Benthic Invertebrates

A lot of my time at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve has been spent in the plankton lab that is offered to school groups as part of their field trip. It is a really neat lab because it allows students to interact with microscopes, something that some students might not have a chance to do within their regular school year curriculum.

The key to a good lab is collecting a good sample from the slough. This usually requires a pair of rubber boots to get into the water and collect some big chunks of bryozoans, which are a plant-like colonial animals that the benthic invertebrates like to hang from.

Some of the most commons benthic invertebrates we see in the lab are Caprellids, also called skeleton shrimp. When most students first see them under the microscopes they are a little spooked because of their alien-like appearance. Most people think they look like mantises of some sort. Another critter we often see are sea spiders from the class Pycnogonida. Students usually ask if they’re actual spiders and they are not, they just look like land spiders. We also get brittle stars and small sea jellies.

The best part about the lab is seeing how excited the students are looking at their samples. Especially after they’ve had some initial trouble focusing the microscope but then eventually get it right and are able to see the critters clearly and sharply.

Helping in the labs was always a fun activity. And it was also a reminder about how we are surrounded by micro and macroscopic life, and that sometimes it’s important to appreciate it and observe it sometimes.

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Oystercatcher woes

Over the past few weeks I’ve been able to observe some of the obstacles that the Black Oystercatchers, or BLOYs, face. It has been an eye-opening experience that really allowed me to see how many challenges other species face when it comes to reproduction.

It’s a little difficult to not get attached to the chicks, especially when we’ve observed their journey from parent’s nest building behavior, to eggs, and to chicks. Unfortunately, the birth of a chick does not equal reproductive success. The small chicks are still very vulnerable to many predators and are entirely dependent on their parents for protection. This vulnerability meant that most of the chicks that we saw hatched ultimately disappeared. There are only a few chicks left out of a lot of mating pairs. It became typical to see a pair of BLOYs with a chick or two one day, and then suddenly gone the next. Some pairs re-nested, but only to face the same outcome.

Hopefully the data that is being collected will convince people that Black Oystercatchers need more protection. They are a vulnerable species that have been forced to share their territories with humans. The least humans can do is offer protection during their breeding season.

Currently, there is one particular pair of BLOY chicks that have been becoming quite popular with locals and tourists alike in Pacific Grove. These chicks have garnered attention due to the specific place in which they are currently being raised, among the harbor seals. A lot of people stop by to observe the hauled-out harbor seals and among them is a family of yipping Black Oystercatchers. The juxtaposition of these huge marine mammals with these tiny, funny-looking birds is quite a sight. I think this has been bringing a lot of attention to the birds and they are becoming more familiar to the crowds that gather.

A Crow Eating a Carrot

The title of this blog post was inspired by someone describing the way a Black Oystercatcher looks as a crow eating a carrot due to their dark plumage and their long bright orange bill.

Now that the shorebird surveys are over I’ve started to get involved in helping to monitor Black Oystercatchers and their nests. This monitoring will help towards gathering data about the Black Oystercatcher’s reproductive success. These particular birds seem to be facing quite a bit of challenges. Their range falls within the rocky intertidal, which means that they might be facing habitat loss due to climate change. While nesting, they also face the danger of predators including gulls and crows.

This project is being led by Hugo Ceja, the Monterey intern from last year. He has a network of volunteers helping to monitor the nests at various locations around the Monterey Coast. Hugo has become quite the expert on anything Black Oystercatcher-related, so I’ve been trying to soak up as much information from him as possible. So far I’ve gone out with him to the sites a few times and I’m always amazed at how much he knows about the Oystercatchers and their behaviors. I am also surprised at his ability to find the nests that he is monitoring in the first place because they are so very well camouflage, inconspicuous, and often times far away.

The first thing I learned about the Black Oystercatchers is that they are very territorial amongst their own species. A pair of Black Oystercatchers will claim a territory and will chase any interlopers that come into their territory. From my own observations out in the field I’ve noticed that this is behavior might have to do something with their troubles reproducing. When an outside Black Oystercatchers comes into the territory often times the Black Oystercatcher that is on the nest will get off the nest and join the chase as well. Predators will take advantage of this situation. This past Tuesday there was a pretty close call when a nesting pair of Black Oystercatchers went off on a chase and a gull got really close to the eggs and was looking down at them. Luckily, one of the Oystercatchers came back just in time.

Another thing that I’ve become quite familiar with is the Black Oystercatcher’s calls. They have a very distinct calls and it is rare that they fly without making a call, making it somewhat easier to locate them.

The kind of observations that are of interest to this monitoring include: nesting behaviors, incubation exchange, the fledging of the chicks, and any significant observations of predators as well.

I’m excited to learn more about the Black Oystercatchers and I’m hoping that this data will lead for them to receive a special status if their populations are actually in trouble. While this season has already been plagued with lost eggs, I’m hoping that the other pairs will pull through and raise chicks successfully!


Bilingual Bird Walk in Seaside, CA

On Saturday the 31st I was able to tag along on a bird walk in Seaside, CA. I heard about the bird walk from last year’s Monterey intern, Hugo Ceja. The person who led the walk, Celia Bosworth, is going to be volunteering with Hugo doing some Black Oystercatcher monitoring in the Pacific Grove/Monterey area.

We all met at the Seaside County Library at 10 AM. There I was able to meet Celia and some of her other volunteers including a Spanish/English interpreter and a leader from the Boys & Girls Club.

I was pleasantly surprised at how many kids and their families showed up to the event! It was a really good turnout. There were about 25-30 people in total. The majority of the children and families that participated were Latino so I was able to speak in Spanish to mostly everybody!

Before walking to Laguna Grande Regional Park, Celia gave some quick pointers in both English and Spanish on how to use binoculars and then we handed them out to the children and their parents. After handing out the binoculars we headed off to the park which was virtually across the street.

Once we got to the park we were able to see some ducks and geese almost immediately. There were a lot of Canada Geese present as well as some Mallards. We lucky enough to see a mom Mallard and her little ducklings! That was exciting for me because it was the first time that I saw ducklings!

There were also Barn Swallows flying over the pond which was pretty neat because they have an iridescent blue hue to them that is always nice to observe. The kids were very interested in learning the names of the birds, and Celia was also very knowledgeable of the birds’ names in Spanish so she was able to share the Spanish names with us too.

Aside from the geese and Mallards we also saw a couple of blackbirds, some crows, and we were also able to get a really nice close-up view of a Double-Crested Cormorant. While we were all observing the cormorant a Great Blue Heron landed right next to it! That was probably the highlight of the bird walk, having the Great Blue Heron making a surprise appearance was really neat!

Some challenges that I encountered during the bird walk included some of the kids chasing the Canada Geese. I didn’t really know how to tell them not to do it without sounding like an old grouch but I just tried explaining that they were probably scaring them and stressing them out. Some of the kids were picking up bird feathers. I explained that they probably had a lot of germs and that birds often carry diseases so it might be better to just leave the feathers.

Overall it was a really great event. I was able to meet a lot of new people. The best part was seeing how interested some of the kids were. I hope that this event was able to spark an interest for the outdoors and maybe even for birds!

It was great that Celia organized with event. At first I was under the impression that Celia was a teacher but soon learned that she works in healthcare and she was partaking in this event because of her love for the outdoors. She also explained that the Spanish version of the Kaufman bird guide inspired her to start doing these bilingual birds walks. Celia is truly an inspiring person and I hope she continues to organize more events like this because it brought a lot of happiness to everyone who participated!

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IMBD at Elkhorn Slough Reserve

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Onn Sunday the 18th we celebrated International Migratory Bird Day at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve.

In preparation for the event Carlos and I were able to do some redecorating in the Visitor Center. We put up a lot of different pictures of birds on the wall; I tried picking pictures of birds that we see in the area so that visitors might be familiar with some of them. We also put up a big poster about migration, explaining what migration is and why certain animals migrate.

For the IMBD event I also decided to make something fun: bird cutouts so people could put their faces on a bird’s body. The birds I decided to make were an American Avocet, Anna’s Hummingbird, and a Mallard because they are birds that are often seen at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve.

Our supervisor Amanda A. also printed out information on “Why Birds Matter” and information about migratory birds in general that was available for visitors to take with them.

For the event we had coloring for younger children and paper-bag Heron puppets for older children.

Carlos and I also led a bilingual walk in the morning. We had 10 people on our walk, and it was pretty fun showing people the beauty of the Elkhorn Slough Reserve. It was really neat seeing how excited the two kids on the tour were as they were walking through the reserve. I think it was a good reminder that a lot of kids already have an interest in the outdoors and that we, as interns, can provide more opportunities for them to interact with the outdoors

That day we also had open lab so visitors could look at feathers and benthic invertebrates under the microscopes, which is something that is usually not available to the public but mostly to school groups. The people who I observed at the lab seemed to really enjoy and seemed to be fascinated by what they saw under the microscope.

Overall it was a good event. It was a preview of what it would be like to give walks all of the time. I feel like I still have a lot of information to learn about the reserve so I can adequately answers  questions from visitors.