A fellow raptor-lover / naturalist friend of mine lives on a boat by Point Richmond, and this winter she convinced the harbor master to install a platform on the breakwater in hopes that osprey would nest there. They did! Osprey have been continuing to be present in increasing numbers here in the Bay Area, and I was able to get to see the nest last week, just a week after the two babies hatched. It was difficult to see them because they are still so small, but I hope to return to see them in a couple of weeks when they are more visible.
Right when I got there, dad (named Lee) had just caught a nice sized striped bass and was looking for a place to start eating. The fish looks like it is saying “oooooooohhhhhhh shit.” Valid.
My friend said that he typically has been the one hunting, and the female sits on the nest with the young since they hatched. Evidently he seems to always get this size and type of fish, and there were reports about a year ago of a surge in the density of striped bass in the Bay. He usually finds a spot to eat the head, before he delivers it to the nest. Today though, he left a nearby perch possibly due to the high winds and he went right over the nest. But not before the gulls harrassed him for his dinner.
The gulls are always looking for an easy meal, and two great-blue herons that were on the breakwater were not pleased …
A double-crested cormorant popped up right by us on the dock, beautiful creatures.
Pops decided to re-locate after mom (Eileen) had fed herself and the tiny little hatchlings. He went on a perch just to the side of the nest to keep working on dinner, as the sky turned to pink and purple with the setting sun.
Special thanks to Shirley for all the work she does and her love for these birds.
Some photos and updates from the last few weeks. Spring seems to have started in the beginning of February this year, the buckeye trees (usually the first to bud and the first to lose their leaves) were budding in some places as early as the end of January. Since then, the warm and sunny weather has drawn out flowers and buds all around. Fortunately, as I write this, the rains have started again – and we are due for much more.
Two weeks ago (week of Feb 15th), on two different nights, I saw the Wildcat Canyon “Bottomhill” great-horned owl couple mate. The timing coincides almost exactly with when I saw another pair mate last year – I thought maybe the weather would affect the pattern, but apparently not. It’s somewhat odd as most literature indicates great-horned owls being an early breeder (compared to other raptor species), and in many areas are on nests in January in the snow. I guess owl culture, like human culture here in the Bay Area, is different in these parts as well (I joke – probably the Mediterranean climate is a factor, though I’d be curious to know how breeding behavior here compares to other warm areas). As I get deeper into my own observations of the world and its critters, I realize how little we actually know. Scientists in the past seem to have been content to generalize regarding behavior, and while there are patterns and a spectrum of those behaviors that are “typical,” often in reality it may be different based on local factors. That’s what makes it fun to be out there. Personality and local flavor.
The female always seems to initiate the act, and she starts by chasing down the male on the occasions that I’ve witnessed it. She lands close to him, and starts to do a vocalization very similar to a juvenile owl. When the male flies towards her, she starts a repetitive “hoo hoo hoo hoo” sound that reminds me of a monkey. As the male mounts her, flapping for a few seconds, she lets out a high pitched vibrato whistle and then its over. It will be interesting to see what happens this year, as last year many of the nests didn’t appear to successfully raise any young (drought related?). There are four pairs whose territories I regularly walk through, with a possible fifth – then another not far away. Of all those pairs, I only confirmed one successful nest last season.
Despite the very dry February, the vernal pools are deep and wide from all the rain in January, and have been extremely active with tree frogs and California newts. The newts migrate from their hiding spots under leaf litter back to the area from which they hatched to mate and lay eggs. The frog chorus, if you can sneak up on them, is incredibly loud when nearby. Nights of wandering under warm skies and no winds to a live symphony of frogs, and owls flitting around, is pizza for the soul.
I caught a few interesting moon shots this month, one was a moon halo and the other was an interesting rainbow effect on clouds as the full moon rose last time.
The countdown is on for the end of June when Jupiter and Venus come within about 1 degree of each during their conjuction! Look outside after dusk to the West to see them. Venus appears larger and brighter on the right. Not shown in the photo is Regulus, part of the Leo constellation – it can be seen to the left of Jupiter, almost forming a line. The next few nights will provide us with great views with the moon appearing closer to the two planets. Get out and look!
From left to right: Mt Tam, Jupiter, Venus, waxing Moon
Arboreal Salamander / Aneides lugubris
I’ll admit that at the beginning of this year, I had high hopes of seeing more than one nest of great-horned owls with young. Yet despite monitoring three pairs of these owls at Wildcat Canyon with regularity, and another two pairs on occasion, I have not seen nor heard one fledgling owl. There was a period of time starting in March during which the adults altered their routines from how they acted during mating season, but whether or not they were on eggs is a mystery to me. I know at least one pair did “phase I” of the procreation process! But alas no sign of young. It now appears that they’ve started to alter their routine again, and I’m seeing them with more regularity in their “usual” areas and perches. But no begging young ones that I’ve heard or seen – and they are hard to miss.
During the nesting season, I have a theory that raptors “go through the motions” whether they actually have young or not. This includes different roosts, different patterns of behavior, and also a tendency to be very secretive – until this past week or so, they have not been as willing to be close to me like they had been.
The last few times I’ve been out I’ve noticed one pair of owls hunting in a fashion that I’ve never witnessed before – they are actually kiting like red-tailed hawks in the wind over grasslands! In the strong winds, the owl just extends its wings without flapping to become stationary in the air above the ground, and they are sometimes 50 to 80 feet up in the sky. One difference from the red-tails is that their legs hang down awkwardly, and it’s really funny to see such a majestic animal looking so ungraceful. Typically I see the great-horned owls hunting either from a perch or from the ground. It makes sense in this area where the winds are gusting every evening and the grass is high. Perhaps they’ve adapted their hunting style for the season and the terrain. Really cool to see – if I can witness it again before twilight I would love to get some photos of it.
Another interesting behavior I witnessed tonight was again with my most watched pair (the same that have been kiting) – as I came upon them tonight just after sunset, first one, then the other flew down to the ground onto a cow trail. At first I thought perhaps they were on the trail hunting, but then I realized they were both taking a dust bath within 10 feet of each other! It was difficult to see due to the lack of light and distance (I didn’t want to bother them while they bathed together …), but they were really getting into it. After about five minutes, they finished up and hurried over to see if I could find some tracks.
As I got to the spot and started scouring over the dust with my headlamp, I could see the wind just erasing things before my eyes. I was so bummed! I was able to find one partial track though, which was fun.
As I kept looking, suddenly I heard a high pitched squealing just south of me about 30 meters right in the area where one of the owls had flown to perch on top of a coyote bush, and I knew breakfast was served.
It’s been my observation that raptor numbers and activity is much diminished in the last two years here in the greater Bay Area, but especially this year. Likely it is related to the drought, and also probably related to the vole population crash that we first took note of about two years ago. That is pure conjecture and is based purely on observation, but some of my other naturalist friends and trackers have noticed similar patterns supported by lack of actual sightings and reduced numbers of owl pellets in one particular location that usually has at least a few owls. Hopefully the predictions of the El Nino bringing lots of rain this upcoming winter are true! Everyone could use more water – feathered, furred, scaled, crawling, rooted and two-legged.
After a twilight meander in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, as I was leaving the park and driving through a heavily wooded riparian area, I saw a small form pop out of the shadows on the side of the road. I stopped. A second form popped up along side the first. Moments later, a third little form darted across the road from the other direction! Small canines with white tips on their tails and black on the backs of their ears – red fox kits! I returned two nights later in hopes that they were still using the same den, and I was in luck. Using my vehicle as a blind, I was able to get some shots of the four kits along with a grainy shot of one of the adults who came by briefly. I’m guessing they are about five weeks old.
The kits were particularly intrigued by a sound in the vegetation on the hill behind their den, which turned out to be a black-tailed mule deer feeding. The deer eventually came down on the road, and it was like a scene from a Disney movie with all the fox kits, a deer, and one of the adult foxes all just milling about on the road. The deer seemed unfazed by all the foxes, but the kits were fascinated with this long-legged creature that came in their midst.
There was a street lamp that gave some light to the area, but as you can see the light was far from ideal for clear photos. I was happy to be able to capture what I was given.
Here is a shot of one of the adults to give a scale to the size of the kits …
Watching them play and wander around the area was magical, they were curious about their surrounding but still stayed within about 20 feet of the den. When an occasional car would drive by, they would dive into the storm drain, wait a few moments, then little heads would pop out to see if the area was clear. They still weren’t in full control of their bodies yet, tripping over their own legs and bowling over each other with little attacks and hops. When the adult was present, they exuberantly raced to “attack,” or just to nuzzle and see if mom or dad had some food or a new toy (there were feathers from several species of birds around the den, the kits seemed to be playing with them at times).
After about 10 minutes, the four furry bodies started to slow down, and two had already disappeared back into the den. With a few final stretches, the remaining two went back in the den to rest after their short play time.
This was my first encounter with red foxes in this area, and though they aren’t unusual in urban areas around the country, I was somewhat surprised to see them. I spend a lot of time in this area and haven’t seen anything but gray foxes and coyotes so far. LOTS of gray foxes and coyotes. The grays tend to stay in the heavily wooded areas not far from the riparian creek zone lower in this park, the coyotes rule in the more open areas higher in the park where cows are still grazed.
I find it ironic that often densities and sighting of wild animals are higher near human development. It’s always a little perplexing and slightly embarrassing when I spend a lot of time out in the more “wild” areas and don’t see as many wild animals, then upon returning into more urban or suburban areas suddenly they are all over the place. I get excited about seeing a bobcat out in a park, then I see a story about a 14 year old kid snapping a pic of a wild mountain lion in his aunt’s backyard with a cell phone. C’mon! Seriously? Especially now though, in the middle of a drought, this is not surprising. Water is more available near human development, and prey animals tend to be attracted to the vegetation and other larder sources around human development – gardens, garbage, etc. And where they prey go, the predators follow. This is a simplified explanation, as wildlife corridors also factor into areas where animals can be found, but it generally holds true it seems.
The red foxes that are found in the Bay Area are usually considered non-native, a lineage of red foxes that descends from European red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) that were introduced into the U.S. for hunting and fur harvest long ago. They have been extremely successful in adapting to life here, especially in urban areas – but often to the detriment of many native species. Their presence can be divisive due to this, but then again so is the presence of feral cats.
To complicate things, there are at least two other identified red fox species in California, and they are actually natives – one is called the Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necatur) and is extremely rare. That fox has only been currently been identified as living in the Sierra Nevadas and Cascades, East and North of the Central Valley. Recent research though has also identified what is being called a sub-species of the native Sierran red foxes, and these are found in the Central Valley and called, creatively, Central Valley red foxes (Vulpes vulpes patwin). Confusing!! So, there is a possibility of these foxes being native, or a hybrid, but given the proximity to the immediate Bay area, and the ecology, odds are probably more in favor of it being of the introduced type. The ecology is what seems to define where these species can be found (Central Valley preferring open grassland habitat, Sierra preferring montane zones, and non-natives thriving in marsh, riparian, and urban areas). Interbreeding seems a likely possibility, but research still seems scant.
Here and here is some interesting information on the Central Valley red fox (V.v. patwin). And this is an interesting blog post from 2010 about the Sierra Nevada red fox.
I will mention that when I saw the adult fox (albeit under poor lighting), it appeared different than I expected – less fur (shorter coat) and more subdued coloring, almost like a coyote. But, given the brief encounter and the poor light, that doesn’t mean much. I’ve seen at least one other online posting of a nearby sighting of a red fox in or near Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, but they certainly don’t seem to be common there (or at least commonly sighted). Most of the sighting seem to occur at parks in the more marshy areas closer to the Bay.
The native versus non-native investigation still seems to be evolving with regard to red fox populations here, it will be interesting to see what future research reveals.
Regardless of the genetic make-up and heritage of these animals, it was a delight to watch them play and to know that another wild animal is surviving and making a living here in the shadow of human civilization. We are inundated with news of how animals are negatively impacted due to human influence, so it’s reassuring to sometimes see first-hand a “success.” There are few things that lift the heart more than watching puppies or kittens, but to see wild ones close and in person is a whole other experience, one that I am truly thankful for and will never forget.
I spent a good 20 minutes following this female from hunting perch to perch in the calm twilight this evening, under the waxing new moon. Autumn magic!! She eventually united with her mate who had been calling the whole time about a 1/4 mile away with his deeper hoots.
I saw this little one a few weeks ago in the mountains east of San Jose – it landed on a dirt road in front of us as we were slowly driving back to camp – with headlights and an additional LED flashlight, I was able to get this picture. It is a common poorwill, part of the nightjar family of birds, which are nocturnal birds of prey. I don’t often see them, but it’s actually the second time I’ve photographed one in the wild! See my earlier blog post from last January (2013).
They were know as “goatsuckers” due to folk tales that they sucked the blood of goats during the night. So far, there has been no evidence of this – but they do eat a lot of insects.
Rough-legged, that is.
Last Saturday I helped lead a raptor tour at Lynch Canyon for Solano County Land Trust with Larry Broderick of West County Hawk Watch … and I don’t think anyone was disappointed. Two rough-legged hawks made an appearance along with the many resident red-tailed hawks, white-tailed kites, kestrels, northern harriers, red-shouldered hawks, turkey vultures, and a pair of golden eagles. We also had two peregrine falcons soar over us. Good day. Rough-legged hawks breed in the Arctic and it is uncommon to see them this far south, though this year there seem to be more of them than usual during the winter here in the Bay Area.
No, I didn’t find El Chupacabra – THE Goatsucker.
However, my visit to Briones Regional Park a couple of days ago (see here for the blog entry) reminded me of my last visit a couple of months ago during which I saw a Goatsucker at close range and after dark.
That’s right, a Goatsucker.
And it makes perfect sense, because after darkness falls is when they come out.
I was walking back to my jeep well after dark on a moonless night, with no light, on a trail that wound back and forth over some open grazing land on the edge of a forest of oaks and bay laurel trees, descending sharply at times on its way back to the parking area. My eyes were adjusted well enough to see the outline of the trail before me, but other than the stars in the sky and some distant city lights, that was the extent of my vision. But the lack of sight, often our primary sense as we move through the world, necessitates that the other senses step it up a notch. Sounds, and the changing feel of cool moist air or warmer drier air on my skin help determine the terrain around me, and an internal “feeling” of the landscape, or inner vision, takes over. It’s a magical time to be out. And this particular night did not disappoint.
Suddenly a small fluttery form came towards my head in the night, and for a moment I thought it was a bat. But as my eyes focused on it, I saw that it circled quickly around me then flew down to the ground to become “invisible” on the path in front of me. It wasn’t a bat. I paused and stood completely still, using peripheral vision to sense movement if it flew up again as I grasped in my pocket for a small LED flashlight. Again after a few seconds, I saw the small form flutter up just a foot from my head then back down to a spot on the trail.
I turned my light on and shielded the lens so the light wouldn’t scare the creature, and it was then that I realized it was a Goatsucker!
The Goatsuckers, or Caprimulgidae Family of birds, are composed of birds also know as nighthawks and nightjars. On the East Coast one of these birds is called the whip-poor-will, and it makes a unique sound that is often heard after dark in wooded areas where they live. But they are very seldom seen because they are nocturnal and extremely well camouflaged. Here on the West Coast we primarily have a close relative of the whip-poor-will (once considered the same species), called the common poorwill. These nocturnal birds are a strange-looking group, and their camouflage is absolutely amazing.
My pictures aren’t so clear, my point and shoot camera – the first thing I grabbed – had some trouble focusing on such a small target in almost complete darkness. Do a web search for images of the common poorwill and one can see clearer pictures showing how unique in appearance they are.
Interestingly, this bird is observed to be the only known bird that “hibernates” – or more accurately, goes into a torpor – slowing its metabolism and reducing its body temperature as if in a deep sleep during some of the winter months. According to some online resources, the Hopi called this little bird “The Sleeping One” in their language.
I was able to watch this little creature continue hunting small insects for about five minutes in the area around me. It was a continuous cycle of lifting off from the ground, where it lay motionless and virtually undetectable, to flitting up in the air about 6 feet off the ground to capture insects, quickly descending back to a new landing point nearby. Slowly it hopped this way and that, repeating the process over and over, until finally I lost sight of it.
A great ending to my wanders that day.