2015 mar 31 – levitating coyote
this coyote was either jumped out of a resting spot by the lakes or it was hunting along the banks. we saw several flushes of water fowl on the lake while we were there, one of which put 1000’s of white-fronted geese off the water and into the skies in numbers that were impressive to behold. that flush was likely not the coyote, but an aerial predator like a bald eagle or a peregrine falcon. the coyote flushed a smaller number of birds close to shore, then, once the coyote came close to us, it started to lope at a fast pace – occasionally looking back at us as if to say “I’m not scared of you, this is my place.” they can move with such grace and speed, effortlessly its seems.
after it crossed the pond in front of us onto our side of the shoreline, it stopped to mark (urinate) while staring at us – then bounded into some high grass. quite a treat to see, and this one had some real attitude.
One night while watching one of the pairs of great-horned owls where I wander, I stumbled on what is likely one of the pair’s tracks – right in the middle of a cow pattie! Pretty awesome. Good substrate is hard to come by in this area for registering tracks, especially if there is no rain – you make do-do with what you got.
(I know, I know, bad tracking humor)
Likely one of the track makers from that same evening …
2014 nov 08 – sunrise
what did the young bull elk say to the two ravens?
“yeah, you know, it’s been really hard – I feel like I’m in such a rut.”
(wildlife humor, yeah!)
2 ravens and a young bull Tule elk / Pt Reyes National Seashore CA
It’s that time of year – this bull Tule elk has his harem / Pt Reyes National Seashore CA
owl magic and the waxing new moon
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.
While backpacking in Lassen National Park, we came upon this lady/fella along a lake. Initially I just saw something glowing along the lake and thought it was a person with a very dim led headlamp on. Then the glow disappeared and re-appeared about 5 feet away from where I saw it last – and being focused on it, I could see it was two small glowing blue eyes!!!! It continued to go ahead of us for a series of two or three starts and stops, then while I was paused in the trail, it hopped up on the trail and came towards me! We had a few moments of just staring at each other – it seemed as curious about us as we were about it. After it approached us on the trail, it climbed a nearby tree to give us a thorough inspection from a safer vantage. So awesome!!!
About 100m down the trail after our encounter, I found what is likely fresh pine marten scat.
Quite an encounter, so amazing to get to see this creature up close and to have such a personal interaction with it. I love the weasels!!
a black hawk in sonoma county – an inter-species love story
First off, let me say that I don’t count myself as a “birder” – not in the commonly understood definition of it, anyway. I’m not into checking boxes by a species and keeping track of my life bird count. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why people do it, and I’m happy they enjoy it. It’s just not me (so don’t call me a birder).
But I do love birds, and find myself drawn to them in particular among all my relations in the plant and animal world. For me, it is the interaction, the connection, with these other lifeforms that is the real juiciness. That is what drives my passion to be out in nature – genuine connection. Often that takes the form of simply witnessing … which in and of itself is extremely rewarding. Sometimes it’s not even seeing the animal, just its track & sign. But occasionally there’s an actual interaction, and when it happens – on the animal’s terms – it is magical. Sometimes too, it’s the story that accompanies a sighting that makes it memorable. It’s always about the story though, isn’t it?
So the appearance of a black hawk in Sonoma County – while certainly alluring to birders who get to check another box on their list – is of more interest than just that. It is also a unique love story.
Not only has a black hawk (normally native to texas, arizona, new mexico and points south) chosen to make its home here, it has taken a mate of another species (no, it’s not me) – a red-shoulder hawk!
I started watching the nest about a month ago after being notified of its whereabouts by some friends at West County Hawk Watch. It is located in a tall eucalyptus tree, and not easily viewed due to a lot of other trees around it (and private property). My first day there, they were brooding and I got to see two nest exchanges. Initially the black hawk was on the nest, then after a bit of time she started to make some vocalizations that reminded me of a kestrel. A few moments later, a red-shouldered hawk appeared in the air and flew to the nest, taking over incubation duties for enough time for the black hawk to stretch and do a little bit of preening. Then she was back on the nest – but not until she grabbed another few branches to add to it …
I’ve returned to the nest a number of times since, most recently on Sunday. It was a very hot day with temperatures in the upper 90’s (f), and when I arrived the black hawk was in the nest panting (black feathers are an interesting feature on a bird that typically lives in the hot dry desert?!). Once I set up a scope, my eye was treated to what I had been hoping to see – a fuzzy white head! There is at least one baby!
I had heard that this same couple, the black hawk and the red-shouldered hawk, had young last year. I felt lucky to get to see it with my own eyes. What will this little creature grow up to look like? Time will tell, and I hope to have updates soon as the little one grows and starts to get its first set of feathers.
I never saw the red-shoulder on Sunday, likely because I was there during the hottest part of the day when there is little animal activity (they are smarter than me, evidently). The pictures were digi-scoped, so they aren’t the best quality, but it allowed me to capture this exciting occasion.
Thanks to Larry Broderick and Yvonne Motherwell for sharing the location of the nest and supporting efforts to document and spend time witnessing these amazing animals.
dark morph red-tailed hawk
i ran into another old friend on friday … a dark morph (or rufous/intermediate morph) red-tailed hawk that has spent the last few winters in berkeley. it’s fun when i get to know an individual animal, and this one has been around for a few years but i just saw her for the first time this season about a week ago. i was happy to see her again.
when i first saw her we gave each other a little wave (ha!)
right about the time that i saw her, a huge flock of crows was moving through the area and it didn’t take long for some of them to spot her too. crows love to harass red-tails, and today was no different. first one or two took up the chase, and soon there was a flock of close to 50 crows escorting her out of the area.
i’ve mentioned this before, but there are some corvid researchers (i can’t remember who) who say that this mobbing behavior could be a corvid “right of passage” – which makes some sense to me because there is very little reason that i can think of for the birds to do it other than fun or to establish social ranking.
Well, I suppose it is appropriate THIS weekend to find the great-horned owls courting and flirting, and along with the predominate culture, inadvertently rubbing it in that I’m single. But at least they were kind enough to share their love with me, and not just that, they did it with enough daylight for a photo shoot – so I’m thankful for all of it.
It was a particularly mild evening, with very little wind, and all the animals seemed to be very active after a brief bit of rain last night followed by a warm afternoon and evening. I spent some time with one of the resident red-tailed hawks, who two days prior I caught in serious courting mode being pursued by her mate – but today she was just hanging out atop a post looking very regal.
As I moved on, I was excited to find a small colony of CA ground squirrels, the first that I’ve found in Wildcat Canyon in the areas that I usually wander. There is a lot of gopher, cattle, human and dog activity over most of the open areas, so one has to really go to some of the more remote spots to find where the squirrels, rabbits, coyotes, deer and bobcat spend their time. Which of course I do.
The owls were vocal very early tonight, and the sun had not yet set when they began their hoots – which came at me from all directions, quite suddenly, as if an unseen conductor had waved his/her baton to start the show (wand? stick? whatever they conduct with …). As I made my way out of the open grassy area down into a wash populated with willows and live oaks that cuts down across the landscape, with all sorts of song birds actively feeding and socializing in the branches all around, I realized one of the owls was right by me.
She seemed to be hooting in her sleep, not quite awake yet but still making some loud vocalizations. Sleep-hooting, if you will. When I made my way under her tree, she gave me a good once-over then went back into her dream world for a few more moments of rest.
Getting to spend time so close to an animal like this is such a thrill and a blessing, and I settled in under the boughs of the Interior Live Oak Tree for 30 minutes watching her, with the sounds of all the small birds moving through the willows as background music for this evening’s show.
As she started to wake up, she did a bit of preening and then was suddenly focused intently on something to the south. After watching for several minutes, she gave some more hoots and started looking about with the wild eyes of an owl ready for the night. The same eyes that cats have when it’s a full moon or they are in their amped-up hunting state.
Within a few minutes, another owl landed in the tree from the direction that she had been staring, and he gave me the once-over after the two greeted each other with a series of endearing hoots and calls.
The second owl, the male I presume (based on size/proportions and the tone of the hoots), took up a position on another branch not too far away as he made his way closer to the lady, but was still a little suspect of the biped watching below.
He gave me a few more looks before the allure of the lady finally swung his gaze upward to her feathered finery.
Finally he made his move, and landed right by her. He glared at me to let me know who was in charge, but I got the last laugh when after about 30 seconds the branch he was on broke and he had to relocate unexpectedly!
Ahhh, I guess owls are subject to immediate karma too sometimes, same as we humans when we let our egos act for us! Tough Guy takes the tough fall, ha!! A few moments later though he was redeemed when they rendezvoused a few trees up the wash. Then they made their way atop the Live Oak Trees together to start their evening, as I wandered away to end mine. What a special time to get to spend with them.
In addition to all that excitement, I’m pretty sure she cast a love spell on me too – and, I captured the exact moment when she wove her enchantment upon me (at least I’m hoping it was a love spell and not something more nefarious) …
Ok, as I look upon that picture, it looks kind of nefarious. I realize in comparison, the cupids one sees depicted all around this time of year sure don’t look quite like that when they’re shooting their cute little heart arrows – but I’ll go ahead and choose to believe it was a love spell. I’m definitely in love with them, so I guess it worked.
These birds might already have babies somewhere close by, and if not, they probably will soon. I often hear them up in the hills, along with other pairs of owls, and sometimes I get to see them – but usually it’s well after sunset, so the photo op’s are few and far between. It was fun to get to see them so close, and to spend such a long amount of time with them and in such good light tonight. I hope to see some owlets soon!
The coyotes in Wildcat Canyon live an interesting life … living on the outskirts of a major urban area in a mixed-use regional park. They share the space with people, dogs off-leash, cattle, and nosy trackers like me. I often see dogs chase these ‘yotes, but they always seem to evade with ease. Many times though I see them flowing over the grass covered hills, using little dips and drainages as cover in broad daylight unseen, with unsuspecting people and dogs walking just yards from them. They seem to have a sixth sense for avoiding discovery. And many times they are hunting gophers in these same areas, gingerly walking over the landscape in a slow, focused and methodical way, waiting for the furry prey to disturb the soil and give away their location just inches below the surface. Given the number of individuals I’ve seen/heard in a small area so far, I’d say they are doing pretty well.
The female shown above is exceptionally beautiful, with a vibrant, glowing coat of mixed browns and grays and contrasting black fur along her spine and tail. She seemed really healthy, and she didn’t notice me as I photographed her scouring the hillside for gophers.
It is also the time for many birds to be courting, and the red-tailed hawks were out in numbers today after the brief rain, dancing and soaring through the blue skies along with two pairs of ravens. In an unusual role reversal, I saw one of the red-tails chase a raven – usually it’s the ravens/crows harassing the tails. Once the sun set, one of the multiple pairs of great-horned owls that call this area home were hooting to each other in the mixed Monterey Pine and Eucalyptus forest at the top of the hill. There is no better compliment to the still feeling just after sunset, when twilight has usurped the day and that electrical charge starts to build signaling the changing of shifts, time for the creatures of the night to start their day.
another adventure at the lagoon
Sunday was a warm and clear day on the coast, strange weather for January – it felt like summer (well, summer anywhere besides the coast and the Bay area). We started the day by witnessing some interesting behavior by a couple of deer that caught our attention. The deer, which appeared to be doe and a yearling (nearly the same size), were standing with heads raised and their focus on something in the chaparral to the north of us. The yearling took off trotting, then bounding, right towards the path we were on, seemingly unconcerned with our presence. It then stopped and turned around, bounding back to its mother. The two of them then started a slow walk in the direction of the threat, with the mother in the lead. Shifting our position back down the trail, we were able to see what was causing the concern …
I was only able to catch the tail-end of the bobcat as he disappeared into a coyote bush (for the moment now a bobcat bush) – a large male that uses this particular territory who’ve we’ve tracked and seen around here before. Although I think it’s rare for bobcats to take down full grown deer in this area, fawns are fair game. This particular young one is probably big enough to be safe, but given the respect that the deer on this day showed towards him, and on another occasion when I witnessed his presence disturb them, I’d say he is still viewed as a threat. He seems to be a large bobcat based on his tracks and scat.
The most interesting part of this whole interaction was when the deer started to FOLLOW the bobcat – the doe literally walked right to where the cat had disappeared, and she seemed to be chasing HIM out of the area! Good stuff.
On the way in to the lagoons, I spotted an American bittern in a small pond along the pathway – I’ve seen one on the far shores of the larger lagoon, but never one so out in the open here. It was shaping up to be another good day, with lots of live animal sightings. Later in the day on the return trip it was still there and posed for some pictures in the beautiful light.
As we approached the lagoon, a resident great-blue heron was hunting in the shallows.
There were quite a few sets of trails and tracks on the dunes, but the striped skunks were most prevalent. This is their mating season, during which they really seem to be wandering around outside of their normal areas with higher frequency – sadly it is also marked by the large number of road kill skunks at this time of year. Notably absent was the female bobcat that usually patrols this area. It is also breeding season for the cats, so her daily patterns are likely interrupted by the breeding impulse. I also spotted at least one golden eagle soaring above the hills, only the second time I’ve seen one in this particular area. Along with a ferruginous hawk sighting (a somewhat rare winter visitor in this area) and the great view of an intermediate morph red-tailed hawk, we had some great raptor and other bird sightings. During the day at various times the family of otters was visible on the upper lagoon, but I never really was close enough for any pictures. Just their presence is a joy, watching them even from afar is so fun.
As we were resting by the lagoon, a pie-billed grebe made it’s way out of the shallows by the cattails with quite a prize – after straining to identify what it was, we realized it was a small bass! The grebe paddled around with the fish in its beak for at least five minutes, occasionally shaking it and twice losing it in the water, but diving down and quickly recapturing it. Finally, after almost ten minutes, it downed the fish whole!!
Another great day out there, I’m so thankful for that place and to be able to wander in it. Thanks also to Richard Vacha and everyone who participated in this Marin Tracking Club excursion for making it a fun and educational day.
Brown Pelican / San Francisco Bay, CA
Forster’s Tern / San Francisco Bay, CA
another abbott’s adventure … sand stories
i don’t have a lot of words right now. one morning at a place like this is the same as reading 1000 books, combined with touching 1000 textures, smelling 1000 smells, hearing 1000 sounds, tasting 1000 flavors, seeing 1000 treasures and feeling a 1000000 heart strings of life.
we were treated at the beginning of the morning just after sunrise to the five resident Otters foraging in the lagoon, and a visitor that I have never seen before in this immediate area … a golden Eagle!
the above picture was of a creature foreshadowing things to come – this red-legged Frog (?) was a precursor to SO many Frog tracks in the sand, along with many deer Mice and brush Rabbit tracks – appearing in the middle of bare sand dunes for reasons unexplained. I surmise the new moon allowed some expanded forays for these normally reclusive species who stick to the cover of the plants on the edges of the dunes during most times.
brush Rabbit tracks
Frog tracks (likely red-legged Frog)
river Otter scent marking on the dunes
Bobcat (on right) and some type of amphibian (Salamander) tracks on left – perhaps an Ensinitas?
deer Mouse tracks with tail drag
beautiful clear front tracks of a red-legged Frog (right) along with deer Mouse tracks on the left
great-horned Owl tracks leading into a take-off spot
great-horned Owl trail …
WOW! what a find!!!! the trail seen in the picture from the left is a great-horned Owl coming in for a landing (final landing spot seen in the center of the picture). you can see it’s wing and tail feather imprints in the sand. also you can see a Raccoon trail diagonally across the picture from lower right to left (occurring after the Owl), along with faint Frog tracks paralleling the Raccoon, and some two-legged tracks at the top.
another view of the great-horned Owl landing spot (along with feather marks in sand!!), and its trail leading away from the landing point – ultimately to a take-off spot around 10 yards away. again, you can see the Raccoon trail across the center, and many other tracks in the background.
great-horned Owl tracks
a beautiful black-tailed mule Deer trail
Sanderling trail (?) … though I’m open to other interpretations … and some faint deer Mice, Frog and insect trails – this was found in the lagoon sand dunes, far from the surf
more Sanderling (?) tracks
another (!) great-horned Owl trail in the sand dunes!
one of my favorites to see live (but seldom a dependable sight), there were plenty of north american river Otter tracks around
the turkey Vultures are always hanging around for a meal, and this (faint) track (among smaller shore bird tracks) showed that they are quick to come in on the remains of shore birds who are predated at the lagoon by a varied cast of opportunists …
Bobcat tracks in sediment / algae
Bobcat trail in sediment / algae
Bobcat tracks (nice shot of front and rear) – based on the size and the shape, we decided it was likely a male
likely a Bobcat scat – it contained almost purely feathers!
Osprey – one of the NINE raptor species that we were treated to seeing on this day (Osprey, northern Harrier, white-tailed Kite, Kestrel, peregrine Falcon, turkey Vulture, Red-tailed hawk, Ferruginous hawk, and golden Eagle!). My friends also saw a Cooper’s hawk as they were driving out.
Red-tailed hawk on dunes
these snowy Plovers, a highly endangered species, were using human tracks in the sand as wind breaks from the increasing gusts coming in from the ocean – it was pretty adorable
this peregrine Falcon was not welcome company for the Kestrel who was attempting to escort it out of the area
the “mud hen,” or Coot – top of the menu for many predators at this time of year here. when the Otters come by, they move to the shore and band together, waiting for them to pass
for reasons still not understood (by me), the Ravens were harassing the Red-tailed hawks as usual. perhaps it is for fun or to prove social status … fun, being something that the Ravens seem to incorporate into their lives all the time, evidenced by their frolicking in the air lifts caused by the oncoming winds into the dunes. seeing them play in the air is like watching Otters in the water, the energy is simply fun!
lots of black-tailed mule Deer around in the fields, where we also saw lots of Badger sign
a cool shot of some black-tailed mule Deer tracks in the sand (with some two different bird tracks on the right of the frame)
the only animal signs that I might have expected to see and didn’t on this day were the grey fox and jack rabbit. grey Fox sign isn’t often seen right in this area, but jack Rabbit is. curious.
what a great day out at Point Reyes National Seashore, this place is such a gift – may it be protected for all this diversity of life to thrive, always.
There are too many photos and stories from yesterday to rush this tale, which I don’t have time at the moment to honor properly – but here are a few teaser photos until I do. Honestly, books could be written about what is found in any few square feet of space in places like Abbott’s Lagoon. The richness and density and variety of life in this area, along with many friendly substrates that record so much of it to see afterward, is just such a gift.
The above picture is of a Great-Horned Owl landing spot in sand – you can see where it landed, and in the foreground is the imprint of its wing feathers in the sand. You can also see the trail of it walking away, out of the frame to the top left of the picture … a trail of about 15 feet, where it took to the air again.
Black-Tailed Mule Deer Buck
Bobcat tracks in algae/sediment
Abbotts Lagoon Oct 2013
An otter day. And an otter moment. In a very odd month.
It was this one’s turn to use Nature’s all natural giant sand dune litter box.
This fella was really into the rut. The doe, not so much …
He was catching some serious air, hot in pursuit.
None of us did so well in our pursuits this month, it would seem …
The burrowing owls have returned to Cesar Chavez park in Berkeley again this year. According to Audubon docents/researchers that were onsite the other evening, this first one arrived about a week and a half ago – earlier than usual. The females migrate from Idaho and surrounding areas to escape the harsh winters … males migrate shorter distances, presumably to be able to return to their territories faster in the spring to defend them. Last year they said there were six total that over-wintered in the park.
I’ve been seeing and hearing lots of great-horned owls lately as well, always breathtaking to see these giants glide silently out of the trees. They remind of cats with wings, the way they stare at you with their intense eyes.
petroglyphs in my backyard [+ new species of human ID’d!]
I’m always fascinated to see evidence of people from the past – to hold an arrow head in your hand is a direct connection to the person who made it, a physical and energetic connection to another time. We tend to think of these past times and people as having occupied a space that is very removed from our present reality, and in some ways that is true. It’s hard for our minds to grasp this, as to many of us the early 1900’s seems as long ago as when the pharaohs ruled Egypt (OK maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but maybe not – both are just abstractions in our minds if we haven’t lived it). But when you consider the brief amount of time that each of our lives is here in this incarnation, it’s possible to feel how close we actually are to our ancestors despite our mind’s perception.
And of course this is especially true when we see direct evidence of our primitive past living out in our congress and politicians today!
[Perhaps there actually is another species of human that survived to present day, and merits a new branch on our family tree – hiding in plain site, somewhere between Neanderthals and Cro Magnon man – he/she looks like modern day humans and has survived in our midst despite retaining the brain size and primitive behaviors of long gone primate species … I hereby propose the addition of “Homo politico ineffectus!!!”]
(photo meld courtesy of Smithsonian’s MEanderthal app – evidently the MEanderthal app is considered critical and not subject to government shutdown)
Enough of that though, I am getting off topic.
The other day a woman was combing through the neighborhood where I live looking for ancient petroglyphs – rock art. That’s right, looking for rock art in the metropolitan area of the East Bay of San Francisco. Evidently petroglyph sites have been found all along coastal California and into Oregon that are attributed to people who lived here anywhere from 8000 to 3000 year BP (Before Present)! Amazing when it is thought that humans only occupied this land at most 12,000 years BP. It is suspected that these are the predecessors (and possible ancestors) to the Native People who live here now and have been living here for many centuries prior to contact with Europeans. This woman was excited to reveal that one of the rocks in our yard very likely holds some of this ancient art.
What prompted her search, besides a peculiar calling and possibly that she already did her annual tree burl assessment for the area, is the fact that there is a site not far from where I live (approx 1/2 mile) that is a park, and within that park a playground was built around some rocks. Turns out those rocks hold a large number of petroglyphs. Fortunately someone finally realized the significance of the markings on those rocks and now they are protected (Canyon Trail Park in El Cerrito). This is one of less than a dozen sites that has been found though, so it is remarkable. But all throughout the neighborhoods of the East Bay are many rocks that protrude out of the earth into people’s yards – some as big as passenger vans or larger. Many palettes for the prehistoric-artist.
According to research and analysis regarding this topic (which is scant, at best), a type of rock art was all the rage in those times composed of shapes now called “pecked curvilinear nucleated” petroglyphs (PCN’s). They generally consist of a circle inscribed in the rock, which then allows the center to stand out in relief. Sometimes there are variations to this theme, and sometimes they are accompanied by cupules (small cups ground into the rock). Not only that, they have almost always been found carved on blue/green chlorite schist rock and often near a water source. The chlorite schist only occurs in fault zone areas, so it is found in isolated regions especially in California.
Who carved these? And why? And when? Evidently those exact details are a bit of a mystery, but it is theorized that they are related to fertility or weather rituals by the people I mentioned above, sometime between 8000 and 3000 BP (though not to be confused with some petroglyphs created later, in the same areas, by Pomo People for fertility rites – or mortar stones for grinding acorns by other various Native Peoples – see pictures below).
Really an amazing treasure to be living by such a piece of history – it will be exciting to see if anyone analyzes the rock further (and if there are more petroglyphs buried under ground level).
Another site that is open for viewing to the public in addition to Canyon Trail Park in El Cerrito is Ring Mountain in Marin County. There are other sites, but many of them are on private land or are not publicized.
Luckily for all of you, I have decided to open a roadside museum to display this new find in my yard – look for me in full steam punk regalia with a bullhorn, standing on a soapbox by what will appear to the observer to be a modified child’s lemonade stand. I’ll also be selling my special tonics that are guaranteed to cure all.
References (and for more information) check out these links:
1) Cultural Markings on the Landscape: The PCN Pecked Curvilinear Nucleated Tradition in the Northern Coastal Ranges of California – Dissertation by Donna Lee Gillette http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/1nh3898b#page-4
2) American Rock Art Research Association website http://www.arara.org/
3) Canyon Trail Park petroglyphs – http://www.arara.org/documents/LP-30-1.pdf
4) CA petroglyphs – http://www.arara.org/Background_RockArt_Calif.pdf
After finding myself in Walnut Creek with some hours of free daylight last week, I opted to wander a bit around a city park when I found out that some river otters from the Sacramento River had been frequenting two of the ponds there. I typically would have sought more calm and quiet at nearby Mount Diablo, but I had to brave the people to investigate. What is absolutely fascinating about this is the fact that the river is probably six miles away! How did they get here? Otters can travel long distances over land, but much of the land between the river and the ponds is densely developed by humans. There is however an irrigation canal (which occasionally runs through some riparian zones, but is generally just a concrete canal) that connects the two areas, but it’s a long swim.
My efforts paid off almost immediately. It was as if my coming was announced – upon walking up to a break in the tule reeds at the edge of the pond, I saw a form break the surface of the water with a backdrop of the setting sun. It was an otter! We checked each other out for a minute or so, then we continued on our ways after our formal hello. Photographs were prohibited by the lighting, and just seemed inappropriate at the time – though I did take one through the tules after our greeting ended. Any interaction with an otter always leaves me with a big smile on my face – they seem to have fun in every moment.
I thought it was an odd comment when, in an effort to learn more about the otters, I struck up a conversation with a local woman who reported her friend had seen a beaver here. I’ve learned to expect the unexpected when it comes to mother nature, but a beaver in that pond would have been like a mountain lion in downtown Berkeley. Oh wait, that happened! Regardless, it seems highly improbable.
After circling around the pond looking for otters and otter sign, I was initially duped when I saw another head pop out of the water – it wasn’t an otter. Was it the mysterious city pond beaver?! No – but it was a very busy muskrat! It was doing laps across the pond, and at one point it popped up onto the surface of the water right in front of me, conveniently when my vantage point allowed for full use of the ideal lighting for a picture. Perhaps it was looking for some of the spotlight since the otters were getting so much attention – muskrat public relations. Being close enough to see its tail undulate behind it for locomotion is fun to watch – it is its main source of propulsion which is uses with some help from its semi-webbed rear feet. The tail evolved to be flattened in the vertical direction and covered with scales, which makes it ideal for this use.
So what would cause otters to move down this way into an urban environment? And stay? A search for new territories is likely. More and more otters are being spotted around the Bay Area, so their range is expanding. Just a few weeks ago it was reported that a river otter had taken up residence in the Sutro Baths in San Francisco! And since they stock the one pond here with fish, I imagine the otters are hesitant to leave with such an easy food source available. There is an island in the northern pond that is inaccessible by people, and though it’s not big, it is probably just enough space so they don’t feel threatened.
Despite there being at least three otters at times reported living there, I have a feeling there are a lot of “otter” and “beaver” sighting there that are actually muskrat – an easy mistake for the untrained eye. I’m just happy people are taking time to appreciate these amazing creatures and engage their own curiosity and wonder in a way that is respectful to the animals, land and other users of the shared space.
Point Reyes tracking day
Ahh, where to begin. This post has taken me a long time to get up because one day of tracking can yield volumes of stories and tales!
Our day at Abbott’s Lagoon a few weeks ago began with a morning of warm sunshine, after a few days of very cold temperatures and rain – as we started out towards the sand dunes near the beach we saw quite a few black-tailed mule deer in groups of over ten individuals. There was a herd of males of all different ages in an adjacent field, their antlers varying from sprouts to full racks. They seemed to be frolicking in the warm sun, play sparring and hopping around each other like fawns on a beautiful spring day. What really caught our eyes though was another group of deer to our north … one of them was standing guard to the west and not even our presence took this doe’s attention off something towards the eastern lagoon. Her behavior queued us in to another presence that warranted her attention more than humans. It had to be a predator.
As her group grazed, she seemed to be doing some tracking of her own. We decided to see what it was that garnered such focused attention, and we moved quietly across the chaparral to investigate. As we moved west, the look-out deer finally broke her sentry post and they all moved on to the east. We didn’t see what had attracted her attention, so we started to investigate the area where the deer were grazing to see what was for breakfast. As we moved west through the brush though, our efforts were rewarded as the hard ground gave way to add a character to the story by yielding a single clue … a fresh bobcat track in some soil upturned by a gopher!
We were able to trail it for a distance, the fresh tracks sometimes not visible at all, occasionally popping out for us to see in some loose soil after losing the trail for 20 feet at a time. With great reluctance after trailing the cat for 500 yards, we abandoned our search to see the maker of the tracks to continue on our journey towards the dunes. I would be rewarded later though …
Once at the sand dunes, we saw an explosion of activity that indicated many animals were eager to be out after so many days of cold and/or rain. Another bobcat made some nice trails, along with black-tailed mule deer, river otters, coyotes, gray fox, great-blue herons, ravens, deer mice, beetles, brush rabbits, skunks, opossum, raccoon, and more. There was a lot of skunk sign, and we postulated that they were very active after a short period of torpor (similar to hibernation) that left them hungry and in search of mates. Deer mouse sign was also everywhere, their small tracks making trails all over the dunes.
The evidence of another saga soon played out on the sand dunes before me – a bobcat trail that showed what I determined to be a recently captured brush rabbit. The trail had drag marks that extended under the cat for 30 yards to a spot where it did tight circles as it either made the final kill or adjusted the prey in its jaws, then sat for a bit. The trail went on then for 20 yards up into some dune grasses where there were bits of rabbit fur and presumably the cat ate its meal.
This particular area usually is thick with coyote sign, and seldom have we seen gray fox sign here – but this day showed evidence of at least one fox that had traveled with purpose around the whole area. The tracks are dainty next to the many coyote tracks, and I was excited to see find the trail.
I trailed one of them for half a mile down the beach, its tracks following the vegetation line at the edge of the beach, at one point going down into the surf area where the water washed away its paw prints at the last high tide before it veered back up to continue on its journey north towards Kehoe Beach (where their sign is much more prevalent according to others familiar with the area). It was a very purposeful gait, seldom stopping to investigate the ocean flotsam along the shore. What spurred this fox on an unhurried yet purposeful journey on the beach? The search for a mate? A territorial scouting mission? Food? It will be interesting to see if there is more sign in the future or if the foxes will remain more north towards Kehoe beach after this.
At one point as I backtracked one of the bobcats, I was excited to catch sight of an American bittern hunting in the floating vegetation on the edge of the east lagoon. Among the live animals I saw this day were great-blue herons, ravens, gulls, two snowy plovers (a very endangered species), red-tailed hawks, white-tailed kites, northern harriers, turkey vultures, yellow-rumped warblers, black-tailed mule deer, a peregrine falcon and …
… a bobcat!
The dunes are ever-shifting, they can be an amazing palette for animal tracks or the tracks of the wind, giving a brief glimpse at the stories played out in the hours before. But the winds eventually wipe the slate clean like words fading on a page, as the dunes make their own tracks across the landscape.
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.
Check out some of the other tours that Larry Broderick leads at the Sonoma Land Trust and Solano Land Trust websites – he is the raptor magnet and always fun to tour with.
Anna’s hummingbird nest
While helping work on a construction project in Berkeley, this hummingbird was doing some construction of its own! I noticed on the first day I was there that a hummingbird kept landing on one particular branch. The next morning, I inspected closer and realized the foundation of a nest had been built since I left the night before.
The bird would come back with feathers and other small bits of vegetation to add to the nest, and a number of times I saw it fly to the window panes around the house to gather silk cobwebs. Amazing.
conversations with a coyote
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.
white-tailed kite / Elanus leucurus
There’s something other-worldly about these birds … an ethereal white body like an angel combined with coal-rimmed eyes of deep shining red, they float and dance in the air like a flower petal caught in the wind moving from one invisible island to the next. To get so close to one perched was exciting.