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

 

 

 

 

 

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The Great Plains and Pawnee Grasslands

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

Over the years much of America’s expansive Great Plains have vanished due to human development, but there are still some grasslands that glow with the pureness of the prairie. A prairie area in the northeastern quadrant of Colorado, one that I love, is the Pawnee National Grasslands.

 

In the U.S., the Great Plains lie geographically between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. North of the U.S. border, Canada also has substantial prairie ecosystems in parts of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. See map at end.

 

There are significant contributions to the earth that prairie ecosystems offer. The dense grass roots absorb rain, preventing erosion run-off. Prairies increase our ecological diversity, encouraging native plants and wildlife, species migration; they also capture carbon and support pollinators.

 

Native Prairies, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

 

There is a sweetness of life on the prairie. The melodious songs of the meadowlark, the gentle flight of the longspur, prancing pronghorn, clever coyote, quietly grazing cattle, rustling grass, and moody thunderstorms.

 

Pawnee Buttes, Colorado

 

Pronghorn, Colorado

 

Many people think of the plains as boring. Unless you’re in one of the major cities, there isn’t a lot of what some people consider activity. It’s true, I suppose, that things do move a little slower, it’s not the urban rush or the suburban sprawl.

 

Here there is agricultural industry and rural living.

 

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

 

But there is most definitely activity. Prairie dogs industriously build entire towns underground. The storms that erupt in those vast, open skies are more electric and exciting than any city light show. Fox, deer, coyote, rabbits, and rodents abound. Several dozen bird species animate the country air. Prairie wildflowers nod peacefully.

 

Prairie Dog, Colorado

 

Impending Storm on the Pawnee Grasslands

 

Western Meadowlark, Colorado

 

Western Kingbird, Pawnee Grasslands

 

Ranchers work diligently on their livestock, and put on a lively rodeo in nearby Grover every June.

 

Little Cowboy, Rodeo, Grover, Colorado

 

Rodeo, Grover, Colorado

 

And it’s not just the outdoor marvels of nature here, either. As Americans approach Election Day next week, I am reminded that the first woman to vote did so in the western prairies.

 

It was in Laramie, Wyoming, just a short drive from the Pawnee Grasslands, where in 1869 the first woman in the world legally cast her vote.

 

Wyoming State Capitol in Cheyenne. Statue of Esther Hobart Morris “Proponent of the legislative act … which gave distinction … to Wyoming as the first government in the world to grant women equal rights.”

 

Wyoming Wikipedia

Great Plains Wikipedia

Pawnee National Grassland Wikipedia

 

The jagged ridges of the Rocky Mountains can be seen from the Pawnee Grasslands. If you’re ever headed west toward the Rockies, take a few days to pause in the Pawnee area, you will be enchanted.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Pronghorn

Map of the Great Plains.png

Great Plains in red. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

Sharing the Wrens

Bewick’s Wren on grape vine, California

A perky bird with a tiny body and big sound, wrens can be found around the world. The dominant wren family, Troglodytidae, is primarily found in the New World, as well as Europe and Asia. There are 88 species in this family.

 

One came visiting in the garden the other day to remind me wrens are present in cities, towns, and gardens as well as forests, canyons, deserts, marshes, and other rural areas. There are grape vines in the urban garden where I am currently residing, and this wren, above, comes to visit every day.

 

Wren overview, Wikipedia

 

Preying on insects and spiders, they dart and dash in search of a meal in a variety of habitats. The array of habitats is impressive, and often a wren is named after the habitat it prefers. There are marsh wrens, rock wrens, canyon wrens, cactus wrens, and more.

 

Intricately marked and often sporting a cocked tail, the Troglodytidae wren is small, averaging 5.5 inches (14 cm).

 

Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin. Typical setting for marsh wrens

 

Marsh Wren, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

Lately, as we enter into autumn in the northern hemisphere, I hear their scolding calls. In springtime we are greeted by wrens with a more melodious breeding song.

 

North America has approximately 11 different wren species. The three wren species I see most in California: the ubiquitous house wren, seen in towns, suburbs, and rural areas; the marsh wren, in marsh areas; and the Bewick’s wren, seen throughout the western U.S.

House Wren, Wisconsin meadow

While it is always fun to chase after my familiar hometown wren friends, spotting other wren species in travel is equally as enjoyable.

Canyon Wren in a Nevada canyon

The canyon wren’s song is always a thrill, with their distinctive descending notes echoing throughout rock canyons. Allow me to share their song with you: click here and hit the red arrow.

Carolina Wren, Texas; parent going to the nest

When I spot a Carolina wren, I am never in the Carolinas. When I spot a house wren, I am never in a house. But when I spot a marsh wren, I am always at a marsh.

 

Wherever I am, they are a joy.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photos by Athena Alexander

 

House wren going to the nest (under rusty globe)

 

Rock Wren drawing by John James Audubon

 

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

 

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