Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Wildlife podcasts

Laurel Neme, whose book, Animal Investigators: How the World's First Wildlife Forensics Lab Is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species I reviewed for SEJournal, http://tinyurl.com/ygn7hg5, has a radio program, The Wildlife, http://tinyurl.com/y8m2wpc. She invited me to talk about Elephant Seals twice: Elephant Seals: http://tinyurl.com/yhkf3hx, January update: http://tinyurl.com/ygsnl3p.

Laurel has done an amazing job telling the story of Wildlife CSI. For human forensics investigators, they start off knowing at least what species was killed. In the case of wildlife, the only evidence may be a belt of exotic leather or a bottle of mysterious potion.
Three elephant seals were shot and killed at Piedras Blancas in May 2008, http://cbs13.com/local/elephant.seals.killed.2.715518.html. They were killed by a single shot to the head, execution-style. The case remains unsolved. It is under investigation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. After almost two years, it's a cold case, but I hope investigators will find the person who committed this crime and prosecute him some day.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Weaners on the path

Today weaners found their way up onto the path at the north end of the bluff. Two were right on the path, like this little female. One was just below it. They are so appealing, I have to restrain myself not to touch them. I’ve resisted temptation thus far. It wouldn’t be dangerous – I’ve never heard of a weaner attacking anyone, and they don’t even have large teeth yet. The risk is to the animal, adapting them to human touch. It’s an issue for animals that are rescued. The Marine Mammal Rescue people find weaners are affectionate with their handlers, but then are unwilling to return to the beach. There is no future for a captive elephant seal.

I returned to the office for yellow ‘Caution’ tape, looks like crime scene tape, and a sign asking people to stay back. We posted that rather than locking the gate and keeping people entirely off the trail.

The beach has been inundated by high tides and big waves several times this season, washing pups out to sea and drowning them. It's unusual for pups to climb this high, but perhaps they are seeking high ground. The pups that are on the path are slim, not nearly as fat as some on the beach. I don't know whether this makes a difference or not.

One of the values I see in staffing the viewpoint with docents is to give the public support in understanding the interface between wildlife and humans. Humans need to avoid direct intervention in wildlife, especially those that don’t deliberately involve themselves with humans. All these critters want to do is spend time on the beach, their natural habitat. Because they tolerate humans, we have this wonderful opportunity to appreciate wild animals in their own setting. It’s a natural phenomenon and I believe it touches the heart of everyone who visits.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Marine Mammal Art

Marine Mammal Artist Pieter Folkens, http://www.randomhouse.com/author/results.pperl?authorid=45318, will lead a weekend on Pacific Marine Mammals February 19-21 at Camp Ocean Pines in Cambria. I'm excited to have the opportunity to work with such a distinguished artist.
His beautiful and accurate work, such as this poster, is credited with changing the way we view marine mammals. It illustrates field guides, textbooks and general audience publications. The accuracy and detail found in all his work comes from 35 years of field experience with animals throughout the Pacific.

A co-founder of the Alaska Whale Foundation, http://www.alaskawhalefoundation.org/aboutAWF/board.html, he spends his summers observing humpbacks and orcas in their northern feeding grounds. His work has allowed him to identify three species, one a previously unidentified genus, of archaic whales. He has studied their bones, and written The Human Bone Manual with Tim White, the third edition of Human Osteology with Tim White and Michael Black, and important studies on bone trauma in whales caused by ship strikes. He has taught university students field sketching at UC Santa Cruz . More recently, he created life size marine mammal sculptures for all the Free Willy movies, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home., White Squall, Flipper and others.

Studying with such an experienced master is bound to inform my observations of Elephant Seals. Thank you, Pieter, for visiting Cambria.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

World Press Photos

Paul Nicklen, Canada, a National Geographic photographer, was awarded first prize in the Nature division of the World Press Photo Contest, http://www.worldpressphoto.org/index.php?option=com_photogallery&task=view&id=1773&Itemid=257&bandwidth=high. These photos of Southern Elephant Seals were taken in Georgia, Antarctica.

Southern Elephant Seals are much more numerous than Northern Elephant Seals, and physically larger. Males can exceed four tons, females can weigh nearly a ton. Nicklen was chased by one while taking these photos.

The species are related, but are considered distinct species. No one knows whether they could interbreed, because their ranges do not overlap. Southern Elephant Seals live entirely in the Southern Hemisphere, Northern ones in the Northern. Southern Elephant Seals venture onto Antarctica's ice as well as on the Falkland Islands and along Argentina's coast. Separate populations of Southern Elephant Seals live in the remote southern Indian Ocean and the southern reaches of the Pacific beyond New Zealand and Tasmania.

So they are a rare sighting indeed! Thanks to Peter for bringing us these wonderful photos of animals we otherwise would never see.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Foster Mothers

At the north end of the beach, where last year there would have been hundreds of pups and weaners, there are about four dozen. A lot of sand is washed away.

The survivors crowd together in the space available, and more are moving higher on the banks. One even moved almost to the trail. Visitors stand about six feet from this large weaner.

My impression is that many of the surviving pups are much larger than usual. This one is very large. Sampling weights would be a good research project this year. Because so many pups were washed away, a lot of mothers were left with no pup to nurse. Biologists suspect that the females have to lose some amount of weight in order to trigger estrus and mate. Many stayed on the beach and nursed any willing pups.

Pups are born weighing 65-80 lbs. They can gain as much as 10 lbs. a day, nursing on the high-fat seal milk. By the time lactation is concluding, they weigh 350-400 lbs. Some are fully nourished by their own mothers, then go on to steal milk from other mothers. They get even larger, well over 500 lbs. Looking over the beach, I saw plenty of weaners with rolls of fat circling their chubby necks. One lost his balance and rolled down the beach, so fat he was unable to stop himself.
This mother is nursing two pups at the same time. Some mothers are willing to nurse all comers, others are more limited in their tolerance. Researchers have found that females who nurse additional pups gain experience as mothers. A female can carry only enough weight to nurse a single pup, and twins have never been observed, so are probably never born. But the practice of sharing milk is certainly commonplace, at least this year, when harsh weather has caused so much chaos on the beach.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Where to find Elephant Seals

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Elephant Seals migrate along the Pacific Coast, stopping periodically at various locations. I've visited Point Reyes and Ano Nuevo and spend every Monday morning at Piedras Blancas.

Most rookeries are on islands, so they aren't accessible to visitors. The rookery at Ano Nuevo provides guided tours to see the seals, but it's about a mile walk. Piedras Blancas is right next to the highway. Many people who stop there have never heard of Elephant Seals. They see the signs, or see animals lying next to the fence along the road.

Visitors are delighted to see wild animals in their native setting, right there on the beach!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pups persevere

It's difficult to discern, but there is a pup on the grass, just right of center in this picture. He's that dark spot. He's on a ledge about four feet above the rest of the beach. That's where the mothers and other pups are. Some of them are quite large, already weaned. That's them, the line of dark forms at the upper right. The larger ones are females, lighter in color, next to their dark pups. All pups are born black.

But this pup appears to have climbed up to a higher perch. The problem is, he's separated from his mother. Pups need to nurse frequently. They have to gain about 300 lbs. in a month, before their mothers go back into the ocean. If pups get separated from their mothers, they can starve and die.

This pup looked weak, and another docent called Marine Mammal Rescue to report it. MMR will intervene and rescue starving pups, but even they are not permitted to go onto the beach during the birth and mating season.

This is a close-up of the pup. It's hard to tell that the other seals are below it.

He rested in the grass and didn't behave as if he were in any distress. We typically don’t intervene in natural events as they play out on the beach,

The pup began to show signs of life. He wiggled around, and eventually wiggled himself right off the ledge! He dropped down, startled but unhurt. On the beach, he might find his mother.

He began making the rounds, attempting to nurse at every female in his path. Two chased him off, but he continued on. When I left, he was on the beach, heading toward other mothers.

As alarming as the situation looked earlier, and as pathetic as he appeared, my feeling is that he will find a receptive female and be fine. So many situations look just awful in the moment, but over time, they resolve. It’s easy to think that these pups are helpless, but they have some strong instincts going for them and a powerful drive to survive. I hope he slept on a full stomach that night.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Welcome to Piedras Blancas!

Piedras Blancas is a point along the California coastline. The name is Spanish for White Rocks, which you can see in the distance in this photo.

What makes it unique is that, in 1990, Northern Elephant Seals started arriving there as part of their annual migration. In 1992, a pup was born there for the first time. Since then, the rookery has grown. Biologists estimate that about 16,000 seals now use the rookery during the course of a year.

As the number of elephant seals arriving on the beach increased, the public and government agencies had to act. Seals were getting onto Highway 1, occasionally being hit by vehicles traveling the road. Who expects to see a two-ton seal on the road? Something had to be done.

San Luis Obispo County got involved, California State Parks got involved, and a local nonprofit organization was formed, Friends of the Elephant Seal. Volunteers stepped forward to organize training for docents who would spend time greeting visitors and telling them about these unusual marine mammals.

My husband and I were living in Madison, Wisconsin, although we both had lived in California previously. As soon as circumstances beckoned us to return to the Central Coast in 2007, I contacted the Friends of the Elephant Seals and signed up to become a docent. Since then, I've spent at least one morning a week on the bluff overlooking the beach where the seals live.

I've enjoyed being out there, talking to visitors who are amazed and delighted to find these animals willing to tolerate humans watching over them. Because I am a writer, I've kept a journal. This blog is the next step in sharing what I've learned and experienced there. Thank you for joining me on this journey.