Probably the last of this waxing moon we’ll see this month, due to the coming storm. Beautiful night.
After a day of what could be the last rain of the season, I decided to motivate myself for a much needed attitude adjustment. I was grumpy, and pretty unmotivated. I knew if I went out for a wander/hike, things might shift. I figured “future Zach” might really appreciate “past Zach” more if “current Zach” got off the couch.
It was just before sunset, and the clouds were starting to break up, yielding some blue sky and a beautiful setting sun sometimes shining from behind the clouds. The puffy clouds that were left after the rain were now highlighted in beautiful pinks, purples, and oranges. The air was calm and there was a divine serene quality to the light and the moment.
I wasn’t far into my wander when I heard a lot of raven sounds. It’s not unusal to see them in this area, but usually they are moving around, soaring, and don’t typically hang around one particular area for too long. And usually they are in pairs here. As I turned a bend, I started to see them. Some were flying, some were perched or hopping around a grove of eucalyptus trees. There were at least four or five ravens, and I stopped to watch and listen. At first I thought perhaps it was a young family of newly fledged ravens, just playing on the hillside and in the grove of trees. They didn’t necesarily seem focused on anything in particular, but I decided to circle around to the other side of the eucs to get a better look.
I’ve written before that in the northern part of Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, I have never seen definitive bobcat sign nor a live bobcat in the three years that I have been going there (ironic, given its name!!). My explanation was that due to the open grassland and minimal cover in this area (most of it is grazed by cattle for fire suppression), coyotes are the dominate predator because they can adapt to the terrain better. Between the lack of cover and proliferation of coyotes, it is not ideal bobcat terrain. Not only that, many people walk their dogs in this area, and again, coyotes are better equipped to deal with that scenario. Bobcats like to be near edges of vegetation, so they can easily “disappear” to escape threats. Further south in Wildcat Canyon, there are more chapparal and riparian zones with lots of cover, and sure enough I’ve found (and seen) bobcats and their sign there.
That all changed a few months ago. I was out after dark in the northern part of Wildcat and somehow in the dim light I spotted a single cat track in a patch of mud on a lightly used cow trail in an area under eucalytus trees and close to more dense cover (other trees, poison oak, blackberry, coyote brush, etc).
Then, in the middle of April, I was on a run passing through the same general area and I spotted fairly fresh bobcat scat. It was classic bobcat scat – sometimes coyote scat can be a similar size and they can be confused, but not this one. It definitely tasted like bobcat scat (joke).
The evidence was mounting that a bobcat had moved into the area.
Back to tonight …
As I came around the other side of the euc trees I saw two ravens side-by-side on a branch, not very high up (probably 20 feet). They were very vocal and seemed to be focused on something on the ground. I paused, then slowly approached through the tall grass. As I got about 1/4 of the distance to them, what pops out from behind some tall grass? A bobcat!!
I froze. It froze. It thought I hadn’t seen it, so it slowly backed behind the grass, crouched then slowly turned around and started to go the other way. I quickly backtracked to the trail and returned in the direction I had come in hopes that I would see it try to circle back around me. As I did this, I kept track of what the ravens were doing – they had watched the whole encounter happen and now I realized they had absolutely been following this cat. As I paused in the trail after about 20 yards to listen and gauge my next move, the ravens flew over the area directly in front of me and circled a few times. They were tracking the bobcat and giving away its location! Sure enough, in about 10 seconds it appeared at the edge of the trail only 15 feet from me. We gazed at each other, and it slowly crossed the trail, pausing at the other side to study me. Slowly it moved in a circle around me and then passed, stopping to watch me at a number of times. OF COURSE I didn’t have my good camera rig with me, but, I was able to really enjoy a few moments of being close to this amazing animal – and snap a bad pic with my cell phone.
I love when “bird language” gives clues like this about what is happening on a landscape. That is part of the fun of being out there and staying aware – and no matter how many times it happens to me, it always seems like magic. So fun.
Right after that encounter, I saw a California newt on the trail – likely returning from a vernal pond where it bred, to seek refuge in the leaf litter under some trees during the warm and dry months of summer. I’m always thrilled to see these little salamanders.
Another 50 yards up the trail, as I went off-trail and into some thick cover, I heard and then saw an agitated Cooper’s hawk fly into the eucs where I was headed. Then I heard two great-horned owls respond, irritated about the irritated Cooper’s hawk! The Coop flew off, so I proceeded on. A loud rustling sound quickly caught my attention and I watched as a turkey flew up into some high boughs of a eucalyptus tree to roost for the night. As I walked under to get a better look, I heard the Coop again. I backtracked down the trail to where I had been before, and there in a dead tree was one of the great-horned owls, sitting very calmly with a backdrop of Richmond, Mt Tam, and a twilight sky. And right by it on the other side of the tree was the Cooper’s hawk, protesting loudly. Occasionally it would fly off and then return. This scene continued for about five minutes, and finally both birds departed. I am convinced there is a Cooper’s hawk nest adjacent to the area where the great-horned owl nest is. As I started to walk away, I heard a few juvenile red-tailed hawk calls in the background – hopefully I’ll see them fledged and playing in the area soon.
“Current Zach” is very pleased that “past Zach” got off the couch. Thank you, thank you, to this Land – this Land that has given me so much. The fact that we have such amazing parks so close to an urban area is a testament to the conservation efforts and hard work of so many people here – and I am grateful. Also very exciting that a bobcat has moved into the area, I hope to get to see it more!
The owls are back in their autumn cycle, starting to claim their territories.
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!
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.
I couldn’t help but smile in the dwindling light tonight, as my footfalls fell softly on the soft wet ground to a chorus of water drips falling from the leaves around me. It hasn’t been often this year to feel the rain drops on my face – hopefully we continue to get some more before the usual rainy season ends in a month or so.
As I reached the high ground on my short wander in Wildcat Canyon, the winds started to pick up and the rain became heavier. I gave a couple of hoots at a spot where I usually see one of the pairs of owls, and after a few steps I saw one of them perched out on a branch in his “transition” spot where he goes just before heading out to hunt. He was hunkered down in the direction of the wind and rain to the west, leaning over to allow the gusts to flow around his feathery coat. But after a few moments, he seemed to think it a better idea to go back to bed, and he returned into the deeper woods of Monterey Pine and Douglas Fir where he took a few moments to give a few hoots.
As I hopped down the side of the hill, I noticed a number of newts were also out enjoying the rain. Towards the bottom near the parking area, I found one of them enjoying some breakfast – an earth worm!
It only took the newt about a minute or two to finish the worm, which didn’t seem to struggle all that much. After it was done, it walked off into the canopy of some milk thistle on the side of the path.
I love newt feet.
The newts I saw tonight are likely the California Newt, Taricha torosa – hard to differentiate from the rough-skinned newt (Taricha granilosa) which is also found in this area.
Let it rain!
sometimes you find things in the least expected places, and that is part of the beauty of trying to stay aware as a tracker when you wander – constantly switching between the micro and the macro. looking in new ways and trying to be tuned into the track or sign that could be underfoot, while at the same time staying present to the live coyote that could be on the landscape ahead of me or the eagle that could be soaring above. a lot to track. that’s why i love the wander … it is a meditation, a whole-body/mind/spirit tuning practice that connects me to the land and its wonders. its the wonder wander.
as i moved through a zone of trees that sandwiched a seasonal creek bed that cuts through the landscape, i noticed a cow vertebra in the trunk of a bay laurel tree. uhh, strange. it had been there for a while – the tree had actually grown around it! who created this curious forest decor? perhaps it is some bigfoot feng shui? that is the most obvious answer, of course – though i would say this could also be a remnant of the Clovis culture, or even more probable the work of a werewolf. maybe an old prototype for an Al Jourgenson microphone stand?
regardless of its origins, what was really cool about this bone tree-fixture, was the little world around it. there were short mammal hairs on the trunk of the tree right by it, spider webs all around it, a sow bug just hanging out on it, and there were also a lot of rodent gnawings on it too (rodents love to nibble on bones and antlers for the calcium, and perhaps to also help trim their teeth). truly a work of living (and dead) art.
my “short wander” – in between the storms this week that are delivering much needed rain to our lands – turned into a “slightly” longer foray than expected. because of the rains that just passed and the storms rolling in, the animals seemed eager to use the clear skies to feed and frolic and flirt … the owls were hooting extremely early, and even flying around hours before sunset, while the red-tails were screaming and dancing in their courtship displays. the night shift and day shift were doubled up, and it was fun to see and hear it all at the same time. it was not necessarily an ideal time to be a ground squirrel or gopher, and they were on high alert.
with the wet weather and reduced people/dog/cattle movement, i was excited to finally get some clear coyote tracks of some of the family i’ve seen the last few weeks …
it’s always hard for me to leave, i usually feel like i should be making a nest under a bay tree and settling in for the night with the rest of the beasts. as i left, i spent a bit of time with what was likely my third set of owls that i saw today (and possibly one set of four to six in the immediate area!). they weren’t up as early as some of the others that i had seen previously in the day, but they were hooting and calling to each other with a lot of intensity. they finally came together in the boughs of a eucalyptus tree, then headed off up the hill to hunt before the rains came.
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!
I’m getting to know the pack a little better, there are quite a few in this regional park just five minutes from my house. Not only that, there is apparently a ferruginous hawk overwintering in one of the more remote valleys, along with many red-tailed hawks and great-horned owls. And I finally saw some fresh bobcat sign – I was starting to wonder if this park needed to be renamed Coyote Canyon.
This drought is brutal – but, looking at the positive side, I was able to wander until well after sunset comfortably with just a t-shirt on. Well, and pants too. The views from on high in that park are spectacular, with single views spanning San Fran, GG Bridge, Mt Tam, San Fran Bay, San Pablo Bay and lots of the East Bay.
I came upon a new pair of coyotes today, and before we all saw each other, one of them started howling about 20 yards from me – at which point the valley I was in erupted with at least half a dozen answering howls, as well as some in adjacent valleys nearby. The pair was very surprised by my presence when we finally bumped into each other – it’s a relatively remote spot in the park.
Hopefully I’ll have some more pictures soon.