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!
Black vultures are a rare visitor here on the West Coast, more typically found in the American Southeast and South, and in Mexico. We are in the middle of the migration right now, so you never know what might show up. Though this bird must have taken a wrong turn around Tennessee. We spotted it in a small kettle that had a couple turkey vultures and an American kestrel (small falcon).
Research at this time indicates that this type of vulture finds its food by site (similar to many African vultures), as opposed to the turkey vulture, more common here in CA, which uses its sense of smell to find food. Though they are both considered vultures with dark bodies and bald heads, but you can see that the black vulture has a distinctive wing shape and short tail, combined with a dark head and dark flight feathers that make it easy to differentiate from a turkey vulture. Turkey vultures also have a silvery hue to the underside of their flight feathers, the adults have red heads, and they have slightly different flight styles as well. Very different builds on these birds, and it’s reflected in the way they soar and fly (turkey vulture has a slight “v” when it flies as viewed from head-on, and it tends to rock back and forth more – a less steady looking soar). Often it’s easiest to ID a bird at a distance based on a sillhouette and how it flies.
A fellow raptor-lover / naturalist friend of mine lives on a boat by Point Richmond, and this winter she convinced the harbor master to install a platform on the breakwater in hopes that osprey would nest there. They did! Osprey have been continuing to be present in increasing numbers here in the Bay Area, and I was able to get to see the nest last week, just a week after the two babies hatched. It was difficult to see them because they are still so small, but I hope to return to see them in a couple of weeks when they are more visible.
Right when I got there, dad (named Lee) had just caught a nice sized striped bass and was looking for a place to start eating. The fish looks like it is saying “oooooooohhhhhhh shit.” Valid.
My friend said that he typically has been the one hunting, and the female sits on the nest with the young since they hatched. Evidently he seems to always get this size and type of fish, and there were reports about a year ago of a surge in the density of striped bass in the Bay. He usually finds a spot to eat the head, before he delivers it to the nest. Today though, he left a nearby perch possibly due to the high winds and he went right over the nest. But not before the gulls harrassed him for his dinner.
The gulls are always looking for an easy meal, and two great-blue herons that were on the breakwater were not pleased …
A double-crested cormorant popped up right by us on the dock, beautiful creatures.
Pops decided to re-locate after mom (Eileen) had fed herself and the tiny little hatchlings. He went on a perch just to the side of the nest to keep working on dinner, as the sky turned to pink and purple with the setting sun.
Special thanks to Shirley for all the work she does and her love for these birds.
when you see this wild eye, it can’t be anything else but what it is … and it is beautiful
great-horned owl (adult female) / contra costa county CA
last nap before the night
This pair has been around for a number of years – why no young? Theories to come …
As I was winding down my day while traveling in southern CA recently, I had the pleasure of watching a showdown between a juvenile red-tailed hawk and an adult Cooper’s hawk (likely a female). When I got back to the house where I was staying, I noticed the juvenile red-tailed hawk perched in a relaxed manner on the peak of the house next door, watching the sun go down.
This hawk is most likely about 1 year old, quite an accomplishment to have survived its first year (raptors have mortality rates in the first year as high as 70%!). Juvenile red-tailed hawks lack a red tail, often have lighter colored eyes than adults, and have some spotty patterns on the belly band (versus more streaking in adults). It seemed relaxed as it faced the setting sun, evidenced by its fluffed-out feathers and its left leg lifted up into its belly feathers. You can see on the right leg, there appears to be a band on this bird – possibly it was caught and banded during the migration last year.
I relocated to a second-story balcony which afforded better views of the bird, and as I stood there watching suddenly another raptor appeared on the scene! On a power line at about eye-level to me, an adult female Cooper’s hawk alighted and assumed a similar relaxed pose to the red-tail, with one foot up as it surveyed the area.
Cooper’s hawks are part of the Accipter genus of birds in the Accipitridae family, and can be extremely difficult to discern from their close relative the sharp-shinned hawk – a smaller version of this bird. Most raptor species exhibit reverse sexual dimorphism, meaning the females are larger than the males. What makes the identification of a Coopers versus a sharp-shinned hawk especially difficult in addition to very similar plummage is that a male Coopers can be about the same size as a female sharp-shinned hawk. In the above picture, there are some really helpful features that help key this bird as a Cooper’s hawk.
rounded termination of the tail feathers (versus more straight across in sharp-shinned)
dark “cap” on the head feathers (versus more of a full hood on a sharp-shinned hawk)
eyes are placed more towards the front of the skull (sharp-shinned hawks’ eyes seem almost in the center of their skull when viewed from the side)
thicker tarsus, or leg bone (sharp-shinned get their name from having an incredibly thin tarsus)
I am not 100% certain that this bird is a female, but that is my initial guess based on size relative to the red-tail (which I thought could be a female based on her large size – but again, no great scale for reference).
The Cooper’s hawk didn’t remain relaxed for long – as soon as it spotted the red-tailed hawk perched above it became much more alert, dropping its leg down and staring intently (though, to be honest, all these birds seem to only have a single facial expression – and if there is one word for it, it is “intense”).
She relocated to a place on the power line closer to the red-tail to get a better look …
In the above picture, you can see the white feathers that protrude below the tail on its ventral side. This is a helpful feature to identify accipiters in the field from a distance, but one needs to be aware that Northern harriers have a similar white patch that appear on their dorsal side.
Finally the Cooper’s hawk decided to move in on the red-tail – likely it has a nest in the area and did not like the red-tail hanging around too close. The Coop flew up on top of the chimney, and the showdown began. You can see the size difference fairly well in this photo (with the Coop on the right).
At this point, the red-tail took notice of the Coop but still had a leg up (no pun intended) and was facing away from it. In what had to be some sort of bird statement, the red-tail proceeded to slice (poo) in the direction of the Coop!
Casually, the red-tail then turned to face the Cooper’s hawk, then took off right in its direction flying just to the north of it. The Coop jumped off right after the red-tail and pursued! At first the red-tail tried to do some circles and gain altitude, but it eventually became a full on chase. There wasn’t much actual contact, but the Cooper’s hawk made its point and the red-tail seemed fine with relocating to a tree not too far away.
Awesome to see these birds and witness this close encounter!
No, they weren’t misbehaving.
Bald eagles take five years before they grow their adult plumage, and in the early years many people can mistake them for golden eagles since they don’t acquire the characteristic white head and tail until adulthood.
One bird was perched on a branch very close to the road, and we spent a long period of time together at a very close distance. The bird preened and seemed relaxed (which let me know I wasn’t too close, something I’m always ultra-sensitive to – I try to always be far enough away that the wildlife feels comfortable and not threatened). This bird appears to be a young bird in its second year of life (now approaching its second birthday) – wearing what is referred to as a Basic I plumage (1st year, or hatch year is called a “juvenile,” second year is Basic I, then Basic II, Basic III and adult). The feather pattern for each year are variable but generally unique, combined with beak and eye coloring, and help to distinguish the age.
Nearby was another young bird, and this one had plumage that was different than the first – indicative of Basic II plumage (a bird in its third year of life).
Along this same part of the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, there was a solitary treeline that had almost 15 bald eagles in it – along with many red-tailed hawks and one golden eagle. A ranger I spoke to said that two weeks prior, he counted over 60 bald eagles (and a golden eagle) in the immediate area of the treeline! The density of birds makes it such that species that usually don’t tolerate each other in close proximity end up roosting right next to each other, as did many bald eagles and red-tails that I witnessed over the two days (though occasionally a red-tail would go after an eagle, just to remind it who was in charge).
Being in an area like this really allows for a deep study into field identification of birds because there are so many species in the area.
A great time of year to visit is in February during the Winter Wings Festival – events are planned over a long weekend catering to raptor viewing, including guided trips in the Basin, education programs, vendor displays (optics mostly), and more. This year it takes place the weekend of February 11-14, 2016.
Once again, sometimes you’re just in the right place at the right time. Two days in a row seems pretty good, eh? Though for all I know while I took pictures of this coyote and golden eagle together, there was a mountain lion dancing with a wolf just down the road.
I had been watching a golden eagle that was perched on a low sign along the snow-covered road in Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge for some time. There is something special about a close encounter with a golden eagle, and my breath leaves me every time I have an experience such as this. They are HUGE animals. Golden eagles can take down small deer! In other parts of the world where the eagles are slightly bigger and the wolves are slightly smaller, they kill wolves. This is an animal that is at the top of the food chain. An apex predator.
A beautiful one as well.
After observing the eagle for some time, it sliced (pooped) and took off to start hunting in the treeless wetlands around the wildlife refuge. Those wings!!!! Incredible to see an animal this size take flight.
After it took off, a quick movement caught my eye on the other side of the reeds along the snowy dirt road on which I was positioned. The roads are raised on levies to allow navigation through the wetlands. Most of the water is frozen though, and what I saw was a coyote moving away from me parallel to the road. Once my eyes locked onto it, it sensed it and increased its speed, changing from a trot to a full-on bounding gait as if I were in pursuit! I am willing to bet there are hunters out there that take shots at them.
Eventually it stopped running, being sure to look back at me as if to say “I see you and don’t think for a second I am not watching you, two-legged.” It started to move at a fast trot along and through the reeds on both sides of the road, often crossing it. It appeared to be hunting, possibly trying to flush prey or looking to scavenge a meal. Or, it was following another coyote trail and marking its territory. There are coyote trails all over the place out there. The prolific amount of prey there in the Klamath Basin attracts more than flying predators.
Eventually the coyote disappeared, so I started driving down the snow-covered road again. In just a hundred yards or so, I stopped because I saw the golden eagle again, hunting about 20 feet off the ground over the wetlands, almost like a Northern harrier. I slowed to a stop to watch the hunt, and not long after, the eagle landed on another short road sign just ahead of me.
Suddenly, I caught sight of the coyote again, briefly, and then it disappeared into the reeds on the other side of the eagle – then re-appeared right next to the eagle!! I couldn’t believe it. The eagle did not seem the least bit surprised to see the coyote, even as it passed directly by it not five feet away. Nor did the coyote seemed surprised or concerned – despite them being well within striking distance of each other!!!!! The coyote paused near the eagle, and the eagle sliced (almost on top of the coyote), then the canine came out into the roadway, shot me a glance, smelled a fresh coyote scat (confirmed once I drove up there after the encounter), then disappeared back into the tule reeds by the eagle.
As I approached in my vehicle, I passed the eagle and we had a moment of looking directly at each other. It is an experience that is intense and humbling. After I passed, the eagle took off, and I was able to
take a look at the scat and tracks. The coyote continued to hunt along
both sides of the road for a few hundred yards until finally it
continued south over a large berm.
As mentioned in my last blog post, while I watched an otter consume a duck, a northern harrier came gliding down the canal and dropped down on a small bird in the vegetation on the side of the canal just 10 feet from the otter!
The whole time I’m shooting this scene the otter is just eating (and occasionally napping) away just 10 feet to the right. It was just ridiculous the amount of activity happening at this particular location.
One thing I noted while driving was that small birds were flying very close in front of my vehicle. I actually struck one of them, sadly. I’m wondering if their reaction time is slowed by the cold weather and if that gives an advantage to predators (who are primarily using gravity to drop down on their prey). Interesting to hear if anyone else has experience with this.
There is a lot of wildlife in the Klamath Basin, and not all of it has feathers.
Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time, and this was certainly one of those instances. With the incredibly low temperatures that were present for the last few days, there was almost no open water around – it was all frozen. One canal had some exposed water around an outlet pipe, with ice starting to encroach but enough open water to attract a small flock of water fowl.
I was out of my jeep watching a small group of pintails, green-winged teals, mallards and grebes in the small bit of open water, suddenly they “gently” flushed – they didn’t fly, but they walked out of the water. I didn’t flush them, but I couldn’t figure out what did. I turned for a moment to grab something in my jeep, when I looked back I saw what appeared to be a mallard duck struggling to get out of the water and onto the ice. Then I realized that it was actually the duck’s rear end that was out of the water! As my mind struggled to put the vision before me together, the duck slipped under the surface of the water. A few seconds later, a huge river otter popped up out of the water onto the ice with the (now dead) duck in its mouth!
I watched it consume the duck for almost an hour, occasionally it would retreat under water (sometimes with its meal!) when other people drove by or came too close (which unfortunately some did come too close).
There were times that the otter appeared to nod off after so much eating, but he wasn’t about to stop – he just needed some dinner naps. I’ve been there.
Otters are such a joy to watch, their behavior is always fascinating. Such beautiful, fun creatures. I’m sure the ducks felt differently.
During the time I was watching the otter, a northern harrier floated down the canal in the air and made a successful strike on a small bird – just 10 feet from the otter! I’ll put the series of pictures from that in the next blog …
The show wasn’t over though. After that a prairie falcon came in and made an unsuccessful strike on a small duck in the canal behind me! This place was a hot spot!
The other water fowl seemed to realize the otter was satiated, as they came back into close proximity of the otter as it was eating and even afterwards while he was still in the area. After the otter finished, another harrier moved in to scavenge the duck as the sun set.
I imagine it wasn’t long after I left that the coyotes I heard howling nearby moved in for the rest of the scraps. Their tracks were all over the Basin area, and I saw four of them during my two days there, moving at a rapid pace through the preserves as they hunted.
A ranger that I told about the encounter had been at the same location earlier and saw a bobcat. It was likely no coincidence that this spot was so active – the open water attracted the water fowl, which in turn attracted the predators.
Such a fun day. I stayed out past sunset watching everything unfold, and the temperature dropped quickly. I was happy to get back to town that night for a warm bed. Unfortunately I had some camera malfunction issues, so my shots aren’t as good as I’d hoped (auto-focus issues) – I learned the hard way to test new equipment more thoroughly before being out in the field! That is minor though – WHAT A DAY!!! It’s not often that you see this kind of show!! Very grateful to have the opportunity to be up there and that there are people protecting it. Check out KS Wild, one of the many groups helping the cause.
The Klamath Basin area is home to multiple National Wildlife Refuges (six of them!), and is a major stop-off for migrating water fowl along the Pacific Flyway during the autumn and spring. This flat high desert area (around 4000 feet elevation) straddles the border of Oregon and California and is just east of the Cascade mountain range. It is also host to a lot of agriculture, using waters diverted from the Klamath River to irrigate fields. The Basin sits in view of several volcanoes that are part of the Cascade range, and the area is of volcanic origins. It is truly a magical landscape. Recently it has become even more exciting as there are now two small wolf packs that call the Cascades just west of the Basin home (one of which is the famous OR-7 wolf, who at one point traveled to California and became the first confirmed wolf in CA since the 1930’s)!
The wetlands themselves are estimated to be only 25% of what they once were, due to appropriation of land and water to agriculture. Many interests share this region, and it is often the subject of debate on how to best share the resources among all them, including Wildlife/Plants, Indigenous People, agriculture, hunters, birders, fishing folks, etc.
During the winter months, there is a very high population of raptors that migrate here to wait out the winter due to the availability of prey (and it should be noted that agriculture fields that are dormant often provide a home to many rodents, thereby attracting more raptors). Here during the winter can be found the highest density population of bald eagles in the continental U.S. outside of Alaska! I have been there previously and seen around 50 eagles in one 360 degree view! Not only that, there are a lot of northern migrants such as rough-legged hawks and ferruginous hawks, species not often seen this far west or south. Those in addition to golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, assorted falcons, many owls and more can be seen here.
I braved some cold temperatures, especially the first day – it was near 0 deg F. A ranger I spoke to said that in the morning he had seen a northern pintail (type of duck) that came out of some reeds and couldn’t get its wings to extend – they had frozen to its body during the night! That’s cold (it eventually did free its wings). Needless to say there weren’t many people out there besides me, but I was able to see some amazing sites and sights (which I’ll highlight over the next few blog posts).
A few of the birds during the trip:
My final picture of the first day is a great summary of the area. The sun had set over a half hour before I took this picture – I saw these birds sitting in a tree as I was driving out. My old jeep was not doing a great job of keeping the cold out, but despite my numb fingers and toes I got out to snap this shot. As you can see, the area does not have many trees, so they are coveted by many different birds. Because of the density of prey and lack of trees, often I see multiple species sharing a tree or telephone pole – a necessary truce. The large forms in the tree are a bald eagle on the left, and a red-tailed hawk on the right! They are buddies! At least for the night (usually I see red-tails chasing and harassing bald eagles). Sprinkled among mostly the tree on the left are many red-winged blackbirds as well.
Some great resources to learn more about the area:
Winter Wings Festival – http://winterwingsfest.org/
This February weekend (this year it is Feb 11-14 2016) focuses on raptors in the Klamath Basin area and attracts many people to the area. Tours and guides are available, as well as many other events. Definitely worthwhile!!!
Lava Beds National Monument is nearby, and Mount Shasta is not far to the south. The whole area is really magical, any time of year.
More to come …
These pictures are dedicated to LB and West County Hawk Watch – much love and respect for your passion, dedication, mentoring, generosity, trust and expertise. One of the first FEHA’s that I ever saw was with Larry, and to this day, every time I see one, I think of you my friend.
These birds have arrived to take up residence for the winter from their summer breeding grounds in the plains, and I am always excited to see them – largest of our native hawks.
I’ll admit that at the beginning of this year, I had high hopes of seeing more than one nest of great-horned owls with young. Yet despite monitoring three pairs of these owls at Wildcat Canyon with regularity, and another two pairs on occasion, I have not seen nor heard one fledgling owl. There was a period of time starting in March during which the adults altered their routines from how they acted during mating season, but whether or not they were on eggs is a mystery to me. I know at least one pair did “phase I” of the procreation process! But alas no sign of young. It now appears that they’ve started to alter their routine again, and I’m seeing them with more regularity in their “usual” areas and perches. But no begging young ones that I’ve heard or seen – and they are hard to miss.
During the nesting season, I have a theory that raptors “go through the motions” whether they actually have young or not. This includes different roosts, different patterns of behavior, and also a tendency to be very secretive – until this past week or so, they have not been as willing to be close to me like they had been.
The last few times I’ve been out I’ve noticed one pair of owls hunting in a fashion that I’ve never witnessed before – they are actually kiting like red-tailed hawks in the wind over grasslands! In the strong winds, the owl just extends its wings without flapping to become stationary in the air above the ground, and they are sometimes 50 to 80 feet up in the sky. One difference from the red-tails is that their legs hang down awkwardly, and it’s really funny to see such a majestic animal looking so ungraceful. Typically I see the great-horned owls hunting either from a perch or from the ground. It makes sense in this area where the winds are gusting every evening and the grass is high. Perhaps they’ve adapted their hunting style for the season and the terrain. Really cool to see – if I can witness it again before twilight I would love to get some photos of it.
Another interesting behavior I witnessed tonight was again with my most watched pair (the same that have been kiting) – as I came upon them tonight just after sunset, first one, then the other flew down to the ground onto a cow trail. At first I thought perhaps they were on the trail hunting, but then I realized they were both taking a dust bath within 10 feet of each other! It was difficult to see due to the lack of light and distance (I didn’t want to bother them while they bathed together …), but they were really getting into it. After about five minutes, they finished up and hurried over to see if I could find some tracks.
As I got to the spot and started scouring over the dust with my headlamp, I could see the wind just erasing things before my eyes. I was so bummed! I was able to find one partial track though, which was fun.
As I kept looking, suddenly I heard a high pitched squealing just south of me about 30 meters right in the area where one of the owls had flown to perch on top of a coyote bush, and I knew breakfast was served.
It’s been my observation that raptor numbers and activity is much diminished in the last two years here in the greater Bay Area, but especially this year. Likely it is related to the drought, and also probably related to the vole population crash that we first took note of about two years ago. That is pure conjecture and is based purely on observation, but some of my other naturalist friends and trackers have noticed similar patterns supported by lack of actual sightings and reduced numbers of owl pellets in one particular location that usually has at least a few owls. Hopefully the predictions of the El Nino bringing lots of rain this upcoming winter are true! Everyone could use more water – feathered, furred, scaled, crawling, rooted and two-legged.
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!
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!
The winds surged onto the coast
like a flood of oncoming water;
And seemed to convince even the water below
that on this evening,
they could together move the giant rocks around which they are usually forced to flow.
But as the wind and the water
danced with the rocks in their daily ritual,
debating who is mightier;
The falcons flew above and through it all.
I had nearly given up on seeing the falcon fledge(s) from this nest, located on the side of the sea cliffs – instead I was ready to yield to the winds that seemed determined to drive people and most living things to seek shelter elsewhere. I watched as cormorants and gulls flapped their wings so hard and fast, only to barely make headway in the gale. Instead of leaving though, I took refuge behind a lupine bush that afforded slight shelter from its relentless surge. The rock face that rose in front of me was glowing in a yellow light that made all the colors of the coastal plants seem to glow, with hints of orange starting to invade the palette before me, foreshadowing the oncoming setting of the sun. I was astounded how the small plants that made a home in the crags on the face of the rock barely moved in the 40 mph winds, and was a bit disappointed not to see the familiar form of a falcon hiding somewhere in the midst of it all.
My eyes shut for a few moments after an already long day, and when they opened I immediately saw that familiar form on the very top of the rock – a peregrine!
It seemed to look at me for a few seconds, then it jumped off its perch and floated into the air, a few quick flaps of its wings propelling it with speed right into the strong winds.
Soon it broke its relatively even glide with some quick dives at a few small birds in the chaparral – exuberant, youthful frolicking – and a bit ungraceful! It was happy to be alive and happy to be a falcon. Flying! It was definitely a newly fledged bird, and I was happy to see it had survived this long. Moments later it had disappeared.
I soon gave up my plan to watch the sunset over the waters, as the wind now was my only companion now and it seemed intent on its solitude.
On a whim, or an intuition (or an invitation?), I decided to drive a little further into the park instead of starting my journey “home” (though wasn’t I already home?). As I crested a hill, and the Pacific Ocean once again dominated my view to the west, the sun seemed to renew its invitation to watch its daily finale. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye, two small darting forms caught my attention in the sky above the tallest hill over the cliffs of the sea …
There were two falcons playing in the updrafts of wind on the large hill side – chasing each other, diving at one another, flipping upside down to grasp talons – an aerial game of tag! I immediately pulled over, jumped out of my vehicle and ran to join them, shouting out loud into the wind and forgetting for a moment that I couldn’t leave the ground to join them.
In my previous trips to check out the nest, I had only confirmed one baby, but apparently there were at least two that survived. And now these recently fledged falcons were testing and honing their flight skills with each other in the sky above me. So amazing to witness, so fun!
I had no choice but to accept all the invitation before me, so I settled in on a deer path that cut across the slope of the hill facing towards the setting sun. The falcons continued to come back above me a number of times, and at one point when one of the two disappeared, the other left its hover in the wind and banked in my direction, and I could feel its eyes on me! I got a fly-by! They are inquisitive creatures, and especially at this time in their lives they are investigating everything. Or maybe it could tell I would have like to join them up there.
There are few things that are as fun to see (or be a part of) as young animals or kids playing, and I felt really grateful to have gotten to see this short moment of time, when these birds don’t have a care in the world and are just bursting with life and joy and excitement about being alive. Inspiring, and a reminder that we still have that in each of us if we can just take a bit of time to reconnect with it.
I had the good fortune to go for an adventure yesterday with a friend to practice trailing animals – the species of focus was the feral pig (feral hog).
The weather was outstanding, despite some strong winds early in the day. It doesn’t get much nicer here than these sunny days with clear blue skies and temps in the 70’s – and the light was great too. I knew it was going to be a good day when not long after sunrise I saw a juvenile bald eagle (hatch year / 1st year) perched in a tree overlooking a creek. It was eyeing up some water fowl and steelhead, the latter of which were spawning in the creek bed below.
[juvenile bald eagle]
Steelhead are a type of salmon, and once were found in great numbers up and down the west coast. As with many of the salmon, their populations have been suffering due to over-fishing, habitat loss, and pollution. This time of year, mature fish swim from the ocean back into small creeks and streams from where they were born, where they create nests in the creek beds to lay their eggs. Unlike other salmon who die after spawing, some steelhead return to the ocean for another go. Interestingly, according to current science taxonomy, they are the same species as rainbow trout – the difference being that steelhead are anadromous, meaning they spend part of their life in the ocean. Because of this, they look physically different than fresh water rainbow trout (larger). These fish shown below were probably close to three feet long!
I was on my way to a remote area of western Sonoma County where we were going to do our wander, on some land miles from any roads by the Gualala River. I feel like Sonoma County is my “second childhood home” – and it felt so good to be visiting on this beautiful spring day.
When driving along a ridge line with views going miles in all directions, the land looks like a piece of bunched up fabric – deep, drastic valleys at the bottom of steep descents that fall from high mountain tops and ridge lines. Huge stands of douglas fir and redwood are on many of the north-facing slopes, with oak woodland spanning other parts of the more sunny areas. Some of the land remains ranch land, and many folks have made their living with sheep and cattle out here. “As the crow flies,” the distance between two points seems not too far – but when traveling on land, it can take a long time to travel a short distance. And there’s seldom a direct route. Perhaps it is this ruggedness that has helped keep it somewhat intact – it isn’t conducive to the industries of man. May it remain as such!*
Feral pigs, also called feral hogs, are non-native animals whose relatives escaped from the domestic life and have secured a place for themselves and their progeny in the wild. Sonoma County has a large population of them, and many areas of the country consider them to be a pest. They certainly don’t tread lightly on a landscape – in areas of high density, the ground can be torn up all over the place from their rooting. They are an amazing animal – highly intelligent, very social, and incredibly adaptable. They can also get pretty big – some of the larger boars are around 300 pounds! And they can be pretty intimidating to see – large tusks, coarse hair covering parts of their body – they often don’t look like their barn-yard cousins.
I have mixed feelings about the native / non-native debate. The truth is that many of our ecosystems are so different than they were prior to European colonization – especially with the removal of so many of the apex predators – that it is unlikely they will ever be the same. Especially without reintroduction of the trees, plants and animals that were originally here and created a balanced web of life. You don’t grow old-growth redwood trees overnight. I imagine the pigs would not be as successful if there were wolves and grizzly bears around (as there once were in this area) – but I bet the main detractors of the hogs would be even less apt to welcome that strategy!
There is a difference for humans, psychologically, when labeling an animal as a pest and/or a non-native – somehow it’s life seems to be valued less. I have an issue with this. These are still living, breathing creatures, just doing what we all are doing here – trying to make a living. I’m not suggesting that all non-native animals should just run amok with no management plan in place, but I do believe there can be better, more compassionate management strategies that are also more supported by science. Ones that honor these animals as individual living beings, with a value the same as any other living being. Sadly, humans have used (and continue to use) this type of labeling to denigrate people too – whole cultures, races, and people of varying lifestyles have been subjected to horrible treatment because of this manipulative psychology of labeling.
It was fun to get to be in the world of the hogs for the morning! We started off by looking for some fresh tracks so that we could have a chance at being able to trail and find the animal that laid them. The pig sign was everywhere – the trick was finding something fresh. Despite some of the recent rains, the ground in some areas was already becoming quite dry again, so it wasn’t holding sign as well as it had been just a week ago.
[some fairly fresh hog tracks]
We ended up on several different hog trails, the first of which took us down a steep hill side, traversing downward through the trees. We saw quite a few pig beds – all empty – strategically situated at the base of large trees on a steep slope, with crunchy leaves all around that would belie the presence of an approaching predator (or tracker!) and allow for multiple escape routes. After being on it for quite a distance, eventually we lost the trail – which seemed impossible, given we were following a number of individuals travelling together. How do 150 to 300 pound animals seem to vanish and leave no discernible sign? Perhaps there is a “pig vortex,” similar to the “raptor vortex” – the place raptors seem to often disappear to, out of the air, when you take your eye off them for a second! Amazing! Humbling.
We continued on, looking for another trail to follow, and eventually we found some more fresh sign just off the dirt access road we were following. After poking around a bit, we took a hog trail down another steep slope descending 100’s of vertical feet. There were some fairly fresh tracks on it, but mostly we were just curious where they were going as it seemed to be a highly used trail. It took us all the way down to the bottom of the valley – and to the Gualala River.
I could have spent days at that spot. The river was gently flowing past, its gray-green waters moving over small round river stones on its bed. Small waterfalls and seeps were cascading into the river from the steep hillsides, scouring the rocks and making a home for glowing moss and lichens. An abundance of life, and signs of animals passing through, was everywhere. I was overwhelmed by the calm and beauty.
I finally couldn’t resist and waded into the water (it was also the easier route around some poison oak that was guarding a narrow pass on the steep banks!), and saw a couple of newts hanging out under the surface of the chilly water …
[red-bellied newt (Taricha rivularis)]
[rough-skinned newt (Taricha granulosa granulosa)]
Once I made my way back to shore, we saw a little snake sunning itself on a rock ledge. All the animals seemed to be in the same blissful, relaxed state that I was in … under the spell of the Gualala River and the warm sun above.
[CA red-sided garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis infernalis)]
Finally, we hit upon some nice fresh hog tracks in the soft sediment on the banks of the river. Back on it!
These were likely from a pretty big boar. We followed him back up the hillside from where we came, but once again after a little while we lost the trail. Humbling! As we fanned out and attempted to pick it back up again, we found another little creature on the hillside under a log that we had disturbed.
[juvenile speckled black salamander? (Aneides flavipunctatus flavipunctatus)]
We put a new rock and some leaves back over this young lady to keep her out of the sun after we left.
[some type of lily? anyone?]
[UPDATE – Fritillaria affinis aka the chocolate lily or checkered lily
thank you Ann for the ID!]
As we got to the top of the hill, we found the boar tracks again … and it was one of the tracks that we had originally seen when we started on this trail! We had come full circle.
We reluctantly made our way out of the property, but as we were leaving we spotted one last treat – a golden eagle! it was a double eagle day. A good sign and a perfect ending to a great morning.
I am so thankful to have gotten to spend the day out there, many thanks to my friend Matt for taking time to share this special place with me.
* As a side-note, in recent times vineyard owners have been trying to push into some of these areas because they are ideal for certain grape varietals, such as the popular pinot noir. Thankfully there are many organizations, including Native groups, that are spearheading the effort to keep this land intact from groups who want to convert forest to vineyards (or other clear-cutting). The amount of life that is impacted by deforestation is astounding, and humans have already destroyed 96% – NINETY SIX PERCENT – of existing redwood ecosystems since the west was “settled” … and old growth constitutes just a small part of that which remains. Scientists have barely scratched the surface of understanding ecology and the web of life on this planet, and it has been shown that the canopies of redwood forests contain a huge amount of biodiversity. Seems like there is a lot of value in honoring these remaining places – and perhaps a duty to do so.
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.
On this beautiful Spring-like (?!) morning, I had the privilege to see my old Falcon friends on the Fruitvale Bridge in Oakland/Alameda. Just after I arrived, Hiko, the tiercel (male falcon), came in to land on the Oakland tower with breakfast – which this morning appeared to be a Eurasian collared dove. Doing his part to remove invasive species today, I guess. Unfortunately my vantage point had the sun back-lighting my photos and I was pretty far away, but it was fun to watch as he really went to work on this bird, de-feathering it as we watched. Feathers floated down like a snow storm beneath him, he was working furiously to get at that meat!
After a little while, his mate came flying in from the northwest over the waterway, and she didn’t seem to see him as she landed on the other tower. She started to e-chup (vocalize), and he let her know he was there with a few response calls. Usually this time of year, the fella would be offering meals to his mate as part of the courtship process, but he seemed intent on keeping this meal to himself at that moment. It is just the beginning of the courtship and mating process, so maybe he’s just not feeling the love quite yet.
As Hiko was finishing his meal, Tremaine took off from her perch to investigate a little more into what Hiko was doing.
Tremaine landed back on the Alameda tower, and finally Hiko seemed moved to share his breakfast with her after being discovered hoarding his food. He took off with a portion of what was left and flew to her on the other tower. Typically, the tiercel would drop-off the food for the falcon as part of the courtship process, but at the last minute he had second thoughts about sharing and he veered away! Or perhaps he was flirting, falcon style. She immediately took off after him, and within seconds had “commandeered” her portion from Hiko in mid-air over the bridge! Good stuff.
She took the small portion of the dove that he had and did a lap around the towers with it, then headed back to the Alameda tower to eat.
Hiko then did a little survey flight around the area and settled in near Tremaine on the Alameda tower to do some preening after his crop-busting breakfast.
After Tremaine finished her portion, she flew over to the Oakland tower (interestingly the OPPOSITE tower that Hiko was on – I don’t think he won any extra points with his sharing “efforts”). The two settled into a mid-day lull as they digested their food and preened, and I left them to enjoy the sunny day.
This is a shot of Tremaine when she was eating that I took with my camera phone through a friend’s scope (digiscoping, it is called). Not great quality but quite a zoom. You can see Tremaine has a full crop, she must have eaten something on her own before getting this “gift” from Hiko.
These birds are so beautiful, watching them fly, with such quickness and grace, never gets old.
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!
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.
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.