Thursday, May 27, 2010

Nest Searching

I was off work a little early today to pick the kids up from school, so I used the extra daylight hours to do one of my favorite things – nest searching.

Sounds easy right? Wrong! Nest searching requires a lot of time and even more patience. When birds are protecting eggs and nestlings they can be incredibly cautious and stealthy. If they get a notion that they are being watched travelling to or from the nest they will change their route to approach from another direction, stay away for extended periods of time or try to lead the voyeur away from their dwelling.

There are various ways to search for nest: some intrusive and some more benign. The more intrusive methods are typically conducted for serious biological research, where the searcher must assess the number of nesting birds in a given area, these can include such things as chain-dragging (!?) or systematically walking with a sweeping stick and flushing the birds from their nest (both methods for use in areas of tall grass nesting birds). Less intrusive, much more time consuming but also more rewarding are searching by behavioral observation. This method requires extended periods of observation, watching adult birds for clues that they have a nest nearby. Clues that can tip an observer off to the presence of a nest include: 1. Alarm ‘chipping’ (a series of distressed chip notes), 2. Flushing when the observer is within 5 meters and flying only a short distance. 3. Nest material, food or fecal sacs (tiny bundles containing excrement) being carried. 4. Male and female birds remaining in close association with one another. 5. Distraction displays. 6. Repeated flights to the same spot and 7. The ‘begging’ vocalizations of nestlings.

It was that ‘begging’ sound that caught my ear this afternoon as I patiently watched a large, dense patch of Manzanita. I was hoping to prove that the Nashville warbler that has been singing from this spot for the past month-and-a-half has a nest nearby. While I did find my Nashville, still singing regularly from a variety of perches, I could neither find an associated female or reliably detect any of the other expected ‘telltales’. But what was immediately obvious was the incessant ‘tikking’ of a group of small birds moving erratically from bush to bush.

My first thought was bushtits – the sound was reminiscent of their stuttering vocalizations. But mixed in was a partial song, a short but sweet trill that sounded like orange-crowned warbler. Before long I was able to focus briefly on an adult orange-crowned. The bird seemed to be accompanied by a swarm of frenetic activity. In short order I found the source of the sound and movement, as a fledgling orange-crowned warbler fluttered it’s stubby wings in an insistent gesture meaning “feed me”! Two to three others chased the parent bird from bush to bush, demanding to be fed.

Overhead, a small shadow bounded from across the road into a hole at the top of a slender, long dead black oak. Another flurry of begging sounds came from the hole and moments later the shadow, actually an adult red-breasted nuthatch, reappeared at the entrance to the cavity and bounded off to get more food.

These are the reasons that I so enjoy nest searching. Sure it’s time consuming, but the rewards of observing birds during this exciting time are well worth the investment.

photo by Joseph Higbee

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Big and Green

Our goal last Sunday was to find and record as many Butte County bird species as we could in 24 hours using only human power; a completely non-motorized ’Green’ Big Day. In the end there were still more birds to see, but there was a shortage of energy left to find them! We began just after midnight about 2 miles above Jonesville, playing owl tapes to deaf ears. After 4 hours of sleep we roused at 4:55 to try for owls again but the sky was already quite light and flocks of evening grosbeaks were vocalizing loudly. Flycatchers, warblers and woodpeckers joined the dawn chorus and by 6:30 a.m. we had already tallied over 35 species.

From Jonesville we mounted up and rode the 12 mostly downhill miles to Highway 32, finding an additional dozen montane species along the way. At the intersection of Hwy 32 and the road to Butte Meadows we stopped briefly to shed some clothing (which we hid in the crotch of a tree to be retrieved later) and snack. Suddenly Liam called out “Dad! Do you hear that WINTER WREN”? I cocked my head and could barely make out a long, tittering song. “Maybe” I replied. A hundred yards away, across the highway, over an embankment and down into an overgrown creek we found the singer, stubby tail cocked, ‘teed-up’ in the blackberry brambles and singing his heart out. Not an easy bird to find in Butte County - we were thrilled to add him to our growing list, and high-fived each other briefly before resuming our trek.

The next 35 downslope miles to Chico, including a stop in Forest Ranch, took approximately two hours and added almost 40 additional species. Once on the valley floor we turned south and immediately found our target Rock Wren and Horned Lark but failed to locate the single remaining Lewis’ woodpecker that had been along Potter Road just a week earlier. We then headed up Butte Creek Canyon to the Preserve to add some riparian birds to our list.

At the Butte Creek Ecological Preserve, while standing on a narrow point of land with the creek on one side and a 4 foot drop into a blackberry tangle on the right I spied a Spotted Sandpiper downstream and, turning to shout the news to Liam slid off the point and into the berries, relying on my teammate to pull me out…this being my second fall of the day!

Our next destination was the Chico Oxidation Ponds perhaps 7 miles away. We stopped into a couple of convenience stores along the way to supplement our meager supplies as energy levels began to fall, but a sighting of a leucistic Blue Grosbeak across the street from 3620 River Road buoyed us, as did Eurasian collared-dove, Yellow-billed Magpie and a number of new finds at the ponds.

From the Oxidation ponds our next goal was the Llano Seco Unit of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. The winding trip down River Road and Seven Mile Lane was a grind but the diagnostic "fitz-bew" of a Willow flycatcher in the willows just north of the refuge provided a short jolt of energy, as did breeding plumaged Wilson’s Phalarope and a tardy Snow Goose mixed with a flock of honkers.
At Llano Seco the standing water of just a week ago had evaporated from one of the south ponds at the unit and so had the black-bellied plovers and black terns of just seven days ago.

At 6 p.m., with the final stop on our hoped for itinerary 10 miles away and strong headwind blowing, we decided to call it a day. Adding up our list from a bench with a view of mountains and valley we were thrilled with the final totals: 13.5 hours of birding, 3 miles by foot, 72 miles on bikes, 125 species.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Candles and Alligators

My daughter Alita and I were the first to arrive Saturday morning to begin setting out chairs and decorations for the annual Candles in the Canyon dinner at the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve. Candles is the Reserve’s primary public fund-raising opportunity for projects that benefit wildlife research, needed equipment purchases, youth education programs and student research projects. It is a popular‘alfresco event, well attended by a who’s who of area V.I.P.’s.

After running out of chores Alita climbed a vintage fig tree near the transformed corral where participants would dine later in the evening. Calling me away from decorating tables, Alita directed me to get my camera ready and cautiously walk toward an old fence post under the tree. There, enjoying the warming weather from a hidden vantage point was a beautiful foot long alligator lizard.

Alligator lizards are common in the foothills right now, emerging from their winter torpor to warm their blood in the spring sunshine, I’ve probably seen 4 of them in the past week.
Our local representative of the group Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata is the California Alligator Lizard, which can be found from sea level to 5,000 feet, and from the Mexican border to our border with Oregon and beyond. Up to 12” in total length E. multicarinata multicarinata ranges in color from brown to gray with yellow tones and yellow eyes. A keel-scaled lizard (each scale with a central ridge), it has a fold of skin along each side that allows it’s body to expand or retract to accommodate a big meal or egg production.

One of the most unique features of alligator lizards (and a number of other lizards) is their detachable tails. A terrific defense ploy, the lizards have the ability to ‘release’ half of their tail when threatened. Once detached the tail writhes enticingly for up to 5 minutes, inviting would be predators to ignore the lizard end and attack the tail end. The tail eventually grows back though never to it’s original full glory.

The opportunity to observe this alligator lizard, as well as numerous bird, insect, flower and mammal species, is precisely the reason that this special Reserve is celebrated and supported by so many in our community.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Verbena Fields...of Lupine.

I was asked to assist the City of Chico in surveying their newest city park for avian species, naturally I said yes…I don’t know who was happier! Dan Efseaff, the town’s Park and Natural Resource Manager emailed me a list of ‘points’ specific locations that will be used consistently to watch and listen for birds, as well as an approved ‘protocol’ a list of standards for documenting species detected.

I visited the site the afternoon before my count…WOW! The last time a I’d seen the place it was an expansive gray plain of gravel with pockets of scraggly trees. In the interim it has been transformed into a vibrant field of wildflowers, with small groves of oaks, grassy swales and patches of newly planted native trees and shrubs. Interpretive signs explained the transformation.

Unlike many urban or suburban parks that feature acres of sod surrounding a playground or ball-field, Verbena Fields Park is more of a playground for wildlife. After decades of gravel mining eliminated most all of the native topography and vegetation, the City purchased the property and worked diligently to create a more natural and wildlife-friendly landscape, that included removing a large gravel berm along the creek, creating two ‘bioswales’ to leach pollution from suburban runoff, and removing and recycling concrete and other scrap materials littering the site. The portion of the park bordering seasonal Sandy Gulch was terraced and planted with willows and cottonwoods to provide better habitat for migrating salmon. The whole of the park was seeded with native grasses and forbs. The most unique aspect of the restoration project is the effort made to honor the native Mechoopda indians by reintroducing plants that were once used by the tribe (actually 23 separate villages) for basket weaving and medicinal purposes. An Interpretive Garden and Gathering Circle has been provided so that present day Mechoopda can engage in and teach their traditional principles and practices.

So how about those birds? The recently restored area was actually quite rich in both resident and migratory species. Cedar waxwings foraged in large groups of a dozen or more in the tall cottonwoods outside of the periphery of the site, while American crows could be observed carrying food to nestlings. A pair of Mallards loafed in the remaining pools of water in disappearing Sandy Gulch while a red-shouldered hawk perched vigilantly in a snag overhead. Maturing oaks held summering wabling vireo, Wilson’s warbler, western tanager and Bullock’s oriole.

Who needs swings and a slide when one can delight in observing native creatures in a playground of their own?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Young Prince

One of my favorite lunch-time walks is along old Humboldt Road between Bruce Road and it’s meeting with Highway 32. The scenery and the wildlife change with the season; the brown grass of early winter full of newly arrived sparrows and the blossoming shrubs of spring alive with warblers and buntings. The lengthening days and the warming soil of May also bring out the earth-bound wildlife; small mammals, amphibians and reptiles, obliging one to look down as well as up every once in awhile.

So it was as I neared the end of my hour walk. I’d been preoccupied looking for rufous-crowned sparrows – unsuccessfully, when I was surprised by a striking black and white line on the ground in front of me. Snapping out of my daze I focused on a petite, glossy young California King Snake just two feet away. I grabbed my camera as he made for the taller grass but decided it would be better to take his picture ‘in the hand’ rather than risk losing him in the weeds. He was a gentle and cooperative captive as I snapped a few pictures and then released him farther from the road.

The California King Snake Lampropeltis getula californiae is one of our more conspicuous non-venomous snakes, found in most of the state except the northwest coast and high mountains. While adults can grow to 48 inches hatchlings are only about 12 inches long, meaning that the individual I found today is newly hatched. Cal. Kings are constrictors: they kill their prey by squeezing and suffocating it, and their greatest claim-to-fame is that of ‘rattlesnake hunter’ as they are immune to rattlesnake venom and will gladly consume them along with other snakes, lizards, frogs, birds and rodents.

Snakes are extremely vulnerable to development, humans, roads and cars as well as natural predators like red-tailed hawks. Hopefully the handsome young prince I held this morning will grow to become a King someday.

Monday, May 10, 2010

See, I Know This (Ceanothus) The California Lilac

Have we just been too busy to notice or did miles of beautiful creamy white, sky blue and lavender blossoms appear overnight? A blustery gray and wet drive to Chico this morning was framed by a near continuous border of gently swaying clouds of puffy ceanothus blooms. Apparently the unusually moist spring has provided ideal conditions for this showy flowering shrub that for most of the year is an unassuming leafy green bush.

There are over 50 species of Ceanothus, the majority of them found in California, from sea-level to 9000’. Although their blossoms come in many shapes and colors, from ground-hugging small purple balls to head high pendulous white tear-drops, their unique leaf structure of three parallel veins unites them. Besides their visual beauty Ceanothus is one of our most fragrant flowers.

More than just a pretty face California Lilac has many medicinal and functional uses. Native Americans used the plant for treating cysts and tumors, as an herbal tea and for weaving baskets.

Why so many Ceanothus, blooming so profusely this spring? Part of the answer may be wildfires that have plagued our local foothills in recent years – many Ceanothus seeds only germinate in response to wildland fires.

Feathered King of the Forest

Liam and I were out early this morning, letting mom sleep in on her special day. We drove upslope beyond the Butte Meadows area of Butte County until snow blocked the road a mile or so above Jonesville. The area was exceptionally birdy with numerous singing hermit warblers, fox sparrows, evening grosbeaks, Townsend's solitaires, Hammond's flycatchers, white-headed woodpeckers and a possible pileated woodpecker. Mountain quail, the most secretive of the quail clan, were both heard and seen.

About a mile back downslope at the Jonesville Snowmobile Park we had a calling northern goshawk flying overhead for an extended look. My 'hip-shot' call was peregrine falcon - Liam gently corrected me and we were able to check out various fieldmarks of this magnificent predator.

If there is an avian ‘king’ (or queen) of the north American woods it is surely our northern goshawk. Known for their ferocity, especially when defending their nest, these brawny accipiters are named for their ability to bring down prey as large as a goose – the ‘gos’ in goshawk. Goshawks dominate the air-space of forests in north America, Europe and Asia, and have been prized for centuries by falconers who hunt them “off the fist”. While they are normally stealthy and reclusive, we were fortunate see ours during spring nesting season when they are busy building nests, feeding young and vocalizing loudly. By the size of this individual our guess was that this was the larger and heavier female.

While one mom had a rare chance to sleep-in, this mom was likely out hunting up food for some hungry nestlings.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Chat: A Bird True to it’s Name

I met with local ear-birder Mike Skram and natural sound recordist Greg Weddig this morning to look for a bird species named in part for it’s ‘talkative’ ways: the Yellow-breasted Chat. After finding five individuals of this species who apparently only wanted to ‘crow and go’ we finally located a pair of very assertive males who really wanted to ‘chat’ and we were serenaded for 15 minutes.

Yellow-breasted Chat is a unique bird in many ways. Often referred to as “the sound of the rainforest” chats perform an amazingly varied repertoire of whistles, clucks, chortles and squawks that remind many of the diverse sounds of the tropical jungle, which just happens to be where these birds travel from to get here. Chats migrate from as far south as the Darien region of the Panamanian Isthmus and consistently arrive in northern California sometime within the last two weeks of April. Once here the males perform ‘moth-like’ display flights as they establish and then patrol a large breeding territory. Once pairs form the males become much less boisterous and the soft spoken female almost never ventures from the low, dense brush where they build their nest. Chats are nearly as visually vibrant as their songs are rich, with a bright yellow breast and dark-gray mask with white ‘goggles’.

Habitat restoration, and the removal of non-native scotch broom and Himalayan blackberry at the Butte Creek Ecological Preserve prompted resident bird bander Dawn Garcia to seek baseline information on the number of breeders of this species at this location. Busy with a seasonal position surveying birds in the Redding area, Dawn asked Mike Skram and I to assist by conducting a census of Chats defending territories. We both jumped at the chance to search for these entertaining and attractive birds.

Greg Weddig, a seasoned specialist in recording natural sound-scapes was interested in trying out his parabolic dish for targeting individual bird songs. I invited him to join us and he was not disappointed. After attempting to record a number of evasive chats the dueling pair provided some sensational recordings which we hope to incorporate into a pilot radio program.

Upon her return, Dawn will be pleased to learn that we had what we believe to be seven distinct Yellow-breasted Chat territories along the mile stretch of creek within the preserve.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Springtime…Brought to you by Audubon California

Over the last two days my fellow Audubon California board members and myself were shown some of the phenomenal work that the organization has been performing on behalf of birds in northern California.

First stop was the Davis Ranch in Colusa. This 5,000 acre rice and row crop operation adjacent to the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge has been in a farming family for more than 100 years. Previous unenlightened generations of ranchers were proud that “not a single tree grew between the river and western boundary of the ranch”. In collaboration with Audubon a new generation of Davis Ranch farmers see the benefits of sharing the land with nature. Audubon Staffers showed us ‘Riparian corridors’ where swaths of native shrubs and trees are being planted along formerly denuded canals. Narrow rice checks are being widened to provide ‘loafing areas’ for ducks and shorebirds. And miles of ‘edge’ are being allowed to grow feral to encourage repatriation of native species.

Forty-five minutes to the south near Winters we were shown another set of projects that are benefitting upland habitat. The borders of dry creek-beds, overgrazed for decades, are being seeded with native grasses, shrubs and trees like willows and cottonwoods. Nest boxes have been installed to encourage nesting by tree swallows, western bluebirds and American Kestrels. Recently barren fields gave us great looks at white-tailed kites and loggerhead shrikes.

The trip concluded with a BBQ dinner at Audubon’s recently acquired Bobcat Ranch – a 6800 acre jewel of savannah blue oak woodlands in the western coast range, where a small army of staff and volunteers is learning more ways to repair and restore native habitat not only for the benefit of birds, but for the enjoyment of humans in perpetuity.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Half-dollar Sized Home

While visiting a friend yesterday I was excited when she said “you should see the hummingbird nest right outside of my bathroom window”. Needless to say I went right out to have a look.

If I hadn’t known it was there I might have completely overlooked it. On the thin, bare branch of a young ornamental tree a cryptic colored cup sat just above my head level. With a gentle pull of the springy limb I was able to bring it to eye level for a look at the single white egg. Returning the branch to its place I moved twenty feet away and watched the female Anna’s Hummingbird return to her small architectural masterpiece.

Many hummingbirds use spider silk to bind their nest materials together, and it is a treat to watch them go from shrub to shrub collecting the silken threads. Anna’s Hummingbird uses plant down as the primary component of the dwelling and once the structure is completed the exterior is camouflaged with lichens, while the interior is lined with feather down.

This is one of the first active nests I’ve seen this year, typical of Anna’s, a resident bird species which tries to have it’s nesting well underway before migrant hummingbirds like Black-chinned, and Rufous Hummingbird arrive. First perhaps, but probably last as well as she can raise as many as three broods in a nesting season that can last through the end of summer.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What April Showers Brought.

My recollection of over thirty springs spent in Butte County is that by late April most of our grasslands are well on their way to turning light brown and the majority of our showiest wildflowers have withered. With the more-or-less regular waterings we’ve received this spring we can actually begin to understand what is meant by the old saying “April Showers Bring May Flowers”.

About 3 miles east of Chico, near where highway 32 meets old Humboldt Road, a sweeping left turn in the road has hosted an impressive bloom of lupines for the past month. The ongoing precipitation has kept them fresh and colorful, and a delight to drive by every day on my way to the valley from Forest Ranch. Something about the thin layer of soil atop a rocky base seems to encourage wildflower growth, perhaps it’s the heat generated by having the rock so near the surface.

In any case it’s been a rare treat, one that will be fondly remembered when most of the color leaves the hillsides for the long summer.

Monday, April 26, 2010


Click 'PLAY' button above for the associated video.
With the change in seasons from the cold months to the hot ones, species that wintered in the tropics come to our region to parent their young, while many of our wintering birds are heading north or upslope, others are what are called resident – existing year round in generally the same location. Here at the 2500 ft. elevation in Forest Ranch we catch many of the birds as they’re passing through, but are also glad for the ‘leftovers’.

One bird that is at our feeder throughout the winter months stays around long enough to nest then travels to higher elevation during the hottest months. At the feeders they congregate in groups of a dozen or so, but now they are generally seen singly or in pairs. The darker headed male issue a long sweet trill while the grayer headed female emits faint chip notes.

Dark-eyed juncos come in a variety of models…er… subspecies: by far the most common hereabouts is the Oregon subspecies, occasionally the gray and white ‘slate-colored’ subspecies is seen, pink-sided, white-winged and gray headed subspecies are found elsewhere. As Liam and I are out walking through the woods we often identify dark-eyed juncos as they flutter away by the ‘fanned-out’ bright white outer tail feathers (rectrices) on their otherwise black tail (see the preening bird in the attached video).

Song Searching

I'm attempting to record and post some of the spectacular bird song out there right now, like this Cassin's vireo. If there is sound attached to this post I succeeded - if not, check back later!
Click on the title to be taken to a site where the song will play...

Friday, April 23, 2010

Fragrant Birding.

One of the great ironies of bird-watching is that sometimes man-made facilities provide the best opportunity for viewing (could it be because many of the best natural areas are gone?). And not just any man-made facility…I speak specifically of that most odious of areas: the sewage treatment plant. In the Chico area the Chico Oxidation Ponds a.k.a. Wastewater Pollution Control Plant is no exception – the bird viewing is often some of the most productive in our area.

Altacal Audubon Society maintains a ‘hide’ or wildlife viewing blind at the corner of the largest pond. This blind has been off-limits for the past two years however as major remodeling of the facilities is underway. One of the benefits of this remodel is a wildlife friendly redesign of the ponds, with grading done to create differing water depths favored by a variety of water oriented birds, ‘loafing islands’ for predator resistant resting areas and native shrub and tree planting to benefit species that depend on certain vegetation types.

Depending on time of year, the ponds are some of the best places in the Chico area to see Canvasbacks, tri-colored blackbirds, American bitterns and a number of shorebird species such as sandpipers, dowitchers and phalaropes. A number of the counties rare bird records come from this site, including: ruddy turnstone, sanderling semi-palmated sandpiper, red phalarope, Franklin’s gull and Sabine’s gull.

A visit to the periphery of the facilities yesterday afternoon provided ‘first-of-season’ glimpses of singing blue grosbeaks, as well as wonderful scope views of cinnamon teal and red-heads.

Good Samaritans

Yesterday during the course of my ‘normal’ job, Joan - an associate of mine mentioned that she was on her way to see the ‘animal rehab lady’ – I knew immediately who she was referring to. She had found a dazed western screech owl by the side of the road, and currently had it in a roomy cotton ‘purse’ where it had been vocalizing on the front seat of her car until she could deliver it for rescue.

As most anyone in Butte County knows, the ‘rehab lady’ is Marilyn Gamette. For the last 35 years Marilyn has served as the ‘go-to’ person for orphaned ducklings and injured animals as the manager of the Bidwell Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (BWRC). In addition to caring for an average of a thousand animals a year, Marilyn also has also worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge near Willows and has headed up the annual California Junior Duck Stamp Competition.

Marilyn is passionate about helping all animals but owls are her specialty. She often takes her show on the road to festivals and events where her great horned owl Checkers captures the hearts and imaginations of children, helping to inspire them to be protectors of wildlife as well.

BWRC is a non-profit, completely volunteer run organization, which operates on support for the Butte County Fish and Game Commission, membership dues and donations.

Yesterdays peek at an owl in a purse was more than a chance encounter with an injured owl. It was a reminder of the special people in our community who take the time to assist and care for creatures great and small, like Joan and Marilyn.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Life Mammal!

Having spent a lot of time in the woods over the years we were thrilled this evening to add a new sighting to our life mammal lists.

At about 9:30 pm I went outside to put a box of books in my van. On the way back to the house I stopped momentarily near the base of a large incense cedar, backlit by the porch light. Out of the corner of my eye I caught movement and glanced up in time to see a silver form sail onto the cedar next to me. A smile came to my face thinking that I had gotten a look at one of the little gray western screech owls that frequent our property. My smile turned to astonishment as the creature scampered straight up the trunk of the tree!

The front door was still open and I called Liam to bring a flashlight, which he promptly delivered along with a pair of binoculars. Thirty feet above us, scampering from branch to branch, a slender gray mammal was caught in the beam of our torch….

This small, completely nocturnal animal is seen by few and has long been the subject of stories, jokes and tales. The first time I became aware that it lived in our area was about three years ago when our friend Dawn captured one in her nets during her northern saw-whet owl monitoring. According to Kaufman in Field Guide to Mammals of North America it is “common and widespread” but the Pacific Coast subspecies lives near the southernmost extension of it’s range. It resides in mixed conifer and deciduous woodlands and a major food source is fungi, it in turn is an important prey species for spotted owls.

If you haven’t guessed yet, Liam and I enjoyed the very rare treat of seeing a northern flying squirrel. Not actually a flyer, this foot long member of the rodentia order spreads a loose fold of skin called a patagium, allowing it to glide distances as far as 250 feet (though 20’-60’ is more common).

We feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to observe one of nature’s true wonders this evening.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

But Wait There's More!

We thought that yesterday was pretty spectacular for newly arriving migrant birds but today was just as good!

This morning Liam, Alita and I met Dawn Garcia, Steve and daughter Raina King and Gerardo to conduct some migrant monitoring at the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve. As a master bander Dawn has operated a mist netting station here for several years, and Steve and Raina are experienced banders as well, so Liam and Alita assisted with net runs (checking a series of nets strung at strategic points along a trail) and processing (weighing, measuring, examining and releasing) the birds. Dawn and I headed down canyon to conduct counts at a series of eighteen different points.

Songs not heard for nearly a year wafted out of the forest and down from the tree-tops. Western tanagers and ash-throated flycatcher sang along the riparian corridor. An insect like refrain was heard, then lost, then heard again…a flycatcher certain but dusky or Hammond’s? A check of my trusty birdjam provided a perfect match to the vocalization of Hammond’s flycatcher – the first of many heard by Dawn and I. In a sunny meadow lined with large oaks a syncopated, metallic song came from the top of the largest of the trees, and the binoculars revealed the source – an electric blue Lazuli bunting. From across the same meadow a sing-songy, upbeat tune was diagnostic of the melody of a warbling vireo.

Back at the nets the banding crew had some exciting captures as well, and provided us with up-close, in-hand looks at Hammond’s flycatcher, the same bird Dawn and I had heard in the tree-tops - and an itinerant migrant, only stopping here shortly on it’s way to higher elevations. Other birds banded by the crew included orange-crowned warbler, Bewick’s wren, spotted towhee, and bushtit.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

FOS: First-of-Season or “New Models Arriving Daily”

The timing of last weeks spring storm and accompanying winds from the south portended the arrival of the first batch of neotropical migrants to northern California. These bird species from Central and even South America began their northward journey weeks ago, and historical data points to early April as the week that the bulk of them cross the border into California and continue on up. These birds are specialists at conserving energy and so, as much as possible, they attempt to coordinate their flights with southerly winds that will cut down on the energy needed for their journeys.

This hypothesis was borne out this morning as I left the house at 6:30 am, binoculars in hand. Almost immediately I could hear new voices in the morning chorus. In a black oak on the undeveloped woodlot above our home a vaguely familiar song rang out. Suspecting the return of a perennial visitor I searched and then found the assertive little singer, Nashville warbler! The male of this mostly yellow songster has a light blue-gray head with a very distinct white eye-ring. After taking some long looks at the bird moving from branch to branch of trees and shrubs another voice caught my attention.

In the live oaks on the hillside below our house came one of the most distinctive songs of western woodlands. I concur with others who have compared the halting phrases as sounding like this bird is having a back-and-forth conversation with itself, something like: “Hell-o”…”How-are-you”…”well-thanks”…Hello-to-you-too”. I could make out movement in the trees and continued watching until the maker came out in the open near the top of the tree, confirming it’s identity as Cassin’s Vireo.

I was soon distracted again by a staccato, two-part, accelerating warble. To my right another yellow bird flitted through the young cedars, eventually revealing a small black ‘beanie’ – oval shaped spot on it’s crown…Wilson’s warbler!

What a morning! Over the course of the next hour I was treated to more individuals of each of the above species, joined by Bullock’s oriole, black-throated gray warbler, downy woodpecker, Steller’s jay and more. Two ‘heard birds’ never confirmed with visuals were potential ash-throated flycatcher and hermit warblers.

Stay tuned – this time of year “New Models Are Arriving Daily”! Whoops - Liam just ran in the door to say have me come listen to another first - western tanager!

Nashville Warbler photo by Birding Maine

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Starting Life in a Sock!

Baby Bushtits spend their early life not unlike the children of the Old-Woman-in-the-shoe, except in this case it’s more like a hanging sock!

The classic image most of us have of a nest is the ‘shallow bowl’ style nest typical of American Robin and many other birds. A certain number of North American species however build more complicated nests that completely enclose or surround the eggs. Most are nearly round, with entry holes for the parents to enter and exit. They are constructed of a variety of materials: We’ve seen round Bullock’s Orioles nests made up of horsehair and baling twine; big, round American Dipper nests all of green moss and football shaped verdin nests in the desert of dried leaves and twigs. The ‘dangling stocking’ nest constructed by the diminutive bushtit though, made largely of spider web woven together with small leaves and moss is perhaps the most impressive display of creative home-building.

Liam and Alita and I filled an hour yesterday afternoon walking the perimeter of Teichert Pond. Our first sighting of note was about a dozen Canada Geese goslings, chaperoned by 6 adults, picking among the domestic lawn on the fringe of the nearby mall parking lot. Given the date and recent wind direction (from the south) I hoped to find some newly arrived migrant warblers among the pond-side riparian. We stopped along the north side of the pond where a lone olive tree often produces large numbers of birds. Instead of warblers, Liam pointed out two nests, one the traditional bowl shaped nest of a northern mockingbird at the top of the tree, the other, just above eye level, the pendulous basket of the bushtits.

I use the plural bushtit(s) because these tiny birds, their gender told apart only by the color of their eyes, collaborate on all aspects of the construction. Choosing a height anywhere from “6 to 35 ft.” above the ground they weave the ‘pocket’ up to 12 inches long of “mosses, lichens, leaves, cocoons, grasses” with spider silk to the twigs and branches of a tree or bush. The feat takes them 13-51 days – longer than it takes the eggs to incubate! Both expectant parents brood the eggs and spend the night in the nest.

Hopefully we hadn’t scared the parents off, bushtits are known to abandon nests too closely scrutinized by predators during construction. With this in mind we only stayed long enough to snap a photo and then departed.

Selected information for this post from Hal Harrison's Western Birds' Nests (Peterson Field Guide)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


On a bike ride this afternoon in Forest Ranch Liam and I encountered an animal not normally seen out and about during midday. The fact that we smelled it before we saw it is a dead giveaway to it’s identity, but in fact something didn’t ‘smell right’ about the whole thing! There, running straight down the road in front of us, feathered tail held high was a handsome striped skunk Mephitis mephitis.

I immediately cautioned Liam to slow down, having encountered dazed and disoriented skunks before. Rabies is always a possibility when usually reclusive animals are found in the open. Following at a respectable distance we watched the skunk scurry along ahead of us until it found a roadside culvert to hide in. Our assessment: We think this skunk was not rabid but had been disturbed from it’s daytime hiding place, the lingering odor a remnant of that encounter, it’s desire to run from us and seek shelter a normal skunky behavior.

Formerly classified as members of the weasel family, the five species of skunks found in North America are now a family unto themselves. The most common and widespread of these is the striped skunk which is found in all lower 48 states. The western spotted skunk was previously widespread in the west but is now considered uncommon. Commonly referred to as nocturnal, striped skunk is in fact a crepuscular feeder, doing most of it’s foraging at dawn and dusk. While rabies can be locally common in skunk populations in fact raccoons are more likely to spread the disease.

What scared our skunk? Anything from a coyote to a bobcat might have surprised or disturbed it, although the intruder likely got the worst of it - most predators avoid the skunks effective defense, with the exception of owls and raptors who are apparently oblivious to it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Counting Points

Biologists, wildlife researchers, ecologists and others use a variety of methods to count the number or variety of species within a selected area. These can include trapping, trackplate and camera monitoring for reptiles and small mammals and nighttime flashlight counts and stream surveys for frogs and toads. For birds there are transect surveys (recording birds observed or heard along a line), quadrant surveys (counting all birds within a designated space), nest searches to confirming breeding and production and the method perhaps most widely employed: point counts.

On Thursday of this week I was invited to conduct point counts at the Butte Creek Ecological Preserve, while Liam apprenticed under master bander (and friend) Dawn Garcia, mist netting and banding passerines (perching birds). As the banding crew prepared to put up their nets I walked to the first of 8 ‘points’ – designated spots used repeatedly to listen and watch for birds and record their presence.

The air was full of bird song even before I reached my point, and Dawn was first to catch the song of black-headed grosbeak, the first we had heard from this early arriving central American migrant this spring. Also heard were an early vocalizing blue-gray gnatcatcher and house wren.

Once at my point the protocol was specific: first I recorded the date, location and weather. Next I recorded which of the eight points I was observing and the specific start time. I then had a five minute window during which to record all birds seen and heard. These detections were broken down further into those which were detected during the first three minutes then the last two minutes, also whether they were noted inside or beyond fifty meters, and whether the birds were stationery or in flight. The birds were recorded by their 4 letter American Ornithologist Union banding code and hash marks were used to record each different detection.

While this sounds like fun (because it is) it can also be challenging to recognize, record, and keep track of which individuals are being heard where and whether or not they are birds already heard or new birds. Because there is so much going on during the count, listening, watching and writing, an experienced counter learns to depend on their ears for the majority of the detections. During the peak of the courting period the over-lapping songs of many different species can be quite a web of sound to try to untangle, and after 5 minutes a mental break is needed to ‘wipe the slate clean’ and prepare for the next point.

Conducting point counts well requires a lot of self training and testing. Liam and I spend hours testing each other with recorded bird songs and calls so that we can readily identify species likely to be encountered in our area. Even then common species can sometimes emit a sound not normal for them and it requires patience to track down the maker to confirm the species ID (after the five minutes is up). Only by doing this does one develop a larger repertoire of songs and calls. By being intimately familiar with the vocalizations of expected species, a newcomer or unexpected stray stands out and can likewise be tracked down to determine it’s identification.

You’re probably wondering which species were heard or seen on my survey? A partial list includes:

Bullock’s Oriole, House Finch, Black Phoebe, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, White-crowned Sparrow, American Robin, American Crow, European Starling, California Towhee, Spotted Towhee, Acorn Woodpecker, Orange-crowned Warbler, California Quail, Turkey Vulture, Lesser Goldfinch, Wrentit, Wild Turkey, Band-tailed Pigeon, Western Scrub Jay, Purple Finch, Bushtit, Hutton’s Vireo, Oak Titmouse, Bewick’s Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Anna’s Hummingbird, Northern Flicker, Brewer’s Blackbird, Dark-eyed Junco, Mourning Dove, Black-headed Grosbeak, Tree Swallow, Kildeer, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Red-shouldered Hawk, American Goldfinch, House Wren, Mallard, Wood Duck, White-breasted Nuthatch, Hermit Thrush, Downy Woodpecker.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Black and Blue

In recent weeks there has been a dramatic increase in the number of butterflies afield, most notably battus philenor aka Pipevine Swallowtail. Every year I’m amazed at how many of these uniquely colored butterflies grace our area, especially considering that I don’t see (or notice) an abundance of their host plant – pipevine or aristolochia Californica, in our area (but then I haven’t looked very hard for it either).

The large yellow zebra and tiger swallowtails (western tiger swallowtail locally) are the best known of this butterfly type, but Pipevine swallowtail is much more numerous here, especially in early spring. Their range is actually quite extensive, covering the entire southern half of the country from coast to coast. In the lowlands of Mexico adults can be found flying year-round.

B. philenor is a nectar drinker, preferring such California native flowers as lupines, California buckeye and yerba santa. The status of Pipevine swallowtails is good and they are generally not considered to be of elevated conservation concern. Right now they can be best found in the grassy hillsides of Upper Bidwell Park and other similar local habitats.

photo by Troy Bartlett

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

New Voices on the Ridge

Two new voices were heard yesterday on our ridge.

The first began about 6:15 and piped off every 20 seconds for about 45 minutes thereafter. ‘Piped’ is the closest I can come to describing the high pitched, extended, single call note of Mountain Quail. This large quail with the long, tall, erect top knot has a very limited range of western state mountains, including California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Additionally it is quite shy and is typically found in dense hillside brush, making it the target of bird ‘listers’ from around the world.

The second was a continuous ‘peenting’ coming from the very top of a tall pine in my neighbor’s yard. Suspecting the identity of the bird I grabbed my field-glasses and followed the sound. There, silhouetted against the lightening sky was a Townsend’s Solitaire. In contradiction to it’s ‘solitary’ name a second solitaire flew in and chased the first from it’s perch. This species, lovely in their very subtle shades of gray, are only here briefly, during their up/down slope migration in spring and fall.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

More Looking Down

Liam and I are so used to looking UP at birds most of the time we’re in the field that we’ve resolved to learn much more about what’s below our feet. To that end we joined a hike led by resident naturalist Dr. Paul Maslin at the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve, joined by my wife Kathleen and daughter Alita.

Our first look down was of samples of the rock beneath our feet. At the lowest point in the reserve, down near Big Chico Creek, exposed benches of sandstone, sandwiched between layers of marine sediment packed with the shells of aquatic animals of 75 million years ago is known as the Chico formation. Above that rests a layer of glossy gray Lovejoy Basalt, and capping off the bluffs is the pock-marked aggregate known as the Tuscan formation – a ancient mud-flow full of the rocks it gathered as it oozed across the land.

Next we studied some of the plants found along a steep trail carved along the hillside with the help of Robert Fisher, hiking through slopes of hounds-tongue and gooseberry and finding small wonders like the flaming red larkspur and low-growing Hartwig’s ginger, with its deep red flowers hiding beneath the wide green leaves. Liam soaked up Robert’s identification tips on the plants we were seeing, while Alita snapped great photos of witch’s butter.

I must admit that I couldn’t resist turning my ear to the trees while my eyes were on the ground, and enjoying the ten-fold increase in vocalizing black-throated gray warblers!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Mystery Flower in my Yard is a 'Swiss Army Knife' of Uses!

For the last four years I’ve wondered at the subtly beautiful red mystery flowers in my yard. They start out as a ‘ferny’ type low growing plant, oddly clustered around an old stump and next to a Manzanita bush and grow into lovely deep red, ‘shaggy’ little flowers.

This year, with my North-state Naturalist blog in mind I determined once-and-for-all to find out just what sort of plant I had. First I went to my woefully inadequate Peterson Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers – ninety percent of the illustrations are black and white (I’ve been directed to obtain a Jepson Guide – the bible of flower identification). I couldn’t find anything resembling my little 7” flowers. Next I remembered that I had been given a glossy color book of Wildflowers of the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve by Dr. Paul Maslin…again I could not find my subject flower. My simple query was becoming quite a mystery! I went to numerous online wildflower ID sites, most of which are rather poorly designed for a search of this nature.

Desperate now to find an answer – and not yet ready to drop $85 on a Jepson, I emailed photos of my little friend to Dr. Maslin. I checked my email daily hoping for a response, but this guy spends like 24/7 with his nose in nature (when not building trails, firebreaks, and generally working his tail off maintaining the reserve) so the response was not forthcoming. Finally this morning I had a simple reply in my inbox…pedicularis densiflora…aka Indian Warrior. Yeah!

That got the ball rolling. Checking the internet I had numerous sites focusing on my little flower, actually a perennial herb. As it turns out there is a reason that it is so closely associated with the Manzanita in my yard – it is hemiparasitic, meaning it attaches itself by way of it’s roots to Manzanita, Chamise and possibly other western shrubs. More interesting is that it is listed on numerous sites as possessing psychoactive qualities, used for such medicinal applications as a tranquilzer, a muscle relaxant, a sedative and an aphrodisiac. How exciting to find this potential medicine chest right in my own backyard.

Even better, the website focuses on P. densiflora’s attractiveness to birds as a source of nectar, especially hummingbirds!

Turns out my little flower is big on surprises!...just goes to prove that if you scratch the surface of almost any creature, you find out so much more than you might have expected!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Seventeen Hundred Ducks in Willows Veterans Hall!

Sometimes, rarely, I find enjoyment in nature without setting foot outside. I had just such an experience this morning as I enjoyed the honor of being a judge of the 2010 California Junior Duck Stamp Competition.

Held in Willows, California, myself and five distinguished judges representing State and Federal wildlife agencies were treated to over 1700 pieces of art created by students from kindergarten to high school senior age from throughout the state.

Artists could choose from any North American species of duck, goose or swan and many chose colorful species not normally seen in our area including Long-tailed Ducks, Harlequin Ducks, King Eider, even the endangered Hawaiian Nene Goose and Central American Masked Duck. Most common subjects were the ornate Wood Duck and the ubiquitous Mallard. The majority of the pieces featured poses typically seen in waterfowl art: flying, landing, feeding, swimming and preening; standouts for me were works featuring detailed head shots, juvenile birds or posterior views.

Age groups were divided into K-3, 4-6, 7-9 and 10-12. Within each age set works were systematically narrowed down until three first, second and third place pieces were identified along with sixteen honorable mentions. At the culmination of the judging all first place works were judged against one another to determine ‘best of show’. This years honor went to a Union City youth for his watercolor of Fulvous Whistling Ducks.
Every drawing, sketch and painting was terrific, from the more basic illustrations of the kindergartners to the incredibly life-like or beautifully stylized watercolors and oils of the older students. Many of the winners were students of private art-schools, dedicated to developing their creative talents from a very young age.

It’s a rare day indeed when I can claim to have enjoyed a day indoors in lieu of viewing wildlife in its natural surroundings… today was one of those rarities.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dawn Chorus

I went out early this morning to soak in the orchestration of the ‘dawn chorus’. This term refers to the combined songs of many birds in the first hour of light. The reason for the intensity of the music is the desire of male birds to defend their territorial claim over a patch of feeding, breeding or nesting space, as well as to attract a mate to that space by proving their vitality through the strength of their song. Females may vocalize at this time as well, letting males know of their presence and locations. Sound also travels best at dawn and there is less competition from other non-avian noise.

Two birds heard from my doorstep in the dawn hour are Wrentit and Bewick’s Wren. The competing songs of these two different species has been the subject of study. According to Gareth Hew Davies “they manage to alternate their singing bouts so that they are never in direct conflict. The Bewick's wren starts the session in the morning and dominates the airways for the first hour. The wrentit stays quiet to avoid competition, but gets his turn to sing in the second hour, after which the Bewick's wren starts again. And so this astonishing sharing of the stage goes on”.

Fans of the morning bird chorus, especially in the U.K. join organized dawn chorus walks, sometimes beginning as early as 4 am so they can catch the first songs of the new day. International Dawn Chorus day is held on the first Sunday in May in England. In areas of human-caused bird decline (introduction of predators, competitors and conversion of natural habitats to homes) the dawn chorus is noticeably diminished.

Students of bird song hypothesize that species with larger eyes begin vocalizing first as their eyes perceive the lightening sky before their smaller eyed cousins.

For more on Bird Song visit

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Black-throated Gray Warbler: Herald of Spring

One of our favorite heralds of spring time made it’s first, if brief appearance in one of the giant old black oaks on our property this morning. Just as Liam was heading off to a basketball tournament he detected it’s melodious song and ran into the house to let me know. The bird stayed just long enough for me to enjoy one good rendition of it’s tune before moving up the ridge. As an early arriving migrant this individual will have the advantage of choosing the best ‘territory’ before others of it’s species arrive.

Where have they been throughout the winter? According to Snowden’s Annotated Bird List for Butte County a small percentage (a distinct subspecies) over-winters locally, but they are hard to find as they are mostly silent until the spring. The majority of our breeding season black-throated grays are short-distance migrants, wintering in central to southern Mexico.

Even during breeding season they are most easily located by their songs. As tree-top feeders they are typically seen high overhead gleaning insects from the leaves and needles of oaks and pines.

Fortunately for us, black-throated gray warblers are designated a conservation species of least concern, meaning that the population is considered stable or increasing. We’ll enjoy their songs not only for the next four months (until breeding season is over) but for many years to come