Fur seal release at Drakes Beach

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The storms have brought much trash to our south facing beaches at Point Reyes.

Today I went out again to grab as much as I could of the new arrival of human trash that washed up. Also, to enjoy the spectacle of a large group of male northern elephant seals lounging, lumbering, fighting and posing on the sand and almost in the parking lot.

As a bonus I got to watch four northern fur seal pups being released after several weeks of rehabilitation at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.

Over six years ago on this same beach a couple hundred feet away I came upon a lone and malnourished northern fur seal. I called the Marine Mammal Center and they came and picked her up. pictures and video of that day here.


Marine Mammal Center staff prepare to release four fur seals
Dappled light caresses Drakes Bay, Chimney Rock sulks in background
Puffy clouds over Inverness Ridge

Peregrine vs. peeps, etched in my memory forever

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Having previously hidden in the bushes a rather heavy and valuable item I dug out of the sand, a quick visit to Drakes was in order. Little did I know, in addition to recovering my treasure, I’d see another amazing moment involving birds in their natural environment, this was a top ten event for life. Maybe top fifteen.

Hustling down Drakes Beach, it was mostly as I’d left it two days prior, though now I was picking up many items I had skipped before. There is just too much trash on the beach for one person.

Two hundred meters into my journey I noticed a large flock of sanderlings and maybe a few western sandpipers were probing for invertebrates near the water. Two or three hundred birds scattered across fifty meters of shore, all pecking and moving, looking for food as the water lapped at the hard-packed fine sand. Suddenly, from the west the birds started to lift straight up. Though not the usual dance, where those at the back of a bunch fly over to become the birds at the front of the bunch, to get first tracks on new ground. This was a more chaotic movement, they were all moving in different directions, quickly.

For a moment I wondered why, then I saw it, dropping out of the sky from maybe a hundred feet up. Sharp, stout, pointed wings. Black mark through each eye. Wow I thought! A peregrine is making a high speed run through this flock of snacks. Many times I had found the remnants of one of these events on the beach. A pile of feathers. Once, while out with the Point Reyes plover person, we saw a peregrine sitting on a log, snacking on a recent kill. As we walked closer, it flew off with the body of a small bird clutched in its’ talons. We walked over to the log it had been on to find bright red blood dripping down the log and an even brighter red heart the size of a chick-pea, still glistening, having just been torn from the chest of this tiny shorebird. What A shame to leave the heart I thought. My grandmother always savored the heart, liver and kidneys from any deer that had been killed.

The falcon dropped fast, exchanging altitude for speed. As the peeps rose up and tried to steer clear, the falcon, now going 50-60 mph was 3 feet off the beach and looking to make contact. Again and again it dropped one wing, then the other, turning left and right. Instead of colliding, and killing, it was more like a slalom skier, passing gates, never catching a tip, always a fraction of an inch from striking.

Shorebirds continued to lift and scatter down the line from west to east as fans would raise arms in a wave at a football stadium. Wanting so to see skier impact a gate followed by an explosion of feathers, I was disappointed, but only a tiny bit as the falcon passed the end of the line of gates. A perfect ski run. A big fat zero in the dinner department. Over in 3 seconds. It flapped 5 or 6 times and shot back up into the sky.

The sanderlings and others headed out to sea. The falcon pulled a tight turn and flew back over me looking for stragglers, finding none it flapped off into the setting sun.

I must have said wow twenty times, replaying what I’d just witnessed as I walked another three hundred meters to see if my treasure was where I’d left it.

Bad day to be a northern fulmar

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Since the high litter season is upon us, I am out on Drakes gathering the man-made debris washing in with the strong southern winds of late.

Near to where the northern fur seal found me just over a week ago (turns out it is a female and very feisty as well as still alive), I came around a corner just as a juvenile red-tailed hawk lifted off the sand with an injured, but still very alive northern fulmar. It was slowly climbing and headed straight towards me with the struggling pelagic payload in its’ talons.

I dropped down to the ground to cut a smaller profile as I watched the hawk flapping and flapping, yet gaining altitude like an overloaded Bonanza at noon in august at Truckee. That is, it had a positive rate of climb, barely.

The fulmar was flapping and struggling under the hawk which probably did not help matters much.

As the pair was about to be overhead and about 70-80 feet up, the hawk jettisoned the fulmar and floated upwards with ease. The fulmar dropped like, well, a rock. SPLATT! Onto the hard sand with about 1 inch of water. The dazed bird looked around, not sure if this was better than being pierced by talons and flown away to be eaten.

I sat crouching for a couple minutes to see if the hawk planned to return and try again. It did circle us a few times but eventually flew off to find a smaller bird.

After walking east a few hundred meters and picking up oyster spacer tubes and tampon applicators by the dozens, I turned around and found the floundering fulmar being swept back and forth in a slowly rising tide. I dropped my bags of plastic and went over to see if I could move it to a less hectic place. Even after all it had been through, this bird was very capable of defending itself. I barely was able to grasp its’ wings and keep my hands away from the sharp end trying to peck me. I carried it up to where a pile of logs had been pushed up against the wall and laid it in a protected spot in which to die without the tide and raptors interrupting.

I wonder what that crab fisherman was expecting to attract with a bait bag full of tampon applicators?

Squid egg masses

I learned today from the folks at The California Academy of Science that these egg masses are likely from the Common Market Squid (Doryteuthis opalescens)

You can learn a bit more about it here.

Squid egg masses

Squid egg masses

Still tired of all the man-made debris washing up.

Did they pack all that sand and eel grass? Was Drakes Beach their final destination?

Marc from France – A photographer touring California for the first time. He has two small children back home and was happy to find a frisbee for them. I gave him the football I had just found for his 9 year old son Isaac. Marc was in love with the light and the Point Reyes area. I offered some travel tips for his next 12 days.

Not made of plastic and alive for once – Northern Fur Seal pup

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13 Dec 7:40pm – I just got word that the fur seal known as Sparkle has died. She was just too small and undernourished to make it.

I just read that the sex of the seal has been determined, female.

NOTE: I was at an art opening at The Marine Mammal Center tonight (29 Nov) and learned a little more about this fur seal. It weighed a diminutive 4.5 Kg, the tiniest of the 7 fur seals they have presently. In addition to being severely underweight (below birth-weight), it is also very dehydrated and likely has pneumonia. There is a good chance it will not survive.

Big storms are happening in California which means litter season has begun.

I went out to walk along Drakes Beach this afternoon to see what the strong southerly winds had pushed ashore.

While walking back to the car, this little one hauled out right in front of me.

Emaciated Northern Fur Seal pup (Callorhinus ursinus)

As tired and emaciated as it was, I surely looked too much like a predator, so back in to the roiling surf it went.

I kept walking back to the car and watched as it hauled out again and scooched back in the surf again and again and again.

Quickening my pace so it might haul out behind me and feel safe enough to stay, I stepped over kelp, logs and foam, careful not to trip. Thankfully it did haul out again and headed for high ground.

I only had a point and shoot camera, so I stayed a good distance away and watched as it shivered and groomed. It was exhausted and I imagined happy to be out of the pounding surf.

Over the past few years I have packed out the dessicated bodies of two dead Northern Fur Seal pups (and one Guadalupe Fur Seal). This was the first live specimen I had ever seen. I really wanted good images, but my main camera was an hour away.

NOTE: I am on the collecting permit of the California Academy of Science. Because of this, I periodically recover birds or marine mammals deemed of interest to the Cal Academy. Please do not remove animals from the beach, ever. If you see a live or dead seal, note the location (GPS waypoint is best), size, species if you know it, condition and call the dead animal hotline at Cal Academy (415-379-5381) if the animal is dead. If it is alive, call the Marine Mammal Center stranded animal line at (415-289-7325). Never pick-up a pup that is alone. It is likely the mother is away feeding.

Scooping up the piles of plastic I had cached on my walk out, I hurried back to the car for the drive back to get my long lens and fast camera.

An hour later I was back with 400mm of lens and tripod to allow me enough distance so as not to worry the animal as I ogled with my binocs and clicked the shutter. It had moved out into the center of the beach, perhaps the falling rocks from the cliff above made it think twice about being so close to the cliff. The dropping tide created a vast, flat and mostly dry place to curl up.

As I maneuvered and fiddled with my tripod, microphone and other equipment and shot images, others took an interest in this furry bundle of protein sleeping on the beach. A vulture floated by and peered down. A raven swooped overhead and lit on the cliff over us, wondering if this morsel was ready to consume. A very large gull sauntered up quite close, I thought I might be able to record an interesting exchange as they got to know one another. But the gull looked at me and backed off. It did not know that I eschew gull.

Not the best image, but it does show nicely how to distinguish a Northern from a Guadalupe fur seal. The fur on the fore-flipper of a NFS stops far from the tip, as you see here. The fur on a Guadalupe continues down about half way to the end and has a less straight line where it ends, more ragged.

After an hour or so of watching and clicking, I packed up and headed back home.

On the way back, a few phone calls later, after they concluded that I did indeed know the difference between a California sea lion and a fur seal, a person from The Marine Mammal Center was on his way out to recover it.

He was going to arrive after dark and his flashlight was not working. I offered to come along and show him where it was and I had several bright lights. He was happy to have me join him.

After parking, we carried a small dog carrier with us as I lit the way on our walk to where the seal was last seen. We were on it much sooner that expected as it had moved a 100 meters or so. We dropped the carrier and Doug set off towards the rapidly fleeing seal. Up close it it was even smaller than it appeared while I photographed it.

Doug estimated it to weigh about 5 kilograms and to be about 2 months old. It was clearly emaciated, though still rather feisty.

Into the carrier it went and we carried it back to the truck.

Sparkle, as this seal has been dubbed is likely just arriving at The Marine Mammal Center as I type this. It will immediately be fed via a tube the equivalent of Pedialyte to rehydrate it. Tomorrow it will be looked over by a veterinarian. Go here to see a list of all the animals currently being cared for at the Marine Mammal Center

If it recovers enough weight and is otherwise healthy, it will eventually be released to hopefully live a long and productive life.

Here is a a 3 minute video of my visit today with a Northern Fur Seal. My apologies for the intrusive banner across the bottom. I hope to at least be recognized as the person producing the images and videos when they show up all over the internet and in classrooms.