conservation ftw, joanna irl

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium Open Sea

Last weekend, J and I took a roadtrip north to Monterey and San Francisco. You can see all of the photos here. The main destination on Saturday was the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Housed in an old cannery, the Aquarium is now home to a huge collection of California’s native marine species, from fish and turtles to sharks and sea otters, and even shorebirds. They research and resource sustainable seafood and rehabilitate and release injured wildlife from up and down the coast. The exhibit above is their Open Sea exhibit, during their scheduled feeding time. The swarm is a school of sardines, but there are also other large and small fish, sharks and sea turtles in the exhibit, as well as native invertebrates.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Kelp Bed

The Aquarium began as a project to allow non-scuba-divers a chance to see what the Bay looks like beneath the surface. This Kelp Bed exhibit is modeled on the Bay; it contains live kelp and many species of fish, sharks and invertebrates that call the California coast home. We got to see a diver feeding some of the fish in this exhibit, too. One of the cool things about it is that the water in about 95% of the exhibits is actual bay water: they pump it and filter it and then cycle it back into the bay unaltered. This is a window into the ocean.

Monterey Bay Aquarium behind the scenes

J and I did a behind the scenes tour to learn about how the aquarium operates, and to see some of the exhibits a little closer. This is actually the top of the Kelp Bed exhibit. Tides and waves are recreated mechanically so the kelp stays healthy, and the strings keep birds from eating the exhibit fish. The buildings in the background are part of the sea otter rescue program, housing nurseries and surrogate moms for the pups; pups raised by otters do much better in the wild and learn to stay away from people.

Monterey Bay Aquarium wild sea otter

Speaking of otters, we saw a ton of them in the bay itself! They were hanging out in rafts, or drifting on their own, catching crabs and eating on their backs in the water. We even saw a mom and pup a little farther up the coast as we walked to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Cannery Row

We walked down Cannery Row on the way to the Wharf, past all of the old canneries that have been turned into shops and restaurants. It’s interesting to see the old buildings, and to walk inside of them and see the skeletons of the industry. The Wharf had several offering whale watching and stands with samples of clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls. We also saw a pile of sea lions on one of the floating docks.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Fisherman's Wharf

We ended the day with a dinner at the Fishwife restaurant on the recommendation of a friend. It was a really fun day and I learned a lot about local California (coastal) wildlife, plus ate some amazing clam chowder and then fish for dinner. I’d definitely go to Monterey again.

conservation ftw

Earth Day 2013: Balboa blooms and birds

Balboa Eucalyptus sunshine

This is one of the first Earth Days in a while that I haven’t been working or volunteering at an event of some sort, which is a little weird. I hope I can get outside and enjoy the sunshine today at least.

Balboa pink roses

In the meantime, here are some photos I took in Balboa park last week. The rose garden we visited at Easter is now exploding with roses, and I added two new birds to my list of sightings.

Balboa white roses

I really liked these white roses, but my favorite new blooms were called Rock and Roll; they were red and white stripes, like the blooms had been painted, and I kept singing the Alice in Wonderland song “Painting the Roses Red.”

Balboa rock and roll rose

I also saw a western bluebird, which is similar to the eastern bluebirds I grew up seeing, but just different enough that I had to look it up in my bird book.

Balboa western bluebird

And then I saw one I couldn’t identify at all, until I thumbed through my guide to north american birds twice and finally realized it was a hooded oriole. Not an uncommon bird around here, I guess, but it looked a lot different from the Baltimore variety I’ve seen on the east coast.

Balboa hooded oriole

So there you have it. Flowers and birds to brighten up your Earth Day.

conservation ftw, joanna irl

Sunset Cliffs and California Wildflowers

Sunset Cliffs, yellow flower path
Last week J and I spent an afternoon at Sunset Cliffs. Our friends had recently gotten portraits done there, and the photos were beautiful, so we decided to go exploring.

Sunset Cliffs, beach

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is adjacent to Point Loma Nazarene University, and consists of meandering cliff-side trails, wide spans of open space, and a long strip of beach at the foot of the cliffs.

Sunset Cliffs, purple flowers

This time of year, the wildflowers are popping up everywhere, and the ones at Sunset Cliffs are no exception. The ground is blanketed in yellow, or pink, or purple depending on where you look, and the birds and other wildlife are active, taking full advantage of the springtime opportunity.

Sunset Cliffs, cove

We saw surfers and people walking dogs and beautiful vistas, but unfortunately had somewhere else to be at sunset that night so didn’t get to see the colors on the cliff faces. We will definitely be going back for that soon.

Sunset Cliffs, J and J

More photos from Sunset Cliffs are here. ^_^



conservation ftw, joanna irl

An Afternoon at Birch Aquarium

Birch Aquarium reef exhibit

A couple of days ago I visited the Birch Aquarium with a friend. It was a very nice little aquarium with a focus on local (southern Californian) sealife. I learned a lot about local fish and a bit more about the tide pools (that I still need to re-visit).

Birch Aquarium sea dragon

My favorite exhibits were of the octopus (it was huge!) and the seahorses. Birch is connected to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and so is primarily connected with research and conservation. One of their big projects is breeding endangered seahorses and then releasing (or sharing with other zoos and aquariums).

Birch Aquarium red jellyfish


They had many many types of seahorses, including some very tiny ones (I didn’t get a good photo of them, sorry) that looked very familiar to me… and when I read the sign I discovered that species, called a dwarf seahorse, is from the Gulf of Mexico and is the type I caught as a kid. We used to find these big, fluffy pieces of seaweed lying on the beach after high tide and when you shook them, tiny seahorses (and other animals like baby fish and hermit crabs) fell out of it. We’d collect it all in buckets of water, play for a while, and then turn them loose.

Birch Aquarium spotted garden eel

Anyway, it was a fun trip and a beautiful location, perched above the La Jolla coastline.

conservation ftw, joanna irl

Southwestern Wildlife Spotting: Volume 1

The following are some accounts of wildlife I’ve seen since moving to California. This isn’t an exhaustive list, mostly just of those animals I’ve photographed, but there are a few I’ve ID’ed with no photo (which makes me sad… but still happy I saw them). Not all of the photos are fantastic, but they “work” for IDing and I don’t always have time to ask the animal to sit nicely and pose for me. Ha.

Arizona painted rock petroglyphs, lizard

Common Chuckwalla

This is a common chuckwalla. It is probably a female; according to my reptile book, the females retain the juvenile characteristic “banding” pattern on their tails.

Whale watching, gray whale faces

These are gray whales, and I blogged about them after whale watching. We also saw meinke whales but I didn’t get a photo because they were moving too quickly.

Whale watching, dolphin pod

Also from the whale trip: Dolphins and sea lions, though I’d seen them before at La Jolla cove.

La Jolla sea lions, group

Sea lions in a pile.

La Jolla seals pup profile

Harbor seals.


This is a desert cottontail. I’m also pretty sure I’ve seen one of the types of jackrabbit, but without a photo it’s hard to ID which type.

Sparrows dancing

These are just common house sparrows, but they were dancing (being that it’s spring and all) and it was fun to watch them.

Blue Sky western fence lizard

Western fence lizard— I especially like these because they are blue underneath, which you can see in this photo.


And this is, I think, a type of flycatcher. I’ve got another photo of one, and I’ll let them stand for all of the songbirds and such that I’ve seen and not been able to ID or photograph.

Lake Ramona, flycatcher

Other birds include a bunch of red tailed hawks, red shouldered hawks, and (I’m not kidding) a real California condor I spotted, circling above the desert in Joshua Tree. I wasn’t expecting it, and thought it was a (really big) vulture I didn’t know, so made a note of the distinct black and white pattern on the bottom of its wings, then checked in my book later. Wow!

Lake Ramona, common checkered whiptail

This is a bad photo, but it ID’ed the common checkered whiptail lizard. It was really large (though not as large as the chuckwalla) and very pretty. Seen on the Lake Ramona hike.

Lake Ramona, common side-blotched lizard

A common side-blotched lizard. We saw a lot of them on the Lake Ramona hike.

Lake Ramona, raven

A raven. ^_^ It didn’t say Nevermore, though.

So that’s what I’ve seen so far. There have been even more local plants and wildflowers, but I really should save those for another entry.

joanna irl, society of dabblers

Hiking in Blue Sky: aka The Lake is a Lie

Blue Sky welcome sign

Maybe instead I should say the lake was not what we expected. At any rate, the other day, J and I broke out my (until then) unused Hikes of Southern California book and picked one that was relatively close to home. It was in the eastern part of the county, at a place called Blue Sky Nature Reserve, and a level 1 to 2 (so “kid friendly”) and described an amble along one of the river beds that used to be all over this part of the state, until they were dammed for water sources. (This should have been our clue; after all, we JUST learned about that stuff a couple of weeks ago at Casa Grande, where the entire landscape changed after the water was diverted.)

But I digress.

Blue Sky wooded trail

The first part of the hike was as promised, and we descended into a little valley with a small creek, tons of birds and other wildlife, and a few early wildflowers.

Blue Sky tree branches from fire

The area fell victim to fire back in 2003 and many of the old trees are still standing, their blackened, bare branches curled against the clear sky and reaching out from the new growth on other trees. It’s a little strange, but beautiful nonetheless.

Blue Sky honeybees

Then, as the book had described, the path forked and we could choose to go left to Lake Ramona, or right to Lake Poway. We chose left to Ramona and kept walking down the (now wider) track. After a while we passed (very quickly) under a tree that was vibrating with the hum of thousands of honey bees, flying throughout its canopy. Finally the path came out of the trees and opened into its main portion.

And we saw the climb.

Blue Sky hiking to the dam, Lake Ramona

In an effort to be optimists, we thought that SURELY this hike wasn’t up to that dam WAY UP THERE (see it? almost in the exact center?) and the path seemed to curve around to the left and away, so we started.

Slowly the slope increased, and we gained elevation, and the path doubled back above itself…. and over halfway there we realized we were DEFINITELY hiking to the dam.

Blue Sky, the hike back

Dear California Hike Guidebooks: When you SAY “hike to a lake” but you really mean “climb a mountain to a dam,” that’s a LITTLE misleading.

Blue Sky at Lake Ramona

After a last push up the final incline, we finally made it to the man-made Lake Ramona. It’s lovely and blue, but still… just strange. At least the view was spectacular, and we were actually above (the also man-made) Lake Poway, so we could see it across the valley.

Blue Sky western fence lizard

We also saw some really interesting wildlife, including a type of hawk we didn’t recognize, some songbirds, a woodpecker, several types of lizard (including the western fence lizard in this photo), plus evidence of snakes (they leave trails in the dust– see below) and possible tarantula burrows (which are actually kind of fascinating).

Blue Sky snake trail

Overall the hike was definitely worth it, just not AT ALL what we were anticipating. Both of us kept remarking how glad we were that we wore trail shoes and packed sunscreen, despite the “gentle, shaded” description. The rest of my photos (along with some of wildflowers) are in this album, if you’re interested. ^_^

conservation ftw

California Whale Watching: Gray whales, dolphins and sea lions

Whale watching, J and J on ship

Last Thursday, J and I went whale watching off the coast, past Point Loma. It’s migration season for gray whales, coming up from Baja California and going back to Alaska and that region for the summer months. I’ve never seen gray whales, plus it was a chance to take a boat ride through the harbor coming and going.

Whale watching, sea lions on buoy

The ship started from the pier beside the USS Midway, then took us out past NAS North Island (Coronado) and we got to see the gorgeous houses along Point Loma, plus the sea lions hanging out on buoys.

Heading out, I saw a small whale come up for a breath, and one of the Natural History Museum volunteers on board told me it was most likely a minke whale, which is one of the smallest types of whales and one I’ve never seen before. I didn’t get a photo, it was too fast, but still a very neat sighting.

Whale watching, dolphin pod

Next, as we were still heading out to sea, we saw a series of splashes. Before long, we could tell they were dolphins. As we got closer, the sheer number of them became apparent: a pod of over a THOUSAND individuals was intersecting the ship’s path! They went around and under it, and kept on going. The guy on the PA said that such pods aren’t uncommon. Wow!

They swam so fast it was hard to catch photos of them, but they kept leaping out of the water, swimming back and forth, and flicking their tails to make splashes.

Whale Watching, gray whale blow

Finally we got out to deep water where the gray whales migrate. Before long, we spotted some blows ahead, and approached close enough to see: a group of three or four gray whales.

Whale watching, gray whale faces

They weren’t in a usual migration grouping, though, but appeared to be in a mating cycle, which is unusual for this area.

Whale watching, gray whale fin

The whales hung out at the surface, swimming along on their sides or backs, with their fins above water. We could easily see their light gray skin under the water, reflecting almost white on their stomachs when they turned. It was fascinating.

Whale Watching birds and sea lions

After a while, we had to head back to shore. Along the way we passed more sea lions and a whole lot of birds (including herons!) hanging out on the docks where fishermen trap bait fish.

Whale Watching San Diego skyline

Just as we got back into the harbor, the sun cleared the clouds and we got a beautiful view of downtown San Diego.

Whale Watching J and J

This is definitely something I’d do again; even though the gray whales will be gone in another month, apparently this summer there will be blue whales in the area, and I don’t want to miss that!

Also, a few more photos are here.

conservation ftw, joanna irl

Painted Rock Petroglyphs

This will be a short post.

Arizona painted rock petroglyphs, single

On the way back from Casa Grande we made a short detour to a places called Painted Rock Petroglyphs, in the Painted Rock mountains.

Arizona painted rock petroglyphs

The glyphs are from a wide age range, some ancient, some from a few hundred years ago and some from the 19th century. They are on a rock outcropping that makes a prominent landmark in the surrounding valley.

Arizona painted rock petroglyphs, lizard

We also saw our only desert wildlife here that wasn’t a bird: a lizard.

I haven’t figured out what he is yet. Ideas? ((UPDATE: It’s a chuckwalla!))

Also, as this is the last post about the road trip, here are all of the photos from that. ^_^

conservation ftw, joanna irl

Well, I SAID I wanted to see the Sonoran Desert.

So here’s the thing.

I’ve been trying to go to as many national parks (or historic sites, as the case may be) this year as possible. I’m excited about my passport stampbook (as I’ve previously posted) and especially since we now live in the half of the country with all of the huge natural areas, I want to see them!

One of the exhibits I’ve always loved at the North Carolina Zoo is their Sonora Desert dome, so when I noticed on my newly-acquired roadmap of Arizona that the interstate went THROUGH it, I couldn’t resist! On the way home from the Casa Grande ruins, we looked it up on our GPS and found a place labeled “Sonoran Desert National Monument.” That sounded promising, so we programmed it to take us there.

And we started driving.

And driving.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert sign

See that? PROOF we were in the RIGHT AREA.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert road

We took a couple of smaller roads, then wound up on a two lane highway going straight across the Sonoran Desert, generally back in the direction of I-8, which we would pick up on the other side after stopping at the monument. The desert was fascinating, with far more plant-life that I expected in a desert, and we drove between two long mountain reaches, watching for wildlife (though we never saw any) and grateful for the full tank of gas and water bottles.

It was interesting, too, that there weren’t many cars. Most of the “scenic” stops were closed for the season, but that didn’t bother us because we planned to stop at the monument.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert wide

At this point I want to note that there are not that many photos from this drive. That’s because I kept expecting to, y’know, GET to something. These photos of cacti?? Actually from BEFORE we got into the national monument area.

After a while, we reached the point where the GPS told us to turn and drive 11 miles to the monument. We slowed down to make the turn…

…and then stopped. We were facing a sandy track that crossed some railroad tracks that ran parallel to the two lane highway. On the near side of them was a VERY large sign that said: “DO NOT ENTER.” Oh, and some WILD COTTON BUSHES.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert wild cotton

I looked again at the GPS. We’d followed the directions correctly. But then I noticed that the 11 mile “drive” was supposed to take over an hour… across sand… And we realized then that the “Monument” was probably the DESERT ITSELF.

THANKS, GPS. We were now in the MIDDLE of the Sonoran Desert. Well, about 11 miles from the middle, as far as I can tell.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert cacti

To be fair, I DID say I wanted to properly SEE the desert, and not just drive past it on the interstate. And boy howdy, I SAW that desert.

We checked our map and discovered we were closer to I-8 if we kept going forward rather than backtracking, so that’s what we did.

I guess some monuments are bigger than others. I’m still bummed I didn’t get a stamp for it, though.

conservation ftw

Seals and Sea Lions and Pelicans, oh my!

La Jolla seals J and J

At the end of February, J and I went to the northern part of San Diego (to La Jolla) in search of the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) seals. It wasn’t exactly hard to find them.

La Jolla has a lot to offer in the way of shopping and dining, and beautiful coastal views and beaches, but it also has all the crowds and tourists and very difficult parking. We did discover a couple of great places, though, including a street taco place and one that makes homemade ice cream treats in the form of layered bars.

But the seals were our real purpose. We got to the beach and found a crowd of people, the seals spread out in a wide arc across the sand, enjoying the sunshine.

La Jolla seals wide
The seagulls were there hoping for leftovers from the seals, but the thing I was most interested to see was that there were so many seal pups in the group! As we got down to the sand level, a photographer pointed out something awesome: a minutes-old seal pup and its mother.

La Jolla seals baby newborn

As we watched over the next ten or fifteen minutes, she led the little one down to the water for its very first swimming lesson (and to get it clean, I’d imagine). Just plain adorable. And amazing that they are born knowing how to swim!

La Jolla seals newborn first swim

Granted, they stayed in the shallows, but there were several slightly older pups doing laps in the tide pools with their mothers. Some were simply hanging out on the sand.

La Jolla seals pup profile

We heard a lot of noise coming from further down the beach so, with a little guidance, we headed up the path above the rocks. We rounded a corner and found the source of the noise: a huge group of sea lions!

La Jolla sea lions, group

They were sleeping in piles, and playing in the water, and generally making a racket, but were thoroughly entertaining to watch. We even saw some doing the “classic” sea lion stance.

La Jolla sea lions, noses up

These animals have lived here for hundreds of years, and the presence of people wasn’t about to make them leave. It’s a little strange to me that so many of them live here, with the buildings so close and so many people coming to see them all the time. But at the same time, it’s very cool. I’m glad I got to see them.

And where are the pelicans I mentioned in the title? You’ll have to go see the other photos here. ^_^