Sunday, March 14, 2010

Pup Census

Brian Hatfield, USGS wildlife biologist, compiled these results from his count of the elephant seal pups born and surviving on the beach. Amazingly, total numbers are up, a new record, despite the losses due to high tides and storms.
The total is over 4,200 pups, an increase of 950, almost 30 percent, compared to 2009. It's more than the previous record year, 2007, by more than 8 percent.

Brian estimates that about 300 pups died in the storms before they could be counted.

His graphs show numbers for six years at six places along the coastline, from the beach north of the Piedras Blancas Light Station as far south as Arroyo Laguna, a popular windsurfing beach.

This State Parks Department map shows the Central Coast area. The Piedras Blancas Light Station is on the rocky outcropping at the top.
Beginning at the north, numbers were recorded for the north side of the light station; the cove on the south side, to the next outcropping, South Point; the beach between South Point and the Elephant Seal Viewing area, noted in white letters; that entire cove and beach; south from there to Arroyo Laguna; and the final numbers are for all those born south of Arroyo Laguna.

He observed 400 underweight weaners, four times as many as in other years. He attributes this to the separation of pups from their mothers in the storms. The future is not bright for underweight elephant seals.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Weaners in the Grass

These weaners are finding high ground, as the tide brings the waves all the way up the beach. They are mature enough now to manage in the waves -- large enough in size, and starting to play in the surf. They aren't fully competent swimmers and divers, yet, but they are getting there.
I've never seen so many of them up so high on the shelf above the beach. One had some greenery hanging out of his mouth. We joked about the Vegetarian Seal.
These are all well-nourished, of good size, healthy and strong.
The USGS biologist is doing a population count this month. I'll report those results when they are available.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Ano Nuevo

We visited Ano Nuevo State Reserve, about 30 miles north of Santa Cruz, last week. The site is very different from Piedras Blancas. Organized groups hike out about a mile, then are joined by a docent leader to hike another mile or so across the dunes to see the seals. The tour is different every day, because the seals move around. As this photo shows, visitors walk fairly near the seals. The official limit is to be 25 feet away.

The Ano Nuevo rookery is about the same size as Piedras Blancas, but is longer established. Seals have been coming there since the 1960s. They only started coming to Piedras Blancas in 1990. The first birth was observed at Piedras Blancas in 1992.

It may have been the worst possible weather, in a location that is often windy and cold. The official report cited sustained winds of 40 mph, gusts up to 58 mph. That was tough enough, hard to stand up at times. Then the rain started. The wind made it hit our faces like hail, and the sand whipped up scoured us. Both of us had red, wind- and sand-blown skin for days after. The rain soaked us completely, as wet as if we’d been hosed down.

The seals were apparently unaffected. We watched the weaners below play in the water, chasing each other from puddle to puddle.

The landscape is far different from the beach, set against the sheer bluff, at Piedras Blancas. There are tall dunes and wide sandy pastures, like this. Many pups were drowned and washed off the beach anyway, if they were in vulnerable locations.

The following day the 8.8 earthquake struck Chile, setting off tsunami watches for the entire west coast. As events unfolded, the actual effect along the Central Coast was minimal, about three feet of surge. That's fortunate -- it wouldn't take much to inundate this landscape.

The weaners are mature enough to manage being in the water now. I saw some playing in the surf last week, some in the outflow of a culvert to the beach today. They aren't able to swim and dive well enough to take up their aquatic life yet, but they are unlikely to get wached out to sea.