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California's Great Goose Lineup: Greater White-fronted Geese

While Sandhill Cranes seem to get all the glory and praise this time of year (for example, Merced NWR is hosting Crane Day on October 19th, and November 2nd is Lodi's annual Crane Festival), plenty of other species worth mentioning are turning up all over our local wetlands and farmlands these days as well, including a lineup of Arctic-breeding geese.

During the fall and winter, a vast assortment of birds (largely waterfowl) which have spent the breeding months far to the north return, as they have done for millennia, to overwintering grounds in the fertile Great Central Valley of California.  Today, of course, this habitat has been severely reduced.  But some places have been mercifully preserved as National Wildlife Refuges as well as a few state and private preserves, and when the migrants arrive, these patches of wild land absolutely fill to the brim with life.  And geese probably contribute the greatest amount in terms of sheer mass to this great winter bird bonanza.

One of t…

Response to Study: "Decline of the North American Avifauna"

"There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.  Like winds and sunset, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them." Aldo Leopold, 1949
Last week, on September 19, 2019, the journal Science published the results of a groundbreaking study, the first of its kind to document, with certainty, that North American birds are in big trouble.

Observant folks who have been around a while have been saying it for some time: "There just aren't as many birds around now as there were back in my day."  Indeed, numbers of birds have dropped dramatically over the past 50 years, and now we have the data to prove it.  It's not just a hunch, not just a feeling, not just the tendency to look at the past through lenses tinted with nostalgia for the "good ol' days."  Grandpa is right: there are fewer birds today than there were "in his day."

Birds really are in decline.  This is, in fact, a biodiversit…

Fall Migrants in the Central Valley

Three days into autumn, and the thermometer remains stubbornly above the 90 degree mark.  Last week, the Central Valley experienced what a tease nature can be as temperatures dropped, skies clouded over, and a few tentative raindrops fell.  But, despite how it feels outside today, newly arrived White-crowned Sparrows are hopping around the garden, harbingers of autumn!

The species composition in California's Great Central Valley is about to undergo a dramatic transformation, as many of the small songbirds and tropical migrants of the Sierra Nevada and northern reaches of the state head south to warmer, insect-rich regions in Central and South America.  But while the warblers, vireos, flycatchers, grosbeaks, tanagers, orioles, et. al. are leaving us, a whole new suite of birds is just about to arrive.  For many birds that migrate along the Pacific Flyway, Central California is "south."  We are, believe it or not, the destination.

In addition to scads of waterfowl - over a…

Into The Sunset: Glimpses Of An Ancient Valley

Once upon a time, there was a valley.  A level plain between two great mountain ranges, this valley was dotted with shimmering wetlands and carpeted with grasses and wildflowers that swayed in the breeze.  Oh, those wildflowers!  Those wildflowers were the stuff of legend, pure poetry in living form.  Wild rivers flowed across this valley, swelling with snow melt each spring, their meandering courses and sprawling floodplains charted by dark ribbons of vegetation: tangled thickets of wild blackberries and roses, silvery clouds of willows and verdant bowers of wild grapevines hanging from a canopy of majestic oaks.  In those days, the Great Central Valley of California was a beautiful sight to behold indeed.

As John Muir described in Treasures of the Yosemite (1890),
"One shining morning, at the head of the Pacheco Pass, a landscape was displayed that after all my wanderings still appears as the most divinely beautiful and sublime I have ever beheld.  There at my feet lay the great…

The Joys and Benefits of Birding

Perhaps you've been on one end or the other of this type of conversation:

Casual acquaintance: "So, what's your favorite hobby?"

Me: "Birding."

Long pause.  Slight nod.  Quizzical expression.  And then finally...

"What's birding?"

I begin to explain, note the glazed-over expression or blank stares I am invariably met with, backpedal slightly and say with a shrug of resignation, "Bird watching."

The light dawns and my partner in conversation seems more or less satisfied to think of me as a mildly odd personage, an old lady long before her time, who creeps around with binoculars, scattering breadcrumbs and spying on backyard birds.  The crazy bird lady.  Sure.

But of course, I am far from satisfied with this assumption!  Birding is much more than passively watching birds at the backyard feeder (though I do enjoy that as well).

Birding is an active pursuit whereby participants study their quarry in detail, track its movements and behavi…

California's Gold: Four Seasons of Wildflowers

Summer is waning and autumn - that glorious season of deliciously rich color before the quiet sleep of winter - is softly approaching.

California is a state of gold: golden grasses, golden trees, golden sunlight and, of course, literal gold!  Oftentimes, trees, especially our brilliant autumn star the aspen, steal the show this season.  (I wrote about them last year, and the year before.)  But of course, the unsung heroes of the fall color pageant are the background characters, those who quietly put on a stunning performance no less brilliant for its subtlety.  I'm talking, of course, about California's wildflowers.  While spring is the traditional glory season for wildflowers across the lower elevations of the state, autumn has its moments of jaw-dropping splendor as well.

John Muir calls it,
"... a most extraordinary outgush of plant-life, at the very driest time of the whole year.  A small unobtrusive plant, Hemizonia virgata, from six inches to three feet in height, wi…