New Life in a Dead Tree

Our forest was 98% burned in the October 2017 Northern California wildfires, and much of it is still black and charred. It is not, however, lifeless. This week there is a nest of baby bluebirds starting new lives inside a dead tree.

The first year post-fire, we could not live in our house or forest while repairs were underway (some readers may remember this). A year later and back at home again, I found my morning walk in the forest was too depressing. So I settled into a new routine in town that had live trees, joggers and dog walkers.

But then with the Covid lockdowns last year, life changed for everyone. I reluctantly returned to our decimated forest. Destroyed as it was, the forest became a safe and isolated, peopleless place close to home. Our maskless haven.

What was once deeply forested, had turned into a barren wasteland.

But oddly enough, now almost every day Athena and I find new treasures.

About two weeks ago we discovered a pair of western bluebirds (Sialia mexicana) exhibiting nesting behavior at this dead pine tree. Nesting here seemed impossible for how very dead it is. A few days of nest-building went by, but then we noticed the activity had stopped.

Bluebirds build nests a little differently than other songbirds. Many times they have a hiatus from building for several days or more. Sometimes they abandon the site, build elsewhere. But other times they just take a break, and then return and continue building. I guess they take one last vacation before the chicks are born.

After about a week of quiescence at the tree, we witnessed them flying back and forth to the hole again. Their behavior was stealthy, never flying directly to the hole. They would fly near to it, then perch on a branch, then another, and then into the hole. If we stood too close, they didn’t go in. This behavior raised our hopes.

When they were gone, we checked out the tree. During the 2017 incineration, the top half had fallen off, while the lower half remained standing. The tree is basically hollow. There were two holes that woodpeckers had carved in the trunk many years past, long before the fire.

One of the holes is what the bluebirds now use for entry. It is about 15-20 feet (4.5-6 m) above the ground. Inside the tree there must be a sort of natural shelf, perfect for the new nest. It rests just below the hole, we surmised by the angle in which they enter.

Last week, each of the pair were industriously visiting the nest about eight times an hour, with insects in their bills. They were feeding nestlings.

And this week, we faintly heard baby bluebird voices coming from inside this charred monolith.

Right after the fire, there were no animals or plants in this devastated area. The first rains sprouted underground seeds and the first spring brought small insects, and ankle-high plants and wildflowers.

Gradually other “fire follower” plants started growing.

And now, 3.5 years after the fire, most plants are about knee-high.

Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon californicum), a chaparral fire recovery plant, is prevalent. The plants above ground all perished but their underground rhizome system was intact.

The Yerba Santa is flowering this month. They are attractive to many butterflies and other insects.

Bigger insects are here now, too, like butterflies and dragonflies.

Woodpeckers remain infrequent; but ravens and turkey vultures soar overhead, while small birds and lizards use the tree carcasses to perch and hunt.

Most of the lizards in this burn area have taken to camouflaging in black, like this male, below.

It will be a quarter-century before the oak, pine, fir and manzanita trees grow up, but new life has begun. And baby western bluebirds will be fledging any day now.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Blue-colored Friends

Ulysses Butterflies on Lantana, Australia. Photo: A. Alexander

If any of my friends in the Northern Hemisphere are feeling a little blue about the waning of summer, here is a panoply of blue wildlife to uplift your spirits.

 

Blue-gray Tanager, Peru

 

Blue-footed Booby, Galapagos. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Costa Rica. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Though there are many birds with blue, there are also insects and reptiles, and even a monkey.

 

Bluet Damselfly, Nevada. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Butterfly, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Western fence lizards have a bright blue belly.

Western Fence Lizard, California. Photo: A. Alexander

 

This skink we see in California has a dazzling tail.

 

Skink, California

 

The blue monkey. Not as blue as some of its fellow blue-named creatures, but a beauty nonetheless.

Blue Monkey, Lake Manyara, Tanzania, Africa

 

Birds this blue sometimes blend into the greenery; but I have spotted them from far across an opposite ridge…gasping from behind my binoculars, such stunning beauty.

 

Blue Dacnis, Peru. Photo by B. Page

 

We found these blue-headed parrots at a river bank in the Amazon. They were busy extracting minerals from the clay soil.

 

Blue-headed Parrots, Peru. Photo: A. Alexander

 

The color blue is a bit complicated when it comes to nature. Peacock feathers, for example, are actually pigmented brown, but their microscopic structure, through light reflection, expresses blues and greens.

 

Indian Peacock, Texas. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Birdnote.org explains it well:

“Unlike many other bird colors, blue is not a pigment but a color produced by the structure of the feathers. Tiny air pockets and melanin pigment crystals in each feather scatter blue light and absorb the other wavelengths. The even finer structure of the feather gathers the bouncing blue wavelengths together and directs them outward.”

 

I think the blue feathers on this Glossy Starling take scattering and bouncing blue wavelengths to a new high.

Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Africa

 

I’ve noticed some birds sporting blue always seem to be bright, like these two tanager species…

 

Blue-necked Tanager, Peru

 

Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

… whereas other blue-pigmented birds can sometimes look gray or black, depending on the light.

Little Blue Heron, Belize

 

Mountain Bluebird, Wyoming

 

Great Blue Heron, Ding Darling, Florida

 

These blue-footed boobies are performing a mating dance. The blue pigmentation in their feet comes from carotenoids in their fresh fish diet. The bluer the feet, the more healthy the bird.

 

Blue-footed Boobies, Galapagos Islands. Photo: A. Alexander

 

A few more of my blue favorites.

Belted Kingfisher, California

 

Green Honeycreeper, male, Trinidad (called a Green Honeycreeper, but more like turquoise)

 

Azure Kingfisher, Australia

 

Turquoise Jay, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Southern Cassowary, Queensland, Australia. Photo: A. Alexander

 

How wonderful to have all these blues in the world–so much pigmentation or light or wavelengths or whatever…to celebrate.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

 

Western Bluebird, California

 

Let the Nesting Begin

Western Bluebird (male)

I’m always on the look-out for bird nests at this time of year. They’re all over, you just have to be in tune–the country or city, trees or eaves.

 

So far we have found five nests on our property: bushtits, violet-green swallows, western bluebirds, oak titmice, and pacific-slope flycatchers.

Bushtit

It takes some time to find a bird nest; it should, that’s the nature of a nest. How crafty the adult is at hiding the nest, and then keeping it a secret, is directly contingent upon the survival of the young, and ultimately the success of the species.

 

For the bushtits, it was a treasure hunt. One day I noticed they were a pair. Gregarious birds, they are always in flocks of about a dozen, except in spring when they pair off for breeding.

 

After that, I started noticing they were nearby several times a day, not just their once-a-day fly-through. Then I watched with binoculars and saw one had caught a worm and instead of gobbling it up, the bird carried it off.

 

Soon after, we followed the little fluffball as it disappeared into a manzanita bush. Bingo — we found a pocket of lichen in the center of the bush. You can see how hidden it is.

Bushtit nest (in center)

 

If you’re interested in attracting nesting birds, there are many things you can do, especially providing: food, water, shelter, safety. The main thing: be attentive.

Violet-green swallow on nest box

Info about nest boxes:

National Wildlife Federation, Nesting, U.S.

Nestbox Info and Books, England

 

As for finding nests, start watching bird behavior and you’ll be amazed how busy they are.

How to Nest Watch

How to Find a Nest, Canada

 

Good book (U.S.) with bird nest specifics: Peterson Field Guides, Birds’ Nests

 

This year and last, our neighbors lamented there were no more swallows in the area. What happened to the swallows? they said.

 

I grinned. We have them swooping overhead, all day every day, from March to June.

 

Here’s a previously written post about their nesting: Violet-green Swallows.

 

Every spring the violet-green swallows and  western bluebirds have a few weeks of territorial chest-thumping before they choose their respective houses.

 

Bluebird at nest box

 

The oak titmouse is always “our” very first songbird to nest. This year they found a cozy spot inside an old tree snag.

Oak Titmouse

It is for this reason that we keep some dead trees standing–they are a wealth of life regardless of how dead they look.

 

Oak Titmouse Nest Site (round hole toward top of snag)

The pacific-slope flycatchers migrate up every spring from Mexico. We have hosted so many generations of this bird that I could write their family tree.

 

A post I wrote about them: Generations of Flycatchers.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher on nest. Nest materials are same debris as on roof.

Many people don’t have big yards to provide nest spots. I like this story from fellow-blogger Helen at Tiny Lessons Blog. She helped engage the community in providing a new nesting place for the osprey at her local salt marsh: the fundraising efforts and the new nest.

 

What a wonderful thing to live where birds continue to reproduce. And there are so many ways to view the chicks, whether it’s in your yard, a community park, or from your computer via live cams.

 

It’s a sweet reminder of the joy of life.

 

Parent Pacific-slope Flycatcher with a lot to sing about

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Molting Bluebirds

Western Bluebird in Spring, Pt. Reyes, CA

Bluebird, April, full plumage, Pt. Reyes

A bird’s natural process of seasonal molting can be confusing for birders and frustrating for photographers.  The birds take on a very different look, something less than perfect.

 

It’s a similar process to a snake shedding its skin, mammals losing hair, or insects outgrowing their exoskeleton.

 

As one feather comes out, a new one grows in.  Birds usually lose a few feathers at a time so they can still fly, but this is not always the case.  It is cyclical and variable, depending on the species and other factors.  To read more about molting click here.

 

As a good example, the bird photographed here is the same species (western bluebird) in the same area (Pierce Point) in the same park (Point Reyes National Seashore, Calif.) at different times of the year.  You can see how different they look.

Western Bluebird, late August, molting, Pt. Reyes, CA

Bluebird, late August, molting, Calif.

 

Two of my blogging friends recently published informative posts and photos about molting too: Avian 101 and Birder’s Journey.

 

On my morning walks at this time of year I almost always find at least one feather on the ground.  I used to collect them, but then I just had a jar full of fading feathers.  Now I leave most of them on the ground and see them on the next walk, or I bring in the really pretty ones and enjoy them for a week or so.

 

Western bluebird, late August, molting, Pt. Reyes, CA

Bluebird, late August, molting, Calif.

I have a handsome feather next to my desk right now, I found it a few weeks ago.  I think it’s from an acorn woodpecker, because he or she frequents the area where I found it.  The top half is black, the bottom half is white.

 

It reminds me that the nature of life is ever-changing.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander