beautiful day up on hawk hill, filled with friends, hazy blue skies, and a good number of migrating birds and butterflies.
as i arrived there we had a great look at a merlin that flew not too far overhead (a merlin is a type of small falcon, larger than a kestrel but smaller than a peregrine falcon) – it appeared to be a juvenile. they are fairly uncommon here in the bay area, but they pass through during migration time from their breeding grounds to the north – and in the time of short days we get a boost in the population as some choose to spend the winter here.
the humans congregated on top of the hill with their scopes and binos, calling out every moving bird within a couple of miles. it’s a rather bizarre experience, to see all these people perched on the high hill for hours at a time every day for three months of the year, but wonderful that so many committed volunteers take their time to do this. as everyone was focused afar, two resident ravens, a male and female pair, landed very close by to watch the watchers.
we chuckled as we realized that i was watching the birds, who were watching the other people, who were watching the other birds! these two hung around for quite a while, intrigued by the activity of the people (and likely looking for some dropped food as well). occasionally they would come very close to each other, making quiet croaking noises as one of them would groom the other’s face area. it was so endearing. and at such close quarters, in the bright sun, i could really see the intelligence in their eyes. amazing, beautiful animals.
we saw a lot of accipiters today, as expected, but were also treated to a number of ferruginous hawks, several merlins, and some late-in-the-day peregrines. after most people had packed up for the day and i was leaving the hill, a red-tail floated overhead to hunt the area and allowed for some really fun pictures …
the colors on this bird are amazing, and for an adult it has a very light eye (iris). so beautiful. thank you, my good friend!
as always happens when one packs up to leave, birds start showing themselves and tempting you to stay. as i started down the trail, one last juvenile northern harrier tried to keep me on the hill.
After a twilight meander in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, as I was leaving the park and driving through a heavily wooded riparian area, I saw a small form pop out of the shadows on the side of the road. I stopped. A second form popped up along side the first. Moments later, a third little form darted across the road from the other direction! Small canines with white tips on their tails and black on the backs of their ears – red fox kits! I returned two nights later in hopes that they were still using the same den, and I was in luck. Using my vehicle as a blind, I was able to get some shots of the four kits along with a grainy shot of one of the adults who came by briefly. I’m guessing they are about five weeks old.
The kits were particularly intrigued by a sound in the vegetation on the hill behind their den, which turned out to be a black-tailed mule deer feeding. The deer eventually came down on the road, and it was like a scene from a Disney movie with all the fox kits, a deer, and one of the adult foxes all just milling about on the road. The deer seemed unfazed by all the foxes, but the kits were fascinated with this long-legged creature that came in their midst.
There was a street lamp that gave some light to the area, but as you can see the light was far from ideal for clear photos. I was happy to be able to capture what I was given.
Here is a shot of one of the adults to give a scale to the size of the kits …
Watching them play and wander around the area was magical, they were curious about their surrounding but still stayed within about 20 feet of the den. When an occasional car would drive by, they would dive into the storm drain, wait a few moments, then little heads would pop out to see if the area was clear. They still weren’t in full control of their bodies yet, tripping over their own legs and bowling over each other with little attacks and hops. When the adult was present, they exuberantly raced to “attack,” or just to nuzzle and see if mom or dad had some food or a new toy (there were feathers from several species of birds around the den, the kits seemed to be playing with them at times).
After about 10 minutes, the four furry bodies started to slow down, and two had already disappeared back into the den. With a few final stretches, the remaining two went back in the den to rest after their short play time.
This was my first encounter with red foxes in this area, and though they aren’t unusual in urban areas around the country, I was somewhat surprised to see them. I spend a lot of time in this area and haven’t seen anything but gray foxes and coyotes so far. LOTS of gray foxes and coyotes. The grays tend to stay in the heavily wooded areas not far from the riparian creek zone lower in this park, the coyotes rule in the more open areas higher in the park where cows are still grazed.
I find it ironic that often densities and sighting of wild animals are higher near human development. It’s always a little perplexing and slightly embarrassing when I spend a lot of time out in the more “wild” areas and don’t see as many wild animals, then upon returning into more urban or suburban areas suddenly they are all over the place. I get excited about seeing a bobcat out in a park, then I see a story about a 14 year old kid snapping a pic of a wild mountain lion in his aunt’s backyard with a cell phone. C’mon! Seriously? Especially now though, in the middle of a drought, this is not surprising. Water is more available near human development, and prey animals tend to be attracted to the vegetation and other larder sources around human development – gardens, garbage, etc. And where they prey go, the predators follow. This is a simplified explanation, as wildlife corridors also factor into areas where animals can be found, but it generally holds true it seems.
The red foxes that are found in the Bay Area are usually considered non-native, a lineage of red foxes that descends from European red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) that were introduced into the U.S. for hunting and fur harvest long ago. They have been extremely successful in adapting to life here, especially in urban areas – but often to the detriment of many native species. Their presence can be divisive due to this, but then again so is the presence of feral cats.
To complicate things, there are at least two other identified red fox species in California, and they are actually natives – one is called the Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necatur) and is extremely rare. That fox has only been currently been identified as living in the Sierra Nevadas and Cascades, East and North of the Central Valley. Recent research though has also identified what is being called a sub-species of the native Sierran red foxes, and these are found in the Central Valley and called, creatively, Central Valley red foxes (Vulpes vulpes patwin). Confusing!! So, there is a possibility of these foxes being native, or a hybrid, but given the proximity to the immediate Bay area, and the ecology, odds are probably more in favor of it being of the introduced type. The ecology is what seems to define where these species can be found (Central Valley preferring open grassland habitat, Sierra preferring montane zones, and non-natives thriving in marsh, riparian, and urban areas). Interbreeding seems a likely possibility, but research still seems scant.
Here and here is some interesting information on the Central Valley red fox (V.v. patwin). And this is an interesting blog post from 2010 about the Sierra Nevada red fox.
I will mention that when I saw the adult fox (albeit under poor lighting), it appeared different than I expected – less fur (shorter coat) and more subdued coloring, almost like a coyote. But, given the brief encounter and the poor light, that doesn’t mean much. I’ve seen at least one other online posting of a nearby sighting of a red fox in or near Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, but they certainly don’t seem to be common there (or at least commonly sighted). Most of the sighting seem to occur at parks in the more marshy areas closer to the Bay.
The native versus non-native investigation still seems to be evolving with regard to red fox populations here, it will be interesting to see what future research reveals.
Regardless of the genetic make-up and heritage of these animals, it was a delight to watch them play and to know that another wild animal is surviving and making a living here in the shadow of human civilization. We are inundated with news of how animals are negatively impacted due to human influence, so it’s reassuring to sometimes see first-hand a “success.” There are few things that lift the heart more than watching puppies or kittens, but to see wild ones close and in person is a whole other experience, one that I am truly thankful for and will never forget.
Ahh, where to begin. This post has taken me a long time to get up because one day of tracking can yield volumes of stories and tales!
Our day at Abbott’s Lagoon a few weeks ago began with a morning of warm sunshine, after a few days of very cold temperatures and rain – as we started out towards the sand dunes near the beach we saw quite a few black-tailed mule deer in groups of over ten individuals. There was a herd of males of all different ages in an adjacent field, their antlers varying from sprouts to full racks. They seemed to be frolicking in the warm sun, play sparring and hopping around each other like fawns on a beautiful spring day. What really caught our eyes though was another group of deer to our north … one of them was standing guard to the west and not even our presence took this doe’s attention off something towards the eastern lagoon. Her behavior queued us in to another presence that warranted her attention more than humans. It had to be a predator.
As her group grazed, she seemed to be doing some tracking of her own. We decided to see what it was that garnered such focused attention, and we moved quietly across the chaparral to investigate. As we moved west, the look-out deer finally broke her sentry post and they all moved on to the east. We didn’t see what had attracted her attention, so we started to investigate the area where the deer were grazing to see what was for breakfast. As we moved west through the brush though, our efforts were rewarded as the hard ground gave way to add a character to the story by yielding a single clue … a fresh bobcat track in some soil upturned by a gopher!
We were able to trail it for a distance, the fresh tracks sometimes not visible at all, occasionally popping out for us to see in some loose soil after losing the trail for 20 feet at a time. With great reluctance after trailing the cat for 500 yards, we abandoned our search to see the maker of the tracks to continue on our journey towards the dunes. I would be rewarded later though …
Once at the sand dunes, we saw an explosion of activity that indicated many animals were eager to be out after so many days of cold and/or rain. Another bobcat made some nice trails, along with black-tailed mule deer, river otters, coyotes, gray fox, great-blue herons, ravens, deer mice, beetles, brush rabbits, skunks, opossum, raccoon, and more. There was a lot of skunk sign, and we postulated that they were very active after a short period of torpor (similar to hibernation) that left them hungry and in search of mates. Deer mouse sign was also everywhere, their small tracks making trails all over the dunes.
The evidence of another saga soon played out on the sand dunes before me – a bobcat trail that showed what I determined to be a recently captured brush rabbit. The trail had drag marks that extended under the cat for 30 yards to a spot where it did tight circles as it either made the final kill or adjusted the prey in its jaws, then sat for a bit. The trail went on then for 20 yards up into some dune grasses where there were bits of rabbit fur and presumably the cat ate its meal.
This particular area usually is thick with coyote sign, and seldom have we seen gray fox sign here – but this day showed evidence of at least one fox that had traveled with purpose around the whole area. The tracks are dainty next to the many coyote tracks, and I was excited to see find the trail.
I trailed one of them for half a mile down the beach, its tracks following the vegetation line at the edge of the beach, at one point going down into the surf area where the water washed away its paw prints at the last high tide before it veered back up to continue on its journey north towards Kehoe Beach (where their sign is much more prevalent according to others familiar with the area). It was a very purposeful gait, seldom stopping to investigate the ocean flotsam along the shore. What spurred this fox on an unhurried yet purposeful journey on the beach? The search for a mate? A territorial scouting mission? Food? It will be interesting to see if there is more sign in the future or if the foxes will remain more north towards Kehoe beach after this.
At one point as I backtracked one of the bobcats, I was excited to catch sight of an American bittern hunting in the floating vegetation on the edge of the east lagoon. Among the live animals I saw this day were great-blue herons, ravens, gulls, two snowy plovers (a very endangered species), red-tailed hawks, white-tailed kites, northern harriers, turkey vultures, yellow-rumped warblers, black-tailed mule deer, a peregrine falcon and …
… a bobcat!
The dunes are ever-shifting, they can be an amazing palette for animal tracks or the tracks of the wind, giving a brief glimpse at the stories played out in the hours before. But the winds eventually wipe the slate clean like words fading on a page, as the dunes make their own tracks across the landscape.
white-tailed kite / Elanus leucurus
There’s something other-worldly about these birds … an ethereal white body like an angel combined with coal-rimmed eyes of deep shining red, they float and dance in the air like a flower petal caught in the wind moving from one invisible island to the next. To get so close to one perched was exciting.
Yes, Christmas will always be bald and white for me with regard to one definition of those terms at this point in my life, but this particular Christmas we were treated to other, more fun benefactors of those descriptors – a snowy Christmas eve yielded a white Christmas morning, and we got quite a show by some local nesting bald eagles.
These are presumably the same birds that have been nesting at this site for the past few years not far from my parent’s house in PA (see my post from last year here). It’s great to see them still successfully using this nest as it is more exposed and closer to human activity than most nests. This is actually a GOOD thing, as it indicates that most of the other more ideal nesting spots and territories around the Susquehanna River are already taken by breeding pairs.
The snow also allowed us to see who was using the landscape … snow tracks! It’s far from wilderness here, but this beautiful agricultural area still has quite a bit of wildlife that manages to survive in an area that continues to have more and more human development replace farms and forests. We were still able to find the tracks in the nearly melted snow of white-tailed deer, cottontail rabbit, and two red fox – and ultimately I was able to find what I think is the red fox den! A couple of red-tailed hawks were hunting in the cold air above us, and we spooked a coopers hawk with a meal from its perch in a grove of fir trees.
I haven’t been lucky enough to see a jaguar in the wild yet, but I did see this fella (lady?) last Thursday at Los Vaqueros Reservoir in Contra Costa County just after sunset.
Hiding just out of sight was this little one, probably trying to avoid being a bobcat breakfast.
It is a surreal landscape here – large mountainous hills that grow out of the flat grassy planes East of Mount Diablo, south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta. It is almost completely devoid of trees, other than a small riparian area at the dam outlet, but once atop any of the peaks that surround the reservoir, there must be thousands of giant wind turbines in sight. It’s staggering the number of turbines in view, for as far as the eye can see in some directions, over land that has been cleared for grazing.
Ironically, this general area has the highest concentration of nesting golden eagles in the world. It is home to many raptor and bird species, and has also been shown to be a main migration route for birds in the Autumn and Spring. It probably goes without saying that wind turbines and soaring birds don’t go well together (not for the birds, certainly). The mortality rate of golden eagles in this region is high due to collisions with the wind turbine blades, and is probably under-reported.
It’s hard to determine visually where the wind farms end or if they are part of different farms – to the north is the Shiloh Wind Power Plant, and to the south is Altamont Pass Wind Farm (of notorious history, for its vastly negative impact on raptor and other bird species). They are two of the four largest wind farms in CA. I’m not sure who owns the ones pictured above, I suspect it’s part of the Altamont Pass Wind Farm. The picture below shows a view to the north from above the reservoir – if you look closely you can see a LARGE number of turbines stretching across the horizon. I suspect these are part of Shiloh Wind Power Plant. It’s hard to differentiate where they start or end though because the turbines seem to be concentrated densely there to the north, then they sporadically run from that point far to the north all along the eastern edge of the Diablo range, then southeast towards Altamont Pass and out of sight.
Despite the jarring visual impact, these turbines are “green energy” and certainly have a lot of benefits over other energy production techniques. They are part of the compromise that we currently must make in our effort to satisfy energy demands while still attempting to minimize our impact on the environment – both to the creatures who live there now, and in a global capacity long term. No easy answers. No black and white.
Every day the sun rises though, and the cycle of life continues. Coyote doesn’t care so much about politics.
Ah!! The rains are here in abundance, and everything on the land rejoices!
The snails, slugs and salamanders have come out.
(yes, that is a quarter next to this tiny being)
The California slender salamander is from 7-13 cm in total length. They breath exclusively through their skin! Because of this, it’s always a good idea to handle them minimally (or not at all) – also, some species of salamanders actually have strong neurotoxin that if ingested can kill a human (California Newt). The California newt secretes tetrodotoxin, which is 100 times more potent than cyanide!
I must admit they’re kind of cute. They have muppet-like four-toed feet on those tiny little legs, and do more slithering than walking.
This small garden snail has a shell that looks like it is made of pure gold.
A slug on a budding flower was doing its thing – the yard at night is magical after the rains!
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.