Thursday, November 3, 2011

habitat ~ 11/03/11 ~ Morro Strand State Beach

When I first started Nature ID back in May 2009, Andy I were visiting San Luis Obispo County a little more frequently than we do now, and my blog subtitle was "from the Central Coast of California." Thanks to school and changes in our lifestyle, we stay closer to home in Monterey County these days, so I've re-subtitled Nature ID to reflect the change of location focus.
However, it's only been 3 weeks since I last visited this beach on October 12, 2011 in Morro Bay, about 150 miles southeast of Monterey Bay. The weather couldn't have been more different with a high of 67.5°F compared to the 92.8°F previously.

My friend Jennifer, who is also a regular commenter on
Nature ID, loved my sand dollar shots. Since she had never really been to Morro Bay, I thought it'd be a good idea to play hookey from our responsibilities and do a girls' trip. And, yes, she found many, many sand dollars, not to mention added new bird sightings to her brother's Birdpost site.

Heavy sigh... Morro Strand State Beach is on the list for closure in the coming year along with 69 other CA State Parks. Unlike back in 2009 when Mr. Terminator proposed closing 80% of CA's 278 State Parks, this year's threat of closure feels realistic and more serious. While I can see them closing and fencing off the campground, I just can't imagine any agency being able to keep people off this awesome 3-mile beach. With no restrooms, no refuse containers, or other maintenance and management, I predict the quality of this beach will quickly go downhill. Public-private partnerships have been organized to attempt to fill the gaps throughout the state, but it takes a cadre of folks willing to volunteer their money, time, sweat, and expertise. Randy at Way Points has been vocal with his posts about Trail Closure at Garrapata and Henry Coe gets a Reprieve. I'm surprised other CA nature bloggers I follow haven't said much on this very important and relevant topic. Save Our State Parks seems to me to be the best organization out there spreading the word.

ps 05/31/12 - The Central Coast Natural History Association Executive Director contacted me and asked if they could use my last picture of the SOS sign alongside the standard brown State Parks sign on the cover of their "Nature Notes" newsletter. They're a non-profit that raises money for their local SLO County State Parks and have been fighting to keep these special parks open for over 4 years. Of course, they have my permission! I sent to her a few higher resolution image files from which to choose.

terns ~ 11/03/11 ~ Morro Strand Beach

edited 11/11/11 - These were the funniest looking birds I've seen in a long time, like gulls with clown outfits on. It's too bad we lost sight of the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival leader who pointed out the surfbirds for us.

I originally posted these as all being elegant terns, but I was unsure and considered royal terns as an option. I asked if anyone could help me tell the difference between the two species, because I was pulling my hair out thinking they all had to be either elegant terns or all royal terns. I tried to convince myself the variations I spotted were due to some being younger birds. As I've blogged before, I'm aware I often make the incorrect assumption that similar looking things near each other must be the same. Thanks to commenters Neil and Jennifer, I agree there are actually two species of birds hanging out together. Neil provided an excellent link to the San Diego Natural History Museum Focus On Royal and Elegant Terns. Thanks to you both!

royal terns with 1 elegant tern 2nd from right
S. maxima with 1 Sterna elegans 2nd from right

The royal terns have white tops of the heads, like a man balding on top, and thicker, pumpkin-colored bills. They look stockier than elegant when standing side by side.

elegant terns with 1 royal tern 2nd from left
S. elegans with 1 S. maxima 2nd from left

The elegant terns have heads with black hoods that touch their eyes, thinner, sharper bill, and slightly smaller overall size. Note the yellow legs of the juvenile elegant tern.

mixture of elegant and royal terns

Now, can you spot the differences above? With all the variations in plumage within a species, depending on time of year, age of the bird, and sometimes sexual dimorphism (other birds), I hope my confusion can be easily understood. Now that I know what to look for, the differences seem obvious. It'd be more of a challenge distinguishing these terns in their breeding plumage. I'm just glad a caspian tern (Sterna caspia) was not in the mix, too.

Somehow it's comforting to know other people have a hard time IDing these terns, e.g., Ben's Blog - In Search of Nature, Birds, Butties & Bugs, and John Wall's Natural California (does he have a mix of both species, too?).

barnacles ~ 11/03/11 ~ Morro Strand Beach

I'm trying to get outside of my comfort zone and ID things I know very little about. Many people would recognize a barnacle, but I think few would know particular species. Indeed, as I was researching, there seems to be conflicting information about the identity of some very common barnacles. I may change the embedded links as I look into this some more.

sea anemones ~ 11/03/11 ~ Morro Strand Beach

sea anemones
Anthopleura spp.
more information

As a kid, whenever we'd go to the beach, my mother would repeatedly warn me to never step on sea anemones, because she believed they would sting. Now, I don't step on them for fear I could crush these seemingly delicate animals. I learned through the links included in this post that both ideas, stings to humans and being delicate, are incorrect.

I should note not all sea anemones are in the Anthopleura genus. The two species I have identified below just happen to be in the same genus.

aggregating anemone
Anthopleura elegantissimamore pictures

The aggregating anemone is known to clone itself, hence why they're often found in dense clusters. The Walla Walla site linked in the scientific name above shows some incredible pictures of the dividing process. Some anemones also have green algae (zoochlorellae) or dinoflagellates (zooxanthellae) living symbiotically in their gut lining (but maybe not these ones?). The Monterey Bay Aquarium site has fun information on the aggregating anemone, but it states "Anthropleura" with an extra 'r', which is incorrect. Anthropleura was an ancient giant centipede.

I was lucky enough to get a decent picture of this anemone slightly open to see the lines on the oral disk for a positive ID.

Two additional similar looking species found in our area are the moonglow anemone, aka burrowing anemone (Anthopleura artemisia), and the giant green anemone, aka solitary green anemone (Anthopleura xanthogrammica) - which I believe is shown in the first photograph above, but there is no way for me to know for sure.

For much better photographs of anemones and other tide pool life, check out John Wall's Natural California. It's extremely difficult to get decent pictures through moving water. Most of my attempted shots ended up being lovely reflections of the clouds above.

surfbird ~ 11/03/11 ~ Morro Strand Beach

Surfbird, huh? So, where's the surfboard or the, um, computer with internet connection? I would've never been able to identify these birds, let alone even spot them, if it weren't for the help of a total stranger.

My friend was asking me about marbled godwits that we saw, which for the life of me I could not remember their name even though I had been on this beach only 3 weeks before and blogged about it. So, I took to asking random strangers, especially ones carrying massive cameras and binoculars, if they knew the birds. The first couple I asked replied in a thick accent, "Ve ar' not vrom around hair." The second couple I asked ended up being leaders of the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival. Bingo! As I was absorbed taking pictures of anemones in the rocks they called us over to look at the surfbirds. Really, since they are actual birds, their name should be "surf bird" as two words.

From a distance, I'm sure I'd get them confused with a lot of other shorebirds, including black turnstone (which were also picking at the mussel-covered rocks for food), least sandpiper (Calidris minutilla), western sandpiper (Calidris mauri), red knot (Calidris canutus), and pectoral sandpiper (Calidris melanotos). As a note about the pectoral sandpiper, even though several reputable books and Cornell's All About Birds site show they are not ever here in CA, both the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival site and Don Roberson's Monterey Birds book show they are recorded migrants in our area.

cancer crabs ~ 11/03/11 ~ Morro Strand Beach

rock crab carapaces

The interior of Cancer carapaces are amazingly colorful. These almost look like they've been filled with Easter egg dye and sand.

This post was very challenging to research, hence it's link-laden. According to the California Department of Fish and Game, we have 9 species of Cancer crabs. I used an old edition of Light's Manual: Intertidal Invertebrates of the Central California Coast sent to me by Steve at Blue Jay Barrens (Thanks again, Steve!), which listed only 8 species and keyed 6 of those.

I'm attempting to ID based solely on the carapaces, which is the most common body part I saw washed up on the beach. Everything I found were 1-3" in width. Since crabs molt, size is not a significant indicator of a species. I spent quite a bit of time zooming in on each of the photos and counting the carapace spines/teeth. There is very little information online for some of the smaller species. If you're curious to learn more, make sure to click on the embedded links under each photo.

best guess hairy rock crab
best guess Cancer jordani (aka Romaleon jordani)

ps - For a little bit of gutter humor, as I was researching the IDs above using the old Light's Manual and with selective choice of spp. and words... I discovered pee crabs, er, pea crabs (Pinnixa spp. and others) live in penis fish (Urechis spp.) burrows. Haha, who knew!?!