juvenile great horned owls and venus in background at sunset / contra costa county CA
right on queue, these two juvenile great horned owls have been haunting the woods nearby with their haunting cries of dispair (aka annoying hunger begging cries to their parents) … almost Halloween / Samhain / Dia de Muertos!
Probably the last of this waxing moon we’ll see this month, due to the coming storm. Beautiful night.
when you see this wild eye, it can’t be anything else but what it is … and it is beautiful
great-horned owl (adult female) / contra costa county CA
last nap before the night
This pair has been around for a number of years – why no young? Theories to come …
After a day of what could be the last rain of the season, I decided to motivate myself for a much needed attitude adjustment. I was grumpy, and pretty unmotivated. I knew if I went out for a wander/hike, things might shift. I figured “future Zach” might really appreciate “past Zach” more if “current Zach” got off the couch.
It was just before sunset, and the clouds were starting to break up, yielding some blue sky and a beautiful setting sun sometimes shining from behind the clouds. The puffy clouds that were left after the rain were now highlighted in beautiful pinks, purples, and oranges. The air was calm and there was a divine serene quality to the light and the moment.
I wasn’t far into my wander when I heard a lot of raven sounds. It’s not unusal to see them in this area, but usually they are moving around, soaring, and don’t typically hang around one particular area for too long. And usually they are in pairs here. As I turned a bend, I started to see them. Some were flying, some were perched or hopping around a grove of eucalyptus trees. There were at least four or five ravens, and I stopped to watch and listen. At first I thought perhaps it was a young family of newly fledged ravens, just playing on the hillside and in the grove of trees. They didn’t necesarily seem focused on anything in particular, but I decided to circle around to the other side of the eucs to get a better look.
I’ve written before that in the northern part of Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, I have never seen definitive bobcat sign nor a live bobcat in the three years that I have been going there (ironic, given its name!!). My explanation was that due to the open grassland and minimal cover in this area (most of it is grazed by cattle for fire suppression), coyotes are the dominate predator because they can adapt to the terrain better. Between the lack of cover and proliferation of coyotes, it is not ideal bobcat terrain. Not only that, many people walk their dogs in this area, and again, coyotes are better equipped to deal with that scenario. Bobcats like to be near edges of vegetation, so they can easily “disappear” to escape threats. Further south in Wildcat Canyon, there are more chapparal and riparian zones with lots of cover, and sure enough I’ve found (and seen) bobcats and their sign there.
That all changed a few months ago. I was out after dark in the northern part of Wildcat and somehow in the dim light I spotted a single cat track in a patch of mud on a lightly used cow trail in an area under eucalytus trees and close to more dense cover (other trees, poison oak, blackberry, coyote brush, etc).
Then, in the middle of April, I was on a run passing through the same general area and I spotted fairly fresh bobcat scat. It was classic bobcat scat – sometimes coyote scat can be a similar size and they can be confused, but not this one. It definitely tasted like bobcat scat (joke).
The evidence was mounting that a bobcat had moved into the area.
Back to tonight …
As I came around the other side of the euc trees I saw two ravens side-by-side on a branch, not very high up (probably 20 feet). They were very vocal and seemed to be focused on something on the ground. I paused, then slowly approached through the tall grass. As I got about 1/4 of the distance to them, what pops out from behind some tall grass? A bobcat!!
I froze. It froze. It thought I hadn’t seen it, so it slowly backed behind the grass, crouched then slowly turned around and started to go the other way. I quickly backtracked to the trail and returned in the direction I had come in hopes that I would see it try to circle back around me. As I did this, I kept track of what the ravens were doing – they had watched the whole encounter happen and now I realized they had absolutely been following this cat. As I paused in the trail after about 20 yards to listen and gauge my next move, the ravens flew over the area directly in front of me and circled a few times. They were tracking the bobcat and giving away its location! Sure enough, in about 10 seconds it appeared at the edge of the trail only 15 feet from me. We gazed at each other, and it slowly crossed the trail, pausing at the other side to study me. Slowly it moved in a circle around me and then passed, stopping to watch me at a number of times. OF COURSE I didn’t have my good camera rig with me, but, I was able to really enjoy a few moments of being close to this amazing animal – and snap a bad pic with my cell phone.
I love when “bird language” gives clues like this about what is happening on a landscape. That is part of the fun of being out there and staying aware – and no matter how many times it happens to me, it always seems like magic. So fun.
Right after that encounter, I saw a California newt on the trail – likely returning from a vernal pond where it bred, to seek refuge in the leaf litter under some trees during the warm and dry months of summer. I’m always thrilled to see these little salamanders.
Another 50 yards up the trail, as I went off-trail and into some thick cover, I heard and then saw an agitated Cooper’s hawk fly into the eucs where I was headed. Then I heard two great-horned owls respond, irritated about the irritated Cooper’s hawk! The Coop flew off, so I proceeded on. A loud rustling sound quickly caught my attention and I watched as a turkey flew up into some high boughs of a eucalyptus tree to roost for the night. As I walked under to get a better look, I heard the Coop again. I backtracked down the trail to where I had been before, and there in a dead tree was one of the great-horned owls, sitting very calmly with a backdrop of Richmond, Mt Tam, and a twilight sky. And right by it on the other side of the tree was the Cooper’s hawk, protesting loudly. Occasionally it would fly off and then return. This scene continued for about five minutes, and finally both birds departed. I am convinced there is a Cooper’s hawk nest adjacent to the area where the great-horned owl nest is. As I started to walk away, I heard a few juvenile red-tailed hawk calls in the background – hopefully I’ll see them fledged and playing in the area soon.
“Current Zach” is very pleased that “past Zach” got off the couch. Thank you, thank you, to this Land – this Land that has given me so much. The fact that we have such amazing parks so close to an urban area is a testament to the conservation efforts and hard work of so many people here – and I am grateful. Also very exciting that a bobcat has moved into the area, I hope to get to see it more!
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 owls are back in their autumn cycle, starting to claim their territories.
great-horned owl / Contra Costa County CA (East Bay Regional Parks)