Yellow-billed Magpie

California Oak Woodland

I started birding in the 1990s, and there were always places we could reliably find the yellow-billed magpie. They like the oak trees in California’s Central Valley, and could easily be found in oak woodlands and pastures. As non-migratory birds, they don’t stray far from their communal roosting spots.

 

We have 673 bird species in California. Only two are endemic, i.e. unique to California. This bird is one of the two endemics. It occurs nowhere else in the world. (Island Scrubjay is the other). Range map below.

 

A large bird in the Corvidae  family, Pica nutalli make a splashy appearance with a tail longer than its body, and a bright yellow bill. Their black and white markings exhibit a flashing effect in flight. In addition, when they perch just right in the sunlight, the light changes their black wings to turquoise.

 

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

 

The black-billed magpies, their close relative, have this black-to-turquoise feature, too. We saw a flock in Montana a few years ago.

 

Black-billed Magpie, Montana

Black-billed Magpie, Montana

The magpies are raucous, much like their cousins the crows and jays–squawk a lot. They are easy to spot because of their big size, flashy colors, and vocal presence.  Click here to listen to one. 

 

But then in 2003 a mosquito-transmitted disease, the West Nile Virus, struck the North American corvid family and other bird species too. Humans and horses were also victims. (One percent of humans develop severe symptoms.)

 

Many birds suffered a precipitous decline, especially in the years 2004-2006. The yellow-billed magpie population fell by 49%.

Yellow-billed Magpie. Photo courtesy 10000birds.com

After a few years, some bird species made a comeback, built immunity. But others, including the yellow-billed magpie, continued to decline.

 

For years whenever we were in the Central Valley, we repeatedly returned to the same oaks with hopes of finding our old friends the yellow-billed magpies. But there were none.

 

You can imagine the plethora of scientific studies and surveys that were conducted for this unique, endemic bird. There were heightened efforts to understand and turn around the decline of this rapidly disappearing bird; they still continue today. Their conservation status is listed as Vulnerable, some say it should be Endangered.

 

Last month, while birding in the Central Valley, we did our usual cruising around the oaks looking for the yellow-billed magpies where we formerly saw them. We have been doing this every year,  to no avail, since the early 2000s.

 

And guess what?

 

Three flew into the oak tree just as we were driving by. They only stayed for about five minutes, but it was enough time to slam on the brakes, hop out of the car with all our gear, and go wildly running to the oak trees.

 

It was pure joy to see this rowdy bird again. They flew in as if nothing had ever happened.

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

A showy bird, found only in California, one that can change colors from black to turquoise merely by standing in the sun. Add to their remarkableness, their declining population is making a recovery.

 

That’s an incredible bird. Now let’s just hope they can continue recovery.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

 

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

 

Range Map for Yellow-billed Magpie

Range map for Yellow-billed Magpie. Courtesy allaboutbirds.com

 

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The Delta’s Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

I had the pleasure of recently visiting what Northern Californians call “The Delta.” It’s been a winter with abundant rain, and we saw thousands of sandhill cranes.

 

The Delta is a low-lying valley at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Known for its fertile land, many agricultural crops are grown here; but in the winter, the fields are empty and only stubble remains.

 

Winter rain accumulations flood the open fields, and this is where cranes can be found. Simply slowing down and driving the back roads brought us endless delights.

 

Tundra Swans and Northern Shovelers

 

Antigone canadensis spend their winter living in this mild venue, from about November to February, then head north. In February, they return to northern North America and northeastern Siberia to breed.

 

Primarily herbivorous, sandhill cranes prefer shallow wetlands with vegetation; they can be seen congregating in the fields, probing their long, strong bills into the flooded waters as they search for seeds and sometimes insects, frogs, or other fare.

 

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

 

Wikipedia Sandhill Cranes

 

They are tall birds, ranging in height from 41 to 48 inches (104-122 cm). Wingspan is 73-84″ (185-213 cm).

 

In spite of the birds’ tall stature, their light, sand-colored bodies easily camouflage. They blend into the fields.

 

Sandhill Cranes; parent on right, juvenile on left

 

At first all we saw was a few  dozen cranes, here and there; easy to see with the levee water as a backdrop. Dazzling birds, so elegant and stately.

 

Sandhill cranes, California

As birders, we scan with our binoculars constantly. The sky, telephone lines, and in this setting, the fields. Scanning, always scanning.

 

That’s how we found a huge, nearly invisible flock. We had come to the end of a back road, entertained by many birds.

 

Black Phoebe

 

Then with a gasp, Athena spotted a quiet flock of 2,500 cranes.

 

Staying quiet and standing behind the car to avoid disturbing them, we soaked up the bliss of this crane abundance for nearly an hour, listened appreciatively to their trumpeting sounds. In that time, six other cars came and went without ever noticing the large flock.

 

The flock didn’t photograph well, so spread out, hazy light.

 

Black-necked Stilts

Our journey to the Delta was later in the crane season this year, and it was easy to see they would be returning to their breeding grounds soon. Mating dances had started up.

 

This male was demonstrating his prowess by picking up dirt clods, tossing them in the air, and then fluttering skillfully into suspended animation.

 

Sandhill Crane dance

 

How fortunate to find thousands of cranes, cavorting in the fields, safe in their winter home, fattening up before they make the long and arduous flight to their breeding grounds.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Sandhill Cranes, Lodi, Calif.

 

 

Winter Ducks and More

Green-winged Teal, male

This time of year we are greeted in Northern California by half a million ducks. They literally flock to the mild winter climates of the Pacific Flyway; spend the winter here, and then in late January or February head north to their breeding grounds.

Green-winged Teal, Cosumnes River Preserve

The Pacific Flyway is a bird migration route that extends from Alaska down to Patagonia; it runs through central California. The area featured here, the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, encompasses several refuges and is centered near California’s capital city, Sacramento. But these migratory birds can be found in winter throughout the Flyway, in numerous refuges spanning the state.

 

Here are six of my favorite migrating ducks. Each duck species breeds in a different place; I have linked each one for more information.

 

The Green-winged Teal, with its dazzling green eye patch, is one of the smallest ducks we have in North America. They are abundant in wetlands, preferring shallow ponds.

 

Buffleheads have some kind of magic over me because no matter what I am doing, I always stop to observe this stunning duck. From a distance the male looks black and white, but in certain revelatory light the black on his head is actually iridescent patches of green and purple.

 

Bufflehead pair; male, left; female, right

 

It rains in winter a lot (if we are lucky), and I don’t mind that; but it’s the sunny days when the Cinnamon Teal glows a spectacular burnished red.   Typical of teals, this species is a small duck, and sexually dimorphic (males and females exhibit different physical characteristics).

 

Cinnamon Teal pair, male in front.

 

Mating pair of Cinnamon Teal

 

Then there’s the Northern Pintail. An elegant duck with a long neck and pointy pin-style tail. They can be found in many other northern continents.

 

Northern Pintail, male, Colusa Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge, Calif.

 

Northern Pintails at Sacramento NWR

 

Similar to the pintail in size is the northern shoveler. Northern Shovelers can be mistaken for mallards due to their similar color patterns…until you look closely at the spatulate bill. Named for its shovel-like bill, the northern shoveler is yet another stunner whether floating or flying.

 

Male Northern Shoveler

 

Northern Shoveler, California

 

Bigger than teals and smaller than shovelers, the American Wigeon is another migrating duck commonly seen in the winter Pacific Flyway. They breed in much of Canada and Alaska, and spend their winters in milder parts of the U.S.

American Wigeon, male

American Wigeon pair, male on right

 

I would be remiss if I didn’t give you a few photos of other winter denizens of the area. Not ducks at all, the following winter birds add a flair of avian beauty to the waters.

 

Sandhill cranes congregate every winter in the shallow fields.

 

Sandhill Cranes in rice field

 

Bald eagles get their feet wet, too.

 

Bald Eagle, Sacramento NWR, California

 

We found this flock of White-faced Ibis hopping around in a frenzy one rainy afternoon. They use their long sickle-shaped bills to probe for snails, crayfish, fish, and frogs.

 

Flock of White-faced Ibis, Colusa NWR

 

White-faced Ibis

 

Geese are easily the most abundant wintering migrant to the Pacific Flyway, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Ducks and geese in this Complex tally ten million.

 

Snow Geese

 

If you have the occasion to be in Northern California, it is well worth a few days of winter adventuring to spend time here. But don’t wait, most of the birds will be gone in a month, headed north.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander

Snow geese

 

 

 

 

 

Wildlife in Winter

Grizzly Bear, Alaska

As the northern hemisphere experiences the winter solstice, let’s take a look at how various wildlife species adapt to this season. It’s a fascinating picture, and each animal has a different story.

 

Some animals hibernate, some go into a more wakeful sleep called torpor, some barely lose a wink, and others migrate. For many creatures, the body changes.

 

Classic hibernators, like bears, eat large amounts of food in autumn to store fat for survival. They sleep all or part of the winter, and exist primarily on their fat stores. There is a slow-down of heart and respiration rate, and a lowering of the body temperature.

 

But few animal species have such a defined program–it varies by region, temperature, elevation, and other factors. And truth be told, even bears differ widely in their hibernating tactics.

 

Most big mammals have enough bulk that they do not hibernate. Bison, for example, simply grow a heavier coat to withstand freezing temperatures.

 

Shedding bison in back, Yellowstone NP

 

Bison in Lamar Valley on a snowy day, Yellowstone

 

Smaller mammals, however, are more inclined to hibernate because little bodies have a high surface-area-to-volume ratio; i.e. it takes more energy for a small animal to stay warm. Many small mammals burrow into the ground to wait out the foodless winter.

 

Marmot, Mt. Rainier, Washington

 

Marmots (aka groundhogs) build their fat storage and spend half their lives in hibernation. Prairie dogs, on the other hand, periodically come out of the burrow to munch on grass and then go back to sleep.

 

Prairie Dog at burrow, Colorado

 

Every species has a different physiological system for adapting to the food loss of winter.

 

Reptiles are cold-blooded and depend on the sunshine for metabolic activity.

 

Skink, California

 

In winter most reptiles in cold regions find a deep crack or rock cave and sleep through the months of sunless chill. They’re so inactive they don’t eat…don’t need to eat.

 

If you pick up a lizard who is essentially dormant, they only open their eyes in terror; but they do not move because they can’t.

 

Northern Alligator Lizard, California

 

Many species group together for warmth. They huddle while they sleep. That’s how we can sometimes come across a hole filled with snakes, or large colonies of bats.

 

Eastern Long-eared Bats, Australia

 

Some snakes and amphibians hibernate underneath water in locations where water doesn’t freeze. Certain snake species use their skin as a lung to extract oxygen from the water.

 

Even though toads and frogs stay quiet and resting most of the winter where I live, on a fluky mild winter day I will hear a toad call out from its burrow.

 

Western Toad in burrow, California

 

Insects transform into larvae, nymphs, eggs, or pupae forms to weather the winter. Others, like the monarch butterfly, migrate to warmer places.

 

Anise Swallowtail Chrysalis or Pupa

 

There is endless variation not only in species, but in location too. Here in northern California where the winter is mild, hovering close to freezing for only a month or two, I often discover winter wildlife anomalies.

 

I’ve read that praying mantis adults, for example, hide their eggs from predators for the winter and then die off. In spring the new insect emerges from the egg and starts the life cycle.

 

Not where I live. This photo of a loggerhead shrike in the California winter rain about to eat an adult praying mantis proves otherwise.

 

Loggerhead Shrike preying on a praying mantis, California in January

 

If winter temperatures do not fluctuate drastically, or are relatively mild, many insects find shelter and food in leaf litter, tree holes, under logs, or in soil or plant galls.

 

And don’t get me started on what the birds do. Some stay put if they live in a temperate zone, others migrate, and still others tough it out in cold regions. There is only one bird known to hibernate, the common poorwill. 

 

Some birds and small mammals in arctic regions turn white in the frigid months to camouflage with snow. Their bodies adapt in numerous ways. Below are the summer and winter versions of the willow ptarmigan (bird) and snowshoe hare.

 

Willow ptarmigan, Alaska in August

 

Willow Ptarmigan Nonbreeding adult

Willow ptarmigan in winter plumage. Photo by John and Ivy Gibbons.

Snowshoe Hare in August, Alaska

 

Snowshoe Hare, Shirleys Bay.jpg

Snowshoe Hare in winter. Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson.

 

Whatever the season, nature not only has its curious, changing ways, but also unpredictability…just enough to keep the mystery and beauty alive.

 

Happy Solstice, Happy Holidays, dear reader.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

Mammalian tourists in winter

 

Avenue of the Giants

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

There is a short stretch of road weaving through Humboldt Redwoods State Park in northern California called Avenue of the Giants. Here you can experience the largest contiguous old-growth redwood forest in the world.

 

Avenue of the Giants Wikipedia

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

 

It is on this 31-mile (51 km) section, State Route 254, where time stands still. Humans and their twenty-first century vehicles are dwarfed by 300-foot trees. And cell phones and voices are silenced by the towering behemoths that speak volumes…without words.

Athena with one redwood

 

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Located near Garberville, California, it is approximately 200 miles (320 km) north of San Francisco, easily accessed via Highway 101.

 

Found only in coastal California and the southern Oregon coast, the old-growth redwood forests thrive in a temperate coniferous ecoregion.

 

As the tallest and one of the most massive tree species on Earth, Sequoia sempervirons live an average of 800 to 1,500 years; some have been documented at 2,000 years old. (The Coastal redwood, discussed here, is a different species than the Sierra redwood, Sequoia giganteum.)

 

Coastal redwoods are reliant on the moisture of the fog, usually growing a mile or two from the Pacific Ocean, and never more than 50 miles from it.

 

The strip of today’s existing old-growth redwoods extends north along the coast from the Big Sur area south of San Francisco to the southwestern corner of Oregon.

 

As recent as 1850 there were two million acres (8,100 km2) of redwood trees on California’s coast. Then with the discovery of gold came a burgeoning population, building needs, and unrestricted redwood logging.

 

Today there are 110,000 acres of remaining old-growth redwood forests.

 

Fortunately conservationists began efforts in the 1920s to protect this unique and ancient tree. More information: Save the Redwoods League.

 

Avenue of the Giants parallels the main highway, and offers a serene drive for people of all ages. In addition to cruising past the tall trees, there are many interesting massive redwoods that have toppled or succumbed to lightning. Giant rootballs as big as a car, mossy old limbs, trees hollowed out by natural decay over the centuries.

 

Founders Tree

Founders Tree, 1,400 years old, Avenue of the Giants

 

Many times I have witnessed a person going right up to a redwood and instinctively embracing it, leaning their whole body against it. I’ve done it plenty of times.

 

There are some old trees you can drive through and other touristy attractions (see the end), but my favorite activity  is hiking the forest. The presence of these trees and their long-lived existence remind me of the perspective of life, its cycles, and all of Earth’s creatures.

 

Jet pointing out the year of her birth…so young in comparison

Redwood rings tagged with dates. Fourth one from R is when the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. First tag near center is the year 1000.

 

There is something inherently relaxed and slow about the old redwoods.

 

With the canopy hundreds of feet in the air, the understory is quiet, accompanied by occasional thrushes or songbirds hopping on the ground…nothing as frenetic as, say, a tropical rainforest.

 

Even the ground is soft and hushed. Each step you take on the reddish-orange duff is cushioned by decades of fallen needles.

 

Ferns and shamrock-shaped sorrel comprise the understory, and in summer there are occasional native rhododendrons.

 

Great website with more information about hiking California’s old-growth redwoods: redwoodhikes.com.

 

There is a renewal that we find when we visit the redwoods, as if we are being embraced by hundred-year-old ancestors sharing the wisdom of the centuries.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

For one dollar you can visit this one-log redwood house in Garberville; created in 1946 from a 2,100-year-old tree that fell from natural causes.

 

One-Log House interior

 

California On Fire Again

Gulls and Sailboat, San Francisco Bay, California

Last week, as most people are aware, there were more firestorms in California, and they continue to burn. We’ll look at scenes of California on better days in the past, as I tell you about life here this week.

 

Bottom line: I am safe. The local air quality is registered as “unhealthy,” due to smoke. But other than that, I am fine. Each fire is over a hundred miles away.

 

There has been much news coverage, I don’t need to repeat the horrors. But for people who want information, here are some links.

  • Northern California “Camp Fire,” 45% contained. Camp Fire 2018 Wikipedia.  63 people found dead, over 600 still missing.
  • Southern California “Woolsey Fire,” 69% contained.
  • CalFire Map— the website many Californians consult frequently for updates on containment, evacuation centers, road closures, etc.

Sierra Nevada Mountains, California

 

California Quail, California’s state bird

 

Last fall I was evacuated during the Wine Country fires, our property sustained substantial damage, and I couldn’t move back home for a year. This week, as we struggled with high winds and foul air, and the terrorizing memories of last year, I took time out to remind myself why I live in California; thus, these photos.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

The smoky fire-choked air is sometimes blue or lavender, sometimes gray, sometimes as white as milk. It’s eerie, ghostly.

 

There’s less oxygen in the air, many of us get headaches. It’s a lot like altitude sickness, I discovered…same principle, oxygen deprivation. The headaches force us to slow down. Not such a bad thing sometimes.

 

Cows, Wildflowers, Carrizo Plains, CA

 

Friends and neighbors, acquaintances…we talk about air purifiers and respirator masks, and the need for more underground electrical wiring. We hang our respirator masks on the front door key rack or the steering column in the car. If we have extras, we hand them out to someone who’s using their coat collar to cover up their nostrils.

 

Elephant Seals, California coast

 

Two days this week the local schools were closed. There is a website map they consult, purpleair.com, to see if the Air Quality Index is safe; this number determines if school is open or closed. If the school is open but it’s still very smoky, kids eat and play inside.

 

The sunsets and sunrises are more colorful this week, lots more hot pinks, reds and oranges. It has to do with excessive particles blocking out some colors and highlighting reds and oranges. If the winds change and it gets smoky again, then the haze takes over.

 

San Francisco skyline, Sunrise after the 2017 fires

 

We go on with our headachy days and sleepless nights, craving big breaths of fresh air and the days when we can go back to our outdoor exercise routines.

 

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

Big Sur, California

Western Gull, Bodega Bay, California

 

These days are dark as we think about the people who burned alive in their cars or homes as they tried to escape; we have gratitude for the firefighters and responders, so many heroes; try to have more patience for one another.

 

And we all wait for rain. Yes, we say to ourselves, that’s what we need.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

McWay Falls, Big Sur, California

 

California Poppy, state flower

 

Acorn Woodpecker Granaries

Acorn Woodpeckers, Costa Rica

At this time of year when the acorns are dropping, California’s acorn woodpeckers are busy. They store their nuts in a most unique way.

 

A medium-sized woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorus uses its bill to pick up acorns, one at a time, then flies each nut to a designated storage facility, called a granary. Usually granaries are dead oak trees, but sometimes they are man-made wooden structures, like a telephone pole or fence post.

 

Acorn Woodpeckers at a granary, Belize

 

Fencepost granary. Photo by Giles Clark. Courtesy atlastobscura.com

 

Last month I had the pleasure of taking my morning walks through a state park, and was enchanted by the large population of acorn woodpeckers. As I walked down the lane, I spotted the characteristic dip of the woodpecker flight pattern, and heard their delightfully raucous voices.

 

Calif. State Park, lane with numerous acorn woodpeckers

Such an attractive bird, with their bright red-capped heads and flashy red, white, and black markings. Every day I saw at least 20 acorn woodpeckers.

 

Here in California we see granaries often. From a distance it looks like a dead tree; but when you get close you see the tree trunk is filled with holes. Upon closer examination, each hole has an acorn stuffed into it.

 

The social structure of acorn woodpeckers is extensive and complicated, with cooperative breeding and large family groups. Not only do they tend their nests together, they also build their granary together.

 

There’s an ancient phrase that’s goes something like…a granary wasn’t built in a day. Each granary is a culmination of years of acorn gathering. A granary can be pocked with thousands of acorns and perfected over a decade.

 

Male acorn woodpecker at granary. Photo by Johnath, courtesy atlasobscura.com

 

Photo by David Litman, courtesy atlastobscura.com

The woodpeckers actually work all year long on their granaries, but this time of year is especially exciting when the acorns have become harvestable.

 

Building the granary is only half of the work; maintenance and protection are also important.

 

To keep other birds and squirrels from stealing the precious nuts, each acorn is tightly fitted into a hole. The woodpecker has a sharp bill and excavates the hole, then pounds the acorn in with no extra space, making it difficult to be removed.

 

Over time, however, the old, dry acorns tend to shrink. When this happens, the woodpeckers remove the loose acorn and find (or create) a smaller and more suitable hole.

 

Acorn woodpeckers also eat insects, other nuts, lizards, seeds, grass, and more.

 

Acorn Woodpecker Wikipedia

 

This bird species, dependent on oak trees, lives primarily in the western and southern parts of the U.S., as well as Mexico and Central America. We are lucky to see them all over California. See range map below.

 

Excellent short video of acorn woodpeckers at a granary:  Click here.

 

With their clown-like look, colorful markings, cheerful laughter, and productive activities, this bird will bring a smile to your face even before you see their masterpiece.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photos by Athena Alexander, unless otherwise specified.

 

Range Map for Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker Range Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.com