Friday, May 30, 2014

Grunion Hunters

Although this scene looks as calm and peaceful as a Chinese brush painting, some high stakes fishy business is about to unfold at Surfrider Beach. All photos © 2014 S. Guldimann

Alive without breath;
as cold as death;
never thirsting, ever drinking;
clad in mail, never clinking.
Drowns on dry land,
thinks an island
is a mountain;
thinks a fountain
is a puff of air.
So sleek, so fair!
What a joy to meet!
We only wish
to catch a fish,
so juicy-sweet!

—J.R.R. Tolkien, "Gollum's Song"

It's the May new moon this week, and the grunion are running. This small silvery fish is off limits to human hunters in April and May, but it's open season for the local shore birds, who, like Gollum, "only wish to catch a fish, so juicy sweet."

From March until August, grunion come ashore at night to spawn, taking advantage of the highest full moon and new moon tides to lay their eggs in the sand. The eggs hatch 10 days later, the next high tide carrying the hatchlings back out to sea.

When conditions are right, in the dead of night, certain beaches can be covered in living silver as hundreds of fish come ashore, but it's rare to see even one lone grunion during the day. However, the same tides that help the fish reach the sand can strand them. At the Malibu Lagoon, any fish swept over the berm by the tide is fair game for the shorebirds.

This season, the lagoon extends in a long, narrow inlet all the way to the bottom of the Adamson House. While the water doesn't look appealing to humans, it was a kind of cross between bouillabaisse and a sushi dinner for an enterprising egret, taking advantage of fish left behind by the previous night's new moon.

The egret waits at the edge of the inlet, for all the world like a cat at a mouse hole. This is a common egret, also called a great egret. It has black feet—unlike its much smaller cousin the snowy egret, which has yellow feet. Great egrets stand more than three feet tall and can have a six-foot wing span. They are master fishers with good eyesight, boundless patience and lightning fast reflexes.

Apparently the fish wasn't oriented for optimum swallowing. The egret carefully spit it out, caught it in mid-air, flipped it around and gulped in down head-first, all in about three seconds. However, that quick flash of silver was enough to attract the attention of a passing Caspian tern. 

"Grunion? I want a grunion." 

That water can't be more that a foot deep, but the tern spots a fish and dives for it. Splash!

The most impressive part of the feat was how quickly the bird surfaced and transferred itself from the water back into the air.

This fish was also swallowed head first, gulp! Within seconds the tern was back in the air searching for more grunion, diving into the shallow inlet, and emerging again and again with a succession of silvery fishes.

I've described Surfrider and the lagoon in the past as a sort of Jurassic Park where humans have a chance to encounter the living descendants of the dinosaurs, but what struck me today was the evident intelligence of the birds I watched. I have no idea if anyone has ever attempted to evaluate the intelligence of the great egret—although the green heron, a member of the same family, has been documented using twigs, worms, and even bread crumbs cadged from humans as fish bait (you can watch a video of one fishing with crumbs here)—but their patience and speed are impressive, and this particular heron seemed to have figured out that if it put itself between the grunion and the end of the inlet it would have an all-you-can-eat fish dinner.

The tern and I both saw the egret at about the same time. Neither one of us could see what was in the water until we moved closer. It appeared that the tern recognized that the egret was successfully hunting something and that it flew in to investigate, and instantly took advantage of the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel opportunity. It's easy to anthropomorphize, but they both seemed extremely well pleased with themselves, and with life in general. Alas, it wasn't a good time or place to be a grunion.

The grunion run during the four nights following the new or full moon. Surfrider, Zuma and Leo Carrillo are good beaches to catch a sight of this fishy phenomenon, although there's no way of knowing if the fish will appear on any given night, even when all of the conditions appear to be right. Officials warn that bright lights and loud noises can scare the fish away—Flashlights should be used only to safely traverse the beach, not to illuminate the fish. It's a good idea to bring warm clothes and plenty of patience.

For anyone interested in addition grunion information, I wrote a more indepth article for the May 13 issue of the Malibu Surfside News. Dates and times and vast quantities of information on the 2014 grunion run are available at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website

Monday, May 26, 2014

Farewell to Spring

Memorial Day weekend may mark the unofficial beginning of summer, but spring isn't over yet and there are still plenty of opportunities to see wildflowers in Malibu and throughout the Santa Monica Mountains, despite the worst drought in decades. Above, a field of mustard dazzles the eye at Malibu Creek State Park. This opportunistic and adaptable invader from Europe requires very little water to thrive. All Photos © 2014 S. Guldimann

The "May gray" has arrived just in time for Memorial Day weekend. While beachgoers hoping for sun may be disappointed that the heat spell petered out before the holiday, the return of the marine layer is a blessing for native plants that have adapted to depend on the fog as a source of moisture, and any source of moisture is welcome during this prolonged drought. But despite the dry conditions there are still springs flowers blooming, you may just need to look a little harder for them.

I wrote an article on wildflowers for the April 21 issue of the Malibu Surfside News that included a short list of wildflower field guides and online ID resources. Many of the flowers in that article are still blooming. You can read more about them and other late bloomers below.

There's always something to see at the Point Dume Natural Preserve, even during the dry season. The flowers in this photo—crown daisies, wild radish and spurge—are all invasive non natives, but they're still beautiful to see. There are still plenty of native wild flowers here, too, if you know where to look. 

At the Point Dume Headlands the spectacular giant coreopsis flowers have finished blooming, but bush sunflowers, Encelia californica, still provide a golden background. The seeds, rich in protein and oil, draw a variety of birds, including this house finch, whose beak is perfectly adapted to seed cracking. Bush sunflower grows easily from seed and is a good plant for coastal gardens, although its stems break easily, giving it its other common name, brittlebush.

Beach evening primrose, Camissonia cheiranthifolia, grows in the sandy soil at Point Dume.  A formidable root system helps beach primrose survive life on the sand. This plant has begun to recolonize the sand dunes at Westward Beach. It also flourishes on the big sand dune across from Thornhill Broome State Beach. 

Purple sand verbena, Abronia umbellata, looks delicate, but its thick succulent leaves and stems are covered with tiny sticky beads that help the plant capture and store water, enabling it to live on the sand. The flowers have a sweet fragrance. The yellow and orange flowers growing nearby are deerweed, a pretty plant with the decidedly unattractive Latin name Acmispon glabera. Deerweed is a native member of the pea family. It's one of the most ubiquitous late spring-early summer flowers in the Malibu area. Butterfly weed would be a better name for this plant. They're supposedly slightly toxic and don't seem to appeal at all to deer, but they are wildly popular with butterflies and bees

This sunflower is smothered in wishbone bush flowers. Like the sand verbena, the wishbone bush, Mirabilis californica, has thick leaves to store water and sticky hairs that help the plant conserve moisture. It gets its name from the way the flowers stamens, arranged in pairs of two, supposedly resemble wishbones. However, these flowers aren't open enough to reveal the secret. 

At first glance, Malibu Bluffs Park may not seem like an auspicious place to hunt for wildflowers. This is what greets you when you drive into the parking lot...
...But once you find your way into Bluffs Park Open Space, there's all kinds of possibilities. It's not a big park, but it offers wildflower enthusiasts a mix of Coastal sage scrub, native grassland, laurel sumac chaparral and even some riparian habitat. It also has spectacular views of the ocean and the mountains. 

This is blue-eyed grass—it's actually a member of the iris family and not a grass at all. It's the most conspicuous Bluffs Park flower. In a wet year, there are acres of this delicate violet-colored flower. This year they are somewhat sparse but still present. They seem to like the same niche inhabited by the much rarer native needlegrasses. 

It may not look like much, but native needlegrass plants can live for more than 100 years and often have root systems that can stretch for 20 feet, enabling the plant to weather drought. This is purple needlegrass. Its seeds were reportedly an important food source for the Chumash. It's vanishingly rare to find this grass growing on a coastal bluff in this era of intensive development, and the Coastal Commission identifies native grassland as significant ESHA—environmentally sensitive habitat area. The California Natural Diversity Database lists needle grass habitat as "a community needing priority monitoring and restoration," and considers grasslands with 10 percent or more cover by purple needlegrass to be "significant." We're lucky to have this remarkable example of native grassland at Bluffs Park. Needlegrass has been planted at Malibu's Legacy Park in an effort to establish a new coastal prairie, but the plants at Bluffs continue to survive, relatively undisturbed, in their original habitat. 

This is one of the real stars of the show at Bluffs Park. This delicate member of the brodiaea family is Triteleia ixoides, also called golden brodiaea, yellow star lily, and pretty face. It's a bulb, which helps it weather drought years. Where you find Triteleia you sometimes also find a much rarer wildflower, the Catalina Mariposa.

Bluffs Park has a large population of this threatened species. An Environmental Impact Report prepared by theSanta Monica Mountains Conservancy before they traded the park to the City of Malibu for Charmlee Wilderness Park, identified more than 200 plants. I found this mariposa perched on the edge of a bluff. Unfortunately, Catalina mariposas, unaware of the difference between parkland and housing tracts, also grow on the Crummer property next door to the park, soon to be developed into McMansions. It is to be hoped that whoever does their EIR is aware of the potential treasures under foot. 

Here's a closer look at Calochortus catalinae, complete with a native pollinator. Several other species of mariposa lilies grow in the Malibu area, including a bright yellow variety, but the Catalina mariposa, with its distinctive red spots and violet-tinged white petals, is the rarest.

Bluffs Park and the Point Dume Headlands offer a new adventure every time one takes the time to walk there, but there are remarkable things all around, and wildflowers everywhere this time of year, even by the side of the road. It's worth slowing down and taking a closer look.
My mother and I stopped on our way home from Agoura Hills on Kanan Dume Road to admire this view. The small yellow flowers are goldfields, Lasthenia california. They once covered miles of the local mountains—and still do in areas like the Carizzo Plain. The blue is lupin. "We don't always realize how lucky we are to see this every time we go shopping instead of subway tunnels and city streets" she said to me.

This blue larkspur was growing along the roadside nearby.

Here's the trail leading up from Kanan to the top of Ladyface Mountain, golden with tarweed and the star-like flowers of triteleia. There wasn't time that day to for a walk. I can't help wondering what we might have missed.

The golden tarweed, burned by the summer sun,

Carpets the valley with russet.
The flowers on the hills are fewer,
But they are still bravely there—
Firecrackers and flowering pease,
And others, delicate and doubly lovely
Because the earth has grown so parched.

—Madeleine Ruthven, Yerba Buena, 1934.

Suzanne Guldimann
25 May 2014

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Teach Me to Hear Mermaids Singing

Sea lions (or could it be mermaids?) swim close to shore in the clear water off Point Dume. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind. 

—John Donne, "Song"

In spring, the sea lions congregate on the rocks below the Point Dume Headlands. This area is only accessible by humans during the lowest tides and treacherous tides and submerged rocks make it off limits to any vessel with a deeper draft than a kayak, but you can get a glimpse of the colony from the trail that winds around the edge of the cliff and you can hear the sea lions—and smell them—from nearly a half a mile away.  The rookery is indescribably smelly and noisy—like a 100-piece orchestra tuning up in a feed lot.

Sea lions are almost comical on land, waddling, lounging, chatting and arguing with friends, sunning themselves with evident contentment, just like human beachgoers. However, in the water they are transformed into graceful, powerful sea spirits. It's easy to imagine one might hear mermaids singing when one catches an unexpected glimpse of a sleek swift form gliding through the waves. From the vantage point of the wooden lookout deck on the east side of the Point Dume Headlands, the whole exuberant crowd of sea lions lazing on the rocks and playing in the water evokes some mad Romantic painting of sea nymphs.

California sea lions play in the surf off Point Dume. They remind me vividly of this:

One of Swiss symbolist Arnold Böcklin's sillier paintings, c. 1885, but it captures the same exuberance. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Sea lions love to lounge atop any convenient rock. This is a group of females, shiny from swimming. Their fur is a lovely golden retriever color and surprisingly fluffy when dry. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

Nereids—Greek water nymphs—seem to share the sea lions' fondness for rocky roosts. These are Les Oceanides, taking a break from minding their rivers, apparently. The painting is by Gustav Dore, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sea lions are eternally curious. They like to drop in on waves to check out what the surfers are doing or pop up near swimmers to see if you doing anything they should know about. Sometimes they keep you company while you're walking on the beach, following along in the water, bobbing ahead and doubling back, until they grow tired of the game and the dull humans who so often seem oblivious.

Sea lions seem to enjoy watching the antics of humans every bit as much as we enjoy watching them. This one was actively observing his observers. You can tell it's a male because of the bump—officially called a sagittal crest—on his forehead. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann
However, life isn't as idyllic for sea lions as it is appears to be for mermaids. Sea lions depend primarily on fish and squid and can face starvation in years when the fish population crashes. Sea lions can also be poisoned by domoic acid generated by the organisms that create the phenomenon known as red tide, and they are always at the mercy of the weather.

Although these marine mammals are highly intelligent, sociable and playful, they face myriad hazards that include encounters with white sharks and orca—their natural predators, as well as human-caused hazards, like gill nets, ship strikes, loss of beach habitat, and even bullets. They have also adapted to humans, taking advantage of breakwaters, buoys, and docks for hauling out, and following fishing boats in hope of a free lunch. 

This is our resident 800-pound gorilla, the Point Dume sea lion colony's alpha male. He's more than three times the size of the female sharing his rock and his coat is a couple of shades darker. Bull sea lions are not as lazy as they look. That fat is essential, since the males go for long periods without eating during mating and breeding season—May-August, while they protect their harem of females day and night. Bulls don't participate in raising pups, but they have reportedly been observed defending them from predators in the water. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

Sea lion cows give birth in early summer. It's early in the season for pups at Point Dume, but there are currently plenty of weaners and yearlings— sea lions that are just striking out on their own. These young animals sometimes have a difficult time fending for themselves and occasionally turn up stranded on local beaches. Malibu residents and beachgoers also  encounter pups on the beach, or more often on a rock above the high tide line. Sea lion cows stay with their newborns for the first week or two, and then leave them in a safe place to forage for food. 

Sea lions sometimes leave their pups on the beach or on a rock above the high tide line while they hunt for fish, but this sea lion pup, one of the victims of last year's sea lion starvation crisis, was clearly seriously underweight. One of the challenges for the residents who found this animal was keeping dogs away until the California Wildlife Center rescue team arrived. Rescues can be tricky, involving rock climbing skills, patience and luck. Animals like this one usually respond well if they can receive help in time. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

It can be difficult to tell whether a pup is safe and well and waiting for mom to return or if it's sick or injured. While sea lions are otariids—walking seals—and are able to move fairly rapidly on their powerful front flippers, they are still at a serious disadvantage on land and can be frighted by the presence of humans and injured or even killed by off-leash dogs.

At this time of year, young elephant seals and harbor seals can also end up on local beaches. Anyone who encounters a stranded or distressed marine mammal of any type is encouraged to call the California Wildlife Center's Marine Mammal Team at 310-458-WILD (9453).  The CWC is currently swamped with young native animals of every species and donations are welcome—seal and sea lion pups need to eat enourmous quantities of fish and the center is a non-profit that depends on support from the community. 

The CWC offers the following advice for anyone encountering a stranded seal or sea lion:

  1. Don't touch and do not pick up, pour water on or feed the animal! They are wild animals and can bite. They also are easily stressed by humans.
  2. Do not return the animal to the water
    Seals and sea lions temporarily "haul-out" on land to rest. Harbor seal mothers often leave their pups ashore while they're feeding at sea. A beached whale, dolphin, or porpoise should be reported immediately.
  3. Observe
    Observe the animal from a distance of at least 50 feet. Keep people and dogs away.
  4. DescribeNote physical characteristics such as size, presence of external earflaps, and fur color. This helps us determine the species, what rescue equipment and volunteers are needed.
  5. Condition
    Note the animal's condition. Is it weak and underweight? Are there any open wounds?
  6. IdentificationDoes the animal have any obvious identification tags or markings?
  7. Location
    Determine the exact location of the animal in order to provide accurate directions. We cannot rescue an animal if we cannot find it!
  8. Call the Rescue Team with as much information as you have (310) 458-WILD (9453).

Sea lions aren't the only pinnipeds that turn up on Malibu beaches this time of year. Here's a young female Northern elephant seal, doing a good furry slug impression. Elephant seals may not be mermaids, but they are true giants—females can grow to be 10 feet long, while males can reach 14 feet and weigh nearly 5000 pounds. It's extremely rare to encounter an adult  on the beach, but in the past two months the CWC has rescued and treated more than 20 elephant seal pups. Elephant and harbor seals are "true seals." Unlike sea lions, neither species has external ears and their front flippers are much smaller and not nearly as useful for getting around on dry land. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

The day I took the photos of the Point Dume sea lion colony I met a friend on the trail to the lookout. "There's a man there who told me that mermaids are real," she said. Alas, the man was gone when I arrived, but whoever he was he put the thought of mermaids into my head that day and reminded me of the first time I saw a sea lion in the water as a child and how much I wanted it to be a mermaid. Mermaids may be vanishingly rare these days, but how fortunate we are to still have marvels like sea lions. 

Suzanne Guldimann
12 May 2014

Very few mortals have the chance to hear mermaids singing, but around here we are blessed with something that, in its own way, is just as miraculous and wonderful. Above, Mermaids frolic in a study by 19th c. American impressionist George Willoughby Maynard. Below, a trio of Point Dume's resident merfolk enjoy calm seas.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Glimpse of Something

A gray whale calf relaxes in calm water in a deepwater cove just north of Thornhill Broome State Beach. A record number of migrating gray whales have been spotted this year, but it doesn't diminish the thrill one feels at moments like this. All photos © 2014 S. Guldimann

Are you ever surprised by Joy? It is quite likely that you are, if you ever experience it at all. Like its source, Joy isn’t the sort of thing that can be summoned or commanded. The glimpse of Something captures us for fleeting moments, its elusiveness maddening our mortal frames. What was that, just beyond, that we would pursue at whatever expense if only we knew how? 

—C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

My mom always says the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway from Malibu to the 101 is so spectacular  that the drive makes her feel like she's on vacation.  Before the "Great Wall of Malibu" was built (that's the local nickname for the wall of houses and landscaping that entirely block the view of the ocean in many areas and especially in eastern Malibu), the whole trip through Malibu on PCH must have looked like this. Once you are west of Point Dume, however,  it's nothing but sea and sky and mountains most of the way up to the 101.

The sign says "27 miles of scenic beauty," but it's more like 12 miles of scenic beauty and 15 miles of garage doors and privacy hedges. It's ironic that this sign is located here, instead of up by County Line at the Malibu City Limits, since by the time you arrive here, you've already passed much of the scenic beauty that's visible from the road.

She and I were on our way home from Ventura when we saw dolphins close to shore, leaping and dancing in the water. We pulled over to watch. It was my mom who spotted the whales: a cow and her calf, close to shore, swimming with the dolphins.

A gray whale and common dolphin in the water off Point Mugu State Park.

We were soon joined by other observers. Cars stopped. People pointed and exclaimed. Strangers who had never met before and were unlikely to ever meet again were united in a moment of shared joy. This is joy in the C.S. Lewis sense of something almost divine in its wonder.

We watched for almost half an hour as the whales and the dolphins surfaced and submerged, spouted and rolled—flukes, barnacled gray backs and a small—for a whale—head poking out to look around for a moment and then disappear, leaving a whale "footprint" behind.

It's hard to capture the moment with a camera. The whales are too elusive, they are only above water for seconds before disappearing back into the ocean. I feel like a Flatlander. These are true three-dimentional beings, flying through the water as if it was air, leaping into the air in the way we might into water, while we humans are trapped on the shore, our feet on the earth.

Mama whale, baby whale and a dolphin. There was a pod of around six common bottlenose dolphins in the cove with the whales. They appeared to be extremely excited by the presence of their much larger cousins.
The inquisitive baby gray whale pokes her nose out for a look around. It was a quick peek, not  like the prolonged "spyhopping" of adult gray whales. Compared to the size of the nearby dolphins, the whale calf appeared to be around 15 feet long. The cow—a hopelessly prosaic name for something so awe-inspiring—was probably close to 50 feet. 

Here's a close-up of the adult's blowhole. Gray whales have a double opening. This whale has a distinctive patch of barnacles on her back.

Mama whale roles over, showing one of her powerful flippers and an expanse of the blotchy gray and white coloring that gives this species its common name.

 We had a good view of the distinctive dorsal ridges that are characteristic of the gray whale.
One last spout—it's easy to see how whales could be mistaken for sea monsters.
...And then the whales were gone, leaving only footprints behind.
When the whales and the dolphins were gone it was like waking up from a dream. Most people wandered back to their cars. A few stayed, scanning the horizon for more marvels. Mom and I headed for home. But we did see one more marvel along the way...

In the sky over the ocean there was a sunbow that with only a little bit of extra imagination resembled a great celestial whale. 

We had the chance to have this remarkable experience because that stretch of coast is undeveloped, letting all of us who stopped that day see something extraordinary that would otherwise pass unseen. It's another reminder of why it's important to keep fighting for preservation and conservation.

Suzanne Guldimann
3 May 2014