Endangered Neighbor: Brown Pelican

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Brown Pelican in breeding plumage, San Diego, California

This Endangered Neighbor was taken off the US endangered species list in 2009 due to their population rising to what authorities consider to be large enough numbers. As we all know, this doesn’t mean they are in the clear, but so long as we make sure we don’t repeat history, Brown Pelicans should have a stable future. To do this, we need to look at that history to see how we got Brown Pelicans in trouble in the first place.

Chemical Pollution

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Brown Pelican ‘reading’ contaminated water sign, Santa Cruz, California

DDT was one of many contaminates released into the environment after world war II. The problem with DDT was (and still is) that it causes thin egg shells. Brown Pelicans incubate their eggs by standing on them. Because of the thin egg shells caused by the pesticide, pelicans were literally crushing their own eggs. In 1969 only 12 of 300 nests contained whole eggs on West Anacapa Island (the only breeding colony in California), the rest were crushed. In fact, the nearshore waters of southern California have experienced the highest levels of environmental contamination by DDT anywhere in the world. This was not only caused by local agriculture, but by the Montrose Chemical Company which was discharging hundreds of pounds of DDT directly into the southern California oceans.

In 1972 the use of pesticides like DDT was banned in the US (though we are still the number one producer of DDT, now shipping it abroad), which was probably the biggest historical factor in bringing Brown Pelicans back.

As you can see from the image above, chemical pollution is still a problem, not from DDT, but from agricultural and industrial run-off.

Plastic Pollution

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Brown Pelican carrying Plastic Spoon, Santa Cruz, California

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Brown Pelican about to catch plastic spoon in mouth, Santa Cruz, California

Plastic pollution is a constantly increasing modern threat since pelicans often consume them, thinking it is food. Save our Shores reports that they pick up 60 lbs of trash per beach clean up. That is nuts!!! Not only that, but they average around 385 lbs of garbage per river clean up, so you can imagine how much trash gets swept into the ocean that we simply don’t even know about.

The Solution

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The nice part about this step, is that in reality, it is relatively easy. There are a few different easy steps you can take to help Brown Pelicans survive.

– Eat organic foods (therefore eliminating agricultural run-off)
– Buy re-usable bottles and bags, eliminating plastic bags and bottles.
– Throw your trash away in proper containers, but re-use as much as possible.
-Volunteer with Save our Shores (check out their calendar for their frequent clean up days)

…. see, all those steps are super easy!

If we all take these small steps we can ensure to be graced by the beauty of Brown Pelicans for years to come! To see more Brown Pelican images, besides the images below, visit the Brown Pelican Portfolio!

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Adult and juvenile Brown Pelican in flight, Santa Cruz, California


Brown Pelican peeking around rock, Santa Cruz, California

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Brown Pelican in Flight, San Diego, California


Endangered Neighbor: California Condor

California Condor Juvenile Male in Pinnacles National Monument

Juvenile California Condor male, Pinnacles National Monument, California

Our most Endangered Neighbor is the California Condor with less than 200 individuals in the wild (There are about 181 in captivity). Like the Sea Otter, the low California Condor numbers are due mainly to historical reasons. Many were shot since they were seen as threats to livestock (sadly not true as they are strict carrion eaters) and for museum specimens. Then, as for so many other bird species, came the problem of pesticides, specifically DDT. It caused their egg shells to be too thin, causing them to break.

Soaring Adult California Condor in Big Sur

Soaring juvenile California Condor, Big Sur, California

Though Condor numbers are on the rise the still face modern day threats:

    • Poaching is still an issue (how is this possible?!?!)
    • Habitat destruction

Dying of lead poisoning due to eating hunter killed carrion that contains lead bullets

Junile California Condor male flying in Pinnacles

California Condor juvenile male flying, Pinnacles National Monument, California

Though these guys are not as cuddly and cute looking as our beloved otters, there are still people who are devoting their life to saving this amazing species. Mainly, the people from the Ventana Wildlife Society‘s Condor Project are responsible for their increase in numbers by managing and conducting a few different projects.

    • They collect thin-shelled, wild-laid eggs and replace them with viable captive-bred eggs
    • They treat lead-poisoned birds

They monitor the safety and health of each condor through radio telemetry

Replacing batteries on radio transmitter on California Condor

Replacing batteries on radio transmitter on California Condor

Monitoring California Condor at Release Site

Monitoring California Condor at Release Site, Big Sur, California

California Condor release in Big Sur

California Condor release, Big Sur, California

Cleaing out Rats in California Condor holding site

They (here Lyla Hunt) also get to clean out the dead rats used as food for the California Condors in their holding pen, Big Sur, California – yummy!

Radio Tracking California Condor in Big Sur

Radio tracking California Condor, Big Sur, California

In fact, the wild flock in central California, aka along the Big Sur coast is a direct result of their dynamic efforts.

Now as always, there are plenty of little steps we can all take to help condors out. Trust me, if for no other reason than this one, you want these guys to survive to see one of them soar near you. Their impressive nine foot wing span is awe inspiring!

So here are the steps you and me should be taking!

  • Adopt a Condor
  • Immediately report poaching activities to the Department of Fish and Game at 1 888 DFG-CALTIP (888 334-2258)
  • Hunt with non-lead bullets
  • Finally, there are limited and irregular volunteer opportunities with the Ventana Wilderness Society (call them at 831-455-9514)
California Condor and Turkey Vulture

California Condor and Turkey Vulture flying, Big Sur, California — oh yeah, there is a size difference 🙂


Endangered Neighbor: Sea Otter

Sea Otter Portrait, Elkhorn Slough, Monterey Bay, California

Sea Otter Portrait, Elkhorn Slough, Monterey Bay, California

Just wanted to cover another local endangered species, one also covered in the Endangered Neighbors exhibit. Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris) are probably the cutest animal I photographed for the exhibit yet that did not save them from man as their numbers are also one of the lowest in that group. At around 2650 (they do a census every year where they attempt to record every single Sea Otter along the California coast) their numbers are stable if not decreasing.

Sea Otter mother and pup swimming, Moss Landing, Monterey Bay, California

Sea Otter mother and pup swimming, Moss Landing, Monterey Bay, California

The first issue is a historical one since southern sea otters were almost driven to extinction due to the fur hunt in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Before this commercial eradication of these beautiful creatures there were an estimated 16,000 in California, by the time the fur hunt had done its damage only around 50 survived in Big Sur. When the species was listed as threatened under the endangered species act in 1977 there were an estimated 1,789 individuals. Since then major conservation efforts have and are taking place but as you can see the population is not making any kind of fast comeback.

The modern problems sea otters face include:

  • Coastal pollution created pathogens and parasites negatively affect otter immune systems
  • Getting entangled in fishing gear (especially gill nets)
  • Getting shot (though rare this does still happen)
  • Potential of a large scale wipe-out in case of an oil spill

As I mentioned before though, there are plenty of organizations and individuals putting in a lot of effort to protect this species. It probably helps that they are a keystone species (have a tremendous impact on the ecology of their coastal environment), are incredible cute, and can be seen from shore. The Monterey Bay Aquarium‘s SORAC program which rescues, treats, and releases injured otters; raises and releases stranded pups through their surrogate program; and conducts scientific research. They were also nice enough to invite me to photograph some of these efforts.

When a stranded otter is called in and brought into the aquarium it gets a medical check up and resident otters undergo surgery for transmitter implementation.

Sea Otter surgery, Monterey Bay Aquarium, California

Sea Otter surgery, Monterey Bay Aquarium, California

Their surrogate program is also quite amazing where certain female otters readily take on the role of mother when a stranded pup is brought to the aquarium. They raise them as if they were their own, providing them the life skills for them to be ready to be released back into the wild (the aquarium first had people try to teach the pups how to forage but it proved to not be as effective).

Sea Otter pair in holding tank, Monterey Bay Aquarium, California

Sea Otter pair in holding tank, Monterey Bay Aquarium, California

Karl Mayer releasing Sea Otter, Elkhorn Slough, California

Karl Mayer releasing Sea Otter, Elkhorn Slough, California

They subsequently monitor the released individuals daily for two weeks. If the individual decides to swim to far out into the ocean a helicopter is even hired so they can find the otter faster.

The great thing is that like for any other endangered species there are easy steps you can take to help these cuddly (they at least they look cuddly, though this really isn’t the case behaviorally) creatures out:

  • Reduce or eliminate coastal pollution by:
    • throwing your trash away at the beach
    • throwing cat litter in the trash (not the toilet)
    • dispose of hazardous waste appropriately – see Waste Management’s site on correct disposal of these materials
    • buying organic foods, so pesticides don’t end up in the ocean
    • using re-usable grocery bags
  • Buy sustainably harvested seafood to reduce the chances of sea otters being killed as bycatch- check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program to see what areas are advisable to eat in your area
  • Fixing oil leaks in  your car immediately (just stand by some of the Mission Avenue gas stations in Santa Cruz and see how much oil goes into the gutter labeled ‘flows directly into the bay’)
  • Vote against near shore oil drilling legistlation – to find out what they are, visit the Friends of Sea Otters website

You should also come out and see these amazing creatures. See how they wrap themselves in kelp during the night to keep from drifting. Check out a pup sleeping on its belly. Find an otter using a rock to open a clam. You will be amazing at their complexity and intricacies! You can also check out more pictures in my Sea Otter Portfolio.

Sea Otter Yawning, Moss Landing, Monterey Bay, California

Sea Otter Yawning, Moss Landing, Monterey Bay, California

Sea Otter mother carrying pup, Moss Landing, Monterey Bay, California

Sea Otter mother carrying pup, Moss Landing, Monterey Bay, California

Sea Otter wrapped in kelp, Moss Landing, Monterey Bay, California

Sea Otter wrapped in kelp, Moss Landing, Monterey Bay, California

Sea Otter mother and pup, Moss Landing, Monterey Bay, California

Sea Otter mother and pup, Moss Landing, Monterey Bay, California


Endangered Neighbor: San Francisco Garter Snake

San Francisco Garter Snake female, Pescadero, California

San Francisco Garter Snake female, Pescadero, California

As you guys now, the Endangered Neighbors exhibit recently opened  at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. The whole point of the exhibit is to get people aware of our local endangered species, why they are endangered, what people are doing to protect them, and what easy steps we an all take to ensure their survival. So, let’s get a closer look at one of our local Endangered Neighbors, the San Francisco Garter Snake.

San Francisco Garter Snake female, Pescadero, California

San Francisco Garter Snake female, Pescadero, California

The San Francisco Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia)  may be one of the most beautiful snakes in the US, if not the world. Of course this is just my opinion but look at it, it is absolutely gorgeous. (Even Robert Stebbins called it “the most beautiful serpent in North America”). These gorgeous creatures are almost exclusively found in San Mateo county, along the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Ano Nuevo State Reserve is one of the only remaining publicly accessible spots where this snake can be seen. Their exact population numbers are unclear since most of their preferred habitat is on private land and population surveys have not been conducted. The best estimates are a total population of less than 5000 individuals. This is far too low of a number, and I think it proves the point that we need to desperately be concerned for this species.

San Francisco Garter Snake Habitat

San Francisco Garter Snake Habitat

Their preferred habitat is a landscape of densely vegetated ponds with some minor upland components. Cattails, spike rushes, and bulrushes are plants surrounding the pond edges and are preferred by the snake for cover. The upland components are sometimes used for estivation during the dry summer months where the snakes utilize rodent burrows. Primarily though, the snakes are deeply reliant on ponds since they use it as an escape path and this is where they also hunt their primary prey, the threatened California Red-legged Frog.

California Red-legged Frog in Pond

California Red-legged Frog in Pond

The threats facing this species are ones common associated with wetland species:

  • Their habitat is lost due to urban, commercial and agricultural development.
  • They and their prey are predated on by introduced Bullfrogs
  • They are collected illegally as pets

The good thing is that there are a couple of organizations that are concerning themselves with the well-being of this beautiful reptile. The Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) is actively managing land and purchasing more acres that the snake calls home to increase the chances that this snake will have suitable habitat in the future, something incredibly crucial in this area with the Bay Area human population only increasing in size. The San Francisco Zoo is conducting a captive breeding program with the goal of hopefully releasing some individuals back into the wild; and finally USGS is conducting research on POST land to get a better understanding of the ecology of this snake and to get some basic population estimates.

Biologist Michelle Thompson checking pit fall trap for SFGS

Biologist Michelle Thompson checking pit fall trap for SFGS

San Francisco Garter Snake held by Michelle Thompson

San Francisco Garter Snake held by Michelle Thompson

Now the great thing is that no matter what endangered species you have an interest in, there is something you can do to help it out and to hopefully protect it for the future. The same holds true for the SFGS, these steps include (most  of these come directly from a SFGS biologist. Thank you Brian Halstead!):

  • Do not disturb or handle individuals (it is illegal), and report anyone observed handling SFGS without a permit.
    Promote land management (burning, grazing, mowing, etc.) practices that maintain or create marshes and ponds with emergent (not woody or closed canopy) margins, with unmowed (or mowed at a high (6″ or greater) grass height) surrounding uplands. Some trees and shrubs are OK, but a closed canopy forest is probably not. If you don’t own land, contribute to local parks or organizations that manage land appropriately for wildlife, including SFGS (Ano Nuevo State Reserve and the Peninsula Open Space Trust are good examples).
    Promote conditions that foster high native amphibian (SFGS prey) abundances. This would include such things as promoting the above habitat conditions and minimizing pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer use (including anything that goes into the sewers and especially storm sewers). Buying organic foods is something that consumers can do even if they do not grow crops or have a yard. This also means not releasing fish or non-native amphibians into the environment where they can have detrimental effects on native amphibians through predation, competition, or spreading disease.
    If driving in or near SFGS habitat, drive slowly and with care to avoid running over SFGS.
    Properly disposing of garbage to help control raccoon populations.


So go out and look for this snake yourself, I am convinced that once you see one yourself you too will fall in love with it and will want to conserve this amazing animal. To see more images you can check out the rest of my San Francisco Garter Snake Portfolio.

What is it like putting together an exhibit?


In a sentence, lots and lots and lots of work, but really fun work at that!

The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History and I have been working on the Endangered Neighbors exhibition for the last four years. I approached them with the idea of having an exhibit about the threatened and endangered wildlife of the central coast with information about why they are endangered, what people are doing to protect them, and what easy steps we can all take to ensure their survival. They loved the idea so I started to photograph for it while also fundraising for the project.

The photography was probably the easiest part of it all, plus it meant I was doing what I really loved. The great thing about having such concrete goals about what images you are trying to capture means you concentrate your efforts on getting those pictures which I truly believe leads to better photographs in the end. It is almost like having your own magazine assignment were there is a deadline and a shot list comprised of must have images. I can only highly recommend coming up with your own photographic project, I can assure you that your images will be better than if you just photograph things aimlessly.

In terms of the fundraising, let me tell you, trying to get people to give you money is not an easy thing. In total the museum and I wrote over 40 grant applications but got rejected every single time (well that is if you are lucky enough to get any kind of response)….I do think this speaks for my lack of ability to write a proper grant proposal as well though. Then, a year ago we signed the project up with kickstarter which turned everything around. Kickstarter is a site where people can safely make donations towards a project and depending on how much money they donated they get a reward that you have pre-determined. Over 50 people donated a total of over $6000. I will never be able to thank all of those people enough!

So at this point we have the digital images and the money, sounds like all the bases are covered, right? Man is that wrong. Now it’s time to choose the images, create metal prints, create marketing material, thank you lists, products to be sold in conjunction with the exhibit, interactive materials, and labels that are very readable, brief, yet informative. All of this takes about another six months with five people working on it. Thank you to the museum staff!

Finally, the time has come, the exhibit opens up in a little over two weeks and I can’t wait!

In conjunction, the museum is also offering a few programs to go along with the exhibit, including a Nature Photography Class, Gallery Walk, and Panel Discussion. To get more information on these you can visit: http://www.santacruzmuseums.org/education/public/index.htm

I hope you get a chance to visit the museum between June 11th and September 10th to see the Endangered Neighbors exhibit!