juvenile great horned owls and venus in background at sunset / contra costa county CA
right on queue, these two juvenile great horned owls have been haunting the woods nearby with their haunting cries of dispair (aka annoying hunger begging cries to their parents) … almost Halloween / Samhain / Dia de Muertos!
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.
There is nothing quite like seeing young animals play, and it has been such a treat on my sunset/twilight wanders lately to see a pair of fledgling red-tailed hawks in Wildcat Canyon cavorting in the strong winds up in the hills for the past week or two. They are still sometimes unsteady as they soar in the air, and during their landings – wheeling awkwardly in the winds, or alternating repeatedly landing and taking off from a hilltop trying to ride fast moving gusts, like a feathered, bouncing ball. Sometimes their parents were silhouetted in the background above them, unmoving in the strong winds as if hanging from an invisible thread in the sky as they hunted. For the first week or so, every time the two young ones were in the air, they were loudly vocalizing non-stop, as if shouting “holy shit I’m flying, holy shit I’m flying!!!” That’s how it felt, watching their exuberance in the sky.
Despite their awkwardness at times, there were other times that they seemed to be quickly mastering flight in the high winds – chasing each other over the hills and around tree tops, stooping and diving on one another, locking talons in the sky, and pushing each other off of perches – even “barrel rolling” in the sky like ravens often due (an acrobatic maneuver during which they flip over on their back for a few moments in the sky). Sometimes I forget that I’m without any wings as I watch them, feeling like at any moment I could jump up and join them. It looks like just about as much fun as any living thing can have.
Hopefully this pair will survive longer than last year’s young – there were three from what were likely this same pair of adults, and none of them survived more than two weeks after fledging. Once night comes, it is the domain of the great-horned owls … and there are a lot of them here. It’s encouraging that they’ve lasted this long, soar on young ones!
Exciting day at Hawk Hill today by the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the great spots for seeing large numbers of migrating raptors. The Accipiters are coming through in high volume right now, and I was able to get out for a bit to watch. The fog started to roll in just as I got there, but we still had a good number of birds coming through (and visible, despite the low fog bank).
In addition to many sharp-shinned hawks and a few cooper’s hawks, we were treated to a few peregrine falcons that flew by. But not only did the juvenile peregrine fly by – it stayed a while to perform some antagonizing aerials on resident ravens, migrating sharp-shinned hawks, and one lone harrier! It’s hard to tell if it was hunting, just playing, or something in between. The ravens seemed to be having fun playing with it. The small sharpies … definitely not so much!
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.
a few weeks ago, i had the pleasure to accompany some friends and dedicated raptor-enthusiasts to see a bald eagle nest in alameda county that had two newly fledged juveniles. bald eagles have been slow to return to the Bay Area, and there are only about 16 nests currently in the vicinity from Monterey up to Mendocino County. a good sign to see them coming back.
they were comical to watch – flying was fairly easy, but the landing part was still a challenge. they would put their feet down 100 meters before their intended perch, and often overshoot it and have to fly around for a second attempt or find another spot.
they were begging for food from their parents – pa was about a mile away (out of ear shot, likely, from the incessant begging), and ma seemed un-phased by their constant calls, looking regal on her perch as she preened ignored their calls.
she did make one or two half-hearted attempts at a fish in front of us in our boat, but it was a leisurely sunday morning for all involved overall.
an amazing day out on the water with these majestic birds. special thanks to Mary, Roy, Carol, Megan and Cagney for this adventure!
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.
juvenile red-tailed hawk *** oakland, ca
Last week before I left Wyoming, I was fortunate enough to get out in the field with Brian Bedrosian, who is the Avian Program Director at Craighead-Beringia South. The task at hand was to catch a bald eagle, the last push to get the final of six transmitters attached to local bald eagles in the Upper Green River / New Fork River drainages, for a research project that is studying the effects of local energy extraction development on wildlife (aka gas wells aka fracking sights). For more on the details, see here.
We spent 10 hours on the New Fork River on Wednesday, rowing down the low and slow water with Chief, Brian’s dog, directing us.
To the East are the jagged peaks of the Windy Mountain Range, poking above the horizon eerily in the forest fire haze, and they look similar to the drastic edges and slopes found in the Teton Range. Meandering back and forth through the dry high-desert landscape is the New Fork River, a lush riparian zone that is home to many plants and animals, and a literal oasis.Everywhere else around us, as far as the eye can see, are sage-covered hills, slopes and small mesas – a sight which resembles a snapshot from the ocean, just beyond the breakers where the surface of the water is starting to peak and trough into rolling, moving hills of water.
And, also as far as the eye can see, are natural gas extraction pads. So it is that this area is the center of much debate and ecological concern.
We went through three separate bald eagle nesting areas during the float, using a trapping technique called a “float fish.” As we approached a nesting site, and there were eagles perched, we placed in the water upstream of us one or two of the float fish traps, then paddled quickly downstream ahead of them. These traps are essentially fresh-caught trout that have been modified with nooses of fishing wire and attached to a floating log with a few feet between the two. The concept is that when the eagle grabs the fish, the nooses secure around the eagle’s talons. The log is light enough that the bird can fly or swim safely to shore while we make our way back to grab it. Unfortunately the day yielded no results for our primary purpose (bald eagles trapped = 0), but it was a beautiful day to spend on a river. When your “work” entails floating and paddling down a river in August in Wyoming, life is good.
The next morning, we took a different tactic and instead of floating down the river, we selected two known bald eagle perch sites that were accessible by foot. We readied traps early in the morning – with Trapper Haynam joining us, also from Craighead-Beringia South – and before sunrise set them floating in the river below two separate eagle perch sites. After setting the traps we monitored them from not far away, above the river banks.
We then prepared for a long wait.
Suddenly, at 6:20 am, not 20 minutes after we had climbed back up the steep banks of the river to wait in the truck, an adult bald eagle soared over the fish and landed right by it! It seemed to toy with the fish and our emotions for a few moments, then after some careful scrutiny it took off. We hadn’t fooled it. Shortly thereafter a juvenile bald eagle came and circled above the fish a few times, then it was chased off by the resident adults who then perched upstream. It did not look promising.
Now the real waiting began. We had no eagle action after the initial excitement, but we did have several bull moose move through the area, including one who seemed to walk directly over the fish trap. I was worried that maybe we suddenly discovered a mutant carnivorous zombie moose and that we would have to free it from the fishing cord after it tried to eat our fish, but luckily it was the regular non-zombie, plant eating variety.
We decided that our setup was probably not going to attract any further attention from the eagle family, so we retrieved the trap and went to meet up with the rest of our crew at the other trap site that seemed to still hold some promise. The eagles hadn’t seen the fish yet but were in the area, and they had two of their young in the trees around them begging for food. My time there was limited as I had a long drive to do before the day was over, and just as I was about to leave for my drive back to California, we got one!
A hatch year bald eagle went for the fish, and although an adult was the preferred target, it could still be tagged for the study. Things happened VERY fast. We were posted up on a bluff above the river to monitor the trap, so when the bird hit it, we immediately drove down to the river bank, jumped out and ran to get close to it, before approaching the last bit of distance slowly and carefully. First priority was safety of the bird and us, and we didn’t want to create more stress than it was already experiencing. Brian handled it with amazing skill and professionalism. It had grabbed the fish, then when it realized it was caught, it flew/walked/swam over to a gravel bar in the shallow river where it was sitting when we got there.
To minimize stress (for the bird and us!), a falconers hood is placed over the head of the bird. This is also a common technique used in bird rescue and rehabilitation, and during exams of captive birds, because most birds tend to go into a hypnotized state of calm once the hood is over its eyes. The exam and attachment of the transmitter went quickly and smoothly.
After feeding the eagle some trout and giving it some water to be sure it was hydrated after its ordeal, we released the eagle back onto the river. After the hood was removed and it was placed on the ground, it took a few seconds for it to get its bearings, then it flapped its gigantic wings and turned east, getting over a fence and landing in a stand of trees upriver. Mission accomplished.
I must say that I had a lot of mixed feelings about capturing the bird, and about putting a transmitter on it, as the device is attached by strapping it around its body, and it sits on its back like a very small backpack. I find some solace in knowing that professionals like Brian are executing trapping like this in a professional manner and minimizing stress for the birds, and that these birds are participating in studies that could help the lives of many of their kind in the future. Your sacrifice does not go unnoticed.
The visual and auditory impact alone of the gas pads is tremendous on the landscape. The night that we slept there amid them all on BLM land near the river, the remote area looked like it was covered with lots of small towns due to the number of lights. It wasn’t until morning that I realized most of these “towns” were drilling pads, with a few ranches interspersed. During the night, loud explosions occurred with regularity. Many people in the area believe that these extraction processes could be poisoning their air and water. The ethics and methods surrounding energy extraction are hot topics right now, and the long-term impacts on humans and the greater ecosystem have yet to be determined – but I know that I am certainly concerned. Nothing comes without a cost. I urge everyone to educate themselves about this issue and the next time you fill up your gas tank or turn on your stove, take a second to think about where your energy is coming from. And be thankful for it.
Good luck my eagle friend, I look forward to thinking of you and your kind flying free over clean waters for many generations to come.