Nature Notes from Big Creek, 1995

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February 1995 March 1995 April 1995 May 1995 July 1995 October 1995 November 1995

February 1995 UC Davis archaeologist Terry Jones sent me a copy of his latest publication about our area, co-authored with Betty Rivers. It is a fascinating account of the ethnogeography of the area extending from Big Creek and Lucia over to The Indians. The richest sources of information for their work were the notes of J.P.Harrington, who scrawled thousands of pages of field notes as he interviewed and traveled with his informants in the 1920' and 30's. His approach was to really get to know his informants, and to let them speak at length on whatever subject interested them. His advice to his nephew, sent in 1935 to gather some follow-up information from an elderly woman, was indicative of this approach: "there is nothing too trivial for her to talk about in the greatest detail. Let her talk by the hour and hour on the most various subjects." Other sources of information were mission records, local histories, and archaeological work.
Combining these sources, Betty and Terry concluded that the area bounded by Escondido and Bee camp on the north, the ocean on the west, Lucia on the southwest, and the San Antonio mission on the southeast was known as Quiquilit (pronounced Key-killit), the home of a "tribelet" of native Americans. There were probably at least four villages, and a number of smaller dwelling places, within this area. Two villages were in the San Antonio valley, a few miles from each other, and were called Holom (near The Indians), and Skeyem, which may have been downstream near the confluence of the two forks of the San Antonio river. Two others were over the mountains near the coast, including Tsalakaka above Gamboa Point and Matalce above Lopez point. Cone peak was called Tsowem and Big Creek, Tsatteltca.
To me it is fascinating to see how the region was used by the peoples of those times. Clearly, Quiquilit-land included access to coastal resources such as mussels and fish, mountain resources such as pine nuts and game animals, and valley resources such as acorns and tubers. The elongated shape of the area also makes sense because the mountain ridges run east-west, with deep canyons inhibiting north-south travel. The inhabitants probably had detailed knowledge of the entire area, and were able to prosper by careful use of the plants and animals found there. The depth of knowledge that Harrington's informants had about the area also impressed me. Even after generations of disruption of the old life ways, these people remembered places, place names, plant resources, and other details of the geography of their home area.
I will make a copy of the article as soon as possible and leave at the Big Sur Library for those who wish to read it and can't make the trip down to Big Creek.
Other notes: The creek rose to 6 1/2, maybe 7 feet during the storms after New Year's day. The first flush of water was fairly muddy, but after a day or so began to clear. However, the distinct character of the two forks of Big Creek remained. The Big Creek fork was a lot muddier than the Devil's Creek fork, even though the flow was somewhat less. The dippers seem to love the storm, singing and foraging for insects in the raging flood waters. I suppose the flood brings food for them, at least temporarily, although later they will have to forage in a scoured creek bed.....I still am seeing large flocks of Band-tailed Pigeons in our area. In December I saw a flock of at least 700, maybe 1000 birds.....Somebody poached a deer on the reserve on Christmas Day or the day after. Hunters, please realize that poaching on the reserve makes the deer difficult to study, causing them to hide and/or vacate their normal areas where we usually observe them. (1/18/95)


March 1995 The creek is now flowing clear and the January floods have polished the stream bed smooth. Last week my wife Kim Smiley directed our third "quarterly" stream insect survey. We guessed that there would be lots of changes because of the flooding, but we did not really know what to expect.
At one site (just up the canyon) we could not even sample in the same areas because the current was too swift and deep, and instead we had to look in areas which were above water in November. At that site we found lots of tiny stream insects, including hundreds of almost-invisible mayflies (all you could see were tiny black eyes). These had just hatched from eggs and seemed to be colonizing the new habitat. Above, at the confluence of Big Creek and Devil's Creek, we found a number of very large insects that had obviously survived the flooding. Kim found a huge hellgrammite(5 inches), and we found several large stonefly nymphs. They were in cracks and under stones in the deep water. In Devil's Creek the bottom layer of calcium carbonate "marl" had eroded away (except in small patches) and there were more cracks and loose stones for these large critters to hide under than during the summer. At the beach site we found fewer insects, but lots of marine organisms such as broken barnacles and crustose algae! It turned out that the huge waves had dumped an entire beach full of new sand into the creek area.
The huge surf had other consequences. On some days a heavy haze of salt spray hugged the entire coast, causing plants in the canyon bottom to brown off on the seaward side. I took some pictures in which the redwoods were completely brown on side and beautiful green on the other. These events, which happen several times a decade, help shape the canyon bottom and coastal slope plants into streamlined, dense, lop-sided forms. The high winds during the storms also helped shape the vegetation. Many tree branches broke and we probably experienced winds of over 100 mph on exposed slopes, enough to blow the tops of trees off if they stick too high up over the ridges.
Other notes: Last week I saw a pair of Red-tail Hawks hunting a wild Band-tail Pigeon. Their hunt was cut short when the pigeon crashed into window of our house. A few days later Kim found another pigeon with similar injuries lying by the road. Looking in our "Life Histories of North American Birds" I read that Red-tails are indeed known to hunt in pairs. I wonder if their hunting strategy involves driving pigeons low into the trees where they may crash into a branch and injure themselves. (2/15/95)


April 1995 At Esalen, on March 3, we held the second Santa Lucia Natural History Symposium, a gathering of biologists and other specialists who do field work in our area. Many had attended the first symposium last June, but there were several first-timers as well.
Jerry Powell, an entomologist from Berkeley, talked about the Lepidoptera (moth) diversity study he has conducted at Big Creek Reserve. This is probably the first time anyone has really tried to go in to an area and find all the species (of a major order of insects). He told us that several things are needed for such a survey: (1) lots of cooperating taxonomists to help identify species and name and classify new species, (2) knowledge of the life history of the different groups being surveyed, so that they can be found and counted in their natural habitat, (3) a willingness to look in the different habitats necessary, and (4) repeated surveys, over and over, until you stop finding new species each time you survey. Jerry spent 205 days looking for moths, collected moths at black lights 286 times, and has raised 1320 caterpillars to determine their identity. Based on the moth survey, Jerry estimates that there are about 7000 species of insects on Big Creek property. Jerry also found several species that have never been classified or named, a common problem when sampling small insects. This highlights a fundamental problem in studying biological diversity; there simply aren't enough taxonomists to record or classify diversity, even when it is found.
Jennifer Neilson of Hopkins Marine Station also gave an interesting presentation on Steelhead Trout. Jennifer has recently surveyed the genetics of steelhead up and down the coast, and has found that the fish in each regional area, and in some cases each stream, are genetically different. This means that our local steelhead are probably different in important ways from steelhead elsewhere, and that each creek has unique populations that should be protected. She thinks that hatchery fish and other planted fish just can't compete with native fish, and so don't reproduce. Jennifer is planning a study to look at behavior and genetics of the steelhead in Big Creek.
Donna Schroeder talked about her research on tiny young-of-the-year rockfishes. These little fish cluster around rocks for protection, in groups of 10-100, and feed off plankton floating by in the water. Donna was able to show that these fish prefer some rocks as opposed to others (rocks with better currents, probably), and that they actually grow faster when feeding around those rocks. To me the most amazing conclusion is that it is possible to do such detailed work in our rough ocean habitat.
All the other participants presented updates on progress in their field, and we all agreed the meeting was very worthwhile. We got more bibliographies, including a huge list brought by Mark Stromberg from Hastings, and these will be compiled with the first bibliography. We also discussed plans to create a "master" bibliography with key words that can be searched by subject.
Other notes: the March floods were even higher than the January floods, and quite a few logs moved downstream. The diatom bloom I noticed in February was scoured away, so I'll look for it again as the water drops. The early spring bloom is beautiful, with lilacs, irises, columbines, and shooting stars, and a lot of other things are coming into bloom. I think the mild weather and early rains may bring us things earlier than usual this year. (3/22/95)


May 1995 Last summer I collected larvae ("maggots") of a special type of hover fly while working in the Sierra Nevada, and brought them back to Big Creek to raise. I fed them the eggs and larvae of the willow leaf beetle, their only known prey. After a few weeks the larvae crawled to the bottom of their chamber and went dormant for the winter. Since then I have been waiting for the larvae to pupate and form new adult flies. I need the specimens so I can photograph them and learn to recognize their features.
In the Sierra Nevada the flies come out in July, just in time for the willow beetles to lay their eggs. The flies then lay their eggs right on the beetle eggs. The timing is crucial since the willow beetles only lay eggs in late June and July. I was surprised when the flies I am raising (here in Big Sur) pupated, about 2-3 months earlier than they "should". Of course, our local willows here on the coast have recently leafed out, and our local willow leaf beetles are now laying eggs. If the flies somehow knew that fact (dormant in their little chambers on the shelf), their behavior would make perfect sense. How could they know? I suspect they smell the willows growing outside my office. I don't think it is simply a matter of temperature since we have had all kinds of warm and cool temperatures since winter. Maybe next year I will set up some "experiments" to see if I can figure this out.
The Harbor Seals are giving birth to their little pups now. Last week I saw an adult Bald Eagle perched on a ledge above the seals' favorite birthing beach, along with about 10 sea gulls. In past years I have seen an eagle (probably the same one) eating a baby seal, and I have seen the same bird on the ledge many times since then. This is important because Bald Eagles need predictable sources of prey if they are to become year-round residents of Big Sur. Maybe this bird will eventually stay the summer instead of migrating north with the other eagles. (4/21/95)


July 1995 This is the most "productive" spring/early summer I have seen in the nine years I have lived at Big Creek. What I mean by "productive" is the tremendous growth of greenery; our roads and trails are getting buried in ceanothus branches and poison oak vines. Feynner and I feel that we are experiencing the equivalent of deep snow in the mountains, only we can't depend on the plants "melting" in warm weather.
We hosted the 7th annual "4th of July" butterfly count on June 3. Although foggy along the coast, it was a clear, sunny day in the highlands above 2000'. We had an excellent opportunity to count butterflies there. In spite of the good conditions, we saw only 30% of the usual numbers of butterflies. Some sites, such as the serpentine barren at the head of Canogas Creek, had millions of open flowers and bright sun, and no butterflies (usually we catch dozens or hundreds there). At French camp we saw more, but still many fewer than usual. The number of species seen was greatly reduced as well. These findings are consistent with observations in other parts of California; this seems to be a bad year for butterflies.
A week after the count, I walked up the canyon road to catch some veined white butterflies for a project (Sonie calls them "milkmaid butterflies"). In about one hour I saw 72 butterflies belonging to 11 species, more than the usual number seen there during previous counts. This showed me that this years' "decline" is not universal, and suggests a possible explanation. Generally, increased rain results in more lush plant growth, which often benefits caterpillars. However, spring storms tend to be hard on many butterfly caterpillars, with larvae drowning or getting knocked off their host plants. This may have happened in many areas of the state this year, including the high ridges and exposed slopes at Big Creek. However, we experienced relatively mild conditions in the Big Creek canyon this year. (Feynner and I know this because of the unexpectedly low number of tree- and rock-falls we had to deal with.) Thus it seems likely that butterfly numbers in late spring may reflect the severity of storm conditions in early spring.
The black oystercatchers in Big Creek cove brooded eggs from May 22 to about June 18, a period after about 4 weeks. Now the parents are feeding (and guarding) a pair of fuzzy black chicks on their rocky ledge. I have watched them bringing little bits of orange oyster meat (I think that is what they are bringing) and feeding them to the chicks. I hope to see how long it takes for the young to fledge and leave the nest.
Two black tail does, one with twin fawns and the other with a single fawn, moved down into the canyon bottom for a week or so, the first deer to do so this year. However, there still seems to be a reduction in the numbers of deer at low elevation in the reserve this year. (6/21/95)

October 1995 Lately, I have been too busy to write "Nature Notes." Feynner and I are rebuilding my cabin under the bridge (to repair storm and termite damage), and still finishing the visitor cabin at Whale Point (where the old Marble cabins used to be). We need money to finish the jobs. I thank everyone who has expressed concern over the missing "nature notes." I certainly intend to keep writing them when I can...
This summer was relatively cool and (it seems to me) damp. Along-shore winds kept the fog away for much of the summer, and seemed to keep the kelp forest open. This year, for the first time since I came in 1986, the Harbor Seals have stayed on the Square Black Rock seal beach into September. I guess this is because the kelp has stayed fresh instead of rotting and driving the seals away.
A couple of weeks ago a large female mountain lion was seen along the reserve roads, on two separate occasions. At the same time we saw tracks of a large lion (the tracks were 4" long), probably the same one, but accompanied by a set of juvenile tracks. The smaller tracks were quite large (3" long), walking behind the larger tracks. My guess is that the mother lion was protecting her yearling "baby." When a human would come by, the juvenile would hide while the mother walked down the road in a conspicuous way.
We have a "lone" coyote living in the vicinity of the Big Creek bridge. About a month ago, a student was watching a doe with her two fawns on the slopes above the gate cabin. The coyote was waiting up the slope, and when the fawns got close, rushed them and clumsily tried to catch one. The fawns escaped easily, running up slope and crossing the ridge. Clearly, our steep rocky slopes are ideal for deer survival, but not for hunting coyotes. Perhaps the coyote was trying to make the fawn stumble and injure itself.
We have also had a juvenile great horned owl with us all summer. It fledged from the nest last June, and can now be heard almost every night making its weird raspy call at Whale Point. (We seldom hear the these owls hooting.) We have seen the mother feeding it some kind of prey, probably mice. The other day a wood rat was trying to make its home in our new battery box outside the visitor cabin. It is remarkable to think how such creatures can make a living when there are so many predators around (coyotes, bobcats, horned owls, and many more), and it makes you realize how important it is for these little animals to find a safe place to nest and feed. No wonder the mice and rats are always invading our seemingly "safe" spaces all the time.
Big Creek has more water in it this summer, as compared to past summers, maybe 2" deeper. When collecting stream rocks for the monthly survey, I noticed that the layer of calcium carbonate marl is thinner than usual. I suspect the increased flow includes water from soil seepage, which may be more acidic, keeping the marl from depositing. In dryer years the water comes from deep springs rich in calcium carbonate. (9/21/95)


November 1995 One morning Kim and I found a line of mountain lion tracks, and we followed them up the road. The tracks were fairly small, and we thought they might have been made by a young lion. The lion kept the same even walk for about 1/4 mile, and then headed down the canyon road. Later in the morning I took Tye DePena, a researcher who is photographing wildlife at Big Creek, to look at the tracks and see where they went. We spent the next hour following that lion.
From the tracks, we could see that the lion walked at an even pace down the road, until it detected something. Then it stopped, started, and walked hesitantly for a while. Then the lion lengthened its pace and moved deliberately down the road. Around a bend in the road, the lion encountered a mature buck deer. It rushed the deer, seeming to fly through the air (since I could see no tracks). It killed the deer quickly, with little apparent effort. All I saw were 5-10 hoof/paw gouges in the road, and a tiny spray of blood. Then the lion dragged the buck down the road for about 1/4 mile, to a switchback. There it dragged the buck off the side and down toward the canyon bottom.
While following the drag marks I was afraid the lion was headed for the redwoods in the canyon bottom, but the trail went only 50 meters or so, then headed along the contour to a small bunch of redwoods. Under the redwoods, Tye and I found the carcass. The deer was medium sized (maybe 150 pounds "guestimate") but had the thick neck and large antlers of a mature buck. I was amazed that an apparently small lion could kill such a large, capable animal so easily. The buck had scratches on the back and shoulders but no sign of deadly injury (other than having its guts pulled out through a hole in the left abdomen). Probing with my fingers I could feel punctures along the back of the neck where the lion cut the spinal chord with its carnassial teeth. From the scratches and the bloody saliva dripping from the mouth, I think maybe the lion hit the buck very hard, maybe with its paws, then clung to its back until making the killing bite.
Tye and I spend a couple of hours setting up two automatic cameras, in hopes of photographing the lion when it came back. Tye has already taken some amazing pictures of lions, foxes, bobcats, coyotes, and other animals, so he knows how to set up the cameras. The next day Tye checked the camera and saw that three pictures had been taken. When he developed the film a week later, the very first photo was of a beautiful mature female lion, heavily muscled but young-looking, with pretty facial spots and a white chin. Her eyes had a yellow-orange, other-worldly glow. I felt that this young, powerful animal embodied the wild spirit of the south coast, and I have spent hours looking at, and thinking about, that photo.
The day after the first photos were taken, Feynner Arias, our reserve steward, found more lion tracks. He also found where the same lion had killed another deer! This time the lion dragged its prey down through heavy brush and we did not follow. We suspect that when she revisited the first buck and got "flashed" by the camera, the lion abandoned her kill and immediately went back up the road to kill another deer. Both kills were placed where major deer trails cross the road.
Other notes: we have seen a number of plants germinating and growing this fall as though we had gotten some rain. We haven't gotten any rain, but the air has been quite humid. I suppose the soil is a little damper than usual from the rains last winter, also. (10/21/95)

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