The Beat of Summer

Black-headed Grosbeak (male)

Although today is officially the first day of summer, this whole month leading up to it has been a wild, thriving bonanza in Northern California. By 5:30 dawn is underway and the cacophony of birdsong has already begun.


Slightly inland, temperatures usually range in the Fahrenheit 90s  (32-37 C.), with an occasional day of cooling, coastal fog.


The hot temperatures and dry chaparral habitat bring out the Western fence lizards, skinks, and snakes. This year we have had the pleasure of many lizards and skinks.


Skink, California


One day a confused lizard somehow got into the house. I came in and found it trying to climb our living room steps; fortunately the carpet was impeding progress. I coaxed the lizard, an alligator lizard, into a clean milk bottle and delivered him back outdoors.


Northern Alligator Lizard, California


The birds take advantage of these long days. Many species have chicks in the nest, and industriously use the maximum daylight hours to snap up insects and worms for their nestlings.


Some birds are finishing their nesting like the titmice, violet-green swallows, and western bluebirds. Others, like the Pacific-slope flycatchers, are already feeding a second brood before they head back south.


Oak Titmouse, California


Violet-green swallow, California


Juvenile Anna’s hummingbirds have been off the nest for about a month now, and are easy to spot because they zoom up to everything with defiant purpose, even if it’s inanimate like my cup of tea. Adults don’t waste their energy like that, they have to be alert and vigilant to defend their territory.


Anna’s hummingbird (adult male), California. Can you see his tongue?


Steller’s jays, a handsome and irreverent bird, also have juveniles right now and not a day goes by without at least one squawk-fest. I watch them. They squawk about nothing. I think they’re learning to voice.


Steller’s Jay, adult, California


The yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum) plants have unfurled thousands of tiny white flowers these past few weeks.  I’ve read that the nectar tastes bitter, but the shrubs are loaded with butterflies, sometimes six or eight at once–all sizes and colors.


Western Tiger Swallowtail on Yerba Santa


Bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax), also a native, is more prolific this year than any other year in my 18 here.  Every single plant burned to the ground in the 2017 wildfires; but since then we cleaned up the blackened stubs, and after a rain they earnestly began sprouting leaves. With fire-resistant rhizomes, they grew a full grassy bouquet, and recently each plant extended a tall green stem with one club-like flower.


Bear Grass, California, June 2019


Four species of flycatchers, the blue-gray gnatcatchers and black-throated gray warblers are all here for the summer, calling from the trees reminding me the lively summer has arrived.


Residents like the finches, nuthatches, woodpeckers, wrens, vireos and raptors are also busy nesting. Juncos built a nest under our front steps. This week I observed a flicker nesting in a tree snag.


But it’s the black-headed grosbeaks who steal the show. Big bird with bold colors, a flash of white in flight; and the most heavenly melodious song reverberating throughout the day.


Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California


Pheucticus melanocephalus are here only a short time. The males arrive in April, the females follow, and the spring activities begin. Right now we have immature and adult grosbeaks flying in every direction, sometimes five or six at the feeder at once. By August they’ll be gone.


Black-headed Grosbeak (female), California


We keep the feeders filled with their favorite seed (black oil sunflower); and the water trays are brimming with refreshment for the hot, parched days.


So many goals I have, but none so easy to know or do as keeping the grosbeaks happy.


At dinnertime the jackrabbit comes in to feed on grass and weeds; and the immature grosbeaks continue their plea that has lasted all day: a wavy whine, feed me, feed me.


Black-tailed Jackrabbit, California (Lepus californicus)



Black-headed Grosbeak (immature), California


It’s not until 9:00 that the sun sets and the day quiets down…only for the night creatures to begin their watch. First the bats come out, frenetic silhouettes disappearing into the night. The frogs start their chorus, the crickets their stridulating chirping; and by the time it’s totally dark, the occasional deep hoots of a great horned owl lull me to sleep.


The force of life, the beat of summer. Happy summer to my northern hemispheric friends.


Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Pacific Chorus Frog, California


Range Map for Black-headed Grosbeak

Range map for black-headed grosbeak. Courtesy

79 thoughts on “The Beat of Summer

  1. Happy Summer, Jet! Great post, wonderful to learn about the wildlife on your doorstep – what an abundance, and what a soundtrack! It’s good to read about the gradual recovery of the land there.
    Thanks for this, and have a great weekend, protecting your tea from juvenile hummingbirds.

    • Always a delight to hear from you, pc, thanks so much for your lovely words and visit. I smiled at your comment about protecting my tea from the juvenile hummingbirds. One of the joys of Friday is reading what adventure you’ve been up to, am looking forward to it. Always a great time, my friend, thanks so much and cheers to you and the gang.

  2. Lovely post, Jet. I feel like I am there with you and all the flora and fauna of NorCA. Great shots from Athena, too.
    The chipping sparrows in the bush outside my window have hatched and every time a parent flies in there is a great clamoring. It always makes me smile. 🙂

    • Oh how I loved hearing about the nest of chipping sparrows near your window, Eliza. Isn’t that just such an exuberance when the parent flies in and their new little voices explode all at once? Great to hear of your summer nest, Eliza, and thanks for your warm words.

  3. I can’t get close enough to the lizards in my backyard to figure out what they are! I was looking for some fire resistant plants for my back yard – thanks for the recommendation. Especially that bear grass…..Cool. Have a happy summer Jet! Let’s hope the rains come early.

    • How wonderful that you have lizards in your back yard, Jan. They are probably the Western fence lizard species. Happy summer to you, too, Jan, and I’m with you in hoping for early rains. Many thanks.

    • I like the way you worded the summary of the summer post and the fire recovery, Craig. Yes, it is nice to see the recovery happening. It’s a very interesting process. The chipmunks, for example, never did come back, but more lizards this year. We’re learning something new every week, and of course working really hard to keep out the invasives (poison oak in FULL force without all the trees). Warm thanks–

  4. I can imagine that your property will start bursting with all kinds of animals of many kinds. Must be desert type terrain for I can gather by looking at the samples of your great gallery. Many people might think that a forest yields more animals, the desert is teeming with wild life at every inch of it! Great post, Jet, as always! 🙂

    • Always a joy to hear from you, HJ. The terrain here is a mix of chaparral, woodlands and evergreen forest, yielding an array of habitats suitable to a variety of wildlife. It is, as you say, teeming with wildlife. And as you know, feeders bring in more wildlife. My warmest thanks for your visit, my friend.

  5. Our violet-green swallows are still busy feeding while we wait to see the hatchlings make their appearance. Athena caught a marvelous shot of your swallow showing that brilliant green out in the sun. We’ve been noticing the bear grass taking over the hills in the burned areas as well. It’s pretty amazing to see all the life returning after the fires. Here’s hoping we can get through the rest of the summer without any major ones! And those grosbeaks… they do keep me busy filling the feeders. I’m trying to find one that they won’t park on and crowd out the smaller birds like our nesting chickadee. Wish I had caught a video of a tiny little chipmunk chasing off one of the grosbeaks on the ground. Not to mention Papa Quail charging and chasing off a Jay. It’s quite an exciting time. Can’t wait to see the new Quail chicks arriving. ❤

    • Oh how I enjoyed hearing about the lively array of wild critters and birds on your property, Gunta. Since the fire we haven’t had quail come by anymore, although I can hear them in the distance. I am delighted you have the joy of grosbeaks at your feeders and how fun to have nesting chickadees, too. I do love the quail chicks, little fluff-balls. Not easy to photograph, because the parents are so protective of them, but just so adorable to see. Loved your comment, Gunta, thanks so much.

    • I don’t live in alligator country like you do, Bill, so your comment gave me a big smile. I did not touch the lizard. I was patient with it’s reluctance, and I cooed encouraging words, and after about five minutes I kind of cornered it so the bottle was the only option. It worked out beautifully for both of us. lol. My warm thanks.

    • Enjoyed hearing that you have rose-breasted grosbeaks where you live, Michael Stephen. What a joy to host such an elegant and beautiful bird. Thanks so much for your input.

  6. What a lovely and lively post! Enjoyed seeing and hearing about summer in your neck of the woods. Especially encouraged to see the fresh, new life growing out of the ashes. Happy summer to you, dear Jet!

    • Yes, and you saw it when it was literally ashes here, Nan, so I’m glad to be able to provide a more life-affirming landscape. I wish you could see the whole property and all the work we’ve done, including the results of your hard work. It is paying off. My warmest wishes to you for a happy summer too.

    • The black-headed grosbeak generally has the western half of the U.S., and the rose-breasted occupies the eastern half. I hope you see a black-headed some day, Sherry. Once a wayward rose-breasted grosbeak spent about two minutes at our feeder, so perhaps a black-headed will visit Central Park. That’s the fun, as you well know. Many thanks.

  7. oh I enjoyed this post very much. The photos are wonderful and your descriptions are not only educational, but read like a passage from a much loved novel. Thank you for sharing this.

  8. How wonderful to have birds, creatures in your yard. And what a different some rain can make! A beautiful post, Jet. Such a treat read about them. 🙂 happy summer!

    • I’m very glad you enjoyed our summer creatures, Amy. We all have different summer scenarios unfolding in the northern hemisphere, I thought it would be fun to share ours here in Northern Calif. Thanks so much.

  9. I never heard the words “alligator lizard” without remembering the lyrics to America’s “Ventura Highway.” For most of my life, I assumed the creature was imaginary — not so! I’m pleased but not entirely surprised to see plants like the bear grass returning full force. As terrible as your fires were for both humans and the environment, there’s a reason fire’s also used as a management tool on prairies and in forests. I was in a place recently where I could see the difference between land that had been intentionally burned, and land that wasn’t burned because of unsuitable conditions. The rich diversity of plants emerging in on the burned land was remarkable — I hope as the summer goes on, you’ll enjoy some of that same revival!

    • I always enjoy your words and thoughts, Linda, thank you for stopping by. Yes, we are seeing a few things coming around post-fire. Most of it still looks like the dreadful disaster that it was, but growth is encouraging to be sure.

    • Plant and animal life vary so incredibly, it was fun to share ours here, as summer begins its flourish. Thanks so much, Belinda, always a pleasure to “see” you.

    • I am certain your experience with the patterns of fire and recovery is far greater than mine, montucky; so it is encouraging to read your encouraging words. Thank you so much.

  10. As always, a very informative post and Athena’s pics are great…love it! As I was reading this all I could think of was how incredible nature is to come back in full glory after what you guys went through in 2017!! Incredible!! Thanks for sharing!!

    • Thanks for your visit and great comment, Kirt. Things are coming along post-fire, and you’re right, nature is incredible. The ground grasses and weeds and fast-growing trees are rebounding nicely; it’s the old oaks, fir forest, madrones and manzanitas that are mostly black sticks or just empty space now. In the fall when we come upon the two-year anniversary I’ll do a photo gallery. Thanks so much for your interest, Kirt.

    • ha, I enjoyed your comment, Joanne. Those Steller’s Jays are definitely rascals. There are three young siblings right now here, and they are always a hoot to watch. Thanks so much, Joanne.

  11. Between your narrations of your observations of who is where and doing what, and your photographs that had me wowing out loud, what a post!! Wow! Your bird pictures are incredible!! I can hear your JOY in your voice, Jet, as you are describing in great detail the commotion of summer on the West Coast. That grass you described that survived the fires has me just shaking my head in awe …. the resiliency of Nature just never ceases to amaze!! And that lizard in your home ….. oh my gosh! No way!! Cringe! I’d be freaking! How I so enjoyed the post ….. what a world you live in! Thank you so much for sharing it! 🦋🦋🦋

    • A complete joy to share our summer world with you, Amy. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and absorb all the creatures, and for your lovely, enthusiastic and genuine comment. You brought a smile to my face today, thank you.

  12. What a wonderful abundance of wildlife!! I love this post, it’s so chockfull of so many beauties. The black headed grosbeak ~ love the sunburnt orange, and the violet green swallow and the jay!! Sooo gorgeous. I have never heard of a skink before and he is quite an unusual looking guy to be sure. That’s a terrific shot of a leggy jackrabbit, and I do love that grass that has recovered so beautifully after the fires. Your passion for wildlife and the accompanying photos is a winning combination. Thanks for sharing!


    • I so enjoyed your visit and comment, Peta. It is really fun to bring our northern Calif. summer to you, and your enthusiasm is much appreciated, especially considering you have recently been in the area and are familiar with this land. Have been thinking of you both, and hoping your new digs and move to Vietnam has been smooth. Warmest thanks.

  13. A wonderful summer celebration post, Jet! Athena’s captures are all amazing as usual. The Black-headed Grosbeak is a beauty! We don’t have lizards in the mid-Atlantic; but when we visit friends in Florida, it’s very common to have a small lizard slip into the home. It wasn’t for me, though, when I looked over on the couch next to me and saw one sitting there! 😅 It was fortunate you had carpet on the stairs, who knows where you’d have found him if he’d have made it to the top! 😊

    • I once lived where there were no lizards either, Donna, so when I moved to where I am now, it was the beginning of my friendship with lizards. At first I was a little unnerved by them leaping all around my ankles, but it’s been almost two decades now and I simply cannot get enough of lizards. I agree, that black-headed grosbeak is a beauty. Enjoyed your comment, thanks so much, Donna.

  14. I don’t think I have ever seen a Skink, thanks for showing one. Jays, I have seen and I have never met of kind of Jay that didn’t have a lot to say! LOL.

    • Yes, like you, Wayne, I spend every possible waking hour outdoors, hanging out in the natural world. I’m glad I could share my summer friends with you. Really appreciate your warm words and visit, as always.

  15. Jet what strikes me in this melodic and wildlife traffic-jammed post is that such a short time ago the fire raged here. Was it expected there would be this kind of recovery from a wildlife perspective? Fascinating to see the single club of a flower rising from the forest floor where once such damage had occurred.
    As to the alligator lizard on the stairs bravo to you for rescuing him. I’m all about capturing stray insects and such. It would be one heck of a surprise to find a lizard here I’ll say. We might be more likely to find a skunk which would not be quite so easy to deal with. 🙂

    • Really enjoyed seeing your visits today, Sue, thanks so much. The wildlife recovery on our property is extra special because we filled the bird feeders and water trays every week even when we were displaced for a year, and two and three counties away. This kept the birds coming through all four seasons, and with the birds come the mammals. Some species never returned (like chipmunks), some are slowly returning (like rabbits), and some (like bears, per our neighbors) were here from neighboring fire-stricken counties expanding their territories in desperate searches. Most of our neighbors are not seeing as much as we are, but we really worked at it during the crucial barren time. Always a pleasure to “chat” with you, my friend.

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