Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rare Alaskan Visitor

Two vagrant sub-adult parakeet auklets seen off the coast of Central Coast January 17, 2009. Photography by Brad Schram, copyright 2009, all rights reserved - used by permission.

Some folks attending the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival this year were treated to a possible once in a lifetime view of a bird that is not often seen on the California Coast.

The pelagic field trip ventures out into the open ocean to find albatross, shearwaters, alcids, kittiwakes, jaegers, and sometimes a gray whale. This year the group was searching the waves when someone shouted out "auklet." Expecting probably one of the two auklets that visit the waters off the Central Coast, namely Rhinoceros auklet or Cassin's auklet, the guides were amazed to see that the bird in question was a parakeet auklet and not only was there one, but two. Cameras came out swiftly and thanks to the talent and skill of leader, Brad Schram, we have some great shots of these very rare visitors from Alaska.

Most people want to know about this bird's name. Why is it called parakeet? It doesn't look like a parakeet, does it? The beak is apparently the clue. It is orange-red and slightly upturned and those special people that give scientific names to birds thought it resembled a small parrot's bill. Thus they dubbed it Aethia psittacula, from the Latin, psittacus, meaning, little parrot. Now I've looked at parrots large and small and studied parakeets, known as budgies, and I sure can't see any similarity in their beaks to this little auklet's, but what does it matter. It's great bird!

Parakeet auklets live in Alaska most of the year extending over to the coasts of Siberia. They are small birds with a somewhat long neck and are black above with white below. During breeding season they sport a thin white plume from their eyes to behind the head.

Auklets are sea birds, feeding out on the open ocean. Parakeet auklets nest in small colonies in crevices high up on the rocky cliffs from June to August in Alaska and Siberia. They winter from the Bering Sea to Japan, and sometimes reach the shores of Central California. Local Audubon members who have lived here a long time tell me the last time parakeet auklets were definitely sighted off our coast was back in 1955, so this year's finding is really special.

Since the festival's pelagic trip in January two other ocean ventures have been held and the birds were seen again. Who knows how long they will stay in our area, but for the folks on these seagoing birding trips it has been a real treat and for many,a sighting of a life bird for their birding lists.

Maybe next year's pelagic trip will serve up even better rarities, so be sure to sign up for the 2010 Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival to be held January 15 through the 18th.

Parakeet auklets
(c) 2009 Brad Schram

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Amazing Aquarium

The Monterey Bay Aquarium never ceases to amaze me. As a member, I can go any time but admit I don't get there often enough. But each time I do I am awed by what this conservation organization is doing.

One of the things that draws me to visit the aquarium is its aviary. Yes, I go there to look at birds. Depending on the time of year, I can view, up close and personally, shorebirds and other waterfowl in a variety of plumages. Many of the birds at Monterey are the same species that visit Morro Bay during fall and winter months when they are in drab or duller plumages. The seasonal turn takes them off on migration with no chance for a view of their true colors. At the aquarium, in spring, these same birds exhibit their dazzling nesting feathers. Black-bellied plovers, that are shades of gray in winter, show their distinctive black-feathered breasts. Wintering gray and white avocets acquire brilliant rust color heads and necks.

At the aviary you enter through the swinging doors and come into the sandy shoreline exhibit with a wetland pond on one side and a wavy shoreline on the other. The newest addition to the aviary is a deeper pond located to the right beyond the entrance and here waterfowl such as buffleheads paddle around and pop underwater to forage. The aviary is a wonderful place for photographers to take shots of these birds. The challenge is to do this without getting the disturbing background of the aquarium windows in the photos.

Obviously a visit to this special place is to see, learn, and appreciate the diversity and abundance of our planet's water worlds, both ocean and fresh water.

Because the aquarium is located on the Central Coast of California it takes advantage of the proximity to this section of the sea and its natural flora and fauna. Its first exhibit, the kelp forest, is still one of the most popular and it is a mesmerizing experience to sit and watch the flowing fronds of kelp and the circling fish. Giant kelp is indigenous to the ocean off the Central Coast and it supports a vast array of marine life.

Sea otters are one of the species that benefit from kelp using it to wrap up in and sleep. The aquarium has been instrumental in the rehabilitation of sea otters and performs ongoing research of this species. They are the only facility doing this. The sea otter exhibit houses five sea otters brought to the aquarium for rehabilitation and it is one of the most popular exhibits. Crowds linger at the windows watching the comical antics of these cute little creatures. While the exhibit's five otters cannot be returned to the wild, the aquarium regularly rehabilitates otters and returns them to the sea.

There are new otters at the aquarium now, but they don't come from the sea. River otters are cousins to the sea otter and are found in many places in the world. Now Monterey Bay Aquarium is showing Asian and African river otters in a new exhibit section. If you thought watching the sea otters was infectious you'll find it almost impossible to stop watching these energetic guys. River otters are fresh water creatures and the exhibits reflect their environment. The staff places large chunks of ice in their habitats from which the otters chew off pieces, knock them into the water, and bat them around. They spend hours zipping around doing this.

The huge outer bay exhibit is like an enormous living IMAX screening. Square-headed dolphin fish, large chunky tuna, and slinky tiger sharks swim around with huge schools of sardines and more in this exhibit. Be patient, sit and wait and you will be rewarded with a showing of one of the oddest looking fish in the sea, the sunfish. With its fins placed on top and bottom of its large rounded body it appears as an alien even in this strange deep water world.

The best exhibits for me are still the jellies. Beautiful translucent creatures with long flowing tentacles drift in sapphire blue waters. It is so calming to observe them. Moon jellies are some of the largest while others are so tiny they are exhibited in special enclosures that magnify them.

I look forward to the upcoming exhibit of many of the world's seahorses that will open in April and I hope everyone who can, will at some time visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

American Avocet - Recurvirostra americana -- in breeding plumage

Buffleheads, male and female - Bucephala albeola

Moon Jellies

River Otter - Asian