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

 

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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

 

A Glimpse of Trinidad

Purple Honeycreeper (male)

One of the many joys of birding in other countries is spending time with local guides. Whether it’s driving through the towns or bumping along on a back road, for a short, sweet time we are receiving the gift of a glimpse into their lives.

 

Trinidad is a small island in the West Indies, located eight miles (12 km) off the northeastern coast of Venezuela. It has rainforests and plantations, cities and towns, fishing, and steel drum music. Their economy is based largely on the export of oil and natural gas products. Wikipedia Trinidad overview

 

It was originally called “Land of the Hummingbird” by the South American Lokono people…and hummingbirds still grace the rainforests. Some of the most beautiful hummingbirds in the world live here.

 

And there are a lot of birds on this tropical island, 460 different species.

Dunston Cave stream, Trinidad

 

Green Honeycreeper, male

During our six days in Trinidad, our modest accommodations were located in a mountain rainforest eco-lodge. Asa Wright Nature Centre. For us, every day was about finding the birds.

 

Some days the guide drove a few of us into town, visiting birding spots like sewage ponds, swamps, and an old abandoned army base. I realize that doesn’t sound glorious, but it was.

 

One afternoon we went to the Caroni Swamp, a 12,000-acre mangrove wetland famous for the nightly arrival of huge flocks of scarlet ibis.

 

Caroni Swamp post.

Scarlet ibis, Caroni Swamp

That was magical. And I also loved cruising the back roads, not only for the panoply of exotic birds, but to see native Trinidadians in their daily routines.

Ranger releasing a caiman spotted and called-in by a local resident. Caroni Swamp

 

After-school scene

 

Watermelon truck and fruit stand

 

Lapwings, creekside

Some of the scraggliest trees were the sites of dozens of colorful birds. We watched a tufted coquette, one of the tiniest and showiest hummingbirds in the world, hassling a much-bigger owl.

Tufted coquette, male

 

There were often tanagers everywhere you looked.

Silver-beaked Tanager

 

In a residential neighborhood on a mountainside we watched yellow-rumped caciques among their needle residences, while squawking macaws flew by.

 

Yellow-rumped Caciques at nests

 

We were birding among cacoa trees when a Rastafarian silently walked by extending the two-finger peace symbol.

Rastafarian

Unripe cacao pods

 

This is a construction site near our lodge, we passed it at least twice a day. They have perpetual wash-outs here, during heavy rains.

 

Construction Site

When we weren’t busy trying to spot a bird, one or another of us in the group would ask our guide questions about the country; school system, local or national government, or more personal questions. Some guides like to tell the local folk stories about certain trees or birds.

 

We had different guides every day while in Trinidad, and they all revealed different stories.

 

One guide often pointed out the crops we were looking at, how the product was used, how you ate it and what it tasted like. He liked to cook so he would tell us how to fix it and flavor it.

 

While in a traffic jam, one guide explained they have a lot of traffic in Trinidad because it is so cheap to drive a car, fuel costs almost nothing.

Our guide, Rudall, looking for macaws

On top of being excellent birders, as I often point out, guides are fluent in many languages, knowledgeable about the science of birds, and savvy about the biology and botany of the area.

 

What a gift it is to drive through a foreign country, listening to a person tell about his country and its history, his friends and family, his surroundings. In Trinidad it was always men who were the guides, but I was happy to see a few women naturalist trainees at the Asa Wright Nature Centre.

 

Always, no matter what country we are in, it boils down to the same thing for all of us:

 

We strive to establish a comfortable and productive life, connect with loved ones and neighbors, and work through our troubles, our hopes, and our fears.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Posts I’ve written about special birds seen in Trinidad:

Boat Guide (R) and Captain (L) on nearby Little Tobago Island

 

Birds of Hawaii

Apapane, native Hawaiian honeycreeper, Big Island

The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated islands on the planet. Despite being nearly 2,400 miles from the nearest land mass, Hawaii has over 300 species of birds. Here are bird photos, information and resources, and a few of my favorite birding spots in Hawaii.

Hosmer Grove, Haleakala, Maui native forest

Long ago when the archipelago’s volcanoes emerged from ocean waters, they were devoid of plant and animal life. Over the eons, plants and animals have made their way to Hawaii in numerous ways.

 

For birds, some arrived by chance, some were brought here by humans; and the process of dispersal and colonization has continued to this day. Different species have been more successful than others in becoming established populations, based on many factors.

 

In today’s world, there are two notable endemic species, unique to Hawaii: the nene and honeycreepers.

Nene, the Big Island

Nenes are one of the successes of Hawaiian avifauna. Branta sandvicensis, Hawaii’s state bird, is the world’s rarest goose. In 1952 there were only 30 individuals left on the planet; now there are 2,500. This is due to heroic conservation efforts. Wikipedia Nene info. 

 

Some species have never made the long journey to Hawaii, like snakes and hummingbirds. There are no hummingbirds on the Hawaiian Islands. Instead, Hawaii’s nectar feeders are the honeycreepers. With small bodies and bright colors, the honeycreepers flutter enticingly in native forests, eliciting melodious, canary-like songs.

 

I have spent many weeks birding in Hawaii over the course of 20 years; trudged through waist-high grass, forded fast-moving streams, hiked old lava beds and miles of forest, and spent dozens of rain-drenched days searching for the honeycreepers.

 

Amakihi, native Hawaiian honeycreeper, Maui. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

They are an evolutionary marvel. Derived from the same original finch species, honeycreepers evolved into more than 50 unique species or subspecies. Some evolved with bills to fit perfectly into the native Hawaiian flowers, others developed the bill for crushing seeds, others for feeding on small insects.

Honeycreeper Drawings by H. Douglas Pratt, Jr. Key below

 

This kind of specialization has rendered the birds less adaptable, therefore more susceptible, to disease and other maladies. Although there has been a monumental human effort to protect the honeycreepers, this specialized species is literally losing ground.

 

Sadly, avian malaria, habitat loss, non-native predators, and many other factors have threatened the honeycreeper populations, like the I’iwi, highlighted here.

 

Hawaii still has honeycreepers, and I am happy to say I have seen several species in my dogged pursuits.

 

Jet birding the Big Island, binoculars inside jacket

 

Birds that have become established on the islands and continue to breed successfully are what we see most in our lowland island activities. They can be found on residential and resort landscapes, all the local towns and beaches, and the exotic flowering plants throughout the islands.

 

Saffron Finch, Big Island

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Java Sparrows, Big Island

A few of the commonly found birds, transplants from other parts of the world, include: Common Myna, Japanese White-eye, Northern Cardinal, Red-crested Cardinal, Java Sparrow, Zebra Dove, Pacific Golden Plover, and Cattle Egret.

Myna pair on palm frond, Big Island

 

Yellow-billed Cardinal, Big Island

 

Red-crested Cardinal, Big Island

Spotted Dove, Maui

 

Another species we do not see in Hawaii are gulls. They lack the salt glands necessary for desalinating seawater. But with shoreline surrounding every island, shorebirds and seabirds are easily found. Frigatebirds, shearwaters, red-footed boobies, and tropicbirds are some of my favorites to find on various islands.

Wedge-tailed shearwater chick, Kilauea Point, Kauai — ‘Ua’u Kani

 

Common Moorhen, Oahu — ‘Alae’ula

Wandering Tattler, Oahu — ‘Ulili

Hawaiian Stilt, Oahu — Ae’o

 

Whatever Hawaiian island you have the fortune to be on, there are birds everywhere, and their tropical songs and mystical beauty are enchanting.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

White Rock Pigeon, Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, Oahu

Nene, Kilauea Point, Kauai

 

Kalij Pheasant, Big Island

Resources:

Helpful book for every Hawaiian visitor: Hawaii’s Birds by the Hawaii Audubon Society. In the back it lists Popular Birding Sites on every island.

Some of my favorite birding spots, by island:

Big Island favorites:

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park aka Place of Refuge

Recommended Big Island professional guides:

Visit Hakalau Forest with Jack Jeffrey, or book a day trip with Hawaii Forest & Trail.

Other National Parks on the Big Island.

 

Kauai favorites:

Kilauea Point

Koke’e State Park

Waimea Canyon State Park

Trail info for both above-mentioned parks

Professional bird guide: David Kuhn

Kauai bird expert: Jim Denny

 

I’iwi. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Maui favorites:

Haleakala National Park, especially Hosmer Grove; some of my sweetest I’iwi moments were here.

 

Oahu favorites:

Shorelines of the north coast, including James Campbell NWR

Grounds of Pearl Harbor Visitor Center

 

Additional posts I have written about Hawaii:

Snorkeling and Captain Cook

Nenes of Hawaii

Aloha Big Island

 

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

 

The Misunderstood Turkey Vulture

Turkey vulture

The most abundant vulture in the Americas, the Turkey Vulture is often misunderstood and even feared. But this bird is a friend of the earth, cleaning up carrion and ridding the ground of bacteria and decay.

 

Often seen soaring in open landscapes, Cathartes aura have a large wing span of 63-72 inches (160-183 cm). A gregarious species, the flocks (aka kettles) use air thermals to gain height, perspective, in their hunt for carrion.

Turkey vulture pair on fence, drying wings

As scavengers, they feed almost exclusively on carrion. When not soaring, they fly closer to the ground, using their keen olfactory sense to detect the smell of gas (ethyl mercaptan) produced by a dead, decaying animal.

 

For many years they were mistakenly thought to spread disease; over-hunting of this bird caused its near extinction. The population has recovered admirably, due to the legal protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and similar protections in Canada and Mexico. Vultures in Africa are still misunderstood, and some species currently face steep decline.

Turkey vulture, adult

More turkey vulture (“TV” to birders) info at Wikipedia.  Range map below.

 

So they are misunderstood as carriers of disease, when in reality they are cleaning up the bacteria that can cause disease. Other misunderstood facts of the turkey vulture include:

  • Their name. They’re not buzzards. North Americans often call them buzzards, but that’s a mistake. In the Old World there are true Buzzards, in a different genus.
  • Their diet. They don’t eat live animals. I have a friend who was convinced that the turkey vultures soaring near his hilltop home were going to carry away his beloved lap dog. It’s possible he watched the flying monkey scene in “The Wizard of Oz” one too many times.
  • Their intention. If you see a group of them flying overhead, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is something dead they are circling. Sometimes they are just riding the thermals.
  • Their identification. Due to their population prevalence, you will usually see turkey vultures above you more than any other raptor. People often look up, see a turkey vulture, and think it’s a hawk or eagle. While turkey vultures have big wing spans and cruise quietly above, they are not at all related.

Turkey vulture nestling

 

There are two easy ways to know you’re looking at a turkey vulture. One is  their dark-brown-and-white feather pattern and featherless red head, as you see in the first photo. Other raptors have more nuanced patterns, and feathered heads that are not bright red.

 

Secondly, they are the only raptor to fly with their wings in a “V” shape; hawks and eagles fly with their wings flat across. This V-shaped flying causes the turkey vulture to teeter and rock in flight, which is identifiable from hundreds of feet away.

 

Their name Cathartes means “purifier.” What they eat and have the stomach acids to digest prevents other animals from consuming unhealthy decaying critters, making the earth a cleaner, safer place.

 

Next time you look up and see a big bird teetering in flight, salute this purifying super flyer.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Turkey vulture, immature

Turkeyvulturerange.jpg

Cathartes aura range. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

 

A New Year of Peace

Ulysses Butterfly, Australia

On this holiday, one that is shared across the globe, here are a few of earth’s wild and worldly inhabitants to remind us how to find peace.

 

Enjoy the gifts of food

Purple Finch, California, USA

and water, and help those who do not have it.

Zebra, Zambia, Africa

 

Take in the glories of nature wherever it appears.

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, Costa Rica, Central America

 

Practice courage and perseverance,

Lioness and African Buffalo, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

and navigate the dark.

Northern Potoo, Mexico

 

Paddle through adversity.

Domestic cattle, Belize, Central America

 

Take time to relax.

Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America

 

Find whimsy

Hippopotamus, Okavango Delta, Botswana, Africa

and be flexible.

Spectacled Flying Fox Bat, Australia

 

May each day begin with song

Common Yellowthroat, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin, USA

and dance,

Blue-footed Boobies, Galapagos Isl., South America

with times when you shine

Galapagos Sea Lion, Galapagos Isl., South America

and sparkle.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Costa Rica, Central America

 

Take comfort in your community

Parrolets, Mexico

yet reach out beyond it.

White Rhinos, Kenya, Africa

 

Demonstrate patience and compassion to the young

Thornicroft giraffe mother with baby, Zambia, Africa

and old.

Giant Tortoise, Galapagos Isl., South America

 

Embrace these basic elements of life,

and you will have peace and love

every day of the year.

Lambs, California, USA

Thank you, my friends, for another great year of sharing.

Written by Jet Eliot

Photo credit: Athena Alexander