Thursday, August 11, 2011

red abalone ~ 08/11/11 ~ Wharf No. 2

Haliotis rufescens

About 4 years ago my husband and I were watching the boob tube and caught sight of Mike Rowe in a skiff on what looked like the Monterey Bay. Come to find out Discovery's Dirty Jobs was doing an episode on abalone farming and kelp harvesting at a local business. We were surprised to learn the Monterey Municipal Wharf No. 2, aka the commercial wharf, housed an abalone farm. What? Really? Where? I mean, we've walked out there numerous times and never would have suspected there's an abalone farm. We even went out on the nearby touristy Fisherman's Wharf for the sole purpose to see if we could get a better look across the harbor at anything underneath the main deck of the commercial wharf. Nothing doing.

There's very little evidence of the Monterey Abalone Company, except for a small sign, one door, and one window tucked in between larger fish companies. Usually it's closed when we walk by, but I happened to be walking over there yesterday morning and they were open. I stopped and briefly chatted with the nice fellow in the office.

I left with my mind on other sights I had just seen on the commercial wharf, particularly a squid boat unloading its catch onto conveyor belts and hordes of pelicans helping themselves to the moving buffet. After the squid fellas were done packing ice, they fed the pelicans dropped squid as if they were people merely feeding pigeons bread crumbs in a park. I wish I had pictures.

Now, I usually don't carry the camera with me on my morning walks. I've frequently regretted this as I've seen so many amazing sights I would have liked to have included on Nature ID, like mola molas, dolphins, whales, night herons... but I do try to remind myself I have a life outside of this blog.

Ha! With that said and with hopes to capture the amazing squid boat unloading/pelican ritual, I made sure to bring the camera with me this morning. Doh! I didn't see the lighted squid boats last night on the bay and should have figured there wouldn't be a catch this morning. So, armed with the camera, I stopped by the abalone company to take a picture of an old specimen they had in a tank next to the door. Turns out the nice fellow Trevor Fay is a partner of the Monterey Abalone Company, and he asked me if I'd like to see the farm. Oh, yes, please, and thank you very much!

They don't breed the abalone here. They get 1 year old abalone the size shown above from a land-based hatchery in Cayucos (The Abalone Farm), south of Big Sur and just north of Morro Bay. I found this blog post on The Other 95% and I think the video might be from that hatchery. There are only a handful of abalone farms in California. Commercial fishing was banned in 1997, although sport fishing continues in some areas with restrictions.

Down a small hole in the floor I went, clinging dearly to the ladder. It was dark under there like a cave. There's a narrow wooden walkway with low overhanging cement beams. Off to the sides there are ropes hanging down into the water. Each rope is attached to a wire cage. They currently have 200 cages with 200,000 abalone. They now have the capacity to raise 500,000 abalone, but first they had to solve the problem of feeding so many animals during the winter.

So, what do abalone eat? Kelp! And lots of it. As I mentioned before in a previous blog post, there's a seasonal nature to kelp. In the summer it's quite prolific and as the season progresses it can easily be seen floating on the surface off the shore in Monterey and Pacific Grove. Once autumn hits much of the kelp starts washing ashore. Through a grant, the Monterey Abalone Company has experimented with various ways to preserve kelp during the lean winter months. I believe they salt the kelp and store them in giant plastic bags which they stack in bins on the wharf. Unfortunately, curious passersby try to open the bags to see what's inside, which ends up ruining the preserved kelp. I like the fact they use nature-made food, rather than artificial feed formulations. I imagine the company has to comply with all sorts of regulations for harvesting kelp considering Monterey Bay is a National Marine Sanctuary.

They use a 22 foot skiff to hand-harvest the kelp with a kitchen knife. I'm not kidding - no fancy tools. They go out several times a week and fill the skiff to capacity, which takes about 45 minutes each trip and yields about 5 tons every week. Man, here I thought feeding a handful of caterpillars fresh plant cuttings was a chore; this is that multiplied by 32,000. Add in the ocean motion (I get sea sick) and the sheer weight and that's a lot of hard work (and apparently dirty work). Funny enough, after the Dirty Jobs episode aired, most of the calls the company received were from people wanting to know how to get a boat like the one they have.

While I was there, they had just pulled up a cage to check, clean, and feed the abalone. The ones above are about 3 years old. Interestingly enough the abalone grow at different rates, so they move them around and save the fastest growing abalone for the larger sizes they sell.

Here's one of the workers, with kitchen knife in hand, putting fresh kelp into one of the cages. They have to stuff in enough kelp to feed the abalone for a week, and yet not stuff it so full the gastropods suffocate. It's a full-time operation rotating through the 200 cages. At the end of the walkway there was a sea lion, but apparently they're not too interested in the abalone. The sea otters on the other hand are "like kids in a candy store." Thanks to the cages, they don't eat up the farm. I immediately thought of those wire cages people put around the roots of their garden plants to keep gophers from eating their fill.

I asked loads of questions, but I don't remember most of what Trevor shared with me since I didn't take notes. Shown above is a fairly young red abalone at around 3 years old, too young to be able to determine its sex. From an e-mail Trevor says, "The color of their gonad changes when the animal is ripe, fertile and ready to spawn, green for girls and white or cream color for boys." Here's a good link to abalone anatomy and life cycle. The one thing the farm has to watch out for is some kind of disease.

Here's a picture of an order of abalone getting ready to be delivered across the harbor to one of the restaurants on Fisherman's Wharf. They get rinsed in sea water and stacked one on top of the other. They have a handy-dandy flat device that looks like a spackling tool to pick up the abalone off the table. Most of their customers are local. I asked if they shipped to Asian countries. Trevor said they wouldn't be able to keep up with the demand. Plus, the cost of shipping overseas is fairly prohibitive. However, Trevor also provides specimens to an aquarium in Taiwan, which has no problem paying for shipping. They actually have an exhibit of the Monterey Bay. Funny how something so familiar and practically outside my back door has international appeal. There are 8 species of abalone along the coast of California. I think most, if not all, are protected, but I'll have to look that up later as this is getting to be my longest post to date. Are you even reading this still?

All in all, I was very excited to get a personal tour of our local abalone farm, simply because I wanted to virtually collect a new species for this blog. Very cool. I may have to break down and patronize one of the spendy touristy restaurants on the wharf to taste some properly prepared abalone ($60 a plate, more than lobster!) since my favorite local seafood market/restaurant only orders per special request. I like mussels, oysters, and squid, so maybe I'll also like abalone. Trevor says it has a very unique taste. We'll see.

To see the Dirty Job's episode of abalone farming, check out the links on Monterey Abalone Company's media page. It aired October 20, 2007 and is not included in Discovery Channel's online episodes.

ps 08/15/11 - I made a few minor corrections above after an e-mail from Trevor and added/changed embedded links.

Heermann's gull ~ 08/11/11 ~ Wharf No. 2

first-cycle plumage Heermann's gull
Larus heermanni

Edited 08/23/11 - This is the second part of an original single gull post. I asked Don Roberson, creator of the amazing Creagus site, to confirm my IDs. He said, "Also, FWIW, the bottom gull is not a juvenile Heermann's Gull, which are extremely colorful with golden edges to all the back feathers, but is actually a first-summer bird (i.e., one year old... born summer 2010). We generally call those "first-cycle" now." Awesome, Don!

For other bloggers who have gull IDs, see John Rakestraw Birding in Oregon and beyond, Skev's B.L.O.G. from Leicestershire, and The Squirrelbasket from Wales.

western gull ~ 08/11/11 ~ Wharf No. 2

This is my first serious attempt at identifying gulls. I stopped calling them sea gulls ever since I saw them in Ohio far away from any sea. Please ID the second picture above or correct me if I misidentified the other gulls. Click on the pictures to enlarge.

Gulls have been on my brain and my roof for the past few months. We had a nest over our kitchen with the noise echoing down our range hood vent. I can only assume they were western gulls. Not only were the juveniles extremely noisy calling for food at all hours of the day and night, they also seemed to like to wrestle around. I swear sometimes it sounded like an elephant was doing a jig up there. Plus, in the past few weeks we've noticed a huge number of dead gulls on the city streets. Most looked like juveniles who must not have known better than to get out of the way of a large object speeding towards them.

ps 08/23/11 - This post originally contained 4 pictures. I split this up into two posts now that I know the identifications: western gull and Heermann's gull. Make sure to check out the embedded links in the IDs under each photo.

I was thoroughly confused by the second picture above and simply labeled it as an unidentified gull. Gulls seem to go through an extraordinary number of variations to reach adult breeding plumage. It takes western gulls four years! Even though written descriptions for a couple other species seemed to match, I could not find pictorial evidence with grey wings, dusty grey face, odd bill markings, and bright pink legs like that shown above.

So, I asked Don Roberson, author of Monterey Birds, to help me with the ID. Here's what he said, "your second gull is a Western Gull in 3rd cycle plumage [e.g., thin ring-around-the-bill, a bit of duskiness on head]." Additionally, he continued in reply to Jim's and my comments below, "As to possible hybrid on the 3rd cycle bird, I don't see any obvious signs of it, but the date you took the photo would be important. We get lots of hybrid or intergrade Glaucous-wing X Western here in winter, and the date span is about early September to early May. We don't have a confirmed hybrid-type from summer, but it would be possible. But I don't see any signs of hybridization or intergradation here (hybrids are when Western breeds with Gl-wing; intergrades are when hybrids breed with other hybrids and there is gene flow... complex subject). As you probably know, there is a variation of color in the back of Western Gulls north to south, with southern birds being darker. I would guess that the 3rd cycle bird is not from the local breeding population, based on back color, but it could easily have come from the Farallones." Thank you, Don!

Steve Borichevsky at Shooting My Universe from Massachusetts visits the Monterey area frequently. He has a nice series of blog posts on the western gull.

brown pelican ~ 08/11/11 ~ Wharf No. 2

It's taken me a while to sort through the different plumages of brown pelicans. It hasn't helped that many online sites and books have color and range descriptions that vary from each other and differ from my own observations. I have a suspicion that the color discrepancies are mainly due to the different subspecies of brown pelicans. Plus, some reputable sites (e.g., Cornell and The National Wildlife Federation) state brown pelicans migrate to central California for the winter. Hmm, really? Well, they are in Monterey during the winter, but based on my posts here on Nature ID, brown pelicans are most abundant from May to October. Of course, with all the heavy cold fog we've had lately, anyone could mistake summer for winter, right?

From what I've seen, juveniles have a brown head, neck, and back, yellow-dipped grey bill, and an obvious white belly, although it could be easy to miss if they're turned away. The first one above was quite the cute poser.

adult post-breeding California brown pelican
Pelecanus occidentalis californicus

I believe most adults have a dark body, including belly, ranging from brown to grey. Now, here's where it gets tricky - the adults have various color combinations from the neck up, depending on the time of year and maybe subspecies.

The adult color combination I've seen most is the post-breeding/chick-feeding version. The head is always white and sometimes has dark specks. The front of the neck is also white, but the back of the neck can be dark brown or grey as shown above. To see pictures of very distinctive brown hindnecks with grey bodies, see my May 21, 2009 post. They all look like they have a smear of orange lipstick on their grey bills.

I have yet to photograph a non-breeding pelican with an all white neck, which I think I've seen here in Monterey. I suspect I can catch them during late fall through winter. Many online pictures show yellow heads and sometimes yellow or orange bills.

The most elaborate color combination would be the breeding adult with a red throat pouch that often extends to the bill, yellow head, dark brown hindneck, and yellow base of foreneck. However, I have found online photos with black throat pouches, no brown hindneck, an even white bellies, but, again, those may be different subspecies or misidentified photos.

It may be unlikely that I'll be able to photograph a breeding adult around these parts. Don Roberson of Creagus and author of Monterey Birds recites a 1973 Baldridge paper documenting brown pelican nests on Bird Island at Point Lobos from 1927 to the last nests seen in 1966. Due to DDT use and its ban, El NiƱo conditions, and other factors like outright slaughter of thousands of pelicans by commercial fishermen, brown pelican populations have fluctuated dramatically over the past century. The US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the brown pelican as endangered in 1970, 3 years before the Endangered Species Act was signed. It was delisted due to recovery in 2009. In 2000 breeding behavior was observed at Point Lobos, but according to a recent e-mail from Don there have been no successful nests since 1966. They breed in southern CA and northern Baja.

I've mentioned before that we rarely get to Point Lobos mainly because it is hugely popular and often too crowded for my hiking preferences. Plus, if you try to sneak in there before the posted times, they will fine you something like $250. For close-up viewing of pelicans, I stay in town, get out before the tourists wake up, and see them at any of the 3 piers/wharfs: Coast Guard Pier, Fisherman's Wharf, and the Municipal Wharf No. 2 as shown above.

ps 08/22/11 - We saw a couple all white-neck pelicans today. It looked like there was a shadow of the brown hood still. I wonder how many molts brown pelicans need to go through to get to each distinctive plumage stage. I'm hoping the pictures turned out.