Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Letting Go at Point Lobos

Brandt's cormorant and nestlings on Guillemot Island at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Both male and female parents tend the nest. The nest is a pile of vegetation cemented together by guano. Cormorants wrap their webbed feet around the eggs to incubate them.  
In mid-June, I was passing up the California coast after attending the Navigator's graduation at Cal Poly. I drove coastal Highway 1 all the way from Morro Bay (after a brief visit with the peregrine falcon families at Morro Rock) to Pescadero which is the turnoff to the Dipper Ranch. It took all day, it was lovely and I stopped at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve to check on the Brandt's cormorants. I was tickled to see the cormorants still squatting on Guillemot Island.

The rubber-necked bird on the left reveals its bright blue gular patch trimmed by pale yellow feathers - a distinctive  feature of the Brandt's cormorant. Click on any photo for closer view.
Again, I had a private front row seat to the cormorant family affairs. In mid-March, I was treated to the intimate breeding dance of Brandt's cormorants: the back-bending display of sailor-blue gular patches, and neck cuddles after the presentation of seaweed gifts. Twelve weeks later, the ledges of the small rocky island were covered with sitting black cormorants evenly spaced apart on nests - low, messy piles of vegetation glued together by poop. Surely the cormorants had laid eggs by now, but had they hatched? Had the young cormorants already left as quickly as the songbirds do in my yard?

After preening its ocean-soaked feathers, the cormorant on the left approaches its blue-eyed partner on the nest to report for land duty. Look closely at the center of the photo to see the long neck of the nestling begging for food.
Exchange of nesting duties. One of the adults has to attend the nest at all times, otherwise, gulls ("beach raptors") will savage the eggs or nestlings.
Just before it settles down for nesting duty, the cormorant parent rids itself of guano which also builds up the nest. In a few minutes, the other parent flies off to feed in the ocean.
If I had learned anything from my first trip to Point Lobos, it was to sit, watch and wait for the unexpected at this most beautiful edge of the continent. Eventually, I saw black heads popping up whenever a sitting cormorant shifted its position - these were drab nestlings. Other cormorants were landing on the wider ledges of the island, freshly wet from ocean foraging. They waddled on webbed feet to their family's nest, stretched and started a long preening session. Cryptically, they signaled their readiness for land duty, and the partner would step off the nest which briefly became a swarming medusa-head of waving black necks. The ocean-fed parent stepped over the nest, paused to shoot a long stream of guano over the nest edge, and then settled in with many adjustments to tuck in loose wings and waving heads.

Adult Brandt's cormorant in lower right regurgitating meal to nestling. 
I didn't see the adults carrying any fish from the ocean to feed the young, but I did see them engulfing the bills of nestlings, so it looked like they were regurgitating up meals.

Cormorant on nest warily watching a treasure-hunting gull.
A few gulls were making their rounds between the cormorant nests. The sitting cormorants would stretch out their necks and snap at them, but the gulls stayed out of pecking bounds and ignored them. The gulls were searching and gulping down small objects just on the edge of the cormorant nests, but I couldn't see what they were. Later I read that cormorants, like many birds, cough up pellets of bones, scales and other remains of their prey, so perhaps the gulls were searching for and eating these.

A Brandt's cormorant nestling stretches its stubby, white-speckled wings.
I've made many trips between the Dipper Ranch and Cal Poly over the past five years as the Navigator steadily made his way through the aeronautical engineering program. Mostly I drove the Highway 101 route following the Salinas River and the historic path of the padres who founded the California missions. I will never forget that first return trip on Highway 101 after leaving the Navigator at the start of his freshman year. I cried all the way to Greenfield where I finally forced myself to stop so I could find a bathroom. I wondered how many cars zooming past me likewise held parents driving home with tears or pangs of separation. Gradually, my visits to Cal Poly became trips of joy and mini-vacations, a chance to check on my progeny's progress and to play in the wonderland of Morro Bay. I even ventured away from Highway 101 and took country roads that carve across the coastal mountain ranges to Highway 1 and gave me more glimpses of rugged California.

But never had I taken the coastal Highway 1 for the entire 200 miles from San Luis Obispo to Pescadero, and now I know why. It took me eight hours of steady, slow driving with heart-stopping views and spotty radio reception. There were three locations where road construction required temporary stops and one-way traffic. The Big Sur section of Highway 1 is thrillingly scenic and winding with precipitous oceanside drops. If I had tried to drive Highway 1 those first few times when I was still anxious as I drove to Cal Poly or crying as I left, I surely would have crashed. This section of the coastal highway takes a steady and confident hand and a calm and patient road-heart which took me many semesters to nurture.

The nesting Brandt's cormorants on Guillemot Island are easily seen from a short side trail approximately halfway along the North Shore Trail. 
I am not sure if I will make it back down to Point Lobos again this summer. I'm hoping someone will check on the cormorant families at Point Lobos and report into us. Do the adults eventually bring whole fish to the nestlings? Do the adults teach the newly fledged cormorants to swim and fish in the churning waters at Point Lobos, or do the young birds just dive in and learn on their own?

Brandt's cormorants in breeding display in March. Notice the triangular-shaped rock that the two cormorants are standing on in the center of this photo. That is the same triangular rock that one cormorant is standing on in the June photo below.
Same location 3 months later. By June, Guillemot Island has many more cormorants and much less vegetation. With a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope, you can easily observe the habits and social interactions of Brandt's cormorants on this busy island.
Learning is hard. Parenting is emotional. Although the Navigator did all the tough work to earn his prestigious degree, I feel like we've been on a trip together except on separate roads. The graduation advice I gave him was don't get distracted by the boring stuff. You see, we all have to do many things that might be boring, like washing the dishes. But you don't have to let those duties keep you from following the song in your heart. While you do the dishes, you can watch the doe introduce her new fawn to the rest of the herd through the window at the kitchen sink - you just have to find the right kitchen sink.

These milestones as our children take momentous steps are exciting and scary like the edge of the continent where the rocky seacliffs drop off into the massive, tossing ocean with its bounty of fish. The cormorants will breed and raise young at the beautiful, turbulent edge of Point Lobos every year, but this is it for me. I will never set another child on the path to college, and let them go. There will be other phases in my life and many will intersect with the Navigator. I anticipate joyful adventures for both of us, together and apart. When I feel uncertain about the future and all the changes that are coming, I have a plan. I will visit Point Lobos via Highway 1 or in my imaginary kitchen window to sit, watch and wait for unexpected wonders.

It's okay to just chill.


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