Spring in the Sierras

Sierras overlook, California

Every season  in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is full of wonder and beauty, and right now the glories of spring are everywhere.

 

This mountain range reaches north-south, spanning 400 miles (640 km) on the eastern side of California. See map below. The Giant Sequoias, the largest trees in the world; Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous U.S.; and Yosemite National Park, are a few remarkable features of the Sierra Nevadas.

 

Two weekends ago we visited the northern section of the Sierras, near Lake Tahoe and Gold Country.

 

Bear River Falls, Discovery Trail, CA (Bernese Mountain Dog, named Storm, soaking in one of his favorite places, friends’ dog)

In the upper alpine elevations there was reportedly still snow on the ground. Lower, in the montane forests where these photos were taken, the last snow fell two months ago and is gone now…and the woodlands are waking up.

Ponderosa Pine

The rivers and waterfalls boisterously cascaded with frigid, clear, mountain water — snow melt from the peaks. Most of California’s water supply depends on this snow melt, so it’s always great to see the spring waters running strong.

 

We hiked through mixed conifer forests where redwood, oak, pine, and fir trees towered overhead. Bigleaf maple trees had begun their seed production.

 

The understory was coming alive with wild dogwoods in different stages of leafing out, opening their tender white flowers, technically leaves. The yellow button flower in the center attracts insects, for pollination.

 

Wild Pacific Dogwood tree, Cornus nuttallii aka Mountain Dogwood

 

Pacific Dogwood flower

 

Bigleaf Maple

 

Deer Creek, CA

 

On the forest floor wildflowers were bursting through the needle duff. Wild trillium were a special find, and clumps of bleeding hearts, abundant. The gooseberries, a type of currant, will be a tasty treat for forest mammals and birds.

Wild Trillium

Wild Bleeding Hearts, Dicentra formosa

Wild Gooseberry, Ribes

 

Caterpillars, birds and reptiles were emerging, vibrating with life. They have much to do to prepare for the new season.

Belted Kingfisher

 

Springtime doesn’t last too long in the Sierras, but when it’s here, life is vibrant.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Sierra Nevada map.png

California and the Sierra Nevadas. Graphic courtesy Wikipedia.

 

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The Berry-Searching Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing in Madrone Tree, Calif.

Here’s a songbird we have in abundance in the U.S., and they are personally one of my favorite American birds. Always in search of berries, the cedar waxwing is often found flying in flocks.

 

They live and breed in North America, are also found in Central America and parts of South America.   See map below.

 

One of North America’s most stunning native birds, they have a sleek black eye mask, bright yellow tail tip, tidy crest, and a lemony belly. To add to their elegance, the feathers are silky-looking in gentle shades of tan and gray. They are named for the red tips that adults have on some feathers–look like they’re dipped in red wax.

 

Cedar Waxwing flock over San Francisco Bay

A medium-sized bird, with a diet of berries and insects, they can be found in gardens, orchards, suburbs, cities, towns, and rural countrysides…wherever there are berries.

 

Many people who are relatively familiar with common songbirds, have never heard of the cedar waxwing. That is probably because this bird does not visit feeders, and they are often quiet.

Cedar Waxwing flock

I have been enamored of cedar waxwings for over two decades, and I still stop in my tracks when I hear them overhead, look for the flock. Parking lots, town centers, berry-lined highways.

 

I like to point this bird out to friends who are not into birds. In response, the friend will look up, unimpressed, and say, “Hmm,” because all they’re seeing is another brown bird flying by.

 

Next I show my friend a close-up photo of the bird, and then they are wowed, and want to see the bird again. Often they say, “What’s it called again?” in earnest interest.

 

Cedar Waxwing juvenile

A gregarious bird, cedar waxwings are rarely seen alone. Sometimes you will see them foraging in small flocks, often in large flocks. Congregating in the sky much like starlings or blackbirds, small flocks join up  with other small flocks until there are hundreds of them flying in one graceful, swerving cloud.

 

Lately there’s been a flock of 500 that zooms by our balcony dozens of times a day. They like the cotoneaster shrubs in the landscaping.

 

More info at Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

 

 

Other than a high-pitched thin whistle call that is out of hearing range for many people, they are quite silent as the flock synchronistically descends into a berry tree, shaking the branches, and plucking the fruit.

 

What a thrill to look up and see a bouquet of these chic birds dancing the skies.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

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Cedar Waxwing range map. Courtesy Wikipedia. Yellow=breeding; Green=Year-round; Blue=Wintering

 

The World of Bird Nests

Yellow Warbler adult on nest, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

When we think of bird nests, our minds often default to the typical cup-shaped grass nest. But there are many different kinds of nests, built at all times of the year, all over the world–here is a glimpse.

 

Some birds are obvious in their nest-building, like colonies of frigatebirds with their nests perched in shrubs on the protected Galapagos Islands. Colonies use the power of community for protection.

 

Nesting Frigatebirds, Galapagos Islands, North Seymour Island

Other birds are more stealthy in their nest locations, and nest individually.

 

One of the secrets to spotting bird nests is watching bird behavior–you may see them carrying nesting materials in their bills or talons, like grass or twigs.

Savannah Sparrow, California

 

Although spring is the typical time of year for nesting, some parts of the world do not have defined seasons, nesting occurs year-round.

 

Flightless Cormorant pair on nest with juvenile in center, Galapagos Islands

 

More info: Wikipedia Bird Nests

 

Every bird species nests differently, depending on the birds’ abilities and environments. Woodpeckers, for example, have sharp chisel-like bills and a cranium for withstanding powerful drilling; they carve holes in tree trunks. Conversely, hummingbirds collect spider silk and lichen in their pinpoint bills, and quietly weave a petite nest.

 

Grass is one material birds will use, but there are many other materials. Last week we looked at Mud-Nesting Swallows. Birds like the black noddy use guano, some use saliva.

 

Black Noddy guano nest, Heron Island, Australia

 

Cup nests consist of grass and other available materials like leaves, pine needles, moss, feathers, plant fluff, bark and twig pieces–and they come in all sizes.

 

American Robin nest, Wisconsin

 

Hummingbird nest, Costa Rica

 

Large birds, like raptors or swans, build platform nests. Grebes build floating platforms.

 

Cooper’s Hawk nest, California

 

Mute swan on marsh nest with cygnets

 

Nest Overview. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Pendant nests are another interesting architecture. Oropendulas and caciques design their nests to hang from trees.

Montezuma Oropendola on nest, Belize

Oropendola nests, Peru

 

Yellow-rumped Caciques on nests, Trinidad

 

Cavity nesters prefer to nest in a hole. This can be achieved in a number of ways: using the abandoned tree hole of a previous nest, or crafting a new one, or taking up residence in a human-provided nest box.

Western Bluebird at nest box, California

Many birds nest in cavities–woodpeckers, chickadees, bluebirds, to name a few. In North America there are about 85 cavity-nesting species.

Article: Birds that Nest in Cavities

 

In the United States, house wrens are known for taking up residence in all sorts of unusual places.

House wren with nest (under rusty globe)

 

I have watched birds build the perfect abode, but have also seen sloppily-made nests yielding disastrous results. One year this beam (below) worked well for the Pacific-slope flycatcher; another year the defenseless nestlings came tumbling out onto the deck. So the next year we provided her with a nesting platform box, which was a resounding success.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher on nest

Pacific-slope Flycatcher mother nesting in platform box we put up for her.

 

Many birds prefer tree trunks, limbs, snags, or other natural venues.

Great Horned Owl and owlet on nest, California

 

And then there are birds who do not use nests at all. Penguins keep their eggs nestled around their feet, preferring mobility and en masse body heat for nesting in harsh temperatures.

 

Many seabirds, who often only spend time on land for breeding, build their nests in rock crevasses, or ledges, or on remote ocean islands. I have spent many vacations trekking to isolated places to observe breeding seabirds.

Common Murre nesting colony, Alaska

 

Blue-footed Booby on nest (note the egg), Galapagos Islands

 

There are birds who simply lay their eggs on the ground,  called “scrape” nesting. It is usually a shallow depression, sometimes (but not always) lined with a little vegetation. There are a surprising number of birds who lay eggs in this precarious manner–most shorebirds and terns, many ducks, and more. Many eggs are shaped to not roll.

Western Gull on nest, California

 

Flamingos nest on mounds, to keep their brood above fluctuating water levels. Kingfishers, bee-eaters, and others prefer ground burrows.

White-fronted Bee-eater, burrow nests, Zambia, Africa

 

Wedge-tailed Shearwater chick on burrow nest, Kilauea Point, Kauai, Hawaii

 

Bowerbirds build bowers to attract mates–elaborate monuments. Found in Australia and New Guinea, they are known for gathering all kinds of curious objects to attract a mate. Satin Bowerbirds find blue items attractive, and the male sprinkles whatever blue he can find around his bower. After the female and male pair up, they build a nest, separate from the bower.

Satin Bowerbird bower, Queensland, Australia

 

Weaver birds are some of the most remarkable nest builders, often displaying craftsmanship to attract a mate. A finch-like bird found primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, weavers are named for their magnificent nest-building talents.

 

A post I wrote: Weaver Nests.

Donaldson-Smith Sparrow Weaver and nest, Samburu, Kenya

Weaver nest, Zambia

Wherever we are in the world, with whatever kind of bird, we see parents working away at building a safe place for their offspring. This is a vital role, and a sweet and heartwarming event to observe.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

All photos by Athena Alexander

 

Pacific-slope flycatcher nest with eggs, California

Pacific-slope Flycatcher nestlings, ten days later from above-photo.  California

 

Mud-Nesting Swallows

San Francisco Bay cove

There are many different kinds of bird nests, and one that I find especially interesting is the mud nest. I came upon cliff swallows building their mud nests last week in a cove of San Francisco Bay.

 

I was walking in a residential neighborhood at the shoreline, when I noticed two or three dozen cliff swallows swooping around the water’s edge. That day we had particularly low tides. In fact, in the four months I’ve been traversing this path, I have never seen so much exposed mud.

 

Cliff swallow pair gathering mud

 

The swallows were taking advantage of the mud opportunity afforded by this perigee phase of the moon (unusually close to earth).

 

In an area where there are usually ducks and cormorants swimming in the lapping water, this sight of the swallows fluttering in the mud slowed my disciplined pace.

 

I watched as the swallows used their bills to dig up little dabs of mud. Bills loaded with mud, they flew off to a nearby waterfront house; all flew to the same place, the underside of one house.

 

Superior flyers that they are, the swallows didn’t even pause at the extensive nets lining the underside, presumably installed to prevent this very activity. They effortlessly navigated through the net holes to the house’s beams.

Cliff swallows gathering mud from the shoreline

One after another, each individual delivered their mud pellets, turned around and glided right back to the tidal mud, and scooped up more. This went on for at least 15 minutes.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow at cove

There was no way to see or photograph the nests without a boat. But cliff swallow nests look like this.

 

Cliff swallow and nest. Photo: Mike’s Birds, courtesy Wikipedia.

They’re gourd-shaped, mud enclosures with a single opening.

 

Named for their behavior of building on cliffs, the cliff swallow has adapted, in the absence of cliffs, to building on human structures. They build under bridges, on highway overpasses, and other man-made structures, like houses.

 

Sometimes cliff swallows build fresh new nests, and sometimes they use old nests. They are colonial nesters and their living quarters can grow quite expansive. This swallow is known for their big communities, the species of the legend, the returning swallows of San Juan Capistrano.

 

There are about 80 species of swallows across the globe, occupying every continent except Antarctica. They don’t all build mud nests. The violet-green swallow, for example, is a cavity nester. I have witnessed their nest-building skills every spring in nest boxes on our property.

Violet-green swallow on nest box

Barn swallows, the most widespread swallow in the world, also collect mud pieces for use in their nests. As their name suggests, they typically build in a barn or stable. Their mud nests are cup-shaped, usually built on a beam. Just like the cliff swallows, barn swallows require fresh mud for their nesting venue, and consequently nest near water.

Barn swallow nestlings, Pierce Point Ranch, Pt. Reyes, CA

Another swallow we encountered that day at the waterfront were the northern rough-winged swallows. They prefer to nest around water too, but build tunnels in the ground instead of nests.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow pair

Wherever you are, it’s always rewarding to observe birds building nests–the materials they choose, the places they set up house, and the devotion they declare in starting a new generation.

 

A toast to the mud-nesters: here’s mud in your eye.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

 

Celebrating Earth Day, Las Gallinas Ponds

Mute swan with cygnets

For Earth Day this year I am happy to introduce you to the Las Gallinas Ponds, a place I have been visiting for nearly 20 years. This trio of shallow lakes is a humble but noteworthy example of how a large community has learned to integrate wildlife and human needs.

 

Las Gallinas is an Earth Day story. For over half a century humans and wildlife have been inhabiting this same functional space. It is more than just a park. It is an important facility in the San Rafael community, covering 400 acres and serving 30,000 residents.

 

As you walk around the three lakes and gaze upon the marsh and fields, you are greeted by birdsong and vast, open wilderness. Over 188 birds species live here, as well as mammals, reptiles, butterflies, and other wildlife.

 

Las Gallinas Ponds, San Rafael, California

Pair of Common Mergansers

 

This marsh on California Bay Area’s San Pablo Bay has a pedestrian walkway that winds around each lake. It is flat and wide, and a magnet for neighborhood walkers, joggers, bikers, and wildlife enthusiasts. It accommodates wheelchairs, strollers, and people of all ages; and is surrounded by mountains and bay.

 

Two of the ponds have small islands where black-crowned night herons, egrets, ducks and geese gather. In winter the waters are covered with migrating waterfowl.

 

Cattails and reeds host marsh wrens, bitterns, rails, and gallinules; while songbirds flit in the surrounding trees. I always see at least five different species of raptors cruising the open sky, including peregrine falcon, merlin, harriers, kites, and red-tailed hawks.

Snowy Egret

A few weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, we heard about a pair of mute swans on a nest, from other trail walkers.

 

We found the nest and waited patiently, knowing that eventually the mother would stand up, turn the incubating eggs. And when she did, she revealed a nest of five large eggs.

 

Mute Swan Wikipedia. 

When the swan stood up, we saw her eggs. Look closely underneath the swan.

The next Sunday when we returned, we found two fluffy cygnets tucked underneath Mom’s large wing.

 

That day we saw so much springtime:  wildflowers in profusion, mating cinnamon teal, the absence of most of the winter migrators, and the arrival of swallows by the hundreds.

Mating Cinnamon Teal

 

I truly love to be here at the ponds. But I do not bring friends unless they are hardy outdoor people…because it is actually a sewage treatment facility. Birders go wherever the birds are, but not everyone is so undiscriminating.

 

The ponds are holding tanks for human waste, called reclamation ponds. There are 200 acres of wastewater storage, freshwater storage, and pasture irrigation fields. There is also a field of nearly 3,000 solar panels for generating electricity. See diagrams at the end.

 

This sanitation plant not only opens their grounds to the public, but they also provide generous numbers of picnic tables and benches, maintain the grounds for visitors, and host school groups. There’s even a bowl of water for dogs. Their website is also inviting, with funny educational videos.  Check out “Can’t Flush This Song” and “Recycled Water Taste Test.”

 

When you first arrive, it looks like the processing plant that it is. There are many large tanks with huge churning arms, and lots of pipes in all sizes. Hundreds of gulls, red-winged blackbirds, and starlings hover over the stirring tanks.

 

The processing station only occupies the front section, and in two minutes you don’t even notice. The trail extends alongside the ponds, stretching out for several miles.

 

Northern Mockingbird

By this past Sunday, the third one in a row, we were nervous about what we might find at the swan nest. Who, we wondered, had been successful: the swan family or the predators? There are river otters, badgers, and coyote here who would love to crack into a big swan egg.

 

Wildlife check list at Las Gallinas Ponds

American White Pelican

Good news. The two cygnets were still around, had even grown a bit, and they were earnestly paddling beside their parents. I don’t know about the other three eggs.

 

People laugh when I tell them I go to the sewage ponds for my birthday. They think I’m kidding.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

LGVSD Pond Poster

Courtesy Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District

Solar Power Project

Solar Power Project. Courtesy Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District

 

Nile Monitor

Nile Monitor, Zambia

One of the creatures we don’t hear about much on African safaris is the Nile Monitor. They don’t catch the eye of people seeking the more illustrious lions, hippos, or elephants. But what an interesting and unique animal they are.

 

No higher than your knee and often quietly hidden in the background, Nile Monitors can be found in sub-Saharan woodlands, rivers, and a variety of habitats. Usually they’re hunting, sometimes basking. They are not picky about what they eat, consuming bird or crocodile eggs, fish, snails, frogs, snakes, birds, insects, small mammals, and carrion.

 

Named after the Nile River, you can see from the range map (below) that they still inhabit there.

 

There are Nile Monitors outside of Africa, moved from their native land to satisfy the whims of humans. Wikipedia info. 

 

Crocodile and Egyptian Goose.

As part of a large family known as monitor lizards, the Nile Monitor is one of 79 different species. Monitor lizards in general exist natively in tropical parts of the world: Africa, Asia, and Oceania. The largest monitor in the world is the Komodo Dragon, found in the Indonesian Islands.

 

The word “monitor” derives from the Arabic for dragon.

 

Fortunately there was no water under this precarious bridge we crossed

While in Zambia and Botswana, we saw Nile Monitors almost every day, usually around water.  Varanus niloticus have developed nostrils high on their snouts to accommodate their aquatic nature. In addition, as you can see in the first photo, the tail is shaped with a dorsal keel to propel the lizard in water.

 

They vary in color and size, and although they were often around water, we also saw them in various habitats like the forest floor, and scrambling up trees. On the average, they measured about two feet long (.60 m) without the tail.

 

Nile Monitor, Botswana. You can see here how they bend their body when two legs are close together

When they walk, it looks like a swagger because of the opposite-foot gait, characteristic of reptiles. The long tail dragging behind the lizard’s body sometimes etched tracks in the sand.

 

Our guide with an adult Nile Monitor, for size comparison

 

In spring, the female monitor breaks into a termite mound and lays her eggs, where they can incubate in a warm and protected space. Nile monitors have large clutches of up to 60 eggs.

 

A lizard that can co-exist with elephants, swim among hippos, and escape up a tree when an angry crocodile has just found its eggs devoured.

 

I like to think the Nile Monitor is the real Queen of the Nile.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

 

Nile Monitor with cormorants, Chobe River, Botswana

 

Chobe River, zebra crossing from Botswana into Namibia

Nile monitor (varanus niloticus) distribution map.png

Native range of the Nile Monitor

 

Camera Obscura, San Francisco

Camera Obscura, San Francisco

Of all the beautiful spots to visit in San Francisco, this is one of my favorites. A giant walk-in camera taking 360-degree real-time images of the sea. For a $2.00 entry fee, we are given the gifts of seaside panorama and peace.

 

Named Camera Obscura, for the Latin translation “dark room,” it operates on the photographic “pinhole image” concept that dates back centuries, based on a natural optical phenomenon.

 

Rays of light travel in a straight line, a law of optics. When rays of bright light pass through a small opening, like a pinhole, they reappear reversed and inverted. By using a dark room, two lenses, a mirror, and a surface, the images turn right-side up and appear before you.

 

The small building is perched above Ocean Beach in San Francisco, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It is on the register of National Historic Places.

Front view.

The mirror is in the triangle at the top, lenses below it, and the turret rotates.

 

San Francisco’s Camera Obscura website:  giantcamera.com

Wikipedia Camera Obscura information

 

 

Image on screen inside the Camera Obscura

The concept of capturing light into images, like the Camera Obscura, is similar to the human eye. From Wiki: “The human eye … works much like a camera obscura with an opening (pupil), a biconvex lens and a surface where the image is formed (retina).”

 

The oldest mention of this phenomenon dates back to 5th Century China.

Pinhole-camera.svg

Camera Obscura Effect. Courtesy Wikipedia

In the 16th century, philosophers, scientists, astronomers, and artists used the light tool for viewing eclipses, studying light, and even drawing. Before mirrors and lenses, they simply used the light and the pinhole. It was a fascinating topic of interest for scholars, and interpreted as an invention of the devil for others.

Diagram courtesy Camera Obscura, San Franciso

By the 18th century, the Camera Obscura had gained popularity for education and entertainment. Often parks or scenic spots had one, like New York City’s Central Park, and also Coney Island. Old Camera Obscuras that no longer exist. Just as it was used for science, art, and entertainment; it was also used for training in wars.

 

Camera Obscuras are the first cameras. Photography pioneers like Fox Talbot, Niepce, and Daguerre created cameras by modifying Camera Obscuras. Soon after, when light-sensitive plates and film were invented, the Camera Obscura was no longer necessary.

Ocean Beach

Ocean waves on screen

 

Today there are Camera Obscuras in the U.S., England, Scotland, Wales, and other countries. Some are old, some are new. There are private Camera Obscuras and public ones; less than ten public ones exist in the U.S. The Wikipedia link provides all locations.

 

This one in San Francisco was built by Floyd Jennings in 1946 for a popular amusement park in the 1900s, Playland at the Beach. When Playland closed in 1972, the structure was relocated to its present location, behind the Cliff House at Ocean Beach.

 

For those of us who can never get enough of Camera Obscuras, a good website to feed your fix is brought to us by Jack and Beverly Wilgus, scholars of this phenomenon:  Magic Mirror of Life

 

You might wonder, why would this be anything great these days when you have a phone in your pocket that takes excellent photos? Or easy-access live cams? Or why would you go inside a building when you have the whole outdoor image in full view?

 

Because with the Camera Obscura, you are in the camera. Inside the camera.

Outside it is noisy from the wind and the crashing waves, and sometimes blindingly bright from the vast, open sea.

 

You walk through the curious saloon-style doors and enter a world of magic. At first you can’t see anything, going from the brightness of day to darkness.

 

But then your eyes quickly adjust, and your body relaxes in the darkness and peace. You’re in a special little cocoon.

 

On the screen before you are the ocean waves silently lapping against the beach. Surfers in wet suits, dogs and dog owners walking the beach, cars moving down the Great Highway. The image slowly rotates, constantly changing, just like life…only softer and gentler.

 

Way out in the distance are ships sailing the sea. Closer in are large boulders covered with cormorants and gulls.

 

In that dark and hushed room you enjoy a few magical moments of gentle light and silence, and see the profoundness of life as it is unfolds.

 

Photo credit: As indicated

Video clip on San Francisco’s Camera Obscura

 

Camera Obscura, San Francisco