Monthly Archives: March 2012

Exploring Piedras Blancas Pt 2: The Lighthouse and outbuildings

The third (and final) entry about Piedras Blancas is again devoted to the awesomeness of the landscape there. The spit of land that the BLM manages is dominated by the impressive form of the lighthouse and its outbuildings.

The lighthouse itself is one of only a few buildings on the property that stands exactly as it did when constructed, the old houses that were built to house the operators and their families are long gone, replaced by more functional buildings to house research staff and the BLM employees that are charged with the area’s upkeep.

On the right are the remaining historic buildings, forgive me for forgetting what purpose they served when they were originally erected, they now house tools needed for the properties upkeep, the BLM’s offices, and (of course) a gift shop. On the left are the aforementioned apartments for researchers and employees. They were remarkably swanky.

Other buildings housed the artifacts that the tours use to teach people about the area with. Including some rather threatening looking casts of skulls.

Guess which one belongs to an Elephant Seal.

Hint: This one.

Another section of the property was given over to housing the bones from a whale that had washed ashore years before.

Shame on me for taking a picture without including an object of a known size to set the scale. Lets just leave it at “the jaw bones from this whale were about the same size as I am”

While bones are great and all, I can’t help but think that most people visit this place for the lighthouse. And with good reason.

My kingdom for a Tilt/shift lens.

The original mirrored reflector has been removed in favor of an ultra-bright modern light bulb that spins (yes, the lighthouse is still functional). Otherwise however, the lighthouse functions much the same as it used to. Going to the top was a real treat, although slightly nerve wracking (a few of the stairs to the top are cracked).

There are a few seals visible on the beach if you look.

Again, looking closely you can see a wide range of marine mammals relaxing on the rocks far below.

I have dozens more pictures like these, I really couldn’t get enough of the white rock itself. Unfortunately a picture can’t capture the sound of the place, when seals and sea lions decide to be verbal, the effects are immediate and impossible to ignore.

A certain aura of foodiness

Organizing my old pictures onto a new portable drive I came across a pair of gems that I’d been meaning to share. Not because they are truly fantastic pictures. Hardly. But rather because I think that they’re hilarious.

As a preface to the images themselves, understand that while I think fly fishing is a fantastic way to spend a day, I am not particularly grand at it. I can cast well enough (as long as my back isn’t right up against the shoreline) but the ability to tie neat flies eludes me.

The theory, (that I’ve been taught) is that a fly needs to have an aura of foodiness around it. It doesn’t need to look exactly like something a fish might want to sup upon, but it needs to look like something that the fish believes might — in fact — be sup-able. This single rule leads the vast majority of flies to fall into (in my eyes at least) three broad categories.

  1. Big stuff: Designed to look like wallowing / distraught mice or other mammals.
  2. “Wooly-buggers: Designed to look like some sort of insect floating serenely upon the surface of the water
  3. Streamers: Designed to sink a few inches beneath the surface and entice the more cautious fish that feel like rising to the surface is a poor choice.

Within those three categories things tend to look pretty much the same. Most wooly bugger types have the same shape and are made with the same basic color scheme, as are most streamers, as are most of the big-things. Its pretty simple really. There are a few colors and shapes fishers can use that are “sure” to attract interest among their aquatic prey and unless those combinations aren’t working out, why change the formula?

So why, given that knowledge, was I handed this beauty and told to try my luc?.

Of course I can catch a fish with that. It totally looks like it could be food.

Wait…

The only place where that could pass at food is a candy store. No fish in the world is going to think “Oh! Sweet. Pink! My favorite foods are all neon pink!” If anything it should frighten fish away. Bright colors are supposed to indicate toxicity in the natural world. (Even though humans have decided that bright colors in our food simply mean “sour”).

Still, I tried it, and after a dozen fruitless casts it actually worked. Never before had I actually laughed at a fish, but there’s a first time for everything.

You sir, have made a terrible mistake.

I have no idea what that proves about fish. Except that apparently “foodiness” is a much broader term than I had imagined it to be.

Exploring Piedras Blancas Pt 1: Beaches and Tide Pools

One more (at least) update on Piedras Blancas before I move on to more recent things. I wasn’t there for a particularly long time after all and so didn’t have as much time to explore as I might have otherwise. That said the beaches that weren’t covered in Elephant Seals were quite nice. I never got used to the kelp that would wash ashore though. Its quite different from the seaweed that slowly dries in the sun at the high tide line on Atlantic beaches.

Examining the mass closely (while holding your breath) it's easy to see how the complicated strands of kelp can support so much life, even washed ashore they contain dozens of refugee organisms.

One of the most popular examples of food-web interactions in Ecology is the relationship between Kelp Forests, Sea Urchins, and Sea Otters. Kelp forests are remarkably productive marine habitats, providing safety from predators and a source of food for a wide range of organisms. Sea Urchins, spiny, slow moving echinoderms feed directly and voraciously upon Kelp, but they themselves are fed upon by Sea Otters. In the absence of the fur trade (and of commercial whaling, as it happens) that food web was stable. However, when Sea Otters were all but removed from the equation, the population of Sea Urchins spiked dramatically and unsurprisingly the Kelp Forests suffered for it.

With the cessation of Otter trapping in the Pacific Kelp forests have returned in force, which doesn’t stop them from breaking free of the ocean floor from time to time and washing ashore.

The beaches near Piedras Blancas were studded with shallow tide pools, which were filled to bursting with life. Hopping from stone to stone, my progress was heralded by the small splashes of hundreds of crabs retreating from their dry(er) hunting grounds and descending into the hidden depths of the pools. Some were better at hiding than others.

Shamefully, I've never had the time to figure out what species this one was. Its coloration is certainly distinct though.

Not all of the tide-pool’s residents were so quick to flight however. Largely because flight was a concept completely alien to them.

Anemones are pretty cool really. sedentary creatures are forced to either be nearly invisible to avoid being found, incredibly hardy to avoid being eaten, or blatantly toxic to avoid being messed with. Of the three strategies the Anemones is among the most visually stunning.

Unfortunately, despite my early luck finding a crab with a sub-standard bolt hole I didn’t have any luck taking pictures of the more maneuverable denizens of the pools. Maybe next time.

In the distance the lighthouse and is clearly visible.

I would have loved to stay longer, but the night ended up being somewhat stormy, and being caught on a beach occupied otherwise by storm tossed Elephant Seals didn’t seem like that great of an idea. Even for me.

More to come.

Next up: Piedras Blancas Lighthouse

It turns out that in my haste to get last year’s stories written down I left out a few. Well, four I suppose. The first is another job report, this one from Piedras Blancas on the California coast (near San Luis Obispo). I spent a little bit of time there in September of 2011. Its a beautiful place, notable for being a historic site (see: ancient lighthouse) and for being an enormous Elephant Seal rookery.

The literal translation of the name ‘Piedras Blancas’ is apparently ‘white rock’ (I’m pathetically uni-lingual). The white aspect of which was donated gracefully by generation after generation of the resident Cormorants.

Harbor Seals, Sea Lions, and Sea Otters were also in abundance (or so I heard, I never saw a Sea Otter), but the burgeoning Elephant Seal population at Piedras Blancas was what drew my eyes.

And my ears. Oh but they were loud, audible faintly even through the walls of the room I lived in on site.

Even diminished as it was in September, there were dozens of the flubby behemoths stretched out on the beaches. Reportedly they were ‘weaners’ — juveniles who hadn’t yet mastered feeding themselves, but would hopefully figure it out soon — and so were undersized. Undersized.

The Elephant Seal juveniles in question. Looking lazy.

I’ve always known them by their enormous hanging (pendulous?) noses. To my dismay they don’t develop those right away. That was both disappointing and initially confusing, since as juveniles they look quite a bit like massively over-sized Harbor Seals. The picture here really doesn’t do the scale of them justice, but no one took me up on my suggestion that someone climb down the cliff and pose with them.

However, most of my time at Piedras Blancas was not spent looking at seals or lying on the kelp-strewn beach. While there we spent most of our time helping the BLM manage their ice-plant infestation.  Ice plant is a ground hugging succulent, apparently resistant to salt and everything but incredibly determined efforts to remove it. The folks at Piedras Blancas have done an amazing job of doing just that though. Leveraging truly massive amounts of volunteer (and intern) man-power to clear the historically and ecologically significant grounds of the lighthouse from its droopy clutches.

The Ice-plant removal went well enough, although our best efforts paled in comparison to what the volunteers had accomplished in the past. I’ll return to my stay there with more detail in the future.

That green mass of invasive succulent is the Invasive in question.

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