Nature Notes from Big Creek, 1997

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February 1997 May 1997 June 1997 September 1997 October 1997 November 1997

February 1997 The marine reserve here at Big Creek was started in 1989 when several local fishermen agreed to set the area aside and not fish there. Now, eight years later, it is an officially recognized ecological reserve set aside for marine studies. I just finished reading six grant proposals for work in the reserve, and it looks as if this "grassroots" reserve is going to produce something very worthwhile.
The proposals deal with the value of marine reserves as places in which fish, abalone, and sea urchins can replenish themselves, safe from commercial and sport harvesting. The immediate goal of three of the studies is to count and measure fish populations inside and near the reserve using a combination of underwater surveys and fishery monitoring. I believe the underwater surveys will show that most local fish populations are in a healthy state, but that in the reserve there are more, larger fish. Larger fish have proportionately more offspring (millions of larvae are released in some species), providing a source for new recruitment up and down the coast. The survey may also show that some species are depleted in areas outside the reserve, such as the Black and Yellow rockfish, which is caught for the popular live fish market. Having a reserve enables us to compare natural fluctuations in fish numbers to those caused by over fishing. Measuring the fishermen's catch is an important part of the study, because we can correlate fishing activities to numbers of fish, and begin to get an idea of what intensity of fishing may be sustainable.
Two other proposals measure genetic diversity in fish, abalone and urchin populations. A species' genetic diversity gives it resilience and vigor in the face of natural and artificial pressures, and we need to know how much genetic diversity is likely to be maintained within a given reserve. The scientists' prediction is that species with wide-ranging larvae (such as many rockfish species) will have relatively greater diversity within the reserve area, but lesser differences when comparing different areas. One of the proposals will look at surfperches, fish which bypass the larval stage entirely and whose offspring probably take up residence near their parents. In these fish, lots of genetic differentiation is expected when comparing fish from different areas. The same finding has already been made for steelhead, probably for similar reasons.
The deep water survey (50-300 meters deep) will be done by driving a small submarine, the "Delta" back and forth across the reserve. This will be one of the first attempts to make accurate fish counts in this way at these depths. In this case the fish are relatively poorly known in their habitat, which is too deep for routine scuba diving, and we hope to find out new things about the natural history and habitat preferences of the fish.
I believe that we should set aside many more marine reserves along the coast of California, so as to bring back the great richness of marine life that belongs here. This can be best accomplished with the support of the fishers and other local residents. The Big Creek marine reserve provides an example of how one might proceed to create reserves in other areas, and the results from the Big Creek studies will help to define what they should be like.
Other notes: Spring seems very advanced this year. The manzanitas are in full bloom, dropping millions of flowers up on the high ridges, and the shooting star flowers are huge, nourished by all the rains. Big Creek finally shrank below flood levels in mid February after three weeks of dry weather. (2/20/97)


May 1997 I am reading a wonderful report by Matteo Rutherford, a student who completed his senior thesis project here at Big Creek a couple of years ago. Matteo studied fungi that live invisibly inside redwood leaves, called "fungal endophytes". He collected three year old redwood leaves by counting three tufts backward from the tip of each branchlet; he selected older leaves because they are more likely to have fungal endophytes. He put the leaves on ice and took them back to the lab, where he sterilized the leaf surface by soaking them in alcohol and bleach solutions for 10 minutes. He then cut the leaf open and put it on a sterile nutrient plate. The fungi would then grow out of the leaf onto the agar and make spore "fruiting bodies." Matteo could then identify the fungus and record its species.
One of the most common types was a species of "Pleuroplaconema" which is found only in redwoods. The fungus lives inside leaves, and is believed to "defend" the redwood by producing chemicals that repel pest insects and disease organisms. This may be important since diseases and pests have short generation times and can evolve new modes of attack quickly. Even though the trees cannot evolve defenses quickly, symbiotic fungi such as Pleuroplaconema probably can, and do so to protect their host tree. In this way (so the theory goes) they may act as a kind of "immune system" for the tree.
Matteo found that only two out of 12 redwood trees from Big Creek were thoroughly colonized by Pleuroplaconema, two more were partially colonized, and eight had minor or no colonization. Seven of the trees had substantial infections of another, probably harmful fungus, Nodulosporum. Matteo suggests that, probably as a result of the Rat Fire in 1985, our trees have lost their normal complement of the beneficial fungus. To test this idea, he sampled trees along Rocky Creek, which have not burned for eighty years. All but two of the Rocky Creek trees were thoroughly colonized by Pleuroplaconema, and none had substantial infections of the other harmful species.
Matteo also reported results from other studies on redwood fungal infections. In every study, 95-100% of trees had some kind of fungal infection. The Rocky Creek/Big Creek/Big Sur samples are the only ones in which the total amount is lower (81-94%). This suggests that as redwood trees reach the dry southern end of their range, they have increasing difficulty in keeping a healthy population of fungal endophytes.
I thought it was very interesting to compare harmful and beneficial fungi. The beneficial fungi are very specialized (for example, to redwood trees) and do not tolerate changes in the turpentine-oil content of their host tree (redwoods, like other conifers, have an extensive system of canals and ducts which contain pinene and other turpentine-like oils). Harmful species are tolerant of such changes, and in addition, can digest cellulose (allowing them to penetrate and kill the cells of the host tree; the beneficial fungi do not digest cellulose). When fire, drought, or clear cutting stresses trees, they seem to lose their protective fungi, which are replaced by more harmful fungi. If the tree survives, the beneficial fungi gradually reclaim the tree, expelling the more harmful species. These examples show me how "ordinary backyard" organisms like redwood trees are actually extraordinary, and that, if we knew all the details, their lives are probably as interesting and complex as our own.
Other notes: the red-tail hawks have hatched two chicks in their nest below Whale Point. They grew from tiny egg-sized "fuzz-balls" on April 19 to 2 football-sized "fuzz-monsters" on May 5. The parents stay very busy feeding them. When you approach within 200' of the nest the parents fly up and scream, and the chicks cower down and try to hide....We saw very few deer fawns this year in April, but began seeing more in early May. Feynner has found two fawns killed by bobcats. This is the second time that we has seen leaves stuffed in the hole in the fawn's side, made after the bobcat reached in and pulled out the entrails....We are hosting our eighth butterfly count on May 31 here at Big Creek. We are having the count early since the summer has advanced so rapidly this year. (5/20/97/)


June 1997 This year we have seen single fawns (as opposed to twins), and they have been late in coming. A doe with a fawn and two young males has been feeding on the flowers and greenery surrounding my cabin in the canyon bottom. Last Friday morning I woke up hearing a yelping "yi", sounding just like a dog with its tail getting stepped on. A few seconds later I heard the snorting of an angry deer, and guessed that the doe's fawn had been killed. I got my binoculars and went outside. The light was dim, but right after I opened the door I saw a mountain lion run up the slope opposite my cabin. It looked over its shoulder at me as it ran. It was a stocky, short-legged lion, heavily muscled. It glided up into a grove of bays and disappeared. At the same time the lion fled, the doe bounded off in the opposite direction, still snorting.
I watched the deer for some time, wondering what they would do. The mother doe kept snorting and after a few minutes she stotted back to where the lion had been (stotting means bounding up in the air on four legs at once). She seemed torn between anger and a desire to attack the lion (which she could not see) and fear of being attacked. The two males (probably her sons from previous years) seemed relatively unconcerned, although they also wandered over and sniffed the area.
A couple of hours later, when the light got better, Sonie Smiley came out to observe. With her sharp eyes she immediately pointed out the body of the fawn lying on the slope. Then we saw the mother come over and lick the fawn. Still later, a loud noise scared all three deer and they rushed down to the parking area. This made Pulguero (our little black dog) bark. The two male deer fled, but the barking seemed to make the doe angry again. She started snorting and approaching the dog, who was leashed on the porch. I saw this through the window, and guessed that she might attack. I rushed outside and the doe ran off. That night, the fawn disappeared. I guess that the lion came and got it.
Other notes: The coffeeberry bushes are covered with flowers, and millions of small fuzzy black and yellow bumblebees are swarming around gathering nectar and pollen. In previous years the bushes were surrounded by honeybees and bumblebees were uncommon. The wild honeybees have declined in the past couple of years, because of the new infectious mite or some other disease. My guess is that, owing to the honeybees' decline, the bumblebees have had a super-abundance of pollen and nectar, and have reproduced in large numbers to "take their place." It is very likely that wild flowers and many species which are not well-pollinated by honeybees may have increased seed set and reproduction as the native pollinator increases. Other species may decline a bit.
The red tail hawk chicks are flying around the canyon now, awkward and slow on their new wings....Blue belly lizards are laying eggs now, digging holes in the dirt....It has been 4 1/2 months since the last rains, almost like September or October in a normal year.
I would like to dedicate this month's "nature notes" to Fred Farr, who passed away last week. Fred was a good neighbor to us here at Big Creek, as well as one of the creators of the Big Creek Reserve and a strong supporter. I wonder how many of us who love Big Sur and Monterey County realize how much we owe Fred. One of Fred's specialties was to bring people to Big Sur, "wining and dining" them, letting the land speak to them, and getting them to speak to each other. Lots of politicians and influential people got this treatment, and we (who get to enjoy Monterey County's natural beauty and relaxed lifestyle) have been the beneficiaries. Thank you Fred!


September 1997 I injured my shoulder last month and now have to type one-handed. This "nature notes" may be short! Recently I hiked up the middle fork of Devil's Creek, one of the four major streams that come together to form Big Creek. Also known as "Cuevas" ("caves") Creek, this fork climbs up through some spectacular cliffs. The area is fairly remote and although I don't know of any actual caves, they may be present. At least a dozen springs line the creek bottom, including some with large flows.
At the confluence of the middle and south forks, the bed of Devil's Creek is coated with calcium carbonate mineral deposits. The soft deposits make for good traction and walking up the creek bed is easy (but watch out for dark green patches that can be very slippery). Both forks are rich in carbonates, but the middle fork is bright green. Hiking up the middle fork, you pass an enormous landslide (which occurred a couple of years ago and blocked the creek completely), and then you come to a spring seeping out of the banks. Above this point the creek bed turns a rich light brown color with no trace of green. As best I can tell, the green color originates from the seep/springs, and is not present in the creek for two miles upstream. It is also possible that the landslide contributes to the green color since it is close by the springs.
What causes the green color? Green algae are probably responsible, since millions of tiny bright green cells can be seen enclosed in the carbonate deposits. Perhaps it requires a special nutrient which is rare in the sources upstream but which is concentrated in the seep springs/slide area. The phenomenon is long lasting, for I observed the same thing when I hiked up this fork over a year previously. It never ceases to amaze me how distinct the different forks of a stream can be.
Other notes: I read Tui Anderson's undergraduate thesis yesterday, reporting the results of his study of the kelp beds in the marine reserve. The project was designed to see if the kelp canopy at Big Creek inhibits the growth of understory kelp by shading. It has already been demonstrated that giant kelp shading occurs, so Tui wanted to look at other kelps. He chose bull kelp and two "subsurface canopy" kelps, Laminaria and Pterygophora. He and several volunteer field assistants made many dozens of scuba dives over a four month period, experimentally cutting kelps and measuring the cover of the understory plants. After several months, Tui found little effect of shading, except under the adjacent giant kelp. There he saw a reduction in understory cover. Although disappointing, the "negative" results are important, showing how certain kelp beds do allow a lot of light to penetrate and support a rich understory growth, even in summer. Tui is to be congratulated for completing an extremely difficult, demanding project. (9/19/97)

October 1997 Last week I noticed large numbers of tanoak acorns lying under the trees, mingled with millions of deer hoof prints. This is great news for the deer and other wildlife, especially the acorn woodpeckers that have had few acorns in past two years. The annual statewide acorn survey (conducted by researcher Walt Koenig at Hastings Reserve in Carmel Valley) indicates that this is a "medium" year in terms of acorn production. It may sound funny to do an annual acorn survey, but remember that acorns may be single most important food supply for our wildlife statewide. A "mast" acorn crop is a major ecological event, ranking with extreme wet or dry rainfall years.
I also noted a lot of California Bay fruits under some trees. The fruiting patterns of the bay are curious to me; in this and other years I have noticed how some trees bear copious fruit and others seem barren, even same-size trees growing side by side. I wish I knew more about this species of tree. I recently obtained a bibliography about California hardwood trees, and I hope to track down some literature.
With deer up on the slopes eating acorns, it is time to look for mountain lion tracks on the roads. The other day I saw two sets of tracks on the same day. One set was from a smaller animal; I suspect they belonged to the "girl", a small but powerful female that we have observed and photographed for the past two years. Her tracks were 70 mm wide (about 2 3/4").
The width of a lion's track is a good thing to measure since the width of all four feet on a lion is always about the same. The hind foot is usually 1/2" or more longer than the front and the key for a good measurement is to find an isolated track. In most cases the track of the hind foot is superimposed on that of the front foot. Look carefully!
A larger lion made a male the other set of tracks, perhaps a male. These tracks were over 85mm wide (3.25"). The next day our reserve steward Feynner saw the two tracks together. Perhaps the larger one was following the smaller. We suspect the large one may steal deer kills from the "girl" (we found evidence of this two years ago), or perhaps it may be courtship.
I also saw a large male bobcat bounding off the road. I examined the ground and found some tracks; they were the same shape as the lions' but only 45mm wide (1.75").
Other notes: We have had lots of research activity in the marine reserve recently. The "Delta" submarine made dozens of dives and reported that lots of the bottom habitat in the deeper waters (100-300' depth) consists of coarse gravel out of which grow sea pens. Sea pens are feathery creatures related to corals and anemones that wave long stalks up out of the gravel into the water. They filter plankton from the water to obtain food. Mary Yoklavich, the lead scientist of the project (Mary works for the National Marine Fisheries Service), says the sea pen beds are loaded with tiny juvenile rockfish. These fishes are small enough to hide in the sparse cover Mary and Dave VenTresca (Department of Fish and Game) are preparing a map of the marine reserve which will show the bottom types and estimate the number of the different kinds of fishes there. The researchers have braved tough conditions with wind, chop, and huge swells to make their dives.
Yesterday I saw a juvenile Peregrine Falcon on the cliffs above Big Creek cove. Peregrines are easily recognized by their heavy pigeon-shaped body and their rapid but shallow wing beats when flying. They specialize in hunting birds along the coast. This bird seemed inexperienced. I watched it swoop and dive ineffectively many times, harassing terns and some smaller bird that I could not identify. As I watched through my binoculars, the falcon flew out of sight over the open ocean, at least a full mile from shore, perhaps further. I didn't realize they would stray so far from land. (10/15/97)

November 1997 The rains finally came, and California "spring" began. Millions of tiny seedlings and sprouts appeared along the roads and trails, of miner's lettuce, clover and sorrel. Buds are sprouting too, on thimble berries and currants. One currant by our house put out its first blossom, but this plant gets watered and I think it's too early yet for the wild ones. The red columbines started blooming also. Many of these new shoots are tasty to quail, towhees, deer, and other animals, so it's like a brief spring "salad" out there.
The yellow banana slugs are out looking for food. They lie dormant during the dry season, sealed against desiccation in the moistest, coolest place they can find. This has been a particularly long dry season (over nine months) and they are very hungry. If you pick one up and put it on your finger they begin rasping your skin, which is how they feed on mushrooms and other soft foods. Some slugs carry mites that live on their bodies. Kim and I looked at eight slugs the other day on a walk - only one large one had a population of mites.
These kinds of mites may be an example of how nature can sometimes favor helping, or "mutualistic" relationships. This has been studied a lot in carrion beetles (I wrote about Big Creek carrion beetles and mites in the February 1992 Nature Notes) but no one to my knowledge has studied banana slug mites. Do mites feed on the slug, or just on the slugs' food? Do mites help the slugs survive in any way, or are they parasitic? Clearly the slug provides shelter and transportation for mites, as well as possibly a safe way to spend the summer dry season. Are these mites specific to banana slugs, or can they be found elsewhere? The questions can go on and on, and if someone would "dig in" and study this first hand, I predict that many of their answers would be surprising.
I always see banana slugs along the highway in front of the reserve (I saw two in the highway turnout in front of our mailbox the other day). I wonder if they are common residents of the coastal bluffs? It seems possible because this habitat is generally cool and damp. However, it also seems likely that the slugs wander out onto the highway from their home in the redwoods, perhaps in search of food. Does anyone know of banana slugs living in non-redwood habitats in Big Sur?
Other notes: Even though we got 3-4" of rain, the creek only rose 2". Nearly all the rain soaked in, watering the plants and soil. The creek is the color of tea. This shows that the rainwater that did make it into the stream has filtered through the leaf litter and the soil....Sorrel and many other plants made it through the dry season without being heavily grazed by deer or other creatures. This indicates that better food was available this autumn, such as the good acorn crop and the vigorous shrub growth we experienced. It may also indicate a reduced number of deer in the area. The two lions which have been continuously present this fall may have reduced the deer numbers or caused them to shift to safer areas. (11/21/97)

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