Saturday, March 31, 2012

High surf advisory through April 2

The National Weather Service has a high surf warning in effect for our area:

High surf advisory remains in effect from 3 am Sunday to 3 PM PDT Monday.

* surf height and timing... surf will build to 12 to 18 feet late tonight... continue through early Monday... then surf will slowly subside. During the peak of the event Sunday into Sunday evening... maximum sets to 25 feet are possible on exposed west and northwest facing beaches.

* Impacts... the combination of large swell and surf will produce a high risk of dangerous rip currents. This will make ocean activities hazardous for anyone.

* Coastal flooding... minor tidal overflow is possible near the times of high tide... around 6 am PDT Sunday morning and 8 PM PDT Sunday evening.

Precautionary/preparedness actions:

A high surf advisory means that high surf will affect beaches in the advisory area, producing rip currents and localized beach erosion.

People should avoid fishing or observing waves from exposed rocks or jetties. Large waves may suddenly inundate previously dry areas.

Watch the waves from a safe location on the bluffs or far back from the rocky coastline. Never turn your back on the ocean. Stay safe.

This high surf advisory isn't a problem for the weaners on the beach now. They are big enough and old enough to manage in the water, even if they are unwillingly inundated. They can swim well enough to keep themselves safe.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Crested Caracara

San Simeon Rangers report that a Crested Caracara has been spotted hanging around the Elephant Seal area.  It's a South American bird that has never been spotted this far north.

The Cornell Ornithology Lab describes the caracara as: A tropical falcon version of a vulture, the Crested Caracara reaches the United States only in Arizona, Texas, and Florida. It is a bird of open country, where it often is seen at carrion with vultures.  

Large, long-legged raptor. Black cap with short crest at back. Pale sides of back and neck. Bare red skin on face. Black body. White tail with wide black tip. White patches at ends of dark wings. Faint barring on upper back and breast.

The Peregrine Fund says that it's 19 - 23 inches long, weighs 1 3/4 - 3 1/2 pounds and has a four-foot wingspan.  It notes that: The caracara is the most terrestrial bird in the falcon group. It spends a great deal of time on the ground.

I sure hope I'm around to get a picture of him!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Pups numbers are up

About 4,600 weaned pups are on the beach preparing to leave for their first migration. That's an increase of about 5 percent over 2011's breeding season.

Not every pup survives. About 6 percent died before they were weaned. That's low. The mild weather was a factor. No wild storms pushed waves high on the beach to wash young pups, unable to swim, into the surf. By the time pups are weaned, they are ready to start coping with the ocean. These are animals that spend most of their lives deep under water.

More seals were born at both ends of the rookery, but none past either end. That's good news. The rookery already has expanded to Arroyo Laguna, which means they share the beach with wind-surfers. Human-seal interactions aren't advisable.

"There was no expansion of the breeding range along the coast," reported Brian Hatfield, US Geological Survey wildlife biologist.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Web cam

You can now watch the elephant seals on the beach via web cam! It's housed in this structure at the far south end of the boardwalk. Check them out from the comfort of your office.

Check in every day. The population is constantly changing. Juveniles and adult females are arriving for their annual molt. We're coming into the season of the year that has the most seals on the beach. All those juveniles that avoid the beach during breeding season come in for a rest.

The seals stop eating while they are on the beach. Some research suggests that this fast triggers development of the embryo that was fertilized before the females left the beach after giving birth and nursing their pups for a month. The process is called delayed implantation -- the egg is fertilized but doesn't start to develop.

It gives the mother a chance to gain some weight before the embryo starts growing and making its demands on her system.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Southern Elephant Seals

Claudio Campagna of the Wildlife Conservation Society - Argentina talked about his work with Southern Elephant Seals in Cambria March 17. He and Burney LeBoeuf  are preparing a paper on the issues affecting elephant seal rookeries that have a lot of visitors: Valdes Peininsula, Ano Nuevo and Piedras Blancas.

He gave us information on the differences between Northern and Southern Elephant Seals. He began with a slide showing comparable photos of both: "As you can see, the Southern Elephant Seal is very beautiful, and the Northern Elephant Seal is very ugly," to appreciative laughter.

SES are larger, five meters, 15 feet, but the nose is smaller. Sexual dimorphism is similar, the male five to six times large than the female. Males weigh around six tons. SES females weigh 30-50 pounds more than NES females. They are biologically similar. 

Because the Valdes Peninsula coastline is so much longer, 200 km of beach, seals are often at lower density than the crowded NES beaches. Pup mortality and maternal separation are therefore less common. There are often no peripheral males. In places where the SES are more crowded, they are more like NES. They are polygynous and males have differential access to females.

"I don’t believe that Southern Elephant Seals have twin pups," he said. He also observed that the females don’t adopt the way NES do. "You never see a mother with more than one pup," he said. "Maternal separation is pup death." 

Pups are born weighing around 80 pounds and nurse for 21-23 days. The mothers come back to the beach after two months to molt.

Pups are born in the southern hemisphere spring, August through November. The first week of October is the height of the breeding season. About 16,000 pups are born in the Valdes Peninsula rookery, indicating a total seal population of around 52,000 – 53,000. Growth in the rookery population is considered due to increases in births rather than immigration. The rookery is not receiving individuals from other areas. Its fast growth over the past 20 years appears to be plateauing, suggesting that the rookery is reaching its carrying capacity. It’s the 4th largest in the world. The South Georgia colony is the largest, producing around 100,000 pups annually. 

The Valdes Peninsula rookery is a 20th century rookery. Because SES were not hunted to such a small population as the NES, they have more genetic diversity. Fathers can be identified by DNA tests.

SES cannot be approached the way NES can. The males are very aggressive and will attack and bite. The females will abandon their pups if humans come near. They will return to the ocean.In this picture, Campagna was tagging a seal when he awoke and and complained.

His Patagonian Sea Project was inspired by the elephant seals to expand understanding of what marine conservation is. The idea is to use the elephant seals to tell the story of marine conservation. His focus is on Big Ecosystems and the charismatic wildlife that attracts public attention. By saving the charismatic species, other species and habitat are saved.

"The animals are ambassadors of what is going on in the ocean," he said. "We trust that educated people will change those bad practices."

The Valdes Peninsula is important to the SES because of the ocean currents and configuration of the continental shelf in the area. The coast is like a platform that falls off very deep. As the ocean currents drive water against the underwater cliff, nutrients rise to the surface

"It’s like supermarkets they need to feed the next generation, right near the breeding colony," he said. "It’s predictably producing food to replace what you lost reproducing. Because this is an important area of reproduction, the trip is worth it. It’s almost magical."

The human impact of shrimp, squid and other commercial fishing on the areas through which Southern Elephant Seals swim is substantial. The Atlas of the Patagonian Sea includes maps that illustrate how intense the fishing is.

"These are all important conservation issues," he said. "We have to do much more than make sure the seals are not being disturbed on land. We have to have open ocean conservation."

The Valdes Peininsula where he does his research is one of three mainland rookery sites. The other two are Ano Nuevo and Piedras Blancas. As such, we share some concerns: How do the visitors impact the seals?

The economy at Valdes is changing with the new industry of wildlife spectacle watching. 100,000 tourists come to Patagonia for whale watching, the main attraction. They also see the sea lions and the elephant seals. Park rangers are all professional guides. Tourists have to buy a tour. There is no carrying capacity. Big businesses driven by commercial interest, 70 companies.

"Valdes is not sustainable," he said. "They may have to limit tourists in the future."
At Ano Nuevo, the first female gave birth in 1975. Soon 40,000 tourists were coming to see them. The parks department took over and limited tours. They now get some income from guided tours with professional and docent guides interpreting behavior. Research is being done.

At Piedras Blancas, it’s a different system. PB’s carrying capacity is limited only by the size of the parking lot. Growth will increase. FES provides a critical service with docent presence, ability to call rangers as needed and an organized educational service.

"I am hesitant about Piedras Blancas," he said. "I want to see how you are adapting in five or six years. I reflect that we share the same interest. I encourage you to go farther. See the ocean through the seals’ eyes. What problems do they face, what conservation problems, what fisheries? What is their future?"