New Backyard Friends

I moved recently, have a new backyard, and I’m happy to share a few of my new backyard friends.

I’ll start with the most thrilling: the Allen’s Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin).

My new residence is only a 25-minute drive down the mountain from where I previously lived, so you would think the birds would be the same. But there are some differences.

In our new location, we have breeding Allen’s hummingbirds; they were only rare visitors to our mountain domain, presumably because of the altitude. The breeding range of Allen’s hummingbirds is very small in the U.S., it is a thin ribbon on the California-Oregon coast. Range map link.

They are still the same little intense package that all hummingbirds are, but now we have the pleasure of witnessing the Allen’s breeding dance.

A tiny orange and green bird, the male during his breeding dance has a loud sizzling buzz. Additionally, there are shimmery flashes of coppery gold, swooping dives, and an elaborate rhythmic display of pendulous arcs. It’s a grand show.

And that’s only the beginning. The new house is situated between a forest and an oak woodland, we are surrounded by many bird species. Occasional ducks and waders fly overhead, Canada geese roost nearby, raptors, woodpeckers and lots of songbirds join us.

Acorn woodpeckers abound. One of my favorite woodpeckers, Melanerpes formicivorus are very entertaining to watch with their bold colors, bright markings, flashing flight, and vocal presence.

Last week I spotted a large dead oak tree in a neighbor’s yard. The tree, known as a granary, hosts dozens of acorn woodpeckers…it is wonderful. Here they excavate holes to store their acorns. This highly social bird congregates there, but when they want a refreshing sip of water, they gather at our bird bath.

We acquired that bird bath from the previous owner. The stem of it is textured like a tree, and at least one woodpecker thought it WAS a tree, hopping up the stem in a circling pattern.

Wild turkeys roam the neighborhood, too, they roost in the adjacent forest. Their loud gobbling throughout the day always brings a smile to my face. Some nights around sunset they meander through the grass behind our fence.

And on several occasions, we have had the supreme pleasure of watching the toms (males) display for the females.

One night four black-tailed deer came by. They are a subspecies of the mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus. This is a young buck, evident by the start of antlers.

I’ve been told by my new neighbors that in June a shepherd and his flock will come to our back woodland. The shepherd leaves the sheep here in a fenced enclosure and the wooly ruminants eat all the tall grass. It will be very interesting to see how all this plays out.

One day I watched a red-shouldered hawk swoop into our yard, snatch up a lizard, and then land in a big oak limb while he ate the lizard.

I love lizards. The excitement of the predator on prey was fun, but I especially enjoy watching the lizards bask on the rocks and skitter across our dirt.

There are also several California ground squirrels. Otospermophilus beecheyi. Apparently they have created an extensive tunnel system beneath our garden. This cheeky but cute one, below, is eating a red rose bud.

Then this past weekend we watched a yellow daisy abruptly shake like we were in an earthquake, and then it suddenly disappeared, vanishing below the soil. That cheeky ground squirrel was down there sucking up the flower as if it was spaghetti.

Other ground-dwelling friends include the white-crowned and gold-crowned sparrows, two towhee species (California and Spotted), and several pairs of California quail (Callipepla californica).

I was surprised and delighted to see one of my favorite butterflies, the pipevine swallowtail. In the last three decades, I have seen this butterfly species about five times. So imagine my delight in seeing them come to the backyard all day long.

Battus philenor have iridescent blue hindwings and their ventral (under) side has bright orange spots.

My friends the Corvids surround us too–crows, ravens, and scrub jays–and I’m especially interested right now in what I am sure is a baby crow on a nest in one of the nearby oak trees. I hear a crow nestling whine strongly, see a parent crow fly overhead, then hear the whining stop.

I spent the past 21 years on a mountaintop, my former home, and most days were highlighted with a sweet wildlife encounter. So it is with true awe and relief that I can say: the enchantment continues.

And not only do I have the adventure of new backyard friends, but I now have the added pleasure of your visit, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Snipe

I had the fortune of seeing a family of snipe this week. This is a bird that few people notice or know of, and some people think is imaginary.

Wilson’s Snipe, Gallinago delicata, is in the shorebird family: Scolopacidae. It is the most common snipe in North America.

They are short, pudgy birds about the size of an American Robin; usually found in marshes, with sandy coloring and markings that perfectly camouflage them.

This is the family of four we spotted while birding at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge this week.

With the tall grass and their camouflage, you can see how tricky they are to spot. They are standing (above photo) in the tall grass that spans the photo’s upper center. In the foreground on a log is a pair of resting green-winged teals.

We were on our annual visit to see the waterfowl winter migration. A spectacle that always delights.

While there, we spotted the snipes. In addition to their camouflaging, they have elusive behavior.

In over 30 years of birding, I have seen the snipe only about a half-dozen times. Spotting four at once was an unprecedented bonanza.

We were on the Refuge’s auto tour at one of the few places where we were allowed to get out of our car. We were having lunch: enjoying a bite, then scanning with the binoculars, listening to the cacophony of migrating geese and ducks, taking another bite, then looking through the spotting scope. To birders like Athena and me, this is heaven.

In our initial 360-degree binocular scan of the area, we spotted the snipes and enjoyed close to an hour there.

They never changed positions in that hour, except an occasional head lift.

This is the scene without extra lenses.

They use their long bill to probe into the mud for food. Their diet consists of insect larvae and insects like dragonflies, beetles and moths; and invertebrates like snails and worms.

Two special features of that marvelous bill: it is flexible and thereby good for probing; and the snipe can swallow small prey without pulling their bill from the mud.

John James Audubon wrote an extensive observation about the snipe–it’s behavior, migration, flight, breeding, and more.

Link: Audubon’s Birds of America, American Snipe

They do not breed in Northern California, and I have never seen the mating displays. But I have read they have a spectacular flight dance.

Here is Audubon’s description of the flight dance of a snipe pair:

It often happens that before these birds depart in spring, many are already mated. The birds are then met with in meadows or on low grounds, and, by being on the spot before sunrise, you may see both mount high in the air in a spiral manner, now with continuous beats of the wings, now in short sailings, until more than a hundred yards high, when they whirl round each other with extreme velocity, and dance as it were to their own music; for at this juncture, and during the space of five or six minutes, you hear rolling notes mingling together, each more or less distinct….”

Audubon’s snipe drawing, Plate 243, is below. It was completed in 1835. This is an online partial drawing.

“American Snipe” by John J. Audubon, Plate 243. Courtesy audubon.org

In Audubon’s time (1785-1851), the bird was called the American Snipe. At that time, Alexander Wilson, a Scottish-American ornithologist and illustrator, was the first to prove the snipe here in America was different than the Common Snipe of Europe. So it was dubbed the American Snipe.

Over the years it would be named the Common Snipe, and then more recently it was further classified into two bird species, the most common American Snipe being named Wilson’s Snipe.

Why is it an imaginary bird to some people?

Because there is an age-old trick dating back to the mid-1800s called the Snipe hunt. As a rite-of-passage trick, elders tell a young person how to hunt for snipe (or some other non-existing creature), and then leave them alone in the woods with an empty bag and instructions for catching it. It’s a fool’s errand that tricks young ones into goofy behavior alone in the woods while everyone else runs away. Many youngsters, after the gig is up, think there is no such thing as a snipe.

As we sat eating lunch, basking in the sunshine and the thrill of being near four snipes, a few people walked by. We invited them to take a look in the scope at the snipe.

Their enthusiastic reactions and comments indicated they knew of the snipe but had rarely seen one. All were in awe.

This is a photo taken through the spotting scope.

We spotted nearly 40 different bird species that day, and thousands and thousands of migrating waterfowl visiting Northern California from as far north as Russia’s East Siberian Sea and North America’s Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. An incredible migration that I will tell you more about soon.

Fortunately for us, snipes are not imaginary. They are old and ancient friends of Homo sapiens. The name may change occasionally, but the bird has been occupying marsh shorelines for well over 187 years.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Range Map for Wilson's Snipe
Range map Gallinago delicata. Ora=Breeding; Yel=Migration; Pur=Year-round; Blue=Nonbreeding. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org.

Our Winter Thrushes

We are fortunate in Northern California to have four species of thrushes join us for the winter months. Here’s a brief look at these beautiful birds.

Although Northern California is not warm in the winter, it is temperate enough that some bird species migrate here. We have driving rain and icy nights, but the sun comes out often and when it does, the birds leave their roosts in search of food.

For the thrushes, berries are a big draw.

Our four thrush species are “true thrushes,” all from the family Turidae: American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Varied Thrush, and Western Bluebird.

Many years, especially in the last decade, if we are in a drought and haven’t had enough autumn rain, the berries don’t form. They start to grow, but without rain the berries shrivel up and drop to the ground.

But this past autumn we had plenty of rain, and consequently this winter there are berries everywhere. And thrushes everywhere.

Red berries on toyon, pyracantha, and cotoneaster shrubs; orange berries on the madrone trees.

American Robins, Turdus migratorius, are here year-round. In warm months we see them in pairs or small groups. In winter we have our local residents plus the migrants from Canada and Alaska, resulting in gloriously huge flocks.

Sometimes there will be 10 or 20 of them, rustling in the trees and bushes, plucking berries and chuckling as they engage in their lunch party. They are a big bird with whirring wingbeats, easy to hear and see.

Other times they can be flying high overhead in a flock of 60-100, often crossing the sky at the end of the day getting in one last meal before bedtime. The sky is absolutely filled with them. It’s one of my favorite winter sights, and I stop in my tracks when I hear them overhead…gaze up.

The hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus) and varied thrushes (Ixoreus naevius) are migrants, spend the winter here but only if there are berries. There are many years when they arrive in autumn, having flown long distances from Canada and northern states. If they discover only shriveled berries, they leave within a day and don’t return until next season.

With the gift of rain this year, both the hermit and varied thrushes have spent the winter.

Varied thrushes are west coast birds. They spend the winter here on the coast from Northern California all the way up to northern British Columbia.

On Christmas Day in 2015 we were in a Northern California giant redwood forest when we spotted this female popping around in the undergrowth.

In the eastern parts of the country, bird aficionados associate the hermit thrushes with their melodious flute-like song. The song, however, is part of their breeding ceremonials, and has nothing to do with winter foraging.

The call of the hermit here in winter is simply “chup-chup.” The varied thrush sound is a unique two-toned call that cuts through the forest on a rainy winter day.

Hermit Thrush sound, click here.

Varied Thrush sound, click here.

The bluebirds. Many people don’t realize bluebirds are thrushes, in the Turidae family.

Sialia mexicana, western bluebirds, live here year-round. This photo was taken on a March afternoon.

In spring they breed and nest, but in the winter they are searching for insects and berries.

This past summer I wrote a post about a pair of bluebirds who were nesting in the carcass of a burned tree. Some readers may remember this. (New Life in a Dead Tree.)

The brood was successful and when the chicks were big enough, the family of four left the nest and went out into the world.

Imagine what a thrill it was this past week when we returned to that meadow, on a short walk between rains, and saw the family. They perched very near to their home spot, the dead tree, chirped a cheerful hello to us, and then off they went in search of a meal.

There is something very special about the winter birds. When the flowers are gone and landscapes are stark and temperatures make you shiver, it is heartwarming to have a little aviary friend by your side.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

A Year of Abbotts Lagoon

As we reach the final weeks of 2021, here is a four-season review of a coastal lagoon in one of my favorite parks, Point Reyes, in Northern California.

There are 70,000 acres (300 sq. km.) of protected land on the Point Reyes Peninsula. Abbotts Lagoon is just one small section, located on the northwestern coast of the peninsula.

More info: Point Reyes Wikipedia and Abbotts Lagoon Wikipedia.

This year, like many people, we did less out-of-state traveling and stayed closer to home. We enjoyed day trips to Abbotts Lagoon almost every month.

It was enlightening to watch the flora and fauna shift as the seasons changed and gave us an intimacy with the lagoon area as never before.

The brisk months of early spring–February, March and April–brought displaying birds and a profusion of wildflowers.

An easy trail takes the hiker through northern coastal scrub, like this yellow bush lupine, where ground birds flourish. In spring and summer this bush is vibrant with blooms.

The gravel trail leads hikers between rolling fields and the lagoon, until eventually we reach sand dunes and the ocean. The seaside offers bracing coastal winds, frequent fog, and briny sea air. We often escaped inland heat waves here this past summer with the cool marine layer.

We discovered a pocket of land further down the road that almost always had mammals, and in May had the thrill of seeing this new fawn and mother.

By summertime the grass had turned brown, our usual summer look in Northern California. The coastal fog, however, provided moisture for native wildflowers. Hummingbirds could often be seen extracting nectar from this Coastal Hedge-Nettle.

Brush rabbits greeted us on every visit this year. One June day we observed this relaxed brush rabbit stretched out on the trail. At first we thought the rabbit might be injured, but it quickly dashed away as we approached.

Summer also brought the new generation of birds.

A white-crowned sparrow adult discussed the ways of life with his progeny.

Nearly a dozen immature quail chicks were a pleasant surprise; we watched this covey grow up. They were always skittish, with good reason.

Every Abbotts Lagoon visit this year (ten) we saw coyote. They had lustrous coats and full bellies from plenty of prey.

Dragonflies, butterflies, birds and bees punctuated all our summer visits.

A few miles north up the road is a tule elk preserve. By mid-August the tule elk males were bugling their dominance.

And as summer turned to fall, the new young coyotes were out on their own.

Late autumn rains returned the hillsides to verdant splendor, and ground-dwelling gophers and voles multiplied. This attracted more predators and raptors.

Winter birds greeted us, like this Say’s phoebe who is never here in spring or summer.

This molting elk’s coat is not at its finest in the winter, and he only had one antler, having shed the other one already.

There’s something sacred about watching the seasons change–the wildlife, the earth beneath our feet, the light, and temperatures.

Very soon the early spring will be upon us, and a new year of cycles will begin again.

I can hardly wait to get back to Abbotts Lagoon to see who will greet us.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Taking a short holiday break, dear friends, see you in January.

Courtesy Wikipedia.

San Francisco’s Ocean Beach

One of San Francisco’s most spacious venues is Ocean Beach, a long tract of fresh air and open skies. Today, as in centuries past, it attracts residents and tourists.

San Francisco is not the most populous city in the U.S. (it’s 17th), but it is definitely packed with people. There are almost 874,000 people on this small 47-square-mile (121 sq. km.) peninsula, making it the second most densely populated large city in the country.

When residents want to stretch out, they head for Ocean Beach. Folks of all ages can run or walk, plop down in the sand, share bonfires with friends, or sort out their congested thoughts. And you don’t have to fight for a parking space.

Cold Pacific currents arrive here fromĀ Alaska, making the waters at Ocean Beach numbingly inhospitable. With the frigid temperatures, frequent fog and strong winds, you won’t find many people in the water.

Surfers, of course, are the exception. But even the stalwart surfers, bounced around by brutal waves, wear wetsuits.

In addition to this five-mile stretch of sand, there are adjacent attractions too. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area has an extensive purview. Land’s End, the Cliff House, and Sutro Heights Park are on the northern end of the beach, while Fort Funston is at the southern end. All have stunning views and room to roam.

In the middle is the Beach Chalet restaurant, two towering windmills, and two streets leading the way to Golden Gate Park.

San Francisco’s longest beach also has a long history.

Sutro Baths was a glass-enclosed entertainment complex of numerous saltwater pools that opened in 1896.

Circa 1896, courtesy Wikipedia.

There is an entertaining film clip that Thomas Edison made in 1897 of the Sutro Baths, at this link:

Sutro Baths Wikipedia

The ruins of the Baths are still visible today.

It was in the later 1800s when railway and trolley lines were developed, delivering visitors from the city to this remote windswept expanse of sand dunes.

This began nearly a century of animated seaside attractions at Ocean Beach.

There have been several incarnations of The Cliff House, a restaurant that first opened in 1863.

This is the Cliff House, below, last week on a foggy day. It is undergoing another reincarnation and due to re-open next year.

And over the years, two additional fun spots drew visitors at Ocean Beach: Playland, a 10-acre amusement park from 1913-1972; and Fleishhacker Pool, then one of the largest outdoor swimming pools in the world, from 1925-1971.

If you talk to San Franciscans who spent their childhood days at Playland or Fleishhacker Pool, it is a great joy to watch their eyes light up.

This is Ocean Beach and Playland in the 1930s and 1940s.

Still left over from the glory days of Playland, the Camera Obscura, one of my personal favorite Ocean Beach spots, sits on a seaside perch behind the Cliff House. It is an old-fashioned pinhole camera that you walk into; it presents live-time images of the beach and sea.

Here is a link to a post I wrote about it: Camera Obscura, San Francisco

With today’s instantly available entertainment at our fingertips, the tranquility of Ocean Beach is now the draw.

And, as it has been for centuries, the wind and fog continue to embrace us, while the waves, as always, rhythmically shape this blessed expanse of ocean and sand.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

A Salute to Summer

As we say farewell to summer, here is a small sample of the wildlife who entertained us these past few months. Summer provided us with a celebrated array of birds, insects, mammals and reptiles.

At the beginning of the season in May, we watched dozens of birds nesting around our property.

We found these bluebird eggs inside one of our nest boxes.

In addition to the usual resident nesters–swallows, bluebirds, juncos, chickadees, titmice, jays, towhees, wrens, and more–we hosted numerous migrant species.

Flycatchers, an often-overlooked migrant bird, were in abundance.

This Pacific-slope flycatcher mother (below, in center) vigilantly protected her nest and brood for many weeks. She chose a completely burned tree in which to nest, probably for uninterrupted visibility of predators.

This flycatcher, like the other migrant birds, had an industrious summer routine. They arrived in May, prepared a nest and filled it with eggs; then assisted their fledglings to become strong and independent. In August they all headed back home.

On cue with the summer routine, black-headed Grosbeaks arrived, and produced young ones.

The violet-green swallows arrived in April, vying with the bluebirds for nest box real estate. By July the sky was filled with soaring, acrobatic juveniles.

We welcomed several warbler species as well. Although we don’t have the same volume of spring migrating warblers on the west coast as the east coast or Midwest, every year we have several species who migrate through in the shoulder seasons, like this hermit warbler and orange-crowned warbler.

They come in when we turn on the yard sprinkler, a favorite summer pastime for all of us.

Throughout the summer a pair of sibling Cooper’s hawks, born here in spring, were prevalent in our backyard. I wrote about them in a previous post: Cooper’s Hawks, The Next Generation.

Their new prowess started out clumsy, but quickly became skilled, intimidating the wise and wary California quail from nesting on our property. Fortunately we saw large quail coveys with chicks all over our mountain.

We didn’t see as many snakes this year, but we had an abundance of Western fence lizards. Now, in early September, we have lots of little pinky-sized baby lizards skittering across the dust and rocks.

Living in drought here in Northern California, we have had our difficulties with fire and smoke lately. So far, the worst fires are a couple hundred miles north of us. It is a tense and smoky situation for us, but disastrous for our friends in the north.

During this current drought, water is a precious commodity. Our humble water tray offerings attract an animated parade of wildlife, day and night.

A bobcat comes through several nights a week.

Other regular night creatures include great horned owls, who frequently serenade us with duets, and deafening cicada choruses throughout every night. Dark dawns bring us individual bats silently zig-zagging the sky.

For comical daytime entertainment, we have a quirky gray squirrel who has taken to covering his back and head with his tail. He does it all the time.

Maybe he’s just an odd dude, or maybe he’s decided to use his tail as an umbrella to shield from the blazing sun. Whatever his story, we love him. We call him Davy, for his resemblance to a Davy Crockett hat.

Brush rabbits appreciate the water tray too.

It’s been so hot and dry lately that birds we don’t ordinarily see at the water tray came in this summer for drinks and baths. The outdoor camera captures this screech owl at the water tray regularly.

Yesterday I noticed this Cooper’s hawk at the water tray for an hour. We have also watched him vigorously bathing here. On sizzling hot days, he stands right in the water, probably regulating his body temperature.

I do love summer for the plethora of wildlife and their activities, but I am looking forward to the fall, too. Cooler temperatures and some rain to douse the earth would be dreamy.

But what a lively and lovely summer it has been.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Junco Nest

Finding nests is one of those magical spring events that can sometimes lead to a sad ending. All kinds of things can go wrong in this vulnerable bird activity. But fear not: this story has a happy ending.

Juncos are sparrows, and common across North America. Dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) are migrants in parts of the continent, and year-round residents in other parts. Where I live in Northern California, we have both: residents and migrants. The two races look a little different, but at any rate, we have a healthy resident population who are currently nesting. (The migrants left several weeks ago.)

More info: All About Birds Dark-eyed Junco

They are ground birds, with a diet primarily of seeds, and are ground nesters.

You can imagine what kind of dangers lurk for a ground nest on a rural mountain property — snakes, raccoons, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, and skunks frequently roam our hills and forest.

Last autumn there were wild amaryllis flowers, aka Naked Ladies (Amaryllis Belladonna), growing outside our kitchen sink window. They are bright pink flowers with a bubblegum scent. They grow everywhere, like weeds; found these (below) beside a trail in a park. You can see a mass of their dead leaves at the base of the flowers.

Every spring around April, after the flowers outside our kitchen window are long gone, the leaves dry out and turn yellow and we cut them back.

Except this year something different happened.

While the leaves were still green, a junco began hopping around underneath the amaryllis leaves, displaying unusual behavior. We recognized it as nesting behavior and realized the female was building a nest under there.

Slowly the amaryllis leaves began to dry out, but there was still enough foliage for completely camouflaging the nest.

About a week after that, there was more progress. Both the male and female were stealthily and industriously coming in with a worm or insect clamped in their bills. They hopped underneath the leaves, vanished for a second, then flew out; repeating this activity dozens of times in a day.

Babies!

This little corner of our property is not commonly visited by humans. We use it as a shortcut, but visitors don’t…well not human visitors. It’s on a hillside with giant boulders, as you can see in this photo, and not conducive to human walking. Can you see the amaryllis leaves in the middle of the photo? Also, take note of the external pipe on the right side of the photo.

Plenty of wildlife walk through here. After 20 years at the kitchen sink, I have seen so much activity in this little corner of the world. Sure makes doing dishes fun.

This particular nest, however, was worrisome from the start. The ground nesters, in my humble opinion, are asking for trouble.

From the critter cam we know of one skunk individual who regularly waddled through here in February and March. It was part of his or her nightly routine. Suppose that skunk would like a nice, delicious midnight snack.

Now that the nest was there and a new family was on the way, the risks seemed high. I hoped the skunk had found a new routine.

Years ago this gopher snake came through. I guess it found the pipe a fun challenge. But–yikes–a gopher snake so cheeky to wrap around a household pipe must be a very successful hunter.

We commonly have rattlesnakes here too. This time of year they’re just coming out of underground hibernation. Too sad if they were to enjoy some fresh breakfast eggs.

Days went by and the feeding continued, feverishly. Apparently they still had the nestlings.

Although it was tempting to lift the leaves to investigate, we never did.

Not a good idea. Didn’t want to traumatize any of these birds. The parents were working so hard on constantly keeping their new brood fed. And the nestlings were no doubt tiny and extremely fragile.

We waited until the feeding was done and all the birds were gone. That was last week.

We never saw one baby bird, but we were sure they were under there due to all the feeding activity.

Then this past Monday, after a week of nest dormancy, we looked into the nest.

Gingerly pushing away the dead leaves, we found this beautiful grassy nest in a small depression in the ground.

They typically lay 3-5 eggs, and apparently it was a successful brood because the nest was empty except for some fecal sacs.

Whew. It could’ve turned out differently, and we certainly have witnessed plenty of unsuccessful broods. But what a relief and complete joy to know there are several new baby juncos making their way in this world.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Spring at Point Reyes

Spring brings a riot of wildflowers on the pastoral hillsides of Point Reyes, and this year has been heavenly. Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California is a large peninsular park along the Pacific Coast.

It is a park with a rich and diverse history, picturesque beaches and trails, cliffs and bays, a lighthouse and several other interesting and historic features. We often go to the northern side of the park around Tomales Bay, where all photos here were snapped.

Last week we found wild purple iris in hundreds of spots.

During the California Gold Rush in the 1850s, approximately 300,000 people arrived in California and began settling. That is when dairy farms became a prominent part of Point Reyes. Fresh creamy butter, and later, cheese, became highly regarded.

Back then, Point Reyes farmers packed casks of freshly churned butter and loaded it onto schooners. They shipped it to San Francisco, 30 miles south, where it was distributed.

Today there are still 13 commercial dairies here. Although it is a federally designated recreational preserve, the dairies remain legal via grandfathered laws.

The dairy farms continue to supply millions of households with delicious organic dairy products; and farmers never hassle the daily parade of cars filled with tourists, hikers, and beach-goers driving through.

One of the ranches had this mellow horse near the house.

More info: Point Reyes Wikipedia

Pt. Reyes map, courtesy Wikipedia.

In this area of the park there is also a tule elk preserve.

Cervus canadensis nannodes live only in California, and can be seen here in every season.

Last week we came upon this harem, or herd of females, lazing in the sun.

The Point Reyes elk species was extirpated in the 1800s, but the population was revived in the 1970s with a successful reintroduction project. There are about 300 individual elk here today.

We spotted these three male elk grazing in the distance.

With the proximity of the ocean, fog is a common feature at Point Reyes. Heavy winds too. There have been times when I was hiking on a trail and could hear the elk calling very near, but could not see them, obliterated by the thick fog. A few times when the fog cleared, we would be surprised, humans and elk, at how close together we were.

But this April day we were enjoying clear visibility and mild temperatures.

From the car, Athena photographed the three elk, while I was having a stare-down with this bull.

We regularly hike at Abbott’s Lagoon. It is named after two brothers, 19th-century dairy farmers.

There is a three-mile hike through chaparral and sand dunes to the ocean. No dogs are allowed here, and there are no food establishments within 15 miles. It is simply land and sea and walkers.

Quail, white-crowned sparrows, ravens, and raptors always join us.

Last week the male red-winged blackbirds were displaying for the females.

Mammals greet us too–usually deer, bobcat or coyote. We saw this coyote last week.

There is a patch of bare brown sticks along the trail, it’s taller than all the hikers, and nondescript. In spring the foliage and flowers come alive, revealing it as salmonberry.

When we’re not hiking, we’re driving the roads spotting wildlife. I drive slowly on the windswept hillsides, pulling over to allow fast cars to pass, while Athena’s camera clicks away.

Since the pandemic has curtailed our travel, we’ve been staying local. We visit Point Reyes for a half-day, just an hour or so from home, and it feels like a vacation.

And now I can’t think of a better place to vacation.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Northern Calif. in March

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the emergence of spring has been an exhilarating and uplifting gift. Here are a few of the joys we are currently experiencing in Northern California.

In the valleys, the vineyards are bursting with wild mustard, and ornamental trees are flowering everywhere.

Wildflowers are just starting their show.

California poppies, our state flower, are tightly closed on rainy days and dotting the hillsides with bright orange on sunny days. Soon there will be huge patches of them.

It’s milder down in the valleys. Up on our mountain we’ve had snow and hail several times this week, along with many hours of driving rain and freezing temperatures.

Most of us are glad because more rain and snow now, mean less drought and wildfires in the fall.

After a day or two, the sun comes out and the sky once again turns bright blue.

This wild gooseberry plant on our property survived several bouts of hail this week.

Our grass is brown and crunchy for most of the year. But from January through about April, the grass is rich with chlorophyll. I find myself often staring appreciatively at blades of grass, the sun shining through their verdant membranes.

The oak woodlands are a fairyland. The deciduous oaks, in their mossy, lichen winter look, have slowly been budding for weeks. With more light in each day, the buds are growing plumper, and soon a leaf will pop out here and there.

Underneath the oaks, early wildflowers grace the earth, like buttercups and milkmaids.

Before daylight arrives, the frogs are singing their spring praises, and I often hear duetting great horned owls. For a morning person like me, who’s always up in the dark, this is a blissful greeting.

Daytime birds and creatures are also shifting with the new season. Brush rabbits are rewarded with nutrient-rich grass and weeds.

Bluebird pairs are checking out the just-cleaned nest boxes, and the titmice have switched from their winter calls to their spring love songs.

Some days there’s thick fog and hail, other days it’s mild and sunny, colorful flowers shine through it all, and the wildlife are just as excited as the humans for this new season. Hope is everywhere.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Newt news

It is this time of year when the California newt is on the move. Adults are crawling out from under their rocks and heading toward the closest pond to find a mate. A great find on a February hike.

The rains have come and the ground is wet. Fungus and lichen grace the forest floor.

The winter rains of Northern California bring moist conditions to our parched land, filling up shallow meadows and ponds, providing perfect breeding grounds for the California newt.

There are 100 known species of newts in the world, found in North America, Europe, North Africa, and Asia. The California newt, Taricha torosa, is found only in California and is our most common newt.

Interesting info: californiaherps.com

This week, Athena saw a newt on one of our trails. One rainy night a few years ago, we found this pair in our yard.

They are sometimes mistaken for a lizard, but a newt is not a lizard. A lizard is a reptile; whereas a newt is an amphibian in the salamander family.

The newt has an impressive amphibian ability of living on land and water. They are semiaquatic, spending part of the year in water for reproduction, then living on land for the rest of the year.

Their permeable skin makes them reliant on cool, damp places like this.

Unless you scramble around in stream beds lifting up rocks, newts are not easy to find. They stay hidden most of their lives in moist environments, under logs and rocks. They are also quiet creatures. But at this time of year when the ground is wet and they are on their breeding trek, we are granted an occasional sighting.

The California newt is a small creature, ranging in length from 5 to 8 inches (13-20 cm). They have four short legs and move very slowly. If I didn’t know better, when I am watching one it seems like the whole world is in slow motion. One leg lifts…pauses mid-air…goes down…then another leg lifts…pauses mid-air…goes down.

Quite miraculously, they will travel on their short, sluggish legs up to 2.5 miles (4 km) to their breeding grounds.

Though the California newt moves slowly, it has few predators due to its toxic skin. It produces poisonous skin secretions, called tetrodotoxin, repelling most predators. This neurotoxin can cause death in most animals, including humans, if eaten.

One year we found this adult and eft (juvenile) in an underground well tank.

In nearby Berkeley, California, every year from November 1 to March 31, a main thoroughfare in Tilden Park is closed to vehicular traffic exclusively to protect the California newt. For 20 years the Park District has closed South Park Drive to allow newts a safe terrestrial journey as they march to their breeding grounds.

When the newts finally reach their aquatic breeding environment, mating occurs. Then, much like their their fellow amphibian the frog, the eggs stay in the water and a few weeks later the larvae hatch. Larvae undergo metamorphosis, developing legs and lungs. In this process, which takes about two weeks, their gills are no longer needed and are absorbed into the body. When they are fully metamorphosed, they leave the water and begin life on land.

So when we see a beautiful newt on the rainy forest floor, it is a marvel to behold. Tiny little legs on a mission to perpetuate their species. They can breathe under water and then on land. And though they are small creatures, they can kill just about anybody who dares to mess with them.

A tip of the hat to this amazing creature.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.