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.
great-horned owl / Contra Costa County CA (East Bay Regional Parks)
Tonight I gifted with another evening watching the sunset with Lady Owl (of the “bottom of the hill” pair) – another exquisite early autumn night.
One of my favorite times of year – things are shifting! The patterns are changing all over, some more subtle than others. I’m hearing and seeing new birds as they pass through on their way south, and the resident birds and animals are starting to shift their patterns as well. Fox squirrels seem to be everywhere I turn, busy running and gathering. The mornings are sunny and there’s a slight crispness in the air starting to build, almost a bit electric. The light has a softness to it, despite the heat that today was above 90 deg F in the immediate Bay Area. Not easy weather, to, um, weather, for a landscape already parched with drought. Even the winds have gone elsewhere, allowing a degree of peace to settle over the stressed landscape. Sitting still I can hear bugs crawling through the leaves, and the occasional falling leaf even makes a sound as it falls through the dry undergrowth to join its crunchy fallen partners on the ground, who are now having the chance to use their voice – while not drowned out by Wind – to announce Coyote or Deer moving nearby. So fun!
Things are incredibly dry here – you can read about it all over in the news, worst drought in over a century and possibly since settlers have been keeping records here. But, to really understand it all one needs to do is to go out to FEEL it and see it yourself. Springs and creeks are dry. The evergreen trees, such as the live oaks, are even losing some of their leaves (which I understand is a drought response tactic to minimize moisture loss). Many of the under story leaves and any leaves not at the top of the tree or on the exteriors have fallen away, to varying degrees, depending on the location of the trees. I’m able to see wood rat nests high up in canopies that were very difficult to see before. Even the California buckeyes, who are some of the first obvious beacons of autumn since they lose their leaves before most other deciduous trees, have been bare for weeks in some locations. Redwoods and cedars are looking wilted and brown. Even the non-native eucalytpus trees look scraggly. A fine dust encapsulates many of the leaves, and the hillsides are painted brown with wilted grasses.
I’m happy to report that I’m doing my best to help conserve water – infrequent showers, I don’t clean my bathroom, and I occasionally drink distilled beverages instead of water (the distillation process releases water back into the atmosphere – that’s science). Little gestures, they add up.
One benefit of the trees being thinned out (if one wants to be a “glass half-full type of person” – though a water analogy is probably not appropriate here), is that there aren’t many places for a large bird to hide. Until about two weeks ago, I was seeing with some regularity a family of Cooper’s hawks hanging in one particular area. I thought it was interesting that they were all still together this late in the season – the migration has begun for many birds already. The first day that I saw them, about three weeks ago, two juveniles suddenly appeared indiscreetly in the branches 20 feet above my head, crashing around either chasing each other or chasing potential prey (a bird). They finally settled into the interior live oaks next to me, and soon were joined by an adult. A few days later, I saw the same trio in a nearby tree near sunset. I don’t know much about these hawks’ chick-rearing patterns, but I couldn’t help but wonder if these hawks stay around parents longer than some other raptor species to learn from them. It could be a late nest, but it seems extremely late if so. Cooper’s hawks (and sharp-shinned hawks, their mini look-alikes) often tandem hunt in pairs, one flushing birds as the other wake hunts and catches them. Could it be that this is a learned behavior?
Of course I must mention the owls.
This gal has been very visible the last few nights in her “typical” spot, though it’s been a number of months since I’ve seen her with regularity. The male and the female do not seem to be together much this time of year, and I am convinced the male is roosting in a grove of trees about 1/2 mile away from the spot the females frequents, an area that seems to be their core area during mating season. She let me watch her as she was waking up two nights ago, doing some preening and stretching, then she hit “snooze” for a bit after she placed a hex on someone or something evidently right behind me …
This photo was interesting, I wish I could have gotten both birds in focus – do you see it?
Hummingbird came in to scold the owl! It hung around for a minute or so, just behind the owl.
The next night, I wandered without my camera but was excited to get to spend some time with the female owl again. After she flew off to look for breakfast, I followed her out a path under the fading light of the sun that had already disappeared behind the mountains to the west. As I was about to crest a hill and descend into a small valley, another raptor caught my eye – juvenile cooper’s hawk! Likely one of the juveniles from the trio described earlier, though I didn’t see any of the others. This young one did some flights through some small oaks attempting to scare up some birds from their night perch, then having failed to get any takers, it landed on an old wood fence post and began to vocalize repeatedly – in what felt to me like frustration and irritation. It’s not easy being a young raptor (many species up to 70% don’t survive their first year). The young one made another attempt, alighted on a high tree nearby, then took off after three flying birds (who were not keen on the company).
As it finally flew off, I heard some coyotes howling just beneath me! I silently walked in that direction – then … crunching! Coming my way! I froze, and sure enough one, then another, then another appeared in the fading light. They didn’t seem to see me (or maybe they just didn’t care), once they all were in line together they trotted with purpose to the south to start their nightly excursions.
Last sounds I heard were the crickets calling as I walked through the “portal,” and the sound of cars from the highway took over the soothing sounds of nature. I’m so grateful for the parks that we have here in the Bay Area, like many of the creatures around, I wouldn’t survive here without them.
I had pretty much given up on seeing baby owls in the area I typically roam, despite there being about five pairs that I see with some regularity. I’ve seen some in other areas, all fledged, flying and without any downy white feathers left on them. Tonight during twilight with very little light left in the sky I finally heard that familiar sound – a young owl! I made my way in the direction of its call, and sure enough, there it was – along with a brother or sister nearby. The pictures are rough with so little light, but they allowed me to get very close to them as we looked at each other in wonder.
These two still have some of their white downy feathers, but they are able to fly. They are from a nest that is likely on private property right next to the park – I see the parents with some frequency in the park, but this is the first time I’ve seen or heard young owls from any of the three pairs of adult owls that I see most often. This pair also had at least one youngster last year. I’m excited to see them again soon, maybe even with some better light.
the eyes on the top coyote in the above picture have such a wild intensity in the setting light of the sun, below is an extremely digitally zoomed-in close-up of that coyote. beautiful, wild, and a little bit eerie! i did nothing to enhance its eyes.
possibly the same pair the previous night:
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.
For the last two weeks, on at least six different nights, I’ve seen one of the pairs of owls who inhabit the area of my regular wanders mate. Owl love-making, owl coitus. Oh yeah.
I’ve gotten some decent audio recordings of it (wow, that sounds weird), but finally on Friday night I got a few photos (now it sounds even weirder). Owl voyeurism, what can I say. Happy they felt comfortable, and I take it as a sign that I’m doing a good job of making my presence unknown or, if they see me, not to put stress on the animals. I feel confident saying that they probably didn’t feel stressed.
It was past sunset, so the natural light was not so good, but it was really amazing to see, hear, and it left just enough light to photograph.
First, the female came out from her roost and was making vocalizations, presumably inviting the male in for some fun with that, um, sexy penetrating gaze?
After a few minutes, her seductive gaze shifted to a spot on the live-oak tree about 20 feet away where the male owl alighted …
The male perched on the other side of the same oak tree, surveying the surroundings (trying to look cool and non-nonchalant, I think).
Within a minute of the two being perched together on top of the tree, the male flew over and mounted the female to mate. Owls evidently aren’t so much into the foreplay stuff. Or, it’s indiscernible to human observers.
They sounded like a mixture between chimpanzees and some sort of song bird rapidly singing. It starts with a repetitive low “hoo hoo hoo” that sounds like a chimp or orangutang and quickly turns into a high frequency chirping sound. All in all in takes about 3 to 5 seconds. Fast and furious, a short but evidently fulfilling rendezvous. Not that you could tell by their reactions afterwards.
Afterwards, there was no cuddling. They both seemed pretty stand-offish, ready for breakfast …
Within a minute or so, the male flew off to start hunting for the night.
Hopefully I’ll see some owlets sometime soon.
As I was returning from an evening wander, I rounded a corner and started ascending a ridge under a twilight sky that held a bit of vibrant dark blue that was stubbornly unyielding to the engulfing blackness of the night sky. As I looked up, I saw one of the owls perched with the planet Venus as a backdrop. I think they are getting used to me – it eventually let me pass by at a distance of no more than 10 to 15 feet as I continued on my way after snapping some pictures.
The picture below was from a few nights ago, they perch on top of these trees almost every evening after leaving their day roosts. They hoot and coo and squawk to each other there before going out to hunt, or sometimes just sit in silence together. And, at least during this past week, they have been mating there as well – something I’ve gotten to witness twice in the last few nights!
great-horned owl / Contra Costa County CA