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. 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.
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.
The mammals can get a drink pretty easily. The short-legged ones, like this chipmunk, are acrobatic and creative in accessing their refreshment.
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.
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.
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.
This jackrabbit is having a morning stretch.
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.
Lately this skunk has been here every night. They’re not a problem, and they eat carrion.
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.