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.
It was a tough day for our track and sign study, due to very high winds on the coasts of Mendocino and Sonoma counties that scoured the pages of our sand clear – but luckily the animals seemed to accommodate us by showing themselves in person.
This Bobcat showed itself just outside the “Mirkwood of Sonoma County” – seriously, best analogy I can provide for this area. I can’t even begin to describe in words the experience that I had last night, nearby to where this photo was taken, at what turned out to be a “haunted” house that I stayed in, unintentionally. Very, very, strange happenings. Yes, I wrote “haunted house.”
It was extremely weird and uncomfortable. But perfect for the season, I suppose.
Happy Samhain and Halloween to all, this is the week of the celebration of the coming of the dark time of year, when the days are short and the nights are long … and when the veil between the living and the dead is slight! November 7th is officially the “cross-quarter” day, equi-distant between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice – though it is officially celebrated on Nov 1st.
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.
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!
I was driving down a road in Sonoma County today and noticed a large kettle of turkey vultures flying above an agricultural area – probably numbering almost 40 birds! It was somewhat unusual, and certainly not something I’ve seen yet this year. I pulled over to take another look, knowing that often golden eagles will “hitch” a ride along with a group of vultures. As I was counting the vultures, boom!
I followed the kettle, which conveniently for me also was following the road in my direction! I made a number of stops as I followed it, and during my final stop the Eagle was kind enough to turn around and do a fly-over for me.
Such a beautiful bird – as I observed it I noticed that it lacked any under-wing white patches, but its uniform feather coloring and uniform-length flight feathers indicated that it was probably a first-year hatch bird. It appears it has lost one of its left secondary feathers, which initially made me think perhaps it was older and undergoing a molt, but I still think this bird is a hatch year bird (meaning it hatched this spring).
As it glided back past me and rejoined the group of vultures, a dark morph Red-Tailed Hawk took exception to its presence and launched after the Eagle from its perch among a grove of eucalyptus trees, screaming loudly as it flapped quickly towards the larger bird …
The Red-Tail launched into the kettle and did a few dives at the Eagle, but they were half-hearted attempts – more bark than bite. The kettle of vultures, with the Eagle still flying in it, slowly floated away from the Red-Tail’s territory as it retreated back to a perch in the trees.
Here in the West, especially towards the coast it seems, we have more frequent occurrence of “dark morph” Red-Tails (they have a very diverse variety of feather patterns and tones), and often I’ve seen people mistake these birds for Eagles. To the untrained eye, this is totally understandable. But when you see the two together, there is little doubt about the ID. Golden Eagles are quite a bit larger, have distinctly different plumage when observed closely, different wing shapes, and different shapes/silhouettes when viewed from below. Turkey Vultures are only slightly smaller than Eagles, and both can hold their wings in a slight dihedral shape when soaring – to the naked eye they can appear very similar – but upon viewing them with binoculars, they also have very different silhouettes and feather colors, and an experienced observer can distinguish the two from each other even without binoculars.
It was really fun to see all the Vultures, the Eagle and the dark Red-Tail on this beautiful NorCal “summer” day.
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.
First off, let me say that I don’t count myself as a “birder” – not in the commonly understood definition of it, anyway. I’m not into checking boxes by a species and keeping track of my life bird count. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why people do it, and I’m happy they enjoy it. It’s just not me (so don’t call me a birder).
But I do love birds, and find myself drawn to them in particular among all my relations in the plant and animal world. For me, it is the interaction, the connection, with these other lifeforms that is the real juiciness. That is what drives my passion to be out in nature – genuine connection. Often that takes the form of simply witnessing … which in and of itself is extremely rewarding. Sometimes it’s not even seeing the animal, just its track & sign. But occasionally there’s an actual interaction, and when it happens – on the animal’s terms – it is magical. Sometimes too, it’s the story that accompanies a sighting that makes it memorable. It’s always about the story though, isn’t it?
So the appearance of a black hawk in Sonoma County – while certainly alluring to birders who get to check another box on their list – is of more interest than just that. It is also a unique love story.
Not only has a black hawk (normally native to texas, arizona, new mexico and points south) chosen to make its home here, it has taken a mate of another species (no, it’s not me) – a red-shoulder hawk!
I started watching the nest about a month ago after being notified of its whereabouts by some friends at West County Hawk Watch. It is located in a tall eucalyptus tree, and not easily viewed due to a lot of other trees around it (and private property). My first day there, they were brooding and I got to see two nest exchanges. Initially the black hawk was on the nest, then after a bit of time she started to make some vocalizations that reminded me of a kestrel. A few moments later, a red-shouldered hawk appeared in the air and flew to the nest, taking over incubation duties for enough time for the black hawk to stretch and do a little bit of preening. Then she was back on the nest – but not until she grabbed another few branches to add to it …
I’ve returned to the nest a number of times since, most recently on Sunday. It was a very hot day with temperatures in the upper 90’s (f), and when I arrived the black hawk was in the nest panting (black feathers are an interesting feature on a bird that typically lives in the hot dry desert?!). Once I set up a scope, my eye was treated to what I had been hoping to see – a fuzzy white head! There is at least one baby!
I had heard that this same couple, the black hawk and the red-shouldered hawk, had young last year. I felt lucky to get to see it with my own eyes. What will this little creature grow up to look like? Time will tell, and I hope to have updates soon as the little one grows and starts to get its first set of feathers.
I never saw the red-shoulder on Sunday, likely because I was there during the hottest part of the day when there is little animal activity (they are smarter than me, evidently). The pictures were digi-scoped, so they aren’t the best quality, but it allowed me to capture this exciting occasion.
Thanks to Larry Broderick and Yvonne Motherwell for sharing the location of the nest and supporting efforts to document and spend time witnessing these amazing animals.
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.
Both tracks look like front left for each animal, which is pretty cool. Amazing detail in the fox track, you can see the hair impressions in the mud silt – also, it’s not often that the claws register (gray foxes have semi-retractable claws and are able to climb trees).
On this picture you can see the owl-like facial disk that Northern harriers wear:
Northern harriers are found in open grass and marsh lands (historically called the “marsh hawk”), and they tend to fly low over the landscape in search of small mammals, insects and lizards which are one of their main sources of prey. They have a small facial disk, similar to owls, and it is believed they use this to use focus sound when hunting in the same way that it is said that owls do.
Males and females are sexually dimorphic, meaning in this case that they have very different adult plummages. Males are white and gray with black on the wingtips of the primary feathers, while females (and sub-adults) are dark brown overall with a cinnamon or pumpkin coloring on their underside (sub-adults tend to have more of a cinnamon coloring). One of their features that is helpful for in-flight ID is their white rump patch, seen on all of them. They also tend to hold their wings in a slight dihedral (v-shape), while gliding low over the ground.
Interesting, these birds nest on the ground.
They are fun to watch, as they glide over the landscape almost like butterflies teetering in the wind.
Want to get better at shooting birds in flight? Try practicing on tree swallows flying over a river catching insects … in poor light. Everything else becomes much easier, let me tell you! Just to remain standing and not spun around and on my face in the sand or river was a minor success.
The osprey were out and about as well, with two or three pairs fishing and perched in the area. There are many nests around the river and out towards the coast in Sonoma County, always amazing to see these birds in action. They seemed as interested in me as I was in them …
Watching it all unfold was a tree full of vultures, trying to warm up on a chilly and foggy West County morning on the river.
We saw a dark morph ferruginous hawk in Sonoma County the other week (!!), it’s been hanging around with a light morph ferruginous hawk in an area that also has at least one dark morph red-tailed hawk (probably the one that I photographed and posted here from last year). A rare treat in Sonoma County to see ferruginous hawks of any plumage – the largest hawk native to the United States.