Briones Regional Park * Contra Costa County CA
juvenile Western Bluebirds * Sialia mexicana
These four flew into the tree above me and huddled together in the shade, taking refuge from the hot afternoon sun together. It was pretty adorable.
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.
A few days ago I spent a late afternoon in Briones East Bay Regional Park, a large expanse of mixed-use wooded/grazing land just over the hills from the East Bay. I knew it was going to be a good couple of hours when I spotted a hatch year (juvenile) bald eagle right after getting out of my jeep.
The eagle lazily circled and started to track south, and a few of the local resident red-tailed hawks went up to “usher it” onward and away from their territory.
My wandering quickly took me off the trail, onto a trail only known to my feet beneath me and the heart in my chest. My feet walked, climbed and scrambled up higher and higher onto a ridge line. I suppose I’m always looking for pumas and puma sign, and it seemed to be a likely starting point to find it. Once I was up on one of the highest peaks in the immediate area, there was a bit of a flat wooded area that I started to explore.
As I was quietly coming up a saddle from the main flat area down towards another little flat area, I saw a few young steer that started to move away from me – unused to seeing a person up there, I imagine. Also unused to seeing a person up there was the coyote that I just caught a glimpse of as it left its resting spot at the top of the saddle and slipped over the hill top out of sight, just 25 feet from me. I decided to have a little bit of fun with it, so I dropped down off the saddle towards a ravine that was thick with bay laurel trees and some oaks. I could hear the coyote moving there just out of sight below me as it trotted and paused in the crunchy dead leaf hubris of the forest floor, and for some reason I decided to give a short little bark. It was an earnest attempt to connect with this other being, not much thought went into it other than a deep desire to say hello.
What happened next was a 15 minute exchange of the two of us “talking” back and forth and checking each other out from a distance. At first I think the coyote wasn’t quite sure what I was (manimal?!!!). Below is a short recording of one of our exchanges. The coyote was probably within 25 yards of me the entire time, until some other hikers started to come up into the area after hearing the noise and the coyote departed. My voice is the short yip initiating the “conversation,” followed by the coyote and then us alternating.
It seemed as if it was alone, and I was very grateful to get to spend some time with it that evening. After scouting around I found an old deer kill, but otherwise I found no reason for the coyote to be so curious or possibly defensive. It’s probably too early for a den to be active with pups in January.
After watching the sunset perched underneath an oak that was sitting on high hill by itself, I followed a ridge line down into the valleys towards my vehicle. After hearing a pair of great-horned owls hooting right as the sun set, I was on the lookout – and they didn’t disappoint. As I approached the parking lot, one of them flew nearby and landed on an old fence post, surveying the encroaching dark for its breakfast.