The Water Tray

Wild bobcat at the water tray, photographed by the outdoor camera

At this time of year, when it is extremely dry where I live in Northern California, the water tray is a popular outdoor wildlife attraction.


By the time we get to August, when there hasn’t been rainfall since April, streams are dried up, rivers are trickling, and lakes have significantly diminished in volume.


By providing a refreshing drink during the most parched season, we are inviting an ongoing parade of wild creatures.


It is a great thrill to be on the daily route of our wild friends.Β  On a hot summer afternoon, this coyote is headed toward the water tray. He has that determined look like we hikers get when we can hardly wait for a break-time sip.


Coyote, No. California, headed for the water tray


Frequent wildlife guests are excellent incentive to keep the trays clean and filled. We have two trays, move them around occasionally to make sure they are fully utilized. We place them where we can use the garden hose to fill them, so that it’ a quick task.


The water also makes an attractive bathing station for the birds, including this golden-crowned sparrow one spring day last April.


Golden-crowned Sparrow, No. Calif., bathing in the water tray


The mammals can get a drink pretty easily. The short-legged ones, like this chipmunk, are acrobatic and creative in accessing their refreshment.

Chipmunk on rock, No. Calif.

In general, the smaller the animal, the more often they drink, because they have a higher ratio of surface area to volume, lose water faster.


The chipmunks race over a rock to the tray, taking a drink almost every hour. Squirrels do a similar thing, though they don’t race, they prance.


For the birds, we put a stick and/or big rock inside the tray, to aid them and prevent accidental drowning. Some birds perch on the edge of the tray, some stand on the rock.


The usual array of backyard birds visit the water all day long: finches, juncos, towhees, jays, doves, chickadees, titmice, and more. Even nuthatches drink from the water tray.

Red-breasted Nuthatch, No. California


When a bird drinks, they dip their bill into the water, collect the fluid in their mouth and then look skyward, using gravity to swallow. But a few avian exceptions, notably doves and pigeons, have a sucking ability that most birds do not have. They drink and swallow, like mammals, like us, without having to tilt their heads up.


Some bird species, like raptors, usually acquire their necessary moisture from the body of the prey they have killed.


One August day last year, however, I saw this Cooper’s hawk, below, drinking at our water tray. In all my decades on earth, I had never seen a raptor drink water from a natural or manmade source.


This individual was born on our property three years ago, and has lived here ever since. I think he is so homegrown that he knows the water tray is always readily available.

Cooper’s Hawk at the water tray (photographed through a window), No, California


Night visitors, usually mammals, come regularly to the water tray. In summer we set the critter cam up to photograph our property’s hotspot.


Bobcat visit about once or twice every week (see first photo). Jackrabbits live on the property and are here every day and every night.

Jackrabbit, Northern California, at the water tray


This jackrabbit is having a morning stretch.

Jackrabbit stretching at the water tray


Every year is different, which is what I like most about living with wildlife.


Wildlife populations have good years and bad; here their reproductive success is primarily dependent on weather (food) and wildfires.


For many years we heard and saw foxes almost nightly. These are gray foxes, the native residents, they prefer chaparral habitat like ours. Then for several years we never saw or heard evidence of any.


Fortunately this year we have fox coming several times a week.

Gray fox at the water tray, No. Calif.


Lately this skunk has been here every night. They’re not a problem, and they eat carrion.


Striped Skunk at the water tray, No. Calif.


We keep the trays filled in winter too, because wildlife always need water. But in winter, if we are lucky to have rain, the trays stay filled on their own from the precious water that falls from the sky.


No matter what the season, there is often some lively activity to watch at the water tray.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander and the Critter Cam.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit, No. California


93 thoughts on “The Water Tray

  1. What a fun post and how amazing it must be to see who is visiting or who has visited during the nights. I loved this…thank you for starting the weekend off beautifully. Stay well and safe and enjoy your weekend. Janet πŸ™‚

    • We collect the chip from the outdoor camera about every other week and each time it is like going to the movie theater when we sit down at the computer to see who has come to visit. It’s been a bonanza lately, as it always is in summer at the water tray. I’m very happy that you enjoyed this post, Janet, and that it started your weekend off with a smile. I hope your weekend continues to be sweet and pleasant moments. A true delight, Janet, thanks for your visit.

  2. I would love to have a night cam to see what critters are out and about when I’m sleeping. We used to have a raccoon that visited our back patio. He’s lick the grease pan underneath the grill. πŸ™‚ I love watching critters. Thanks for sharing, Jet!

    • That’s a fun anecdote about the raccoon licking the grill pan, Jill. We have a grill rug under our grill, well we did, until the squirrel ate some of it and got sick. It is a great treat living with the wildlife. Bushnell is the primary manufacturer for the outdoor camera traps, and Cabela’s sells them. Great hearing your story, Jill, thanks for your visit.

    • Wonderful to have shed some light on the dry California season, Hien. Having been here yourself, you know the coast is a draw of moisture, with the fog, but inland is where it gets so dry. Many warm smiles to you, and thanks so much for stopping by.

    • Yes, you’re right, Craig. We are really thrilled to have the bobcat coming in regularly. They’re always here about 2 or 3 am, so not a good time for observing, but fortunately the camera works nights for us. Always great to have you stop by, Craig, thank you.

    • Thanks for your wonderful compliment, Cathy. We have worked hard to make our property a safe place for the wildlife. No fences, no dogs, open thoroughfares, food and water, no chemicals, no night lights. It’s a great and wholesome activity to keep going, and we never ever tire of it. My warmest thanks.

  3. How exciting to see who has visited, Jet! You’ve created a nature sanctuary around you. Simply awesome. Hope your summer is going well under the circumstances. πŸ™‚

    • Yes, it is great fun to see who is visiting, even at night while we sleep. Originally we bought the camera to see if we had any mountain lions. They never have been spotted on the camera, but a whole lot more wildlife has, more than we ever imagined. My best to you for a pleasant summertime, too, Jane. I hope you’re settling in nicely to your new environment. Thanks so much.

    • It really is a wildlife freeway, John, I liked your words. And never a dull moment! Many thanks for stopping by and enjoying the wonders. I hope you’re not baking there in LV heat, my friend.

  4. Jet how wonderful that you and Athena provide water for the animals. I am imagining the spreading of the word in the animal kingdom, of the kind humans who put out drinks to all creatures of the forest. Having that night camera must be such fun to see who has come by. Thanks for sharing this heartwarming post. Really made my day.

    • It’s a great thing to be so easily and inexpensively entertained by a tray of water, Sue. lol. Even post-wildfire in 2017 we came up every week, while displaced for a year, and filled the water trays. We didn’t have electricity or water for a year (that was the problem), so we filled empty water bottles at our rental apt. and drove up with them. This kept the wildlife coming even in the worst of times. I am honored to share this backyard bliss with you, Sue, and send my best to both you and Dave. Many thanks.

  5. What a thrilling backyard you have! Thank you for sharing this. I enjoyed the wildlife that visit you and your commentary. Lots of birds, chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits live in my small suburban backyard. Even these every day creatures are fun to watch. Sometimes they fight and sometimes they play, but always they are busy.

    • You summed it up well, Susan. There’s always something going on with the wildlife, whether they’re playing, fighting or foraging. It’s wonderful to witness. I’m happy you have this pleasure in your yard, too. Thanks so much for stopping by.

    • We all know how important water is, and when it flows from a tap it is not so hard to provide it for others, especially when rain and natural water sources are not very abundant. I know how connected you are to the outdoor world and the creature inhabitants, Anneli, and it was a pleasure to receive your comment. Thanks very much.

      • Oh yes, you and your husband would have a great time with seeing what goes on with the critter cam, Anneli. You have to put it in a place where the wind won’t trigger it, you know, like too many moving branches or even long grass. Since night visitors are often not seen by us, the camera is wonderfully telling of who is coming in at night. Bushnell is the main mfgr of the outdoor cameras.

  6. How wonderful it must be to have such a wide variety of wildlife as regular visitors. And what would they do without you providing precious water – it’s certainly a good attraction for them all. I am going to have to look up juncos and towhees now as they are not birds I have heard of (except maybe through your blog, but my memory isn’t so good these days).

    • You and I, Alastair, have had some interesting exchanges over the flow of water in our home venues; yours in Wales to always seemingly be present in your walks, robust streams and rivers in July; and our lack of it here in No. Calif. Our recent exchange, about the sounds of outdoor life when there isn’t water, got me to thinking, and is partly what inspired this post. Thanks so much for our friendly exchanges across the globe, I find it enlightening. Juncos and towhees are very common here, they are sparrows, so I have included a link to each of the two species who grace our yard. Both species recently had chicks, so we have a lot more of them right now than just a month ago…how fun that is. My warmest thanks, Alastair.
      Dark-eyed Junco:
      Spotted Towhee:

      • Thank you Jet. TheJunco looks very much like our own sparrows here but the towhee is a handsome little thing with a longer tale. Lovely. Thank you again πŸ˜ŠπŸ‘

  7. We put a water tray out for the critters too although it’s been pretty chilly out here recently. This morning our deck was wet from the fog. Rain would have been better but we’ll take what we can get! Love those bunnies!

    • Oh what a joy to hear you put water out for your critters too, Jan. Glad you enjoyed the bunnies, they are a delight to share this earth with. We have jackrabbits and brush rabbits here, but the brush rabbits are far more skittish and not as available for photographing. Cheers to you, Jan.

  8. so wonderful that you’re providing water for the wild! and what a variety of them that come to your property. it is fun to see the comings and goings of different animals. delightful post, as always, Jet. πŸ™‚

    • I agree, Wilma, it is fun to see who is coming and going in the animal world. During this lockdown they are the perfect guests…in fact, they are the only guests. ha. Always a joy to have you stop by, Wilma, thank you.

  9. So interesting! I admire you and Athena SO MUCH for your devotion to caring for the critters who share your property. I will never forget when you were displaced by the wildfires and not even living in your home – how we stopped on our way up the mountain and you loaded up your crammed car with wild bird seed, and how our first task at your fire-ravaged property was to fill your new feeders and water trays.

    • It was a great time when you two came to help, dear Nan, and I’m honored that you remember that day with such clarity. The wildlife here are our top priority, and that devotion has never faded. My warm thanks for this comment and your kindness.

    • It was great fun to share our backyard with you, Eliza, and it is equally as fun to virtually enjoy your beautiful backyard filled with color and life. My warm thanks.

  10. Wildlife is always present, some show up during the day, and many others are nocturnals. Either ones are interesting. Your post is witness to that effect. Thank you, my friend. And thank you for providing wildlife with fresh water, especially in arid regions. πŸ™‚ πŸ‘

    • We are both devoted to our backyard wildlife, HJ, and take great joy in the endless rewards. It is wonderful to share with you the creatures in our Calif. chaparral, and great to also see the eastern U.S. birds in your Georgia backyard. Thanks so much for your lovely comment today.

    • Yes, both are great additions to our wild property, Bill. And at this time of year, they stay in close proximity to one another. A great source of entertainment! Always a pleasure to have you stop by, Bill, thank you.

  11. How wonderful to see who comes visiting at night. I often wonder what’s going on in my backyard after dark. Love the jackrabbit’s lit up ears. 😍 your water tray is obviously a welcome oasis. Thanks for sharing your fascinating photos.

    • Yes, those jackrabbit ears are great fun to see lit up. I thought of you when we snapped that photo of the Cooper’s Hawk, Sylvia, because it was taken through the bathroom window. I love seeing all the wonderful creatures that you witness through your bathroom window. Many thanks.

    • I’m so happy you enjoyed the wildlife visiting our water trays, Donna. The night photos are always a fun surprise, as you can imagine. My warmest thanks for your visit.

    • Always a warm addition to my day, pc, to hear from you. We’re so lucky that all it takes is a bowl of water to attract some of the most beautiful creatures on this planet to our backyard. I’m glad you liked that final photo. They are so prevalent here this summer, it has been a true pleasure. Sending warm smiles to you and Mrs. PC.

    • I was thrilled to be able to share those two photos, Cindy, glad you liked them. Of course it’s a true pleasure to have them here, foremost. But there’s often movement on the photo, and blurring. But these two photos came out crystal clear. Wonderful to “see” you, thank you.

  12. What a great friend you two are to the wildlife. I love this idea. Though we are nearly in desert, there’s too much water around us for this to be effective at our house – darn it! But we do see lots of wildlife anyway. My wildlife cam always took so many photos of nothing (wind moving vegetation most likely) that I finally quit using it.

    • I’m glad you have the pleasure of seeing lots of wildlife, Eilene, and I enjoyed your comment. The wildlife cams can be a problem in a windy spots, like you say, taking too many photos. We move ours around a lot, and have to find spots that aren’t super windy. Thanks so much for your stopping by.

  13. Water.
    A primary need for life.
    From the tiniest to mightiest, they all thank you for supplying them with this gift of nourishment.
    Thanks to Athena for the great photos.
    Your parents are smiling at your dedication and kindness to your creatures and critters!

    • My warmest thanks for your visit this weekend, Tom, it was great to “see” you. As a former fireman, you know the important value of water, and yes, it is a primary need for life, including our wildlife friends. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and photos, and am grateful for your visit. I hope you and your family are doing well during this rocky time.

    • It has become more hot and dry here in recent years with climate change, Frank. We used to have the fog come in weekly, and cool things and add some moisture. But regardless of the change, it is a hot and dry climate in summer, and the water tray is a great way for us to invite our wildlife friends in for refreshment. Really glad you stopped by, thank you.

    • I loved your comment, Andrea. Yes, it is a “safari” in our back yard, and it is a great privilege to be a regular stop on their daily routes. Great fun to share it with you, thanks for your visit and words today.

  14. My bird feeders are wonderful, and they certainly have attracted a wide variety of feathered friends, but the water bowl? Thanks to it, I see squirrels, possums, and raccoons. I wouldn’t expect to see much more than that in the middle of an apartment complex, although the occasional coyote does lope through the parking lot. Still, it’s fun, and it’s even more fun to contemplate what a joy it would be to watch the variety of creatures who visit you. Thanks for sharing your photos; I really got a smile from them.

    • I am happy to see you offer water to your local wildlife, Linda, espec. since it is an apt. complex, and presumably not something any of the other dwellers do. You know the fun of hosting friends who are not humans, and I know wherever you live, it will always be that way. Your love for the wild is a deep part of you. Thanks so much for your visit, a joy today.

  15. Oh what a fun post! We have a bird bath in the back yard where we tipped over one of those wooden wine barrels. The top rim holds just enough water. Watching the chipmunks climbing up there is great fun. Amazing how acrobatic they are. Your chippies are a bit different from ours with those white stripes.

    We have the trail cam set up down by the creek for the moment. We’ve been catching quite a few interesting specimens down there. Our cam doesn’t do really great images. They’re especially bad at night. Just enough to recognize who/what is visiting… though the coons show up the most and seem to enjoy licking the camera lens! I think about putting together a post on this theme, but these days I seem to have trouble settling down to things. I expected to have lots of time for so much, but there’s something about this voluntary isolation that has me running in distraction mode. Or perhaps I can blame it all on age creeping up on me. πŸ˜‰

    • Great to hear about the critters and camera in your backyard, Gunta. That’s funny that the raccoons like to lick the camera lens. Fox and deer are the most inquisitive wildlife with our camera. Fortunately it doesn’t flash, thereby not damaging their night vision; my guess is yours doesn’t flash either, which is why the images don’t come out so good. Those outdoor cameras are not very sophisticated units, but they sure are fun for nocturnal activities. RE our chipmunk species. It is particular to the area and only found in Calif., it’s the Sonoma Chipmunk. I find them endlessly entertaining, and it sounds like you do too. Looking forward to your post on the critter cam theme. I enjoy all your posts, my friend. Thanks so much for stopping by.

    • I thank you for that acknowledgment, Eddie. It just takes some effort to invite the wildlife, and food and water and safety, and they do come. I’m happy I could share some of the special creatures in our backyard with you. Always a joy to have you visit, my friend.

  16. Delightful post Jet! Wow, you look after wildlife well, and it is fun at the same time. It is really great to see the photos, and you get to see (most of) them in real life. It is a joy to be able to watch animals near your house. Great shot of the chipmunk!

    • Yes, it really is a great joy to be able to watch the animals around our house. Over this 19-year span we have had the pleasure and honor of watching, even encouraging, many generations of many species. I’m very glad you enjoyed it. I do love that shot of the chipmunk, too, thank you. I like his little foot in mid-air. We have it on the screensaver on our desktop and I see it every day.

    • Yes, it is great fun to see all the water tray visitors, and I’m glad I could share them with you, Inese. As for the jackrabbit ears, I could watch them for hours. They turn their ears independently of each other, and rotate them to locate sound like you would adjust those old-style TV antennae. In the U.S. we used to use a phrase for the TV antennae which was “rabbit ears,” and now I know why. My warm wishes to you, Inese, and thanks.

    • As usual, I so enjoyed your words here today, Walt, thanks for stopping by. Yes, the water trays truly are a hub, and it is great fun to be able to provide our wildlife visitors with refreshment. It is equally as enjoyable to share the wildlife visitors with my human visitors. Wonderful to “see” you today, Walt, thank you.

  17. Great post and great you think of the animals. We put water out in summer on our boundary … for snakes! They go out looking for water and the idea is to keep them away from the house. We have a few old baths around too that birds love to bathe in and wallabies drink from.

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