Wildlife Visitors

Violet-green swallow, California

These photos reflect a few of the wildlife friends who have come to visit us in the past two weeks, as we continue to adhere to Covid-lockdown orders.

 

Numerous bird species that migrate here to breed join the year-round bird residents — all are breeding and nesting right now. It’s a very exciting time and every day the yard is filled with hundreds of avian friends.

California Quail, male, California’s state bird

We have lived here 19 years, on a rural two-acre property in Northern California, and have spent every day turning it into a wildlife parkland.

 

We were recently thrilled to see a pair of California quail finally return to breed on our property. Their populations perished in the 2017 wildlife fires; this spring they are back for the first time. As ground birds, they have to be very stealthy in their nesting; in a week, maybe two, we will see their chicks…if we are lucky.

 

Black-headed grosbeaks abound at our feeders. We heard the first chick this week. In another month or so, they will fly back to Mexico with their new broods.

Black-headed Grosbeak (male); a highly anticipated spring arrival

 

A pair of house finches just successfully fledged three or four offspring this week.

House Finches (Calif.), male on L, female on R

 

It is only minutes after the birds have found their evening roost that we begin to see a bat or two coming in, swooping up insects. They are barely visible in the dusk landscape,  but I know where to look. They are busy all night long.

 

Our resident bats, the canyon bat, are small–smaller than an adult hand. This photo gives you a rare close-up view.

Canyon Bat, California

 

We see western fence lizards every day, which I love, and the snakes are out and about now too. We don’t see reptiles in the winter, too cold, but are always glad to see them in spring and summer.

 

This big gopher snake greeted us on a morning walk last month, on the road adjacent to our property. We watched quietly for a few minutes, until the tongue and raised head sensed us, and then s/he instantly vanished in the weeds.

Gopher Snake, California

 

Mammals recently recorded on our outdoor camera trap revealed a coyote, skunk, raccoon, bobcat, and gray fox.

Bobcat, California

 

The “critter cam” reveals how busy it gets here at night. The animals forage under the feeders for any leftover seeds, and always drink from the water trays now that the winter rains are over. All photos here have been taken on our property, but not by the critter cam.

 

Gray fox, California

 

During the day, mammals most seen are jackrabbits, gray squirrels, and chipmunks. Lately a newcomer has joined the fray, a brush rabbit.

Brush Rabbit, California

I am happy to report the brush rabbit is fitting in well. It must be roosting on the property somewhere, because it’s here daily now, grazing on the last bits of green grass that have not yet dried up.

 

I learned years ago that we have to make our own space. Thanks for joining me in our Peaceable Kingdom.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Anna’s Hummingbird, male, California

 

Snow Geese are Heading Home

It’s that time of year when the snow geese are beginning their long journey home. The fields of central California’s Pacific Flyway are drying up, the winter rains seem to be done. These snow geese are starting their return migration to Alaska and the Canadian arctic.

 

They have spent the winter here living on marshes, fields, and open habitats.  Preferring to be near water, this vegetarian bird forages on grasses, shrubs, tubers, and seeds.

Snow Geese

Snow Geese and Sutter Buttes

About half of a snow goose’s year is spent away from home, migrating and wintering in warm locations all across the country. See map at end.

 

More snow goose info here.

 

When migrating, they fly very high, and take one of four different North American corridors, or flyways, to and from their breeding grounds. Our geese here in central California occupy the Pacific Flyway (green, west coast on this map directly below).

 

A gregarious bird, they migrate in large flocks and nest in colonies.

Courtesy Wikipedia

We visited several northern California wintering grounds last month. As some of you know, Athena (photographer and partner) and I have been returning to this area every winter for over a quarter-century.

 

Every visit we record all the bird species we’ve seen, enter the information in birding software. We now have a substantial idea of the migrating species here every winter.

Snow Geese, Sacramento NWR

Each year is a different story. Species populations vary depending on weather, food supply, habitat degradation, and breeding success. In the span of this many years, most bird species recover whatever hardship they had, and eventually we see the numbers back up again. Some species, like the bald eagle, even increase. Some species decline.

 

As far as snow goose populations go, this year there were enormous numbers of them, more than we have seen in many years.

 

I have read articles and books by ornithologists and birders from long ago, like John James Audubon, or more recently, Aldo Leopold and Roger Tory Peterson. Even some fiction writers from bygone years describe certain birds in their narratives.

 

I pay attention to the species they write about, a bird they are happy to see, how they describe it to the reader. Sometimes those species have been extinct for some time, or is a bird that I know would be nearly impossible to see anymore, there are so few of them left.

 

What I treasure about the snow geese, therefore, is their abundance–the way they darken the sky with their masses, fill the air with their boisterous, lively sounds. They still have a presence on this planet.

 

Snow geese, Sacramento Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge, CA

 

Listen to a minute of this recording, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Snow Geese, audio, large flock. 

 

They’ve had a mild winter here this year, have fattened up for the journey north, and now they begin their return trip.

Snow Goose “grin patch”

A seasonal farewell salute to this loveable bird, I look forward to seeing them again next winter.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

image of range map for Snow Goose

Snow Goose Range Map, provided by Birds of North America

 

The Glorious Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle, Sacramento NWR

A pair of bald eagles were spending the day at the refuge last week, perfect timing for our visit. A mother and her immature. America’s national bird hasn’t always been visiting the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, nor has the population always been successfully reproducing.

 

Before venturing onto the refuge, I had asked the ranger about the bald eagles recently observed, as I had not seen any notes on the “Sightings” clipboard. She was happy to tell about the bald eagles.

 

“The mother perches on the outskirts, while the immature circles over the water.”

 

Soon after we started the tour, I spotted the mature adult, the mother. Just seeing her perched in this distant tree lifted my heart. The bird was nearing extinction in the 1950s with less than 500 pairs in the lower 48 states; today the population is close to 10,000. Bald eagle statistics. 

Raptor Tree

A flock of swifts were upset by her presence. I’m sure the merlin, with whom the eagle shared the treetop, was no great comfort either.

Merlin, Sacramento NWR

 

It’s an auto tour, the one I wrote about earlier this month. So getting closer to the tree was not possible. But it was the perfect time for tea; I parked and we pulled out the thermos. We waited for her to take off, hoping to catch the impressive six-foot wingspan (1.82 m).

 

About 15 minutes had passed and tea-time was over, and still she had not moved. So we moved on.

 

An hour later we spotted the immature bald eagle circling high over the water, just like the ranger had predicted.

Immature Bald Eagle

Immature bald eagles have different coloring than the mature adults–they do not have the white head or white tail, not until their fourth or fifth year. But size-wise, the immature is as large as the adult.

 

All at once we heard the rumble of thousands of snow geese taking off. They were upset by the bald eagle. This sound fills me with awe. It reminds me of an avalanche or a calving glacier. Snow geese are big birds, they weigh about five pounds each (2.26 kg). Imagine three hundred of these heavy birds all lifting at once.

 

The immature bald eagle circled repeatedly, and stirred up the huge flocks of white geese sufficiently. The geese were squawking and honking and taking off, filling the sky, while the cool raptor continued circling, threatening. The eagle didn’t seem intent on hunting, I think he or she was just practicing fierceness.

Snow Geese, Sacramento NWR; they were all on the ground the minute before

The bald eagle’s diet includes fish and waterfowl, also small mammals, small birds, and even carrion. Wikipedia overview.

 

Throughout the day we saw ground squirrels and jackrabbits, and even a ‘possum sleeping in a tree hole. All of these would be tasty meals for the bald eagles.

 

But I was happy to just watch the mammals living through another beautiful day.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Ground Squirrel

 

Jackrabbit

Opossum in tree hole

 

Our Migrating Ducks

Cinnamon Teal, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, Calif. Male in front, female in back.

Cinnamon Teal, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, Calif. Male in front, female in back.

Fall and spring bird migrations are exciting natural phenomenon that occur every year in all parts of the world, as it has been for millenium. Additionally, amid milder climates of the Central Valley in California, the migrating birds reside here in agricultural fields and refuge ponds for the winter.

 

American Wigeon, male

American Wigeon, male

From November through January there are hundreds of thousands of wintering birds here that we don’t see at other times of the year, especially ducks and geese, but also cranes and other bird varieties. The migratory route in California is called the Pacific Flyway, and the birds travel here from numerous northern locations.

 

Northern Pintail, Colusa Nat'l. Wildlife Refuge, Calif.

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

Photographed here are a few of the ducks that we are lucky to have visit for the winter. By mid-February they will almost all be gone.

 

Buffleheads, SNWR; male, left; female, right

Buffleheads, SNWR; male, left; female, right

Ducks such as mallards and coots are here year-round, so they are not pictured here.

 

There are four migratory routes in North America and additional migratory routes in the eastern hemisphere. See maps below.

Pintails, Sacramento NWR

Pintails, Sacramento NWR

More info:

Pacific Flyway

North American migration routes

General Bird Migration

 

When they arrive and when they depart varies every year, depending on many factors, especially climate. The bird species also vary from year to year. Sometimes there are larger populations than other years, depending on how successful and/or brutal the year has been.

 

Northern Shoveler, California

Northern Shoveler, California

Like anything in nature, there are a large amount of variables and nothing is predictable. For me, that’s the true joy of nature.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Image result for bird migration flyways

World Bird Migration Flyways. Courtesy WysInfo.com

 

U.S. Waterfowl Flyways. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Summer Successes

Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

Although we are still experiencing high temperatures where I live, the northern hemisphere has assumed an autumn angle, and the new season is underway.

 

Here are a few glimpses of our northern California summer wildlife.

 

Violet-green Swallow, male, California

Violet-green Swallow, male, California

The black-headed grosbeaks arrived from Mexico for the summer, as usual.  We had several dozen pair and they produced many young.

 

Numerous other bird species nested here as well.

 

We were especially aware of the pacific-slope flycatchers because one pair nested right outside our back door.

 

Day 15, flycatcher nestlings

Day 15, flycatcher nestlings

They had two broods in a row.

 

The California quail were a special treat.  They are stealthy when their chicks are born, because as ground birds they are extremely vulnerable.

 

California Quail, California

California Quail, California

They do, however, take undercover paths to our feeder and water sources, and on two great days we saw a dozen chicks in their puffball stage.  No photos of that, but a memory so great I smile as I type.

 

Reptiles and amphibians were suitably abundant, and mammals too.

 

Coyote, California

Coyote, California

We were thrilled when coyote showed up repeatedly, because for the last five years they haven’t been here.

 

On my morning walks there are a few wild plum bushes that belong to no one, miles away from any structure.

 

plums-caI try a plum every year, and this year they were especially tasty.  So every day I would enjoy one as I walked.  (Too small for baking.)

 

Once they had ripened, I noticed deer tracks and found that the deer were eating the low fruit, but the high fruit remain untouched.  Thereafter I would eat my one, and then pick five high ones, and set them on the ground.

 

The next day they would all be eaten and I would find the pits.

 

Canyon Bat, Calif.

Canyon Bat, Calif.

From the tracks and scat, I discovered that mostly native fox were enjoying the plums. This was a thrill.

 

All the summer residents have gone, but I still see numerous bats every dawn.

 

Gray Squirrel

Gray Squirrel

The winter bird migrants have not arrived yet, but we have lots of madrone and toyon trees loaded with berries awaiting their arrival.

 

The earth keeps spinning, the seasons keep shifting, and every day is a new gift.

 

Western Fence Lizard

Western Fence Lizard

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

Black-headed Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

Here’s a bird I am fortunate to have residing in my backyard every summer.  They migrate here from Mexico every spring, mate up and breed, raise their chicks.

 

The new chicks right now are in their first few weeks of life.  They flutter helplessly on tree limbs, whistling an insistent mewing cry (“feed me feed me feed me”) until the parent brings food.

 

BH Grosbeak (female), California

BH Grosbeak (female), California

Black-headed grosbeaks prefer mixed forest habitat and oak woodlands for their summer breeding.  They can also be found in streamside corridors, pine woodlands, and suburban green areas.

 

They are not picky eaters or nesters, a fact that has stabilized their population.

 

More grosbeak info here.

 

In Mexico, during the winter months, they live in similar habitats in tropical and subtropical lowlands.  There they eat resident monarch butterflies, an insect that most birds and mammals strictly avoid due to toxicity. They eat the butterflies in eight day cycles to sufficiently eliminate toxins.

 

BH Grosbeak (juvenile), California

BH Grosbeak (juvenile), California

Pheucticus melanocephalus are classified in the same family as the northern cardinal, both songbirds of a similar size with seed-eating bills.

 

Named for their large beak, they crack seeds quickly and efficiently.  They also use that massive beak to crush and eat beetles and snails.

 

7.5 inches long (19cm), they have an extensive diet:  spiders and other insects, berries, grains, cultivated fruit in orchards, and wild fruit too.

 

BlackHeadedGrosBeakMap2.JPG

Courtesy Wikipedia

They also voraciously eat sunflower seeds at feeders.  Now that the juveniles are eating, we fill a five pound feeder every other day!

 

They are animated and elegant, and conspicuous in their colorful plumage…and there’s more:  their sound.

 

Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a rare find in Calif., joins the Black-headed

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (left), a rare find in Calif., joins the Black-headed

Both genders fill the air with a sublime fluty warble.  Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate their song from a robin’s, until you hear their characteristic sharp “spik” contact call.  Long spring serenades thrill all of us, not just the intended.

 

Click here to hear adult’s song.

 

Soon they will be on their way and, if all goes right, they will return again next year.  In early April we will buy sunflower seeds, a pricier feeder endeavor, and keep special feeders filled for our grosbeak guests.

 

Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

Then we have four months of grosbeak glory…and at least twice as many of the species will fly back to Mexico.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

Band-tailed Pigeons

Band-tailed Pigeon pair

Band-tailed Pigeon pair

With the cool days waning and spring in full bloom, our wonderful large flocks of winter pigeons have now moved on.  But they’ll be back.

 

Unlike city pigeons, they live in oak and coniferous forests at altitudes of 3,000 to 12,000 feet (900-3,600m), primarily along the U.S. west coast and southwest, Mexico & South America.

 

The closest extant relative to the passenger pigeon, Patagioenas fasciata is the biggest pigeon in North America, measuring 13-16 inches long and weighing over eight ounces.

 

Band-tailed Pigeon, CA

Band-tailed Pigeon, CA

They winter here in northern California, and migrate in the spring (see map). A dozen or so live in our neighborhood year round.

 

Due to their nomadic nature (moving around to find food) their migration pattern is somewhat unpredictable.  More bird info here.

 

Perched flock of band-tailed pigeons

Perched flock of band-tailed pigeons

Named for a pale gray band at the tail tip, they mostly feed on seeds, acorns, and berries.

 

Like other doves and pigeons, the band-tailed pigeons have the ability to suck and swallow water without raising their heads.  If you ever watch a bird drink, they usually lift their heads to engage gravity–but not pigeons or doves.

 

Their large size makes them popular targets for hunters, and in the earlier decades of the 1900s there was a dramatic drop in their population.  Having just lost the passenger pigeon to extinction, public outrage at declining band-tailed pigeons triggered federal protection laws.

 

Band-tailed Pigeon Range Map

Migration Map. Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Since then the protection has been lifted.  Hunting is still allowed in some states (including California), but legal harvest limits were sharply reduced.

 

Other predators include hawks, falcons, and owls.

 

I always talk to neighbors about the birds, to heighten awareness and encourage stories.  Last summer an old-timer who has lived in our valley for many decades remarked that the band-tailed pigeon flocks are bigger now than they’ve ever been.

 

I smiled.  This probably has something to do with our “seed patch,” where we have scattered bird seed all winter long for 15 years.

 

Sometimes on rainy winter days after my morning walk I’ll be walking up the trail and accidentally startle the flock, and oh, what a spectacle.

 

30, sometimes 50, of these heavy birds all take off at once–bodies lifting in every direction, wings clapping, empty pine limbs bouncing.

 

And now we have the spring birds migrating in, warblers and songbirds.  But yesterday on my walk I heard one gentle coo above me.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler, CA

Northern Shoveler, CA

Widespread across the world, the beloved Northern Shoveler is a dabbling duck.

 

Typically found in open wetlands, they prefer mud-bottomed marshes where they hunt for invertebrates.

 

Dabbling ducks are ducks that dabble in the surface of the water, rather than diving down under.  They feed by tipping, tail up, to reach aquatic plants, and sometimes snails.  Mallards, a duck most of us know well, are also dabblers.

 

Northern Shoveler, CA

Northern Shoveler, CA

The northern shoveler is named for its specialized spoon-shaped or spatulate bill.  The wide bill has approximately 110 tiny comb-like projections along the edges, used for filtering food from the water.  The shoveler skims the water’s surface in search of crustaceans and plankton.

 

Anas clypeata is a migratory bird, found in much of North America.  Where I live, in California, soon they will be gone, returning to the northern parts of the continent for summer breeding.  More shoveler info here

 

Northern Shoveler, CA

Northern Shoveler, CA

With their clownish bill and bright colors, it is always a joy when this lovable duck returns for the winter.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

Vaux’s Swifts

Healdsburg chimney and Vaux's swifts

Healdsburg chimney and Vaux’s swifts

I spend a lot of time every year watching all kinds of migratory bird activity.  This one, in Healdsburg, California, is one of my favorites.

 

Every autumn, Vaux’s swifts (pronounced vawks) make their long journey from Washington State, British Columbia, and southern Alaska down to Mexico and South America.

 

They make overnight stops along the way, and in mid-September they stop in Healdsburg, as they have done every year since 1989.  There is a chimney in a boarding school called Rio Lindo Adventist Academy where thousands of swifts congregate.  Chaetura vauxi prefer to roost in hollow trees, but an unused chimney is what they have flexibly settled for.  There are reportedly other chimneys along the U.S. west coast the swifts use too, this is the one I have witnessed.

 

Athena (standing) watching the swift arrival

Athena (standing) watching the swift arrival, considering how to capture the birds in the dark

At the peak of the migration there are 5,000-10,000 swifts several evenings in a row.  Sometimes it is higher, last year the estimate was 23,000.  More about Vaux’s swifts here.

 

At this time of year the Academy’s boiler chimney is not yet in use.  The school is exceptionally gracious in allowing the public onto campus to view the spectacle.  Also of note: they allow 10,000+ birds to pack into their chimney for a month every year.  It can’t be tidy.

 

After the sun sets, first you see a few swifts, then a few dozen.  They swoop about, catching insects, foraging, taking in one last snack before bedtime.   The bird is only about 4-5 inches (10-12 cm) long; they look like swallows in the sky.  Then each minute that passes, more swifts arrive, until you hear thousands of screeching swifts.  Now the sky is filled with birds.

 

Just before dark, the swifts begin the circle dance.  They circle and circle en masse approximately 25 feet above the chimney.  A huge swirling vortex builds above our heads.  I like to lay on my back, relax, and let myself get lifted into what feels like a spinning tornado of birds.

 

Then one at a time, like leaves fluttering off a tree, they leave the vortex and vanish into the chimney.  Soon they’re all dropping in.

 

After about 15 minutes, it seems like all the swifts have disappeared into that one chimney.  And then another dozen or so appear, circle, and eventually vanish into the chimney.  And then another dozen or more, until there are no more left.

 

What a wonderful world.

 

First photo: Athena Alexander

Second photo: Jet Eliot

 

Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal, male

Green-winged Teal, male

I am fortunate to live in the Pacific Flyway where, from November to February, we have billions of birds migrate through our region.  Some birds stop here in the mild climes of California and stay for the winter.  Others keep moving south as far as the southern tip of South America.

 

In North America there are four distinct pathways, or flyways, where birds regularly fly.  You can read more about the North American migration flyways by clicking here.

Male Green-winged Teal in courtship display

Male Green-winged Teal in courtship display

 

Each year the visiting bird species differ somewhat, depending on weather, food and water supply, and their success at breeding and migrating.

 

This year one of my many favorite ducks, the green-winged teal, was prevalent.  They are a relatively small duck at approximately 14 inches long, preferring shallow water.  If they are in the sun, the male’s green eye patch dazzles emerald beauty for any onlooker. They come from Alaska and Canada and winter in many mild states.

 

Last year I wrote a three-part series describing the migration and featuring some of my favorite birds.  Click here to read the Pacific Flyway Series.

 

Soon the migrating ducks will be leaving us again until next winter, heading back to northern states and Canada to breed.  In the next few weeks I will highlight a few more of my favorite ducks seen this winter.  And until they depart, I treasure the presence of all my winter friends.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander