The Beat of Summer

Black-headed Grosbeak (male)

Although today is officially the first day of summer, this whole month leading up to it has been a wild, thriving bonanza in Northern California. By 5:30 dawn is underway and the cacophony of birdsong has already begun.


Slightly inland, temperatures usually range in the Fahrenheit 90s  (32-37 C.), with an occasional day of cooling, coastal fog.


The hot temperatures and dry chaparral habitat bring out the Western fence lizards, skinks, and snakes. This year we have had the pleasure of many lizards and skinks.


Skink, California


One day a confused lizard somehow got into the house. I came in and found it trying to climb our living room steps; fortunately the carpet was impeding progress. I coaxed the lizard, an alligator lizard, into a clean milk bottle and delivered him back outdoors.


Northern Alligator Lizard, California


The birds take advantage of these long days. Many species have chicks in the nest, and industriously use the maximum daylight hours to snap up insects and worms for their nestlings.


Some birds are finishing their nesting like the titmice, violet-green swallows, and western bluebirds. Others, like the Pacific-slope flycatchers, are already feeding a second brood before they head back south.


Oak Titmouse, California


Violet-green swallow, California


Juvenile Anna’s hummingbirds have been off the nest for about a month now, and are easy to spot because they zoom up to everything with defiant purpose, even if it’s inanimate like my cup of tea. Adults don’t waste their energy like that, they have to be alert and vigilant to defend their territory.


Anna’s hummingbird (adult male), California. Can you see his tongue?


Steller’s jays, a handsome and irreverent bird, also have juveniles right now and not a day goes by without at least one squawk-fest. I watch them. They squawk about nothing. I think they’re learning to voice.


Steller’s Jay, adult, California


The yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum) plants have unfurled thousands of tiny white flowers these past few weeks.  I’ve read that the nectar tastes bitter, but the shrubs are loaded with butterflies, sometimes six or eight at once–all sizes and colors.


Western Tiger Swallowtail on Yerba Santa


Bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax), also a native, is more prolific this year than any other year in my 18 here.  Every single plant burned to the ground in the 2017 wildfires; but since then we cleaned up the blackened stubs, and after a rain they earnestly began sprouting leaves. With fire-resistant rhizomes, they grew a full grassy bouquet, and recently each plant extended a tall green stem with one club-like flower.


Bear Grass, California, June 2019


Four species of flycatchers, the blue-gray gnatcatchers and black-throated gray warblers are all here for the summer, calling from the trees reminding me the lively summer has arrived.


Residents like the finches, nuthatches, woodpeckers, wrens, vireos and raptors are also busy nesting. Juncos built a nest under our front steps. This week I observed a flicker nesting in a tree snag.


But it’s the black-headed grosbeaks who steal the show. Big bird with bold colors, a flash of white in flight; and the most heavenly melodious song reverberating throughout the day.


Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California


Pheucticus melanocephalus are here only a short time. The males arrive in April, the females follow, and the spring activities begin. Right now we have immature and adult grosbeaks flying in every direction, sometimes five or six at the feeder at once. By August they’ll be gone.


Black-headed Grosbeak (female), California


We keep the feeders filled with their favorite seed (black oil sunflower); and the water trays are brimming with refreshment for the hot, parched days.


So many goals I have, but none so easy to know or do as keeping the grosbeaks happy.


At dinnertime the jackrabbit comes in to feed on grass and weeds; and the immature grosbeaks continue their plea that has lasted all day: a wavy whine, feed me, feed me.


Black-tailed Jackrabbit, California (Lepus californicus)



Black-headed Grosbeak (immature), California


It’s not until 9:00 that the sun sets and the day quiets down…only for the night creatures to begin their watch. First the bats come out, frenetic silhouettes disappearing into the night. The frogs start their chorus, the crickets their stridulating chirping; and by the time it’s totally dark, the occasional deep hoots of a great horned owl lull me to sleep.


The force of life, the beat of summer. Happy summer to my northern hemispheric friends.


Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Pacific Chorus Frog, California


Range Map for Black-headed Grosbeak

Range map for black-headed grosbeak. Courtesy

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.



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


Grosbeaks Galore

Black-headed Grosbeak, male

Black-headed Grosbeak, male

I am so lucky to have these beauties at the sunflower feeder all day every day during the summer months.   They are eating, singing, calling, and gliding by my backyard chair during all hours of daylight.  It’s heavenly.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Migration Miracles

There is a miracle happening in the U.S. right now and it’s called bird migration. No matter where you live in this country, the onset of spring has started the courageous journey of our feathered friends. Some birds do not migrate at all, some birds fly hundreds of miles.

There are many different kinds of birds and different migration patterns for all of them. The normal movement involves a species flying from their food-rich wintering grounds to their breeding grounds in spring, then back again in fall, usually in a north-south pattern. But there is nothing “normal” about these tiny creatures flying hundreds of miles amidst the danger of hunters, predation, stormy weather, stressful exertion and habitat destruction. They are true warriors.

In the U.S. there are three to four major “flyway” routes that most birds tend to follow, based primarily on topographical features:  the Atlantic, Central and Pacific Flyways. Another flyway is the Mississippi which is often an overlap from the Central.

How do they know where to go?  It’s different for every bird, but the amount of light in a day is a big factor, and other things figure in like the earth’s magnetic fields, celestial signals, memory, and genetics.  Why do they migrate?  For food.  If it is too cold for food in their breeding grounds, they spend the cold months in the south where food is readily available.

Black-headed Grosbeak, male

Black-headed Grosbeak, male

This bird pictured here is one of my favorite migratory birds in our area, the black-headed grosbeak. We heard our first grosbeak this year on April 3. Regardless of whatever chaos or uncertainty is going on in my life, that sound, that single-note springtime chirp, bathes me with peace…for I know that all is right in the world. So far only one or two males are here. More will arrive in the next few weeks, both genders, and they’ll stay here in the vicinity and breed. Then in July our mountaintop will be a-flutter with adult and juvenile grosbeaks flying in every direction. Their heavenly melodic song will be filling the air. Like all the tides of life on earth, in August things will change; they will leave our mountain and fly back down to central Mexico.

We have many other birds who nest here, some who pass on through to go further north to their breeding grounds, and many who stay here year round. The grosbeaks didn’t always migrate here to our property. A few years ago we saw one on a neighbor’s feeder which inspired us to create a suitable habitat. Then after years of consistent sunflower seed at a clean feeder, a safe environment without threatening domestic pets, and plenty of water and cover, they got the message it was a suitable venue for raising their young. This spring marks our fourth successful year with the grosbeaks.

What birds have arrived to your area?  If you don’t have a yard or feeders, maybe you have noticed a new bird sound or a different looking bird near your home in the past few weeks. If you haven’t noticed anything different in the world, you’re missing out. Look around, listen. It’s time to celebrate this new season of glorious life.