Wednesday, February 22, 2012

LOCATION: Lake Cachuma
DATE: February 18, 2012 2 PM
Aerial View of Lake Cachuma
Photo by John Wiley
Lake Cachuma is located in the Santa Ynez Valley in central Santa Barbara County, California. Artificially created by construction of the Bradbury Dam in 1953, the lake is fed by the Santa Ynez River and lies amidst sections of Los Padres National Forest. The lake covers over 3,000 acres and is used primarily for municipal drinking water for Santa Barbara, as well as recreational purposes managed by the County of Santa Barbara Parks Department. Damming of the lake was a controversial project, as many locals opposed changing the landscape so dramatically. However, after episodes of drought it became evident that a permanent source of water was needed in order to satiate the growing thirsts of the Santa Barbara community. Since then the lake has become home to many species of migratory birds and land animals, as well as a place for recreational activity including camping, hiking, and fishing. Aside from a free nature center, the Santa Barbara County Parks Division offers 2 hour lake cruises for only $15 per person! (highly recommended). From November to February the showcase of the cruise is the Bald Eagle, which migrates from the North to nest here. From March until the late summer months, many different types of waterfowl can be seen displaying colorful and vibrant mating colors. Overall, the lake serves as a place for diverse uses and serves as both a location for species management and recreation.

View from docks
Trip Description:
We headed for the lake around 1 pm in time for our boat cruise scheduled at 2 pm. It was balmy and cool on the southern side of the Santa Ynez Mountains, but it looked as if it may be clear and sunny on the lakeside. Unfortunately, gloomy clouds rolled in and it became a windy, chilly day on the lake. It was about 60 degrees but it felt much colder with the winds, which were about 5-10 mph NNW and gustier when not in the sheltered coves of the lake. Aboard the pontoon boat, we set for the northern shore. There was remarkably less wildlife visible from the dock and the middle of the lake than I remember on my first trip, perhaps due to the weather. Luckily, there were numerous species visible once we crept along the shoreline and throughout the rest of the boat ride. It lasted approximately 2 hours, and by the end it was significantly cooler, windier, and cloudier. I have detailed our encounters with several species in the following posts, which include the California Mule Deer, the Mud Hen (American Coot), and the Osprey. 

*Basic information about the lake provided by Liz Gaspar, Park Naturalist, and from the County of Santa Barbara Parks website:

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Mud Hen (American Coot)

Fulica americana
(click on photos to enlarge)
Side View of Adult Coot
These birds were the most commonly seen waterfowl during my outing on the lake. They tended to stay in flocks of about 6 to 15 and were easily irked by the boat. In fact, our tour guide even purposefully headed toward a group so that we could observe their notorious behavior of "pedaling," or skimming across the water. Apparently it takes them a great deal of effort to really get off the ground even though they are migratory birds. These birds are easily discernable with their black heads and white beaks. The groups tended to stay within 2-5 feet of the shoreline, and I never observed any out of the water, although they do occasionally stray to feed on the vegetation. This behavior serves to protect and to socialize, even though they are territorial during the breeding season. The American Coot lives in freshwater shallows such as ponds, lakes, and marshes, but have also been seen in manmade ponds of parks or gold courses.

A "cover" or "raft" of Coots
An adult may grow to about 1 foot long with a wingspan of  22 to 31 inches. Fossil records from the Middle Pleistocene found in the Anza-Borrego Desert in San Diego County indicate that they are native to the Pacific Coast. However, their range extends north to southern Quebec and south to northern South America. Coots in this area are most likely year-round residents, and more populations near the northern limits of their range are becoming year-round residents as well. Coots are rails, or members of the Rallidae family along with cranes and crakes. There is a richly documented fossil record in North American and Europe of rails and associated genera. 

                                                                (HD Recommended)

Frontal View
Across their range, Coots are prey to many predators including foxes, coyotes and skunks. At the lake however, they are more susceptible to great horned owls, California gulls, ospreys, and bald eagles that inhabit this area during the non-nesting season. Our naturalist-guide morbidly referred to them as “eagle food." This is especially true with juvenile eagles who are not yet capable of taking down larger prey. They are rarely hunted as game birds. Due to their widespread range and abundance, they may sometimes be considered an umbrella species with their health being indicative of the health of the greater environment. They are not, however, listed as endangered or threatened. 
An adult mid-scuttle

"American Coot." All About Birds. The Cornell Lab of Orthinology, 2011. 22 Feb. 2012.

Bridgman, Allison. "Fulica americana." Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, 2003. Web. 22 Feb. 2012. information/Fulica_americana.html

Brisbin, I. L., Jr., H. D. Pratt, and T. B. Mobray. American Coot (Fulica americana) and Hawaiian Coot (Fulica alai). In The Birds of North America, No. 697 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). 2002. The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Olson, Storrs. "The Pleistocene Rails of North America." The Condor  76. (1974): 169-175. Web. 22 Feb. 2012.

California Mule Deer

Odocoileus hemionous californicus   
(click on images for larger view)
Two California Mule Deer
I had not observed a mule deer at the lake until today, when I got to see a group of four or five of them. We spotted one by a tree on a small isthmus, and an upon moving in for a closer look, we realized there were a few others running playfully around a group of oaks. Once we got close to the shoreline, they definitely noticed us but did not seem too concerned. They are protected from humans in this area because the public is not allowed to dock along the northern shore (our naturalist guide scolded one family for doing so, making for a pretty awkward moment). They are territorial, which may have explained why we saw the group seemed to be picking on one of the deer that may not have belonged with the rest. Our guide even said that one of these deer had been seen stalking a bobcat. 

The deer had black tails, a white rump patch, and no antlers which had fallen off during earlier in the winter and will grow again in the spring enabling males to compete for mates. Males are slightly larger than females, ranging from about 100-325 pounds and shoulder height of about 40 inches. These individuals seemed to be above the median size for the species, possibly due to an abundance of succulent forage provided by the lake and only minimal competition from livestock in the area. 

Source: CA Department of Fish and Game websit
These deer, along with white-tailed deer, share the order Odocoileus and exist within the Cervidae family with the rest of the common types of deer such as elk, moose, and caribou. One distinction is that almost all male deer in this family grow and shed their antlers every year. This subspecies of mule deer (hemionous) is native to California, with the Native Americans of California known to have hunted them since about 12,000 BC. However, much of their natural habitat has been consumed through modern urban development. Thus, the deer have been known to approach suburban yards to drink from fountains and browse through greenery. Subsequently, the California Department of Fish and Game has an educational program that attempts             (HD recommended)            
to prevent encounters from happening called "Keep
Me Wild." They emphasize enclosing gardens and picking up fallen fruit, and even recommend certain repellent products. Doing so will also keep their hunters, mountain lions, away from homes. It is also illegal to feed deer as this could diminish their natural fear of humans (from the way the looked at us on the lake, they didn't seem too threatened. Then again, we were on a boat at least 50 feet away). Other management considerations include parasitic diseases and bacterial diseases that can be spread to and from livestock. High density and malnutrition are factors that may predispose populations to infection. Aside from mountain lions, their other greatest predators are sport hunters.


Anderson, Allan & Wallmo, Olof. "Odocoileus hemionus." Mammalian Species 219. The American Society of Mammalogists, 27 Apr. (1984): 1-9. PDF.

California Department of Fish and Game. Keep Me Wild. 2011. Web. 22 Feb. 2012.

Misuraca, Michael. "Odocoileus hemionus."Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Zoology, 1999. Web. 22 Feb 2012 Odocoileus_hemionus.html

Note: All photos and videos were taken by the author on the date of the trip unless otherwise noted.


CA DFG Website


Pandion haliaetus carolinensis
(click on images for enlarged view)

Note eagle-like wingspan
Viewing the Osprey was a small consolation for missing out on the Bald Eagle. Sometimes mistaken for eagles, they arguably share the majestic and beautiful attributes with other large birds of prey. We spotted six or seven my first time out on the lake, but only saw two during this outing. Again, the colder and windier conditions probably kept them from perching for as long a period. This species is well adapted to aquatic habitats, perching and nesting in areas where land predators cannot reach (see photo below). 

Fossil records of extinct species (Pandion homoleption) were found in California suggesting that this subspecies is native to this area. This subspecies, carolinensis, is found in North America and has a larger, darker body with a paler breast. All Ospreys are large: about 2 feet long with a wingspan of 50 to 60 inches. They have a distinctive yellow iris that can just barely be made out in the photo below. Females are generally weightier with slightly larger wingspans. 

This one seemed to be displaying his catch to us. One unique thing about Ospreys is their                                  rounded talons with reversible outer toes                                                   
allowing them to hold on to slippery fish as 
seen above. The Osprey also has excellent vision,               HD recommended                                                                                                  
relatively long legs, and nasal valves that make it
an excellent angler. 

Perched on buoy with a meal in its talon
This large raptor can be found all over the world near large bodies of water. It has a large range and occurs in very high numbers. North American populations migrate from Canada and the United States to South America, but some (like those we saw at the lake) stay in Southern California or Florida during the winders. Research from the 1960’s indicates that population decline did occur in the early 20th Century largely attributed to the pesticide DDT. Of course, the Osprey along with many other predatory birds has made significant recoveries since the banning of DDT. Conversely, the Osprey makes use of manmade structures by building nests on channel markers and telephone poles, as seen above.

Predators include eagles and owls, although they usually attack the nests and not full-grown adults. Terrestrial predators include raccoons and snakes. Nests built by Ospreys may be used by other large birds such as bald eagles (not today, of course), horned owls, red-tailed hawks, and common ravens on subsequent years. Ospreys are also considered indicator species for the long-term health of estuaries and bays. Their tolerance for short-term disturbances from researchers makes them ideal for studying. 

Multi-resident nests

These three species were not the only ones seen on this day. Also observed were peregrine falcons, double-crested cormorants, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, a type of wobbler, gulls, ducks, and numerous type of fish. There are many other species to be observed, including that elusive bald eagle. Regardless of what types of wildlife were seen, the pristine beauty of the lake and surrounding environment is serene enough to quell even the worst of hangovers. Even on a balmy, chilly day the spray of the water is fun and tests the endurance of the intrepid lake-goers. Just knowing that a place like this exists only 45 minutes away is comforting. Such knowledge, however, has eluded many of my peers, most  of whom have lived in the Santa Barbara area for over 2 years. I suspect that many permanent residents are also unaware of the beauty that exists in their own backyards. While marine species are more familiar, there are many other important species and corresponding habitats worth seeing and protecting. Observing these elements of nature firsthand is critical to piquing interest in conservation. 

Looking SSE at Santa Ynez Mountains

Looking SW at Santa Ynez Mountains

Ames, Peter. “DDT Residues in the Eggs of the Osprey in the North-Eastern United States and their Relation to Nesting Success.” Journal of Applied Ecology , Vol. 3, Supplement: Pesticides in the Environment and Their Effects on Wildlife. (Jun., 1966), pp. 87-97.

"Osprey." Animals. Nat Geo Wild. National Geographic Society, 2012. Web. 22 Feb 2012.

Watkins, Patricia. "Pandion haliaetus." Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Zoology, 2000. Web. 22 Feb 2012.