Nature, Landscape, and Night Sky Photography by Zach Schierl

Ocean

Crossing the Channel

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass
A small ocean inlet with blue-green water along a rugged coastline

Potato Harbor, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, California

Just a few dozen miles off the coast of Southern California lie the Channel Islands, eight motes of land jutting out of the sea a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Of the eight islands, the only one with a significant human population is the tourist mecca of Santa Catalina, which draws over one million visitors per year. The remaining seven islands are sparsely populated and draw far fewer tourists. The four northernmost islands form an archipelago that is protected by Channel Islands National Park and the Nature Conservancy.

Back in March, we briefly visited the largest Channel Island: Santa Cruz. At 97 square miles in area, Santa Cruz is reached via ferry from Ventura or Oxnard. Our hour-long journey across the Santa Barbara Channel was choppy to say the least, but included close up views of Pacific white-sided dolphins and several majestic oil drilling platforms. Upon arrival, we were greeted by one of the most lush landscapes imaginable. Abnormally abundant winter rains had produced a tall, dense carpet of green grasses that blanketed the entire island. One of the resident rangers told us it was the greenest he had seen Santa Cruz in the seven years he’d worked there.

A trail passes through dense green grass with sunset-lit mountains in the background

A trail winding through the lush spring grasses on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park

A view of an island covered in green grass with the deep-blue ocean and other islands in the background

Looking east from Santa Cruz toward Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park

An illuminated tent beneath a tree. The landscape is illuminated by moonlight.

Campsite on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park. Landscape illuminated by a first quarter moon.  

Given their relative geographic isolation, the Channel Islands are notable for their high concentration of endemic plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth. They are also home to some of the earliest evidence of human habitation in the Americas. Archaeological and geological evidence suggests that humans inhabited Santa Rosa, just east of Santa Cruz, as far back as 13,000 years ago. At this time, sea levels were much lower due to the massive amounts of water locked up in glaciers and ice sheets farther north. As a result, the four northernmost islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel) were united into a “mega island” whose eastern edge was much closer to mainland California. This made it easier for plants and animals to reach the island, either by air (birds, plant seeds, etc.) or on floating rafts of debris (mammals, reptiles, etc.) Some species may have even been deliberately brought to the islands by humans.

As the most recent glaciation ended, sea levels began to rise, eventually splitting the mega-island into the smaller landmasses that exist today. Once isolated, the plant and animal populations that had established themselves on the islands, either organically or after being brought there by humans, began to evolve into species distinct from their mainland cousins. In some cases, distinct subspecies have evolved on individual islands in response to unique conditions.

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For visitors to Santa Cruz, the most obvious example of this phenomenon is the ubiquitous Santa Cruz island fox (Urocyon littoralis var. santacruzae). Coming from the mainland where a sighting (especially a daytime sighting) of a fox is a rare treat, we were surprised to see one within minutes of getting off the ferry. The island fox is descended from and appears very similar to the common grey fox, but is much smaller. A fully grown island fox weighs just 4-5 pounds, and is similar in size to a large house cat. Often the lush spring grasses exceeded the foxes in height, making them challenging to spot! Nearly extinct in the early 1990s, a highly successful habitat restoration and captive breeding program has the species thriving today. We ended up seeing several dozen in our short visit to Santa Cruz. Other subspecies of the island fox exist on five of the other seven islands, each with slight differences evolved in response to local conditions.

A small fox lies hidden in the grass

An island fox lurking in the tall grass

A small gray and red fox sits alongside a dirt path

An island fox on the trail to Smugglers Cove, likely hoping for a food handout.

With its pastoral landscape and unique wildlife, Santa Cruz feels a world away from metropolitan areas of Southern California. However, nightfall brought a stark reminder of just how close the islands are to the urban sprawl. Light pollution from Los Angeles, Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and the numerous oil drilling platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel dominated the night sky from Santa Cruz.

A panorama of the California coastline showing many large light domes degrading the view of the night sky.

Nighttime panorama from the cliffs above Scorpion Ranch on Santa Cruz Island. See annotated image below for a description of the different features.

Nighttime image of Light Pollution from Santa Cruz Island with sources labeled

Our return trip was delayed because the choppy seas prevented the ferry from reaching the anchorage on Santa Cruz on time, giving us a few extra hours to sit on the beach and enjoy the peace & quiet of the island. The winds died down enough for a smooth ride back across the channel where we even spotted a couple of migrating gray whales. Apparently I need more practice shooting photos from a moving platform, as the whale pics all turned out pretty blurry. Have another fox instead!

A small fox sits in the grass


Pyroclastic Pixels Goes to Italy!

Colorful clouds and sea at sunset in Manarola.
Colorful buildings and a view of the sea from Vernazza

The village of Vernazza occupies rocky cliffs and ravines along the Ligurian Coast of Italy. 

We recently returned from a week in Italy; a refreshing change of pace, both scenically and climatically, from winter in the Utah desert! While we spent the majority of the trip enjoying the historic sights of Florence and Rome, just a handful of hours after touching down in Italy, we were aboard a high-speed train bound for the Cinque Terre, a rugged section of Ligurian Sea coastline where we spent the first several days of our trip hiking, exploring, and ingesting some of the best seafood of our lives. The Cinque Terre (“five lands”) consists of five small villages clinging to the rocky shore, surrounded by ancient stone terraces, vineyards, and olive groves, and crisscrossed by a network of hiking trails that, since 1999, have been part of the Cinque Terre National Park. A hot tourist spot in peak summer season, in March, with the temperatures still far too cold and the skies much too drizzly for a dip in the sea, the streets and trails were definitely still enjoying the relative calm of the off-season. On the stormiest day, we struggled to find an open restaurant or market to grab a bite to eat!

The five villages (from south to north: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare) are spread out along a six mile stretch of shoreline. A regular train connects the five villages to one another and the larger cities of Liguria, making its way along the coast via a series of long, dark tunnels, only to pop out into the open briefly to stop at the station adjacent to each town. Coming from La Spezia (the closest major city to the Cinque Terre), we hopped off the train at Manarola, our home base for our all-too-short stay:

The train station in Manarola, Cinque Terre

The train station in Manarola. A hundred-yard long pedestrian tunnel connects the station with the town, here seen peeking through gaps in the steep cliffs.  

Like the other four towns, the colorful buildings of Manarola cling to the hillsides in impressive fashion. The terrain, while steep, is relatively easy to traverse thanks to the vast network of dry stone terraces, originally built centuries ago. Not only do the terraces help minimize erosion of the precipitous slopes, the treads provide flat surfaces on which grapes, olives, lemons, and other food products are grown. Most of the trails that wind through the Cinque Terre follow these historic terraces, providing an easy walking path, great views, and an up-close look at many of the vineyards which are still operated to this day.

The village of Manarola spreads out below vineyards in a large ravine.

The village of Manarola as seen from the terraced vineyards that surround the town.

Colorful clouds and sea at sunset in Manarola.

A colorful sunset in Manarola, looking north along the Cinque Terre coast.

Colorful buildings of Manarola line the waterfront at dusk.

The Manarola waterfront at dusk.

The streets of Manarola at night. The local fishermen had all removed their boats from the harbor for safe storage on the streets because of the storm and high surf.

Despite the convenience of the train, the most enjoyable way to travel between the towns is to walk. Hiking is one of the primary attractions here, and the five villages are connected by a famous 7-mile long coastal trail that follows the curves of the shoreline in dramatic fashion. So dramatic in fact, that many segments have been closed for years due to landslides that have made them dangerous and impassible. On day two, we struck out from Manarola to hike to the next village to the north: Corniglia. With the direct route along the coast closed indefinitely, we undertook a more circuitous route up through the vineyards and terraces to the village of Volastra, then back down a steep grade to Corniglia. The views of the Ligurian Sea from this trail were phenomenal, despite the occasional rain & thunder.

Stone terraces and vineyards frame a few of Corniglia in the distance

A damp hike through terraced vineyards on the “high trail” between Manarola and Corniglia.

Agave and other plants cling to a rocky sea cliff

We were surprised at the how many different kinds of agave and cacti graced the slopes of the Cinque Terre. It was odd to see so many of the familiar “desert” plants from our Utah home in such a temperate climate! Here, several agave cling to a vertical cliff not far from our lodging in Manarola. 

After enjoying a picnic in Corniglia, we opted for a short rest and utilized the train to reach the next town of Vernazza. Vernazza was by far the busiest and most active town we visited; it was hard to imagine what the crowds would be like in the sweltering heat and humidity of summer. Interestingly, Cinque Terre, which attracts ~2.5 million visitors each year, faces many of the same challenges as Zion National Park in our own backyard: namely, lots of visitors and not a lot of room for them to spread out. The peak-season crowding has gotten bad enough that the Cinque Terre National Park, much like Zion, has begun exploring the use of reservation systems and other strategies to mitigate the crowds in peak season. Another parallel between Cinque Terre and Zion: deadly flash floods. In 2011, heavy rains swelled many of the streams that the villages are built along (or literally over in many places), killing several and burying the main streets of Vernazza and Monterosso in over a dozen feet of mud. While the towns have mostly recovered, the reality is that this will always be a very geologically active place. Nature doesn’t like near-vertical terrain.

Coloful buildings line the harbor in the village of Vernazza

A view of colorful Vernazza from high above its harbor.

Steep cliffs rise out of the sea in the Cinque Terre

Looking southeast along the Cinque Terre coast from the coastal trail between Vernazza and Monterosso. Vernazza is the prominent village in the center of the photo; Corniglia and Manarola are just barely visible through the mist in the background.

The city of Levanto and surrounding hills

The town of Levanto, just north of the Cinque Terre and the start of our hike to Punta Mesco

On our final day, we left the Cinque Terre proper and headed to the small town of Levanto, just to the north. Our plan was to hike a lesser known section of the coastal trail that traverses a wide peninsula jutting out into the Ligurian Sea, and then back to the Cinque Terre and Monterosso via Punta Mesco. Oddly, we saw far more people along this stretch of trail than we seen the past few days in the Cinque Terre, including an excursion of an Italian hiking club numbering at least 100 people. After a few dreary days, we finally got to bask in the beautiful Mediterranean sun on this trek, and were rewarded near the end with exquisite views of the entire Cinque Terre coast from Punta Mesco.

Panorama of the Cinque Terre Coastline

A panoramic view of the Cinque Terre from Punta Mesco along the coastal trail between Monterosso and Levanto.

A few days hiking (and eating) in the quiet and laid-back Cinque Terre were a great way to kick off our trip and ease us into tackling the hustle and bustle of Italy’s larger cities!


Snails of a Different Color

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Up until a few days ago, I would have felt extremely confident saying that I’ve seen more fossilized sea snails in my life than I have real ones. After all, teaching a lab that revolves around sedimentary rocks for two quarters will put one in close contact with more dead gastropods than one ever thought possible. And when you spend a lot of time staring at multi-million-year-old fossils, it’s often easy to forget that lots of the little buggers have closely related relatives still trolling the high seas today.DSC_8284Just a few of the many, many, MANY different colored and patterned varieties of nucella lamellosa, the Frilled Dogwinkle

A few days ago though, I stumbled upon a sea snail breeding ground of epic proportions at a place called Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve. I had gone there with the express purpose of looking at rocks and I remain convinced that the snails made their dramatic appearance in order to force me to confront the inherent irony in going to a marine reserve to look at rocks. Near the low-tide line, a couple of bright orange striped shells grabbed my attention, sticking out marine creamsicles amidst the backdrop of drab green algae and seaweed, dull brown barnacles, and grey sky reflected in the waves. I soon realized that I was surrounded (in a benign and not even remotely threatening way) by hundreds upon hundreds of sea snails exhibiting a dazzling array of different colors and patterns.

Now, my knowledge of sea snail taxonomy is limited, but it appears that despite the disparate appearance of these snails,  they are all part of the same species: nucella lamellosa, also known as the Frilled Dogwinkle or Frilled Whelk (if anyone has information to the contrary, please let me know). Most of the snails in these photos are smooth; they have lost their ridges or frills that normally run along the length of their shell. This is apparently a common fate of nucella lamellosa that choose to spend their lives in places like Pt. Whitehorn which experience very rough surf during the winter. The frills literally get worn away, not at all surprising when you consider that the shells are made out of calcium carbonate, a substance that in it’s crystalline form is only a we bit harder than drywall.

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Purple was the rarest color I encountered; orange, black, grey, and pure white seemed to be the most prevalent.

Many rocks were encrusted with dozens of the snails, varying in size from babies barely larger than a pea, to a few gargantuan snails nearly four inches long. This species hatches in late winter and early spring, so this is a good time to get a sneak peak at the next generation. A female sea snail can apparently lay thousands of eggs each year, although like most species who opt for quantity over quality when it comes to reproduction, only a small percentage survive to adulthood. In the case of nucella lamellosa, that number is estimated at a paltry 1%. Upon reading this, I realized in horror that the occasional sharp “crunch” heard from underneath my boots while I was taking these photographs was nothing other than the sound of my contribution to this rather depressing and morbid statistic. But with any luck, those shell fragments I (inadvertently) created will get weathered, transported, buried, and fossilized, eventually re-surfacing in the collection of some enterprising geologist a few million years from now, a fate that can only be described as THE ultimate honor for any ambitious gastropod.

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The only decent shot I got of the innards of these snails.

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A handful of the less gaudy looking but substantially larger snails. The largest one here is almost three inches long.

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A variety six-pack of nucella lamellosa munching on some barnacles.

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