time of the new owls (and the meaning of life)
Almost everywhere I go wandering now, right around sunset, I start to hear their calls. It is an unmistakable sound – a loud, short, ascending, piercing/shrieking “what the hell is that?” call that cuts through the falling night and thick air – a whining, desperate, yet strong sound – definitely recognizable to even the untrained ear as the sound of a begging youngster. The young great-horned owls are now out of their nests and flying around, but still dependent on their parents for the bulk of their food. And they don’t let them forget it.
Sunday night, I took a wander at sunset to see the last light of day before the arrival of the so-called “super moon.” Most media sources have exaggerated the size of the moon on these occasions – regardless, it is certainly slightly brighter and bigger during these times when the full moon and perigee coincide (perigee is when the moon is closest to the earth during its elliptical orbit around us).
Just after the sun set, as I was sprinting down the mountain side that was my sunset perch, I spotted a coyote already starting its rounds …
I followed it, and we stayed on the same path for at least a mile until a second coyote came into view. The moon was not yet visible from behind the low-hanging clouds to the east, but this valley was already alive with the creatures of the night. As the coyotes darted around in the open field marking their territory and investigating the ground squirrel holes, the baby owls had started their begging calls in the treeline to the south. By ear, it sounded like three of these young ones.
I watched one coyote mark an area up the side of the valley, then disappear over the ridge. It’s mate walked over to the area that had seemed to captivate the male, then disappeared in the other direction. Of course I went to see what they had been checking out.
Just as I reached that area up the hillside opposite the sound of the young owls, the female coyote that had just been there re-appeared back on the trail where I had just been – she had looped around and was now watching me. In this light (or lack thereof), it takes a careful eye to see them even when they’re moving, their camouflage is so amazing. As I looked at the area they had been checking out, she checked out the area that I had just been. Our gazes met briefly as we acknowledged one another and then returned to what was before us. She backtracked where I and the first coyote had come from, until finally cutting up a ravine in the general direction that her mate had gone.
The owls were now making so much noise I had to go over to check it out. There was very little light left in the sky, but as I approached the treeline I was able to make out two juvenile great-horned owls perched up in the oaks. Occasionally they would hop to another branch, or dislodge one another in turn from their perches in what seemed like youthful play, and perhaps inpatient anticipation of their first meal of the “day.”
There were three young ones, and the two adults were there in the general area as well, hooting amid the youngsters’ begging. Five owls making a lot of noise. In addition to the hooting, the adults made some other sounds – ones that they seem to use when greeting each other at the beginning of the night when they reunite from their daytime roosts. It’s an intimate and endearing sound, almost a cooing noise mixed with a cluck.
I watched for about ten minutes until they finally dispersed into the night – likely the young ones followed the adults as they set out to hunt, making their job of getting food that much more difficult!
It was just about then that the moon rose above the clouds – what a sight indeed. The air was still and warm, and with the sudden light of the moon the entire valley lit up with a blue light that illuminated everything.
As I wandered slowly back towards my vehicle, a buck and a skunk escorted me out.
+ + +
The next night, I went for a run at one of my favorite spots nearby where I live, just before sunset. As I paused at a spot to stretch and do some pull-ups, I heard those familiar calls. This time it was from a nearby valley. After about five minutes, the calls came closer, and I realized that one of this other set of young great-horned owls was just above me in a coyote bush at the top of a hill. I crept up the opposite side of the hill until I was behind another coyote bush, about 20 feet from this young owl who was now at eye level with me. It peered over to look in my direction just as I looked out from behind the bush …
Then it started begging, right at me! It’s mouth opened so wide, it looked like I could peer directly down into its belly! And the sound! It was incredibly loud, coming right in my direction. I didn’t move. Finally it swiveled its head around to face the valley before us, in the direction of its two siblings, and continued to cry – occasionally looking around and back at me, spreading its cries in every direction in hopes of a meal soon. We spent a few minutes together, and it was only the approach of an oblivious hiker who came within about 100 yards that ushered it to take flight.
I cherish these moments.
rain wanderings and newt attacks
I couldn’t help but smile in the dwindling light tonight, as my footfalls fell softly on the soft wet ground to a chorus of water drips falling from the leaves around me. It hasn’t been often this year to feel the rain drops on my face – hopefully we continue to get some more before the usual rainy season ends in a month or so.
As I reached the high ground on my short wander in Wildcat Canyon, the winds started to pick up and the rain became heavier. I gave a couple of hoots at a spot where I usually see one of the pairs of owls, and after a few steps I saw one of them perched out on a branch in his “transition” spot where he goes just before heading out to hunt. He was hunkered down in the direction of the wind and rain to the west, leaning over to allow the gusts to flow around his feathery coat. But after a few moments, he seemed to think it a better idea to go back to bed, and he returned into the deeper woods of Monterey Pine and Douglas Fir where he took a few moments to give a few hoots.
As I hopped down the side of the hill, I noticed a number of newts were also out enjoying the rain. Towards the bottom near the parking area, I found one of them enjoying some breakfast – an earth worm!
It only took the newt about a minute or two to finish the worm, which didn’t seem to struggle all that much. After it was done, it walked off into the canopy of some milk thistle on the side of the path.
I love newt feet.
The newts I saw tonight are likely the California Newt, Taricha torosa – hard to differentiate from the rough-skinned newt (Taricha granilosa) which is also found in this area.
Let it rain!
chasing mountain lions blog to resume soon …
I’m excited to report that I am helping with a new puma project in the Bay Area, my other blog chasing mountain lions will be updated with a new chapter soon …
Here are pictures of tracks of two of the cats that we are tracking and trying to capture right now in the mountains East of San Jose near Mount Hamilton:
And here are a few of the residents where we are tracking the lions for capture (to outfit them with GPS collars) …
More to come soon …
sometimes you find things in the least expected places, and that is part of the beauty of trying to stay aware as a tracker when you wander – constantly switching between the micro and the macro. looking in new ways and trying to be tuned into the track or sign that could be underfoot, while at the same time staying present to the live coyote that could be on the landscape ahead of me or the eagle that could be soaring above. a lot to track. that’s why i love the wander … it is a meditation, a whole-body/mind/spirit tuning practice that connects me to the land and its wonders. its the wonder wander.
as i moved through a zone of trees that sandwiched a seasonal creek bed that cuts through the landscape, i noticed a cow vertebra in the trunk of a bay laurel tree. uhh, strange. it had been there for a while – the tree had actually grown around it! who created this curious forest decor? perhaps it is some bigfoot feng shui? that is the most obvious answer, of course – though i would say this could also be a remnant of the Clovis culture, or even more probable the work of a werewolf. maybe an old prototype for an Al Jourgenson microphone stand?
regardless of its origins, what was really cool about this bone tree-fixture, was the little world around it. there were short mammal hairs on the trunk of the tree right by it, spider webs all around it, a sow bug just hanging out on it, and there were also a lot of rodent gnawings on it too (rodents love to nibble on bones and antlers for the calcium, and perhaps to also help trim their teeth). truly a work of living (and dead) art.
my “short wander” – in between the storms this week that are delivering much needed rain to our lands – turned into a “slightly” longer foray than expected. because of the rains that just passed and the storms rolling in, the animals seemed eager to use the clear skies to feed and frolic and flirt … the owls were hooting extremely early, and even flying around hours before sunset, while the red-tails were screaming and dancing in their courtship displays. the night shift and day shift were doubled up, and it was fun to see and hear it all at the same time. it was not necessarily an ideal time to be a ground squirrel or gopher, and they were on high alert.
with the wet weather and reduced people/dog/cattle movement, i was excited to finally get some clear coyote tracks of some of the family i’ve seen the last few weeks …
it’s always hard for me to leave, i usually feel like i should be making a nest under a bay tree and settling in for the night with the rest of the beasts. as i left, i spent a bit of time with what was likely my third set of owls that i saw today (and possibly one set of four to six in the immediate area!). they weren’t up as early as some of the others that i had seen previously in the day, but they were hooting and calling to each other with a lot of intensity. they finally came together in the boughs of a eucalyptus tree, then headed off up the hill to hunt before the rains came.
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!
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
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.
grand canyon expedition
Rafting down a river is a fun adventure unto itself … to do it in the bottom of the Grand Canyon is an experience not rivaled by much of anything. And to do it with my dad as part of the expedition (who proclaimed many years ago that he “is not a camper”) made it priceless.
We went down the river with an company called Western River Outfitters, and they were absolutely great. They provided rafts and (amazing) guides as well as gear and food. As phenomenal as it was, it was still a bit agonizing for me not to be able to explore everything that called to me on my own timetable – though I’d probably still be there if that was the case. A person could spend lifetimes exploring it – I guess I’ll have to return (I always seem to say that about places like this – my bucket list only seems to grow as I attempt to cross things off it).
Temperatures were “warm” – which is to be expected when you’re in the desert in August. We actually all wet our beds to keep cool! Meaning I carried a bed sheet to the river and soaked it in the cold water (approx 55 deg F) to sleep on it to stay cool (it was still above 90 deg F one night as we were going to sleep after dark). Despite the intense heat and lack of rainfall, the riparian area along the river provides habitat for a lot of wildlife, for whom this place is literally an oasis. I was constantly searching for sign of the ringtail (a relative of the raccoon), which evidently can be found along the banks – unfortunately I never spotted one or any conclusive sign (though there were a few scats that looked like they could have been from a ringtail’s rear).
What was really noticeable to me were the variety of rocks that are exposed in the canyon. It is a geologist’s dream. Walking down a wash that fed into the main canyon on one of my little side excursions, I was aware of the large number of different rocks that were strewn around and mixed together, something I don’t often see. Usually the geology of a place is fairly uniform, or composed of a small constituent of rock types. Here, the river and erosion have teamed up to expose rocks that span two billion years. BILLION! There are some time gaps that are unaccounted for in this geological record, which are individually referred to as an “unconformity” – now a new nickname for me from my pops, after one of them called “the Great Unconformity.” Probably fits! Sounds like a magician of mediocre skill.
As the sides of the exposed cliffs erode away, pieces of the ages fall and co-mingle at the bottom. The oldest rock is called Vishnu Schist and it starts to become visible towards the bottom of the canyon – it is beautiful. To touch something that old and be in its presence is profound, especially while floating on a calm section of river in the silent heat of midday in the canyon. Just as when standing in an ancient forest of redwoods or giant sequoia trees, time seems to slow down and your perspective shifts. It’s bearing witness to immensity, it’s very definition in both time and space.
Just as we were about to rendezvous with a boat at Lake Meade at the conclusion of our rafting trip, we stopped for a quick “pee break” along the banks of the river. As I jumped off the raft, my eyes were immediately devouring the “spoor extravaganza” that was before me – it was literally a tracking workshop laid out in the muddy river silt bank! First, desert bighorn tracks. Then raven. And great-horned owl. And some other large raptor. Beaver. And more. I clicked away to capture some of them, but literally had to jump on board the raft as it cast off just minutes later. It was torturous to pull away from this canvas full of tracks! I did manage to catch a few of them on cam.
The canyon itself has an amazing history, both before and after people of European descent found it. (White) Man’s desire to explore and conquer as attempted within these canyon walls is recorded in stories that vary from comedic to chaotic (and deadly), and several groups of native people still call this place home. It’s truly grand in all aspects of the word.
Autumn is my favorite time of year, and I’m always excited by the usual harbingers of Fall … pumpkins, raptor and bird migration, amazing light, crisp electric air, foliage color changes, bay nuts, and an instinct deep within me that drives me to figure out what ridiculous costume I’ll wear for Halloween.
There is also the call of the rutting bull elks, if you’re lucky enough to be close to some – a sound that reminds me of whale calls penetrating the surface of the water and echoing across the landscape. I love to see and hear them, especially at this time of year, when the bulls have their “harems” of cows protectively corralled close to them. If one tries to stray too far, the bull will herd her back. And if another male comes too close, a fight can ensue.
They make their bellowing, haunting calls often, seemingly to advertise their virility to the females and their dominance over other bulls -with the occasional chirping siren-like responses from the females, and other males calling back to defend their own space and ladies. It’s all about the ladies at this time of year.
On Sunday we visited the herds at Tomales Point to immerse ourselves in this Autumn rite, and though initially we were disappointed by the thick fog that enveloped just the very tip of the peninsula where the elk live, it turned out to be a good thing. Fog is one of the natural states of this area, and the landscape comes alive when it is foggy. Not only that, the fog allowed us to get closer to the elk than we would have been able to otherwise, creating a smoke screen for us as we approached from downwind to find a nice rock outcropping overlooking two small herds. And, as an added bonus, most of the two-leggeds depart with the fog!
Ironically, the best pictures I got were when we were leaving in our vehicle as a herd was milling about near the exit road. Vehicles can be the best blinds … and they’re mobile!
Oh, and the fog made a stunning scene for pictures.
I caught this one mid-bellow!!!!!!!!! The sight and sound was incredible.
As we were leaving the Point Reyes area, heading East back towards the big city, we saw a great-horned owl perched on top of a utility pole, just a shadow highlighted by the twilight. We stopped to watch it, and suddenly we heard the unmistakable sound of a begging juvenile great-horned owl very close by. Within a minute or two, it had flown up to land on the utility wires, begging intensely for its breakfast. After shredding its prey, the adult jumped over next to the juvenile and handed it over. Oddly, the young one didn’t stop begging, it just perched on the wire with the food in its talons. The only time it paused was when I mimicked its begging call, at which point it would look at me for a few moments, then return to begging. Must have been a spoiled young one … it does live in Marin County, after all.