A few year-end birds

It’s been quite birdy (that’s a word, right?) around here for the last month or so. Lots of wintering warblers, sparrows, woodpeckers, towhees, phoebes, etc. I’ve done a bit of wandering around the local woods with my trusty Sony.

A Yellow-Rumped Warbler scouting for bugs in a coyote bush. Yellow-Rumps are the most common warbler species in our area—they’ve been all over our yard for the last couple of months. They love the suet/peanut bricks we put out.
I spotted this young Townsend’s Warbler bouncing around a large coastal live oak near our house. While considerably less common than the Yellow-Rumped, they show up regularly in our yard.
A Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher looks for bugs. These guys are occasional visitors to our yard, but seem to be more common in wilder areas.
Here’s the same bird lunging, mouth agape, at a tiny insect.
Say’s Phoebe at the golden hour. Common in open areas, these birds have an irresistible way of photogenically posing from bush tops.
Band-Tailed Pigeons have been showing up at our feeders quite regularly. These splendid birds have historically lived mostly in coniferous and oak woodlands throughout much of the West, but in recent decades they’ve become increasingly common at backyard feeders. Cornell Ornithology Lab’s Merlin app says this species is somewhat rare here in the Los Osos area. Fun fact: Pigeons are the only North American birds that are capable of sucking up water from a still surface like mammals can. All other North American birds have to dip their bills into the water and then tilt their heads upward to swallow, as we’ve all seen chickens do.

The psychedelic Cheerio nudibranch

Almost forgot about this one. Back in August I was snorkeling with Hai inside the harbor at Kawaihae and ran into this gorgeous, largish nudibranch prowling the reef just a couple of feet below the surface. I don’t know if it has a common name, but the scientific name is Goniobranchus albopunctatus. According to seaslugsofhawaii.com, this diurnal species reaches three inches in length—this specimen was about two inches. The white circles are distinctive. White Cheerios descending into a bowl of red milk.

Goniobranchus albopunctatus. “Picture yourself on a boat on a river…”

A walk on the beach

Well, it’s been almost two months since I’ve been able to snorkel in warm Hawaiian waters. And I’ve only been able to spend a total of about an hour snorkeling in California’ chilly (!) waters so far this year. However, contrary to my fears about our move to California, life is still worth living. In contrast to Hawaii, California’s central coast is loaded with native birds and land mammals, and I’ve got my fancy new bird camera. So instead of exercising my inner hunter-gatherer through underwater photography I’ve been shooting birds. So life is good, very good. (And besides, we’re already planning our next trip to Hawaii.)

Last week Marla and I took a walk at Estero Bluffs State Park, north of Cayucos and about fifteen miles north of our place in Los Osos. The bluffs recede into a long sandy beach at the north end of the park. The beach was deserted on the day we were there, except for birds.

Sanderlings, were all over the place. Several, like this pair, chilled out on the upper beach. Many more foraged along the shoreline.
This Snowy Plover, along with a handful of others, hunkered down on the upper beach, probably hoping we wouldn’t see it. Snowy Plovers are kind of a big deal on the Central Coast. Everywhere you go on the beach in this area there are extensive roped-off areas of designated breeding habitat for this threatened species. UC Santa Barbara, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and a number of other organizations run active Snowy Plover conservation programs. It’s not exactly a rare bird, but it’s uncommon, and always a pleasure to see. There are supposed to be about 2,500 birds nesting along the species’ roughly 2,000 mile range.
This, I think, is a Black-bellied Plover*. Two of these wary little guys marched along the shoreline.
A Least Sandpiper foraging in the mud at a freshwater lagoon at the north end of the beach.
This Say’s Phoebe, up in the dunes, attracted our attention with its distinctive behavior. Like other flycatchers, it perched on an exposed branch, repeatedly darting out to catch small insects. It’s a pretty common bird, but I’ve been surprised to find it so common among the dunes.

*All bird identifications here are pretty tentative—if anyone finds an error, please let me know. In the case of the Black-bellied Plover the (unlikely) alternative ID is Pacific Golden Plover. I rely heavily on Cornell Ornithology Lab’s Merlin app. This app gives the likelihood of seeing a species at any given location and date. It says that the Golden Plover is much less likely than the Black-bellied. Birds are a lot harder than reef fish!

Where the damsels are orange and the chubs are striped

We’ve finally gotten to spend some time in the water here in sunny California. We drove down to visit Jill, Eric and kids in San Diego and took a side trip to Santa Catalina Island. We snorkeled at Victoria Beach in the town of Laguna Beach and at Lover’s Cove in Avalon on Catalina. Both are marine sanctuaries and are therefore loaded with tame fish. Unfortunately, it was heavily overcast and rather cold at both sites, so we didn’t stay in the water as long as we’d have liked.

Southern California waters are both similar to and very different from the Hawaiian and South Pacific reefs that we’re familiar with. Many of the same fish families are represented in both places. A lot of the fish we’ve seen so far in California look sort of familiar, but not quite what we’re used to seeing. Here are a few:

Here’s an adult Garibaldi, a signature fish for southern California. This species is the largest member of the damselfish family, a family well-represented in Hawaii and the South Pacific. The solid orange color is distinctive—no other damselfish looks anything like the Garibaldi.

This gorgeous juvenile Garibaldi is strongly reminiscent of certain South Pacific damselfish, like the one shown in this 2015 post from Samoa: https://onebreathkohala.wordpress.com/2015/09/01/a-few-samoan-beauties/

Kelp Bass were abundant at both Victoria Beach and Lover’s Cove. They’re in the sea bass/grouper family. This family is well-represented in the South Pacific (https://onebreathkohala.wordpress.com/2018/11/25/back-to-bali/), but less-so—but not entirely absent— in Hawaii. Although it doesn’t look like it, Hawaii’s Bicolor Anthias (https://onebreathkohala.wordpress.com/2020/07/12/diving-dog-pee-beach/) belongs to this family.

A juvenile Kelp Bass. Pretty, huh?

We saw many of these Rock Wrasses at both sites. This species is in the same genus (Halichoeres) as Hawaii’s common Ornate Wrasse.

Although they’re called Zebraperch, these fish are obviously chubs. Except for the stripes, they look very much like Hawaii’s ubiquitous Gray and Brassy Chubs (https://onebreathkohala.wordpress.com/2014/10/05/its-a-tough-ocean-out-there/).

Last month’s dives

We got two days of boat diving in during our August trip back to Hawaii. One day with Blue Wilderness Divers and one with Kohala Divers—both great outfits. Conditions were excellent on both days, and we saw a lot of nice stuff. Here are a couple of notable encounters.

This school of Heller’s Barracuda drifted above us in about fifty feet of water at Crystal Cove, just north of Kawaihae. This species is known for forming large stationary schools during the day and actively hunting at night. We’ve been seeing smaller schools quite often at Mahukona lately.
A Whitetip Reef Shark, about six feet long and accompanied by numerous Mackerel Scad, approached us very closely, also at Crystal Cove. I don’t know why the scad, more commonly known by their Hawaiian name, Opelu, were following the shark. We’ve seen many Whitetips over the years and have never seen Opelu doing this. Small fish usually follow large predatory fish in order to scavenge scraps from the big guys’ meals, but that doesn’t seem a likely reason in this case because Opelu typically eat tiny planktonic organisms. Maybe the Opelu are using the shark as as bodyguards to keep medium-sized predatory fish away? That doesn’t seem likely either. I’m stumped. (By the way, I think this photo pretty accurately depicts the rather gloomy bluish lighting found at scuba depths.)

Megafauna welcome us back

The term megafauna, Latin for big, big animals, is rather loosely defined. Specifically, the minimum size that divides megafauna from plain old regular fauna varies a great deal. In some usages the threshold is 1,000 kilograms (one metric ton); in others it’s 45 kilograms (about 100 pounds). The latter usage seems to be more common, and probably makes more biological sense, as the vast majority of animals are far smaller than 100 pounds. Most animals would regard anything of that size as a terrifying monster. Just ask your cat. So for this post I’m using the 100 pound definition. (Gee, I never thought of myself as megafauna.)

Marla and I returned for a visit to Hawaii two weeks ago, after three-plus months at our new place in California. Despite marginal conditions for our first week, we’ve gotten out snorkeling several times and have had the good luck to be greeted by several types of megafauna:

On our first outing of the trip, two friendly mantas were milling around their usual spot just outside the Kawaihae breakwater.
A smallish green sea turtle, also outside the Kawaihae breakwater. This one is probably under 45 kilograms, but many far exceed that weight.
This White-Tip Reef Shark, about five feet long and definitely over 100 pounds, has apparently been hanging around Mahukona for the last few months. It seemed more interested in us than most White-Tips, which generally tend to either ignore or avoid people.

Goodbye, mantas—for now

Well, Marla and I have finally completed our big move from Hawaii to California. It’s not like we’re really gone forever; at least that’s what we want to think. Marla’s sister Wendy is keeping the Hawaii house, and we plan to return frequently. I’d like to think we’ll spend around a couple of months per year in Hawaii, although Marla may disagree with that estimate. In any case, we’ve left Hawaii with mixed emotions. We’re excited about our new location in Los Osos on the central California coast, but much of our hearts remain in Hawaii.

Mother Nature has been generous to us during our final weeks as Hawaii residents. A few weeks ago I posted about our fantastic spinner dolphin encounter at Mahukona. Then we had the opportunity to swim with large pelagic sharks. And finally, on our last swim at Kawaihae we were visited by a group of extremely sociable mantas. About a half dozen of them swam back and forth along the breakwater for at least an hour. It was a mixed group—a couple of larger adults, including old One-eye, a frequent visitor whose left eye has been severely injured, and a few smaller individuals only about six feet across. The younger ones seemed especially interested in us, repeatedly swooping within easy touching distance—but we of course refrained from touching. These gentle, intelligent, sweet-natured animals really tug at the heart.

Here, in water only about eight feet deep, I’m hugging the bottom while Marla watches from the surface. The distinct pattern of dark marks on these mantas’ chests and bellies allow identification and cataloging of individuals. About three hundred individual animals have been identified along the Big Island’s west coast.
Goodbye, sweetheart, and good luck. See you soon, I hope.

I plan to continue this blog, but posts may be even more infrequent than they are now. Maybe I’ll include more mainland-based posts, or maybe I’ll start another blog. Meanwhile, thanks for reading.

Sharks

Last week we joined our friends Ned and Susan on a snorkel trip to the pelagic zone offshore from Kona. Kona Diving Ecoadventures takes passengers about five miles offshore to waters around a mile deep. There they search for pelagic cetaceans—pilot whales, sperm whales, open-ocean dolphins—and other pelagic megafauna such as sharks and billfish. The passengers are allowed to get into the water and snorkel with anything interesting that is encountered, in a manner, we were told, intended not to unduly disturb the animals.

In stark contrast to the bustling nearshore reefs, the open ocean is mostly mile after mile of emptiness, so there’s a lot of searching and no guarantee as to what, if anything, you’ll encounter. On this trip we saw little in the open ocean—only a mixed pod of spinner and spotted dolphins that we observed from the boat.

Fortunately, open ocean is not all there is off the Kona coast—there are also fish farms operating in these deep waters. All sorts of marine life congregate near the aquaculture operations, partly attracted to wasted fish feed, and partly due to the shelter provided by the farms’ netting and associated structures where smaller organisms can hide from predators. Our boat visited one of the farms, where we had the opportunity to swim with Rough-toothed Dolphins (no decent photos though) and two species of shark.

This Silky Shark, about seven feet long, was quite curious about us, approaching very closely a number of times. Glad it didn’t take an exploratory bite. These fast swimmers are common in tropical and subtropical waters worldwide.

Here’s the other side of the same shark. It’s got a nasty, fairly fresh wound in front of its gill slits. There’s a remora attached behind the gill slits. The elongated rear edge of the second dorsal fin helps distinguish this species from similar sharks.

I’m not sure how many Oceanic Whitetip Sharks came up from the depths to check us out, but it was more than one. This one, again about seven feet long, is accompanied by several Pilotfish. Oceanic Whitetips are easy to recognize by their large pectoral fins and, of course, their white fin tips. The slow-swimming Whitetips are often found with the Silkies and are also found worldwide. In the nineteen-sixties this shark was so abundant that it was estimated to be among the most numerous large animals on the planet. Fishing pressure over the intervening decades has rendered the species rare through much of its range, but it’s still fairly common here in Hawaii.

We also visited a so-called fish aggregating device. They’re basically buoys moored in offshore waters for the purpose of attracting large fish and facilitating sport fishing. The FADs are placed and maintained by the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources. There were no big fish present when we were there, but there were a lot of interesting smaller fish. The boldly striped fish here are Pilotfish. The fish on the left are some sort of young jack. I think they may be escaped Kampachi (also called Almaco Jacks) from nearby fish farms, but they may be young Amberjacks.

Diving Puako

On Sunday Marla and I took a two-dive scuba trip with our friends at Blue Wilderness Dive Adventures. They’re one of several fine dive outfits in West Hawaii. Their boat is a large rigid inflatable (RIB) with few amenities, but fast and quite comfortable. They launch from the Puako public boat ramp, which is just a few minutes from several very nice dive sites. On this day we dove a site called Paniau—one of our favorites—and Puako Point—a new favorite. We saw some nice stuff:

A large Undulated Moray, sometimes called Green-headed Moray. These eels are supposed to be fairly common but we see them much less frequently than Whitemouth, Yellowmargin, or Stout Morays. They’re also supposedly quite aggressive, with Keoki Stender saying they can be responsible for “unprovoked attacks.” John Hoover is more measured, just saying that you shouldn’t mess with them. I agree with Hoover. See the little reddish fish suspiciously eyeing the eel from the upper right? It’s a Twospot Hawkfish. These fish are quite common, but rarely seen, as they tend to hunker down deep in crevices, at least during the day.
A solitary Blacklip Butterflyfish. These little beauties, are common throughout the Indopacific and are popular in the aquarium trade. They’ve got a lot of other common names: Sunburst, Orange, Bluehead, and Klein’s Butterfly.
I’m not sure how I spotted this Commerson’s (or Giant) Frogfish. I’d wandered away from our dive group, looked down at a coral head and there it was. My search image for these guys (see this post: https://onebreathkohala.wordpress.com/2019/07/29/a-couple-of-big-nudibranchs-and-search-images/) has gotten pretty good I guess. How about those snaggly teeth?
We saw several Blackside Hawkfish. I prefer the alternate common name, Freckled Hawkfish. These fish are common both at snorkel and scuba depths, but they’re so photogenic I couldn’t resist this shot.

Spinners

Spinner dolphins are among the most iconic Hawaiian wildlife. Several of our friends have had close, prolonged encounters with these oh-so-charismatic animals. Until yesterday we’d not been so lucky. We arrived at Mahukona at about 8:30 yesterday morning and immediately spotted a large pod of these beauties about fifty meters offshore—closer than we usually see them at this location. They appeared to be milling around rather than just passing through as they usually do here. So we geared up as fast as we could and swam out. Within minutes several members of the pod swam by us, clearly aware of us, but unconcerned by our presence. The pod meandered around in an area about a hundred meters in diameter for about twenty minutes, passing very close to us many times and sometimes completely surrounding us. Then they wandered off to the south, leaving us to swim back to the dock, cold but elated.

We estimated about thirty animals in the pod. There were several calfs in the group, including this one on the lower left. It has a bite mark near its tail (click for a better look), likely from a cookie cutter shark. The calves seem to almost always swim next to and slightly behind their mothers. Besides affording protection, this position probably helps conserve the calf’s energy through a drafting effect. And it also provides close access to mom’s milk. The animal in the foreground is a male, as evidenced by its large size and non-recurved dorsal fin.
Here’s a different calf coming up under its mother for a quick drink. We saw a lot of nursing among these fairly large calfs.
You don’t see one of these guys with its mouth open very often. Laughing at us, perhaps? And look at that defined musculature. This guy is ripped!