Cormorants and More, Richardson Bay

Cormorants in San Francisco Bay

Because they are common and widespread, sometimes I take cormorants for granted.  Then one day I found myself living on the San Francisco Bay, in temporary housing, and I witnessed some unique behavior.

 

In the Bay Area the double-crested cormorant is the prevalent species. They spend their day swimming and flying in search of fish, and can often be seen diving underwater for prey. They are excellent divers, and have webbed feet for fast underwater propulsion.

 

Wikipedia Double-crested Cormorant

 

On my first day here, standing on the balcony overlooking the bay, I noticed a very large flock of cormorants down at the water. There were hundreds of the black sea birds, and they were synchronistically flying in the same direction. They swirled together in a great dance, slightly above the water’s surface.

 

Most of us have observed individual cormorants on land, spreading their wings, drying out. But this enormous flock all swooping together was new to me.

I had many other tasks to contend with, while we sort out the remains of our fire-damaged property, so I was soon off to something else. But throughout the week I continued to notice this phenomenon. I was seeing it almost every day, and always in the early morning.

Cormorants, SF Bay, Streets of San Francisco in background

Cormorants are colonial nesters, and at night they roost in large groups. From the balcony I noticed they have a favorite sea wall, where they congregate. When they take off in the morning, they often do so together.

 

Then I learned why they fly together:  for better fishing.

 

Although they do not always flock in groups this large, when it does occur, they form a line. The line of birds, close to the water, follow the fish underwater and chase them. More cormorants opportunistically join the flock, sometimes thousands.

 

They often fly in a “V” shape and there is a hierarchy to the front line; sometimes there are hundreds, sometimes just a dozen. They surge and swoosh and make abrupt directional changes, always following the fish underwater.

 

If the fish escape the flying predators, the cormorants quickly disperse.

 

But if the cormorants are triumphant and succeed in snatching the fish, then there is much splashing.

 

Ornithological Study on the Cormorant Fishing Activity 

 

Double-crested Cormorant

I went down to the water one morning this week to photograph the big flocks. I didn’t find the huge flocks, but I watched thousands of cormorants heading out for a day of fishing.

 

And while I was photographing the cormorants, I spotted a sea lion. I was watching the sea lion, waiting for it to re-surface after a dive, when the most marvelous thing happened.

 

A whale surfaced right in front of me. It gave the characteristic sigh sound, of breathing air, and breached the water’s surface. I enjoyed one second of seeing the whale’s barnacled back, and then it disappeared. Based on the size and color, and since it is their migration time, I am quite certain it was a gray whale.

 

These are a few of the riches of Richardson Bay, a marine sanctuary on the northern edge of the San Francisco Bay. I’m going to be here for at least three months, and am looking forward to sharing more with you.

 

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

Double-crested Cormorants in Richardson Bay, SF Bay. Photo: Richard Hinz

 

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Eucalyptus in the Bay Area

Eucalyptus trees, eucalyptus globulus, Berkeley, CA

A tree that is native to Australia, the eucalyptus also thrives in the San Francisco Bay Area. This has been a fiercely contested topic for over thirty years.

 

I am still a vagabond after the fires last month destroyed parts of our home, spent this past weekend at a friend’s in the Berkeley/East Bay area. This part of the Bay Area has many eucalyptus trees. One day I took a walk through a large cemetery. It was filled with eucalyptus trees, and I was reminded of the controversy.

 

Some people like the eucalyptus trees. The pungent fragrance, exotic multi-colored trunks, and tall stature are pleasing. The tree produces a sweet nectar that draws hummingbirds, and other birds. It has seed pods and seasonal flowers, and elegant pointy leaves. It has beneficial medicinal value, too.

Eucalyptus tree trunk, Berkeley, CA. Ground debris has been cleaned up by groundskeepers.

 

I am always happy to see the flocks of yellow-rumped warblers that invariably visit groves of eucalyptus. The cheerful birds dance around in the tall treetops.

 

Other people despise the tree. The bark sheds in long strips, and sometimes limbs drop off too, making it a danger. Bark and pods and leaves litter the ground. Fire Departments all over California curse the flammability of the tree.

 

Moreover, a non-native invasive, they can overtake the native flora, and corresponding fauna as well. Due to its ability to readily re-sprout, it is nearly impossible to fully eradicate without use of strong pesticides.

 

Lawsuits, protests, campaigns, and debates have sparked the community for decades.

 

Eucalyptus leaves, Berkeley, CA

 

Atlantic magazine article about the debate. 

 

As with much of Bay Area history, the California Gold Rush of the 1850s started the trend when the population dramatically increased. Lumber was needed to build housing. By the early 1900s entrepreneurs, like Frank C. Havens, a real estate developer, were certain this fast-growing tree was the perfect solution for quick lumber.  He imported eucalyptus seedlings from Australia, and planted millions of trees all over the Bay Area.

 

Soon after, he discovered that the wood was too young for lumber use. The wood bent, cracked, and shrank.

 

In today’s bigger picture, there are 700+ species of eucalyptus, native to Australia and surroundings. There they call it “the gum tree.” Gum trees are everywhere. The leaves are the koala’s main diet.

 

A farmer and his dog, Kangaroo Isl., Aus.; in a grove of gum trees

 

One day while in Australia, we were looking for koalas in this grove (above). A ranger had told us we would find koalas here, and we had spent an hour searching for them, but found nothing. Then a farmer drove up (we were on his property), asked us if we needed help. We told him what we were doing, he leaned out of the front window, pointed up and showed us three koalas sleeping in the trees.

 

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree (Blue-winged Kookaburra, Queensland, Australia)

 

Eucalyptus globulus, also known as the Tasmanian Blue Gum, is the prevalent species in the Bay Area. They usually range in height from 98-180 feet tall (30-55 m).

 

The get-rich-quick themes of yesteryear have caused problems for native plants of today. All over the world there are theories and plans for eradicating invasive non-natives, making more hospitable space for native species; not just for eucalyptus trees, but for many plants and animals.

 

But as I stood underneath the Berkeley eucalyptus trees this past weekend, I filled my lungs with the refreshing aroma, and thanked them for their strength and beauty.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo, Aus., in gum tree

 

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Regulus calendula1.jpg

Photo courtesy Wikipedia

One of North America’s smaller birds, the ruby-crowned kinglet spends the winter in northern California. I have had the pleasure of watching this sprightly bird many times this week, in the urban neighborhood where I am staying.

 

At 3.5-4.3 inches long (9-11 cm), they are bigger than a hummingbird, smaller than a chickadee. In the winter they are not searching for a mate or singing; they are hunting. They eat mostly insects, like spiders and ants, but also berries and tree sap sometimes.

 

Photo credit: Dan Pancamo, Wikipedia

Wikipedia info here. 

 

Although the name suggests they have a ruby crown, this feature is rarely visible. I’ve seen this delightful bird at least a thousand times, and only saw the ruby crown twice. Once was 25 years ago after a big rain…his crest sparkled like a ruby. Only the males have this feature.

 

Photo credit: Dan Pancamo, Wikipedia

The kinglet migrates, they just arrived to California last month. They stay in milder climates, like the southern U.S. and west coast, throughout the winter. See map below.

 

A common bird, seen in urban, rural, and suburban settings, there are an estimated 90 million ruby-crowned kinglets across North America.  They appear restless, acrobatically flitting about and frequently flicking their wings, and so fast they are tricky to see sometimes.

 

Everyday I hear the kinglet. It’s not a melodious tune, for it is not mating time, but it is distinctive. It’s a ratcheting clicking sound, known as a contact call; I can hear it through the closed windows.

 

Ruby-crowned kinglet contact call. 

 

No matter what I’m doing, I hear the bird’s click-click and know that this perky little bird is outside the window cheering up my space.

 

Courtesy Wikipedia

 

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Range Map

Coming Home

Our road

After a half month of mandatory absence, evacuating in a blur under raining ash and advancing fires, residents were allowed entry into their homes this week. One of the most disturbing days of my life.

 

We all have disturbing days. The longer we live, the more pain and sorrow we collect, watching loved ones leave this world, and worse. But I’ll not go into the details of that deeply painful day, I’ll let the photos tell that story.

Our road

This section of forest, above, used to be my “favorite maple” section. Big Leaf Maple trees, they wore big yellow lobed leaves every autumn, and bright green new leaves each spring.

 

There’s a sunrise unfolding as I write this from my temporary housing. It’s a stunning view of the San Francisco Bay, I’ll show you in a minute.

 

We lost all our out-buildings (three), but not the house. All tools, winter clothes, luggage, some office equipment; plus irreplaceable items like the Christmas ornaments we have collected for 30 years from all over the world, and 40 years of my journals.

 

Before and After of Athena’s Work Studio.

Before:

Studio “Before”

After:

Studio “After”

 

This week we’re staying on an inlet of the bay; and as we file claims, cancel accounts and trips, and inquire into temporary apartments, the tide flows in, and the tide flows out.

 

I’ve counted 27 bird species here this week, and one day a sea lion came to visit.

 

Before and After of Our Electrical Panel. The “before” photo was originally taken for the bird nest tucked in the center. A Pacific-slope Flycatcher raised four chicks there in 2006.

Before:

Electrical Panel “Before.” Flycatcher nest in center

After:

Electrical Panel “After”

 

We cannot return to our house for a few months until the electrical, plumbing, and septic systems are fixed. We were up there twice this week. On Monday, the first day, we walked around in goggles and face masks, wandered from one melted mass to another. The charred trees wavered overhead in the wind, threatening to topple.

 

On Thursday, when we returned, we found five men from the power company sitting in our driveway, one was eating potato chips. It was their lunchtime and they were there to cut down trees for the new power line.

 

San Francisco skyline and the Bay Bridge at dawn this week

 

Every day here in our Airbnb there’s a snowy egret that cruises in, and a kingfisher who arrives and departs with a rattle and a swoop. Willets linger on the rocks. Three Canada Geese spend every night here, and every morning they honk as they lift their big bodies into the sky.

 

Each day brings a new dawn, no matter where we are.  And the longer we live, the more glorious sunrises we have.

 

Willets, Richardson Bay

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Gracious thanks for all your warm comments, encouragement, and support, my friends and loved ones.

 

Our Forest, Our Cycles

Oak Titmouse

It is Day 12 of the California Wine Country fires, and I am one of the 15,000 people who remain under mandatory evacuation. Not only do burned trees continue to fall posing danger, but the electrical poles are gone. (See fire facts, at the end.)

 

Two weeks ago I lived in a forest, and that forest was my life, and the people and wild animals, trees, and plants there continue to call to me, even as I sleep elsewhere. So today I show you some of the wildlife from better times, with the fervent hope that they have found refuge somewhere, somehow.

Jackrabbit

Varied Thrush, California

The good news is that our house is still standing. Many of our neighbors lost their homes, and one neighbor lost his life. Gale-force winds combined with very dry earth conditions were the cause.

 

Our weather patterns in Northern California are different than many places. We do not have rain all summer, and this is how it has been as long as I have lived here (30+ years). We mow the grass once, sometimes twice, and then by July it stops growing.

 

The rains come in winter, slow down around March, then by around April or May they stop, and do not start again until the following November or December.

 

Some years it doesn’t rain in winter, those are the drought years. We had 4-6 years of drought until this past winter when it rained record amounts. The abundance of rain produced more vegetation, and it was glorious. We had more wildflowers than we’d seen in years, and the wildlife were more plentiful too, benefitting from the wealth of more plants, bugs, and moisture.

Indian Warrior

Shooting Stars

But when the summer came, like in all years, the grasses dried up. This year, as a result of the lively spring, we had more grasses than previous years.

 

You live long enough in one place, you see the weather patterns shift, you watch the cycles. I find this to be one of the pure joys of life on earth…the cycles.

Western skink (juvenile), California

Mountain Quail, California (male)

Gardeners notice the subtleties in their plantings, farmers adjust to the cycles daily, and wildlife lovers watch the variables in species.

 

In our forest we had more bugs this spring, which brought in more birds, and they were prolifically nesting. This brought in more hawks and mammals, all hunting. The spring frog-mating season was twice as long.

Adult Pacific Tree Frog

Northern Alligator Lizard, California

Striped Racer, Calif.

By September the berry trees were producing for a promising winter of red berries, and the numerous species of oaks were loaded with acorns. October was rife with busy woodpeckers and gray squirrels burying acorns.

 

But then we had a parching week-long heat wave. The deciduous trees didn’t lose their leaves gradually, instead the leaves burned up from the daily 100+ degree (F) temperatures.

 

After that the winds came in, huge trees blew over, brought down live electrical wires, and other mayhem ensued, with disastrous results.

Gold Wire and Ladybug

We’ll see what the winter brings. I am delighted to be here, living, to watch. And the good news is:  the earth heals, and so do her inhabitants.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

My humble thanks to each and every one of you who wrote kind and loving messages this past week. You brought sunshine during this difficult time.

 

Fire Facts:

There have been 250 wildfires in the Wine Country since October 8, burning 245,000 acres. Eleven thousand firefighters battled the fires, 100,000 people were evacuated, 42 people lost their lives (per Cal Fire). Most fires have now been 80% or more contained.

 

 

Fire in the Wine Country

California Quail

It’s been a firestorm in Northern California this past week, and I got caught in the middle of it.

 

We are safe and unhurt, Athena and I, but we had to leave our house behind. And on this day, the fifth day after mandatory evacuation, I do not know if it is a structure or ashes.

 

Until the fires stop, we cannot know or return. There is much chaos and uncertainty. And the fires, unfortunately, are spreading.

 

I have had better days, and I have had worse.

 

It’s a one-lane road in a forest, and the forest was ablaze as we drove through huge, billowing plumes of smoke. Someone, I don’t know who, had chainsawed a downed tree in the road that otherwise would have blocked our escape.

 

There was no way to know if the rest of the road was open, but it was the only way out, so we just kept going.

 

Then we came upon a fireman in a fire truck. It was still not light out yet, about 6 a.m. I was at the steering wheel, and his deep voice assured, “It is safe to go down.”

 

So we drove on, we and our neighbors, a calm parade of three cars.

 

Violet-green Swallow, male

We went next to Whole Foods, in search of breakfast and a bathroom. They were normally open at this time, but the store was closed. Not enough staff, the employee at the door explained, because so many people were being evacuated.

 

He added, “If you are in an emergency situation, come in and take what you need. There are no registers on, just take it.” So we did.

 

He would not take our money and said, “Be safe” as he unlocked the doors and let us out.

 

There’s been an outpouring of kindness that just keeps coming. Friends are letting us stay in their extra unit.

 

Other friends took us out to dinner, and family, colleagues, friends-of-friends, and people we don’t even know have offered free accommodations. Emails and texts and messages from friends around the world, guiding us with their love and support.

 

Family who live far away have stayed in touch every day, sending love and kindness, songs and cheerful photos, offering to give us whatever we need.

Red-breasted Nuthatch, California

Great Horned Owlet, California

Coyote, California

According to the New York Times, there are 8,000 firefighters using more than 550 fire engines, 73 helicopters, and more than 30 airplanes…and more.  They’re working long hours, going days without sleep, and endangering their lives.

 

I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know we are surrounded by goodness, and we will work it out.

 

Photos from the forest, in better times: Athena Alexander

I will not be responding to comments until things get more stable. Thank you, my friends, as always.

 

Owls All Around

Barred Owl, Texas

Everything about owls is remarkable. Large eyes with binocular vision, facial disks around the eyes that funnel sound more acutely, ears that are asymmetric for better sound coverage, feathers structured for silent flight, a neck that can rotate, and powerful talons for skull-crushing.

 

There are over 200 species of owls in the world, living on all continents except Antarctica.

 

They are classified into two different families, Strigidae and Tytonidae,  with about 19 owl species in North America, 42 in Africa, and 13 in Europe. South America, 55; India, 30; Australia, 11. Sources differ in numbers. (Range map below.)

Giant Eagle Owl, aka Verreaux’s Owl; Botswana, Africa

 

 

Great Horned Owlet, California

 

Pearl-spotted Owlet, Zambia, Africa

 

Wikipedia overview on Owls.

 

With hundreds of owl species there are many exceptions, but for the most part, they are nocturnal birds. Carnivorous, preying on rodents, small mammals, and insects, many species can be seen hunting at dawn or dusk.

 

Although all owls have a similar shape, they vary widely in size. I have seen the world’s lightest owl, no bigger than the size of my hand, appropriately called the Elf Owl (in Arizona). They weigh 1.4 ounces (40 g). I’ve also seen the largest owl in Africa, the Giant Eagle Owl, pictured second above. It was 26 inches tall (66 cm).

 

Great Horned Owl, California

 

Barn Owl. Photo: Peter Trimming, British Wildlife Centre. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The most common owl worldwide is the barn owl, in a family of its own, Tytonidae.

 

You can’t hear a thing when an owl flies. Each leading feather is serrated, making the wingbeat silent. The rest of the flight feathers have soft, velvety edges absorbing any other sound during movement. This allows the owl to surprise and capture prey.

 

I’ve been out in the dark looking for owls when one has flown past me and I didn’t even know it.

 

Great Horned Owls, Alaska

 

Although owls are elusive and often camouflaged, it is possible to see them in the wild. I’ve provided two links, below, for locating the owls in your area.

 

I have spent many hours “owling” at night with guides, but have also found many species while hiking without a guide. They’re usually in the woods, you have to look up in the trees and be quiet. Cities with large parks have owls too.

 

A good way to become familiar with the owl species in your area is to visit your local raptor or bird rescue centers, they often rehabilitate injured owls. They may have information, too, where wild owls have been spotted.

 

I once lived near a small natural history museum–Randall Museum–in San Francisco, visited their permanently-injured owls frequently.

 

Great Horned Owl and owlet on nest, California

 

Rufous Owl, Australia

 

Our guide’s gear for owling, in Australia.

 

The subject of much folklore, owls have mystified humans for centuries. They are mesmerizing to watch, magical to hear, and possessing skills like no other bird.

 

When you do see an owl, you don’t forget it.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander, all owls in the wild (except Wikipedia barn owl)

The Owl Pages — owls worldwide. Enter your country in the Search bar.

owling.com — North and Central American owls

 

Mottled Owl, Belize, perched under a palm frond

 

Black and White Owl, Costa Rica

 

Range map of Owls of the World. Courtesy Wikipedia