You can see in this photo a great example of the understep walk that these awesome little creatures move in, with the five-digit rear feet landing just behind the four-digit front feet. So cool to see them walk. Note also the tail drag in the middle.
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.
We are seeing quite a bit of vole sign once again in the Bay Area, which is a good for most animals around here, except of course for the voles, really – they are one of the top items on the menu for many many animals. It’s interesting that they’ve rebounded right now in the worst part of the drought here in California. We noticed a severe drop in their numbers about two or three years ago (which is a normal part of their cycle), but it’s a good sign that they’ve returned. Now we just need some water.
These small rodents that resemble mice move mostly above ground, and they tend to create “runs” as they utilize the same pathways over and over. These runs create little tunnels in the grass and sometimes recessed runways in the ground.
re-purposed gopher hole – voles have excavated this old gopher hole to use as shelter
There seems to be a very marked decrease in the frequency of raptor sightings the last two years in this area, by my observation – and though it’s difficult to determine why this might be, certainly the vole population crash coupled with the severe drought must be a one-two punch that all predators on the landscape are experiencing.
Bring on the rains, el Nino!!!
We also saw a Tropical Kingbird today, which is a very rare visitor to this area (a type of flycatcher). The pictures were taken through a lot of fog, but we had good views of the bird hunting and perched for five minutes at least. Our friend Moss made the ID, based on the notched tail (differentiating it from a Western Kingbird). Nice sighting!
I was driving down a road in Sonoma County today and noticed a large kettle of turkey vultures flying above an agricultural area – probably numbering almost 40 birds! It was somewhat unusual, and certainly not something I’ve seen yet this year. I pulled over to take another look, knowing that often golden eagles will “hitch” a ride along with a group of vultures. As I was counting the vultures, boom!
I followed the kettle, which conveniently for me also was following the road in my direction! I made a number of stops as I followed it, and during my final stop the Eagle was kind enough to turn around and do a fly-over for me.
Such a beautiful bird – as I observed it I noticed that it lacked any under-wing white patches, but its uniform feather coloring and uniform-length flight feathers indicated that it was probably a first-year hatch bird. It appears it has lost one of its left secondary feathers, which initially made me think perhaps it was older and undergoing a molt, but I still think this bird is a hatch year bird (meaning it hatched this spring).
As it glided back past me and rejoined the group of vultures, a dark morph Red-Tailed Hawk took exception to its presence and launched after the Eagle from its perch among a grove of eucalyptus trees, screaming loudly as it flapped quickly towards the larger bird …
The Red-Tail launched into the kettle and did a few dives at the Eagle, but they were half-hearted attempts – more bark than bite. The kettle of vultures, with the Eagle still flying in it, slowly floated away from the Red-Tail’s territory as it retreated back to a perch in the trees.
Here in the West, especially towards the coast it seems, we have more frequent occurrence of “dark morph” Red-Tails (they have a very diverse variety of feather patterns and tones), and often I’ve seen people mistake these birds for Eagles. To the untrained eye, this is totally understandable. But when you see the two together, there is little doubt about the ID. Golden Eagles are quite a bit larger, have distinctly different plumage when observed closely, different wing shapes, and different shapes/silhouettes when viewed from below. Turkey Vultures are only slightly smaller than Eagles, and both can hold their wings in a slight dihedral shape when soaring – to the naked eye they can appear very similar – but upon viewing them with binoculars, they also have very different silhouettes and feather colors, and an experienced observer can distinguish the two from each other even without binoculars.
It was really fun to see all the Vultures, the Eagle and the dark Red-Tail on this beautiful NorCal “summer” day.
beautiful day up on hawk hill, filled with friends, hazy blue skies, and a good number of migrating birds and butterflies.
as i arrived there we had a great look at a merlin that flew not too far overhead (a merlin is a type of small falcon, larger than a kestrel but smaller than a peregrine falcon) – it appeared to be a juvenile. they are fairly uncommon here in the bay area, but they pass through during migration time from their breeding grounds to the north – and in the time of short days we get a boost in the population as some choose to spend the winter here.
the humans congregated on top of the hill with their scopes and binos, calling out every moving bird within a couple of miles. it’s a rather bizarre experience, to see all these people perched on the high hill for hours at a time every day for three months of the year, but wonderful that so many committed volunteers take their time to do this. as everyone was focused afar, two resident ravens, a male and female pair, landed very close by to watch the watchers.
we chuckled as we realized that i was watching the birds, who were watching the other people, who were watching the other birds! these two hung around for quite a while, intrigued by the activity of the people (and likely looking for some dropped food as well). occasionally they would come very close to each other, making quiet croaking noises as one of them would groom the other’s face area. it was so endearing. and at such close quarters, in the bright sun, i could really see the intelligence in their eyes. amazing, beautiful animals.
we saw a lot of accipiters today, as expected, but were also treated to a number of ferruginous hawks, several merlins, and some late-in-the-day peregrines. after most people had packed up for the day and i was leaving the hill, a red-tail floated overhead to hunt the area and allowed for some really fun pictures …
the colors on this bird are amazing, and for an adult it has a very light eye (iris). so beautiful. thank you, my good friend!
as always happens when one packs up to leave, birds start showing themselves and tempting you to stay. as i started down the trail, one last juvenile northern harrier tried to keep me on the hill.
for venus and jupiter this time around the sun
tonight at under 1/2 degree separation from our vantage on earth
the sun set leaving an orange, then pink-tinted sky, with the nearly full moon low in the east
the wind was still and the heat from the day was still rising from the grass-covered hills
the coyotes howled across the valleys as twilight melted away the last light
and the owls at the top of the hill made an appearance together, hooting back and forth
between themselves and sometimes the featherless hooter below
the crickets in the background sang loudly, now that the winds had nothing to say
and as the sky darkened, the lights of the sky and the city glowed
above and below Mount Tamalpais
as the fog crept from the sea into the valleys below it all
venus and jupiter are now one day away from appearing less than 1 degree apart in the sky looking to the west just after sunset (occurs on tuesday june 30th) – and wednesday is a full moon. tonight just to the right of the moon, just above scorpio (to the south after dusk) is saturn as well. the bright star antares (17th brightest in the sky), part of the scorpio constellation, glows red compared to the other stars – which helps locate the constellation (almost due south after sunset). tomorrow night (june 30) saturn will remain above scorpio but well right of the moon.
the owls were moving around early tonight and very active, and their eyes seem to shine with vigor in the dim evening light. a coyote popped it’s head up on the other side of a young bull this evening, thinking it was unseen, sending the young bull in a run right towards and past me (which was a little intense). a few moments later the coyote’s head popped up again to look at me, as if it was checking in to see how its joke worked out.
good one coyote.
happy solstice, longest day of the year! literally, not figuratively – as in my mind i’ve had MUCH longer days this year.
it was a beautiful night up in the hills, soft light, light winds, and the smell of tar weed pervading the air. as darkness crept in the crickets provided a soundtrack to my wander. venus and jupiter grow closer still, and in the pictures below from tonight you can see the moon on the left, the star regulus in the constellation leo faintly visible next to the right, followed by the planets jupiter and venus. the mountain in the distance is mt tamalpais. quite a sight.
one from last night …
Arboreal Salamander / Aneides lugubris