" polygon bookmarked on my browser and a stack of field guides, I set forth to find and photograph the park's residents and transients. I have a standing date with Manzanita now, walking the trails across seasons, seeing the blooms and the butterflies come and go. If you hike the trails with me today I can point out where the Monterey Spineflower, Chorizanthe pungens, will carpet the trail margins with pink, and the corridor of Pajaro Manzanita down which I've fruitlessly followed a duskywing in hopes of a definitive species photo. I might ask you to keep an eye out for the Pellaea mucronata I have never found and, until recently, would have tried to enlist your help in finding a patch of the rein orchid, Piperia yadonii, for which the the park is known. For over a year I have scoured the brush for signs of leaves, flowers, or dried stalks depending on the season, examining countless sprouts in the hopes that they were other than the ubiquitous soap plant. Just this week while exploring one of the paths less traveled, I found an impressive patch of shooting stars that I had missed last year. While belly down in the trail photographing those, I noticed the classic paired, fleshy leaves of an orchid just by my elbow. As my focus shifted I found myself kneeling beside an abundant patch tucked within an alcove of Hooker's Manzanita. With a deep intake of breath, I felt joy akin to that of a great first date----Manzanita had gifted me the discovery of his orchids.

And so what's the point of all of this? I wanted to share my love and passion for exploring a few places deeply and lovingly. I see it in many of you---the reefs of Pillar Point, the peaks of Pinnacles, the fields of the Presidio---places of love and devotion, all of them. I will continue to explore beyond, experiment with new place relationships, but will keep coming back to Rancho Marino and Manzanita Park to walk familiar paths and watch the seasons change.

I'll close with an invitation: my list is short on invertebrates and herps. If anyone is interested in helping me add to the list where it is lacking, I would be thrilled to introduce you to Manzanita Park and I don't mind at all sharing the trail.

You can see my list for Manzanita Park here: http://www.inaturalist.org/lists/295071-Wildlife-of-Manzanita-Park

Each of these are iNaturalist Places:



Posted on Μάρτιος 02, 2016 0328 ΠΜ by gbentall gbentall | 2 παρατηρήσεις | 7σχόλια | Αφήστε ένα σχόλιο

Σεπτέμβριος 26, 2015

Of sea otters, empathy and the quest for the photo

I've been giving considerable thought to wildlife disturbance issues lately. Not just because I am now tasked with building a program from scratch to mitigate the often relentless harassment of sea otters by marine recreationists, but also because of the unprecedented (in my lifetime, at least) abundance of wildlife inhabiting Monterey Bay of late. It is impossible to cast one's gaze out into the bay from the beaches or jetties of Moss Landing and not see dozens of Humpback Whale blows and, if you're fortunate, a breach or an explosive feeding lunge. It is just as impossible to look upon that amazing scene without the accompanying hoards of watercraft in position court-side to bear witness to the presence of these giants. I get it. I've been one of the hoard. It is like a great and glorious dream to turn your head, mouth agape, and find you are surrounded by some of the largest creatures on earth. I've held out my cell phone to capture video---they are SO CLOSE, I say with a smile.

I have had many conversations with people who have been on the water with the whales, I am curious about their perceptions. The sentiment that the whales are undisturbed by the human accompaniment is nearly universal among them, including my own colleagues, scientists who have long been trained not to trust the superficially apparent at the expense of tested hypotheses. I suggest we at least humble ourselves enough to admit we don't know how the whales are affected when we park ourselves upon their foraging waters. Of course, no one can ask them what they perceive.

In contrast, it's fairly easy to recognize a sea otter whose natural behavior has been disrupted. After just a few minutes of education, most people can recognize the warning behaviors, the behavior of the kayak (or other disturbance source, but kayaks are by far the most typical), and the moment an alert otter becomes a harassed otter. They are not so far removed from us taxonomically, that we are unable to empathize with them and their basic needs to rest, find food and rear their offspring. If it is, in part, my job to encourage people to pay attention when viewing sea otters, then I suspect that is an achievable goal. Love them, yes, but love them with respect.

Perhaps one of my more effective tools to educate others about disturbance is to admit that I have been a perpetrator myself and, if I am honest, I have been so frequently and with species in which disturbance may not be so clear cut. I have always self-identified as respectful of wildlife but, while forging a new collaboration with the Seabird Protection Network, I have had to confess red-faced the number of birds I have flushed. As with most otter disturbances, my infractions were unintentional, but my motives meant nothing to the birds. How many of us have edged closer and closer to get the best photo, with our distance being limited to that at which the bird flies away. I have walked away from this scenario more than once, satisfied with my photo and giving little thought to the number of other similar disturbances that bird has suffered in the past and will suffer after I am gone.

I am a chronic overturner of rocks in the intertidal---this was taught to me as a student of marine biology. We were cautioned to do so with care and to return everything to its place, but my self-congratulations at having done so is often tempered with the suspicion that I have disrupted a complex microcosm that could not be so easily restored. It is much easier for most, however, to empathize with an otter than the anemone. It is probable that I will still look under the occasional tidepool rock, but not without careful weighing of the cost and benefit of doing so. To draw the awareness of people now, to the "death by a 1000 kayaks" faced by sea otters in places like Moss Landing and Morro Bay, has provoked a hyper awareness in me.

I love iNaturalist and I see a tremendous value of the volume of observations documenting species, including the very cryptic ones that go unnoticed if no one is seeking them out. I can't possibly know at what cost to the creature some of those observations have been made. I suspect many iNat users, especially the ones I choose to follow, are more respectful than most with their subjects. But I can only speak for myself---iNat has definitely increased my desire to get that photo voucher and, not only that, but one that shows identifiable characters. Sometimes that can be accomplished at a distance with a telephoto lens and sometimes with a iPhone camera just inches from my subject. Can anyone tell the cost to the butterfly I have flushed repeatedly from its nectar plant? There are so many overwhelming threats to wildlife in our times, the scope of it can leave me feeling powerless. The good news is that I am in control of how far I will go to get that photo. I can take care that I am less a part of the problem and more of a role model. I can choose between the whale watching boat that gets to closest or the one that keeps a respectful distance. I can recognize how much better it feels to leave in my wake wildlife going about their natural business of living. That self control coupled with an increased awareness that my behavior may have a consequence for the wildlife I love, even if I can't know the nature of that consequence, can only make me a better and more respectful naturalist, but a more effective teacher as well.

Posted on Σεπτέμβριος 26, 2015 0556 ΜΜ by gbentall gbentall | 3σχόλια | Αφήστε ένα σχόλιο

Ιούνιος 09, 2015

A Sight for Sori

My appreciation for the native fern species that line some of my favorite central coast trails has grown over the last year. A recent fern-drenched hike at Delaveaga Park in Santa Cruz prompted my latest blog entry: http://genaandharrylook.blogspot.com/

Posted on Ιούνιος 09, 2015 0415 ΠΜ by gbentall gbentall | 3σχόλια | Αφήστε ένα σχόλιο

Μάιος 27, 2015

It's all happening in Pinnacles!

For those of you that share my fondness for America's newest National Park, here's my blog post about my visit to Pinnacles on Day 2 of the Global Bioblitz. The weather was perfect and the Clarkia were putting on a show!



Posted on Μάιος 27, 2015 0356 ΜΜ by gbentall gbentall | 52 παρατηρήσεις | 0σχόλια | Αφήστε ένα σχόλιο

Αύγουστος 12, 2014

Heading out of my Pacific coast comfort zone

It seems like it's the season for the road trip and I see many of my fellow iNat'rs posting observations from all over the country. I am wrapping up my sea otter work here in SLO county and heading out on an 8800 mile road trip across the country and back with Harry the beagle and my Tacoma Emmy and her new (used) cab-over camper, Pagoo. I'll be taking a hiatus from sea otter research during that time, or at least trying to, and focusing on experiencing new places, people, adventures and, most of all, wildlife! Narrative writing and other creative endeavors will be taken out of the cold storage of the back of my brain where they have be relegated in favor of science for the last 13 years. I am so excited to find new creatures and plants, but simultaneously terrified to be tasked with identifying stuff way, way, way outside my cozy little comfort zone on the Pacific coast. I feel somewhat less terrified knowing that the company of iNat experts have my back! I apologize in advance for the inevitable egregious errors and also thank-you in advance for correcting them!

Here's a link to my route, if you're interested and/or have any "must see" suggestions along the way: https://roadtrippers.com/trips/gena-and-harry-look-for-america/538ca7142b939f063e000202

And the blog:http://genaandharrylook.blogspot.com/

See you along the way!


Posted on Αύγουστος 12, 2014 0517 ΜΜ by gbentall gbentall | 0σχόλια | Αφήστε ένα σχόλιο