Autumn watch

Even though the temperature got up to nearly eighty degrees today, it feels like fall. The sun is noticeably lower in the sky, and daylight is noticeably shorter than nighttime. I went for a walk up in the hills overlooking Half Moon Bay, and once you get out from under the redwoods into the chaparral, the plants look tired and dry and worn out, ready for the winter rains. Even the fall asters look faded now, with blossoms that are almost white instead of pale violet.


Above: Honeybee pollinating asters at Purissima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve; the asters are probably the Common California Aster (Symphyotrichum chilense)

During the long climb back up to the trail head, I kept stopping to admire the way the afternoon sun shone gently on the steep hills and canyons that descended to the ocean; admiring the view was also a good excuse to stop and catch my breath when the trail was steepest. After one particularly steep stretch, I turned and saw a Golden Eagle below me. This was a perfect excuse to stop for a moment. I watched the eagle ride the breeze down the canyon until it disappeared from my view behind a forested ridge.


After a week of twelve hour days, getting everything set for the first day of Sunday school, I was ready for a break. When Carol suggested we go for a late-afternoon walk at Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, I was ready to go.

About an hour into our walk, Carol pointed down at the ground. “What’s that?” It was a small animal, dead. A mouse? No, a closer look revealed it was a mole. I turned it over carefully. There was a bit of a flat place where it had been lying; presumably decomposition was beginning. But you could still see the general shape of the animal. I admired it for a while then made a sketch, slightly smaller than the actual size of 110 mm total length, which I refined once we got home:

Shrew-mole, Neurotrichus gibbsii

Of the two species of mole which inhabit our area, it was clearly a Shrew-mole (Neurotrichus gibbsii). According to Jameson and Peeters, in Mammals of California, we humans don’t really know what this species eats, or how it reproduces: “The Shrew-mole seems to feed indiscriminately on a board spectrum of soil-dwelling insects, pill-bugs, and centipedes”; it “appears to breed in late winter”; and “little is known of its reproductive habits” (my emphases). Another organism to which we humans live in close proximity, but about which we know little.

Three predators

This afternoon, we went for a walk at Purissima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains southwest of San Mateo. It was a stunning afternoon, warm but not too hot, with fog beginning to roll in up the canyons from the ocean.

As we hiked down into the preserve, we kept hearing a hawk screaming somewhere in the distance, but we never saw it. And then when we were hiking back up to the parking lot, there it was overhead: an accipter flying over the ridge we were on, then turning and riding the breeze coming up the canyon to our right. And what kind of accipter was it, a Cooper’s Hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk? I’d say it was perhaps a little larger, the neck a little longer, the tail a little more rounded, the wingbeats a little more deliberate: probably a Cooper’s Hawk, but I’m not good enough at field identification to be sure. It wheeled around, high above the canyon floor but at eye level for us; a couple of Band-tailed Pigeons came over the ridge, saw the accipter, and quickly ducked into the trees below us. Then the fog rolled up the canyon, and it was gone.

As we continued up the trail, Carol got about a hundred feet in front of me. Suddenly we both froze: walking the trail well up the hill in front of us was a dog-sized canid: a Gray Fox, its long tail behind it, its head turning from side to side, giving us a flash of the rufous fur up the side of the neck. It didn’t seem to notice us; it was busy watching the undergrowth on either side of the trail, and at least once it pounced at something.

We got back to the car a little after seven, and decided to go down to the beach to eat dinner. It was a beautiful foggy evening, and we walked along past Heerman’s and California Gulls, but the real attraction of the beach was the Velella velellas. When I was reading up on this species last night, I found a Web page by Dr. David Cowles that gave a possible reason why so many Velella velellas have washed up on northern California beaches:

“The angled sail makes it sail at 45 degrees from the prevailing wind. Some have a sail angled to the left, others to the right. Off California the right-angled form prevails, and these remain offshore in the prevailing northerly winds. Strong southerly or westerly winds, however, may bring huge aggregations ashore.”

We walked down the beach, making an unscientific survey: of the dozens of individuals we saw — ranging in size from less than two inches long to one that was as long as my notebook or approximately four inches (10 cm) long — all the sails had the same handedness (according to Dr. Cowles’ terminology, right-angled sails). Here’s a sketch from my notebook:


I picked one up by its sail to look at the tentacles hanging down underneath. The velellas, like the fox and accipter, are predators, feeding on smaller organisms with their dangling tentacles. The tentacles seemed to descend from the central oval, and were of varying lengths. The sail itself felt smooth, flexible, and slightly rubbery; I dropped it back into the waves after I had looked at it.

Three very different predators — but each one a fabulously beautiful organism.