Earthwatch Expedition 2015…

This is Heather speaking.

While the adult peregrines were busy teaching their juveniles their life skills, I went off on a tangent to explore something I’d like to share with you… All photos are mine.

Photo by Heather O'Connor

Common Dolphin          Photo by Heather O’Connor

Since I moved to California in 2011, I always wanted to learn more about whales and to volunteer again for Earthwatch.  Searching the website, I found a project that would be perfect. “Whales and Dolphins Under the California Sun”

On Summer Solstice, June 21st, I was taking the AMTRAK “Pacific Surfliner” train south along the coastline. It arrived in San Juan Capistrano and I taxied to meet Warren Stortroen, a well known Earthwatch volunteer,  and then we headed  to the  project headquarters at Dana Point. I’d be on Team 1 with five other volunteers.

The first night, the Principal Investigator, Dr. Lei Lani Stelle of the University of Redlands, introduced us to the details of the project telling us how important a long range study was. We would be collecting base line data.  Collisions between whales and boats have been steadily on the rise due to more activity in commercial marine shipping and travel and increased numbers of people on pleasure and fishing crafts. Disturbances have been shown to alter the activities of traveling and foraging whales and dolphins. Even stand-up paddle boards and kayaks could be included for disturbing the normal behavior of marine mammals. You know how you feel when interrupted continuously! It cannot be good for their survival, in my opinion, which seems to match other people’s ideas.

The PI, college grad students and Team 1 were ready to get going! After we made our own breakfasts, packed lunch, days were spent taking GPS locations and time of all whales, dolphins, ships, ferries, fishing and pleasure boats, kayaks and paddle boarders.

Heading out to sea at the harbor entrance, there were buoys with the familiar reclining Sea Lions.

Seal lions reclining on the Dana Point buoy

Navigation buoy at Dana Point                 Photo by Heather O’Connor

I took my newly purchased 70D Canon camera with the 100-400mm lens. Great fun “rocking and rolling” and shooting the most wonderful dolphins and whales from the boats that we used!

Observations and photography were made from hired boats and some from onshore.

 Photo by Heather O'Connor

Leaping dolphin

Long-beaked and Short-beaked Common Dolphins in great numbers leapt and frolicked. Shane Keena, husband to the PI and a very fine photographer, could identify the difference between the two easily!  He gave me some highly appreciated photography tips, too.

They and Bottlenose Dolphins were seen miles off Dana Point. Hours were spent on our various duties of data collection which we alternated amongst us.

Photo by Heather O'Connor

Distinctive markings on the Risso’s Dolphin

The shape of the whale and dolphin dorsal fins can be used to identify individuals. Notches and unusual shapes are noted. Photos of them are very valuable. Three graduate and college students taught us all our duties when the PI was busy. They’d been working on this project out of their own personal fascination and chosen course of study.

Photo by Heather O'Connor

Team 1 observers and Lei Lani

After a ferry to Avalon on Catalina Island, we took a smaller hired boat to collect data on the Risso’s Dolphins, which was a new species for me! It had a blunt forehead and becomes white with age due to scarring. I understand they are a very scrappy dolphin, often attacking each other.

Close inshore we passed a rocky beach with numerous Sea Lions and a Harbor Seal. Later in the day, we spent a few hours exploring Avalon on our own before returning to the Dana Point Ferry.

Photo by Heather O'Connor

Sea Lions on Catalina Island

Photo by Heather O'Connor

Sea Lion snagged with fish hook and lure on Navigation buoy

We passed another navigation buoy with Sea Lions and one unfortunately snagged with fishing gear.

Photo by Heather O'Connor

Fishing lure wound on Sea Lion …   Something that shouldn’t happen

One afternoon, my wish came true. I’d seen Blue Whales in books and knew they were the largest whale out there, so there it was!

Photo by Heather O'Connor

Whale watching boat aiming  to get a bit too close to the Blue Whale, in my opinion

It blew, it spouted, it rose to the surface and showed its immensely long body to us. Its dorsal fin is set far back on its body, so I saw lots of back before the tiny dorsal fin showed itself. And then the fluke was flipped up, so as to show off or say “Hello.”  I guess just normal whale behavior.  So satisfying !

Evenings were spent helping with dinner and cleaning up, then going over the data that we had collected.

Some afternoons were spent at the condominium, inputting data into the computer to produce a fascinating report of all we had seen. A visual report making sense of the numbers. A map of the transects that we worked !

Dana Point, CA

The data goes here… GPS points, species, weather, etc.

This research produces a real life demonstration of the interaction between people and marine mammals.

This was my 11th Earthwatch Expedition as a volunteer to collect much needed data for the sake of science and the Earth. I couldn’t have spent my time doing anything better than this!

Photos by Heather O'Connor

Warren Stortroen, his 88th Earthwatch Expedition

Warren, who I mentioned earlier, was on his 88th expedition! So glad to have met him.  Ever since he retired in 1996, he’s made it his priority to continually contribute his volunteer energy to Earthwatch.  An admirable effort, I’d say!

Curious about the oceans,


Common Dolphin    Photo by Heather O'Connor

Long-beaked Common Dolphin                    Photo by Heather O’Connor

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Probable cause…

This gallery contains 3 photos.

Observation date: 19 July 2015 A summer thunderstorm hit the Central Coast of California last night and today leaving a much needed inch and three quarters of much needed rain. Aside from the good quenching in drought ridden California, it … Continue reading

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Kudos to Cleve…

Observation date: 5 July 2015

Last spring, a new female came in to replace the one that had been on the north side of Morro Rock for the last few years. We don’t know what happened to the last female, whether she had died of natural causes, was killed in a fight or was run off. All we know was that we saw a new female that was colored differently from the previous one. She didn’t have a full black hood, but had the white cheek patch that defines the mustache, making this a different bird.

During this year’s breeding season, we had discovered that she was banded. Since then, we have tried to read the band with not much success. Cleve Nash with his new EF 600mm lens on his Canon EOS D Mark II captured a shot in the early morning of her stretching and you can see the results.

Peregrine falcon on north side of Morro Rock

North side female with band                                               Photo by Cleve Nash

Female peregrine falcon on north side of Morro Rock

Band on the north side female peregrine                                 Photo by Cleve Nash

He found out by reporting the band to  Glenn R. Stewart, Director, Predatory Bird Research Group, Long Marine Laboratory, UC Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA 95064.*

She was hatched on the 250 foot high catwalk atop the Moss Landing Power Plant in the spring of 2012 making her three years old. She is now the mother of three chicks, two males and one female on the north side of Morro Rock. We believe this to be her first clutch.

To be able to get a photograph like this, believe me, it is a real task. There can be no wind and the lighting has to be just right. The window of opportunity is very small, probably less than 10 seconds! But for Cleve Nash, no problem! Just another day at the rock.

Happy trails, Bob

*Email from Glenn Stewart…..   “Nice work, Cleve!! I banded 23/R  as a fledgling on 3 July, 2012. Her nest was in a gravel filled box on the 250 foot high catwalk of the Moss Landing Power Plant. I attach two photos of the nest site and banding as it is usually accomplished at this site. However 23/R was not banded in the usual fashion (as a nestling) because I did not yet have clearance to band at this site. She was banded after a bad fledging attempt and was collected by workers at the plant and then checked out by my friend, Dr. Jim Roush. We banded her and returned her to a high roof where her parents took over—apparently with good results. Many thanks for the sighting. I am putting a paper together on dispersal for the Raptor Research Foundation conference this fall. This will help!  Best, —glenn


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Growing up…

Observation date: 28 June 2015

The young falcons are becoming young adults very quickly. They still find time to play and chase each other, but more than ever they are chasing prey. The adults still bring prey, but no longer do they let them take it from their talons. The adults drop the prey, this time a gull chick, before the young get too close, thus making the young having to dive after it and catch the falling prey.

Catch it now!

Juvenile peregrine feeding time                                    Photo by Cleve Nash

They still have a few weeks of killing and feeding on young Western Gull chicks before they become too large and cumbersome to carry. The most that we have seen them bring in and consume were four gull chicks in a three hour period. I focused on one young falcon eating a gull chick. It took 55 minutes for him to finish his repast. His crop looked like May West. He then slept for two and a half hours.

Western Gull with 2 chicks

Western Gull with two gull chicks                                                  Photo by Cleve Nash

The young falcons still frequent the rock, but not as much as before venturing farther and farther away for longer periods of time.

I have cut back my time on the north side and am spending more time on the south side with the other pair, where visitors have a better chance of viewing falcons. No young, but mature adults. Even without young this year, they’ve always been my first love.

Happy trails, Bob

So far the juveniles have had encounters with a female Northern Harrier, two adult falcons and one juvenile falcon and none are “resident” birds.

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Play or prey?

Observation date: 9 June 2015

June gloom is upon us some days, making observations somewhat difficult during those days. Warm air rising inland draws in the Pacific marine layer into the coastal areas leaving us with heavy overcast skies or fog. For a few days we could only hear the falcon chicks but, when it does clear up, the flying circus begins again.

"The Rock" seen in the marine layer fogginess.

“The Rock” barely visible                               Photo by Heather O’Connor

The young have shown more interest in chasing prey birds like swallows and swifts, although, I have not witnessed one being caught as of yet but, it has probably happened.

A few years ago, Cleve Nash and I saw a young bird just out of the nest on its third day of flying catch a house finch. The young still chase each other around the rock but, have not ventured across the inlet to the sand spit which is normally their next stop. Then it will be over to the estuary, a large tidal area on the southern end of Morro Bay. Birds of every description are found here at different times of the year. When the young falcons are able to make a kill, this place will be their “candy store,” at least until the end of summer. Then the parents will feel it is time to chase them off completely.  “You’re on your own, son.”

Happy trails, Bob

Item: Gordon Robb and I saw a chick do an inside loop within the length of its body, much like a tumble pigeon does. This was first for me.

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Hav’n fun…

Observation date: 2 June 2015

After a week of flying, the three young falcons on the north side of Morro Rock are having more fun than a litter of piglets in a mud hole. It’s hard to describe, first two chase one, then one chases two and all the time they are doing maneuvers they could not do yesterday.

peregrine juveniles at Morro Rock, Morro Bay CA

Photo by Cleve Nash

It’s nonstop tag, “You’re it!”

I forgot to mention there are two males and one female. She is the one being chased most. It’s 9:30 AM and all the young are squealing. They have spotted the tiercel, incoming over the bay delivering breakfast at 60 + mph. He has a tail wind and is carrying a very small prey item. All three launch off the cornice, while he is still 300 yards out. They pass over me in the parking lot, but don’t venture too far out over the water.  As the tiercel passes, they turn and give chase. One of the male chicks makes a pass with open talons to snatch the prey and misses completely. Next the big female tries, but collides with the adult dislodging the prey. And the third bird, a small male, dives after the falling prey, catches it mid-air and heads back to the cornice.

Needless to say the two others are chasing him.

It’s like watching a flying circus. A few minutes later the adult female arrives with nothing that I can see.  The two remaining chicks chase her any way  thinking she has something.  She then makes an abrupt wing-over into a stoop and deftly picks off a white crown sparrow sitting on the dirt parking lot.  The two chicks try to follow her. They could not keep up, but they saw what she did.  Now they know where these meals come from.

The last chick had to wait another hour before he got fed.

Happy trails, Bob

At Piedras Blancas Light Station in San Simeon, there are three chicks and at Shell Beach, four chicks.

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Today we fly…

Observation date: 26 May 2015

A great day for the three young falcons, for they took to the air today sometime before we arrived at the north side of Morro Rock. Looking up toward the nest site, there were no chicks visible.

Gordon Robb was a few minutes ahead of me and said, “It looks like a chick on the shark fin.”

After setting up my equipment another one popped up from behind the same fin-shaped rock. The rock is located at the far left end of the north face, high up jutting into the sky line.

Juveniles peregrine falcons on first flight

Silhouette of the young fledglings                                     Photo by Gordon Robb

After watching the two for a while, we started looking for “peek-a-boo,” the one that seems to be a little behind on everything. Our best guess was that he was still in the nest site, out of sight. Upon further observations, we noticed a Western Gull making repeated swoops near some brush about twenty yards to the right of the shark fin. Within a minute, the adult female came screaming in on the gull at Mach 7, raking it with the hallux* talon. We knew then the whereabouts of “peek-a-boo.” He was not left behind as we thought, but had crash landed in the bushes behind the rocks. His only mistake was that he crashed too close to the gull’s nest.

We didn’t get to see the actual first flights that day, but when we did see them, they were a 125 yards away and no lower than the elevation of the nest site. This was pretty remarkable for all three on their first attempt on flying.

Juveniles peregrine falcons on first flight

Lift off                                      Photo by Gordon Robb

We stayed there for a total of six hours watching the parents bring food to each. The young ones making several more flights, never lower than the first.  Except there was  one that a chick made when he dove on a gull and surprised himself that he could stay with a gull for a few fast sharp turns.

Payback time is just down the road.

Happy trails, Bob

The south side falcons have started breeding again. So maybe a second clutch is in the making.

*hallux – The toe which faces backwards on most raptors. It is the hallux that rakes the flesh or pulls feathers.  In hawks, this is the talon most responsible for puncturing the vitals of prey.  See Glossary for more information and the archived article with photos dated May 2014.

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A rare peek at “peek-a-boo”…

Peregrine chicks

North side female with two  of her peregrine chicks                           Photo by Cleve Nash

Peregrine chicks

Female with her peregrine chicks                           Photo by Cleve Nash

Observation date: 18 May 2015

Gale force winds with gusts up to 45 miles/hour does not make viewing very enjoyable, not to say what it does to the equipment. Although all three chicks on the north side were visible, they are spending much more time outside the the nest site the last couple days. The young bold one took to climbing up the sloping rock where the adult female perches. Today there were two young up there and both were being fed by the mother who had previously brought in a large white prey item. It could have been a gull chick. I couldn’t make a positive identification. The head had already been dispatched.

They young don’t seem to go back to the nest site much, but rather crouch down in a crevice  of the sloping rock where it backs up to the rock behind. When you don’t see them at all, they are in that crevice.

All three peregrine chicks looking out

Three curious peregrine chicks                                      Photo by Cleve Nash

Peregrine chicks

Peregrine chicks looking around at the world of Morro Bay, CA                             Photo by Cleve Nash

The third chick who we referred to as “peek-a-boo” has made it half way up the sloping rock, but is still is only partially visible staying true to his moniker.

We will be able to determine sex of the young more readily when they fledge in another ten days or so.

The south side is still an unknown as to what has happened. both parents are still there and close to each other. It is possible they could breed again, but it is very late in the season and doubtful, but we’ll be watching keeping them under observation.

Happy trails, Bob

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One chick a day…

Observation date: 11 May 2015

Since my last posting, more young have been making appearances at the north side eyrie of Morro Rock.

peregrine falcon chick, Morro Rock, Morro Bay, California

Appearance of first chick                                             Photo by Cleve Nash

Yesterday, we observed two young; today, there were three. It seems as though the female takes prey into the eyrie, after a few moments she will leave and perch outside, then one or more chicks will venture outside while whomever got the prey is eating. They don’t share the prey, but mantle* it to keep it away from the other chicks. Only when he is full will he give it up.  They all get their turn. The last one that fed will be too full when the next prey item arrives. Prey items seem to arrive about every 30-45 minutes.

Two of the young are very bold and come all the way out. The third is “peek-a-boo” who barely shows himself at the left corner of the hole. This makes us think, there could be a fourth chick feeding in the back. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but you can never tell.

Since 2001, between the two pair of falcons north and south sides, they have produced four clutches of four chicks each. One clutch on the south side and three on the north.

Speaking of the south side, things are pretty sketchy. No chicks have appeared and the parents don’t seem to go into the nest. This is very unusual behavior. The few of us that watch are all baffled as to what is going on over there.

Happy trails, Bob

*mantle – To cover the prey with spread wings to hide prey and fend off others.

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Gordon’s view…

Observation date: 7 May 2015

Watching the south side nest site for chicks to appear has been trying to say the least. For the last few days the adults have left the nest unattended for sometimes up to and hour, but yet still take food into the nest site daily. Still no sign of young, not even a wing flap.

Upon arriving at Morro Rock this morning, my friend and cohort, Gordon Robb, is parked on the north side observing the other pair of falcons which we thought to be about a week behind the south side pair. This was because we had seen them breeding when the south side had already begun incubating. Several minutes before I got there, Gordon had already shot a video of a young chick coming to the edge of the nest site to defecate.

nest site on north side of Morro Rock

North side eyrie                                            Photo by Bob Isenberg

Needless to say, I went no further. I set up there, next to Gordon, and didn’t bother to go over to the south side.

“What the heck. At least, there is something to see over here!”

I believe one reason we have not seen the young on the south side is because the nest is situated in a hole that goes down into the rock, rather than straight in level like the north side.

This making the south side more difficult as they have to climb up to the opening. Time will tell. In the mean time, I will be observing the north side chicks with a smile.

Happy trails, Bob

I believe this nest site called the “dome” as been used at least four times in the previous fourteen years that a pair of falcons has nested on this north side.

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