Friday, April 18, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

At the Pond: Get up close to learn about elephant seals

Juvenile and sub-adult elephant seals have hauled out to rest at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal colony along the California coast. They have been out to sea, solitary for about 10 months. Young males play-fight with each other. Jean Jackman/Courtesy photo

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From page A3 | November 25, 2012 | Leave Comment

Back in the 1980s, we would sometimes visit our big pond, the Pacific Ocean, at Año Nuevo State Park to observe the huge elephant seals. Usually, we would think of it too late and be unable to get the necessary reservations to see these amazing mammmals that spend most of their life solitary and in the sea.

Back then, little was known about them. However, now we are able to use time-depth recorders and GPS transmitters and observe seals that have been tagged. And we have learned amazing things about them. We also have seen them go from near extinction to great numbers that now pull out of the ocean at multiple places along the Pacific Coast.

Earlier this month, while completing my 2,000-plus-mile bike trip from Canada to Mexico, I was able to stop and watch the first of the seals to arrive. There were perhaps 1,000, right along Highway 1, at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal colony, on the southern end of Big Sur, 4 miles south of the Hearst Castle. You do not need reservations, however, it is a five-hour drive from Davis.

We now know the young haul out first, followed by sub-adults. Right now, mature males begin to arrive. Females arrive in December to give birth. Peak births happen in the last half of January.The peak of mating is around Valentine’s Day. In March, the last adults leave and weaned pups teach themselves how to swim.

These mammals are amazing. The older males travel to the Aleutian Islands twice a year. Females and juveniles go north but not as far. They feed on bottom fish at 2,000 feet and dive even to 5,000 feet. They can stay down for more than an hour. They bulk up because when they come ashore, they will fast as the males do battle and the females give birth and nurse. A total of 4,500 pups were born at the Piedras Blancas rookery this year.

There are close-up, safe viewing areas at Piedras Blancas. Enthusiastic volunteer docents are available with handouts and detailed information. You could visit Año Nuevo, only 2 1/2 hours away. Or, see what is happening at Piedras Blancas at this moment with a virtual visit. Visit the website and webcam at www.elephantseal.org.

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Though I have lived in Davis for 42 years, until this month, I had never visited the Sutter Buttes, those mysterious mountains that rise abruptly from the valley floor, one hour from Davis near Yuba City. Luckily, I was able to register at the last minute for a hike. It was a gentle nature walk led by Davis’ Gene Trapp. And Gene connected with his former student, now professor, doing research on ringtail cats, so we were able to hike, watch birds and learn about a mammal new to me.

Ringtails are solitary, nocturnal animals. They were once called miner’s cats and kept as pets to rid cabins of vermin. Scientists are now discovering new information about them by trapping and tagging. For example, they love to eat mistletoe. They are omnivores but mainly carnivorous in the winters. They are in the raccoon family but are amazing climbers and smaller even than a house cat.

We saw more than 30 bird species on our hike, with special thanks to Terry Colburn, a birder extraordinare who can hear and call attention to many different species in just minutes, species I wouldn’t have heard without his prompting. We also saw scat of gray fox, ringtail, raccoon, coyote and feral pig. We saw numerous remnants of feral pig such as bone, jaws, hides; they’re hunted full-time because there are so many and they are destructive and dangerous.

To look at the Sutter Buttes hikes and degree of difficulty, visit www.middlemountain.org. There is a charge of at least $35 for the theme-led hikes.

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Now, close to home and free. Take a gentle hike out at the West Pond. The first Wednesday of each month, join leaders Ralph Hunter and Gene Trapp for a two-hour birding and botanizing walk. Meet at the gazebo in the park at the west end of Isle Royale Lane. At this month’s walk, the group observed 23 bird species, a fox squirrel and a gulf fritillary, a bright orange butterfly. Since the walk, they have observed wood ducks, hooded merganser and white-fronted geese.

If you have questions, call Gene at 530-756-6291. Bring binoculars. A spotting scope will be provided. Check the Friends of West Pond on Facebook for current finds and photos.

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Give children a chance to connect with the birds in our region. A trip geared for young birders ages 8-14 with responsible adults car-pooling will take place on Saturday, Dec. 1. They will visit the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, one of the primary stopping places for migrating waterfowl during the winter. There is a limit of 10 youngsters and whatever adults accompany them.

To register, contact trip leader Lynn Baysinger at lynnbays@gmail.com or 530-756-8787. Registered participants will meet at 8 a.m. in the park-and-ride lot off of Mace Boulevard north of Interstate 80.

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“Coyotes in Our Midst, Learning to Live with North America’s Native ‘Song Dog’ ” will be presented Thursday, Dec. 6, at 7 p.m. at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area Headquarters. A $5 donation is requested unless you are a member. The speaker will be Camilla Fox, executive director of Project Coyote. I have found every Flyways Nights lecture presented to be fascinating; they are held on the first Thursday of the month through April.

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I happily completed my Canada-to-Mexico bicycle trip, as did the other 12 riders. We enjoyed many adventures and I made some new friends. Email me if you would like an overview of the trip with photos. And thanks to the many who contributed to the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. There’s still time. Go to http://tinyurl.com/Jeans-ride.

Especially in the gloomy days, get out in nature and find the surprises, get some exercise and kiss each day.

— Jean Jackman is a Davis resident; her column is published monthly. Got a question, comment or correction? Contact her at JeanJackman@gmail.com

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