2015 Oct 11 – the voles are back! (and a tropical kingbird)
We are seeing quite a bit of vole sign once again in the Bay Area, which is a good for most animals around here, except of course for the voles, really – they are one of the top items on the menu for many many animals. It’s interesting that they’ve rebounded right now in the worst part of the drought here in California. We noticed a severe drop in their numbers about two or three years ago (which is a normal part of their cycle), but it’s a good sign that they’ve returned. Now we just need some water.
These small rodents that resemble mice move mostly above ground, and they tend to create “runs” as they utilize the same pathways over and over. These runs create little tunnels in the grass and sometimes recessed runways in the ground.
a “vole’s-eye view” of a vole tunnel in the grass / Sonoma County CA
overhead view of vole grass tunnel or “run” (on right), clear area on left has vole scats
re-purposed gopher hole – voles have excavated this old gopher hole to use as shelter
There seems to be a very marked decrease in the frequency of raptor sightings the last two years in this area, by my observation – and though it’s difficult to determine why this might be, certainly the vole population crash coupled with the severe drought must be a one-two punch that all predators on the landscape are experiencing.
Bring on the rains, el Nino!!!
We also saw a Tropical Kingbird today, which is a very rare visitor to this area (a type of flycatcher). The pictures were taken through a lot of fog, but we had good views of the bird hunting and perched for five minutes at least. Our friend Moss made the ID, based on the notched tail (differentiating it from a Western Kingbird). Nice sighting!
20150913 salmon creek wander
Beautiful day out by Salmon Creek in Sonoma County – a bit of sun before the marine layer rolled in thick like a fluffy down comforter over the beaches and dunes. Lots of red and gray fox track and sign, even more striped skunk track and sign. Almost no new rabbit sign. I’m beginning to think that perhaps the area is like an animal beach-condo timeshare – evidently the skunks have it this time of year and the rabbits are vacationing elsewhere.
This red-tailed hawk has some really interesting plumage, it reminds me of a bird I saw once in the high desert in Washington. You can see there is tan mixed in with the brown and white on the back, and its head and especially neck feathers are really light. Beautiful bird, very striking.
This osprey and I were able to see eye-to-eye today on composing this photo. Much appreciated! Their eyes are HUGE compared to the rest of their head.
We watched a coyote hunting from across the creek for quite some time, it seemed to be stalking through the high grass, occasionally stopping to dig or pounce. Sometimes it would get really excited and stand with its ears facing the ground, while its tail whirled around like a helicopter blade behind it! It made a short trip to the waters edge, but all the water fowl were already tuned-in to its presence. A doe and two fawns watched it with interest from within 50 feet – the coyote didn’t even give them a look. Rodents and insects seemed to be on the menu today. So fun to watch this guy hunt!
We had quite a few nice red fox trails to study today, this is a good example of a classic red fox track (front foot on the bottom). The diagnostic “bar” in the metacarpal pad of the front foot is very evident in this track – it’s not always clear, but if it is it can be one helpful sign (of many) to differentiate red fox tracks from coyote tracks.
I didn’t get a picture, but we observed what we believed to be two or three pomarine jaegers (a type of flying sea bird) offshore attacking some elegant terns out at an area where many birds were feeding. It was my first sighting of this species, and evidently it’s uncommon to see them from shore (usually they are seen from boats further out to sea). There were quite a few dead murres along the beach, these are also ocean-going birds, but curiously they come onshore almost exclusively to die. Often people see these birds on the beach and try to save them, not realizing that they are already doomed. Many a kind-hearted person has been confused and heart-broken trying to help these birds. I photographed one last year down towards Moss Landing near Monterey. They look a bit like penguins when they are sitting or moving out of the water.
Down on the beach there was a large flock of marbled godwits feeding in the surf line, using their long beaks to probe in the sand for crustaceans – occasionally they would flush and fly down the beach all together.
Great day out on the coast, very thankful to live close by to such natural beauty.
sunset under a falcons’ playground
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.