Thursday, September 27, 2018

They're Back! Like Clockwork, the Sandhill Cranes Have Returned

For the past two years, the 26th of September has been a special day for me as a naturalist, as it has marked my personal FOS Sandhill Crane sighting.

(For those not up to snuff on birding lingo, "FOS" stands for "first of season," and helps keep a record of the timing of migration by denoting when the first individuals of a migratory species show up each spring or fall.  Over time, a pattern of certain migrants arriving earlier or later can point to larger-scale phenomena, like climate change.  So, if you're out birding, be sure to note your FOS-es!)

During the last few weeks of September, I begin to feel it: a change in the air (despite the high temperatures), a restlessness in the natural world.  Things are happening!  I begin scanning the skies, checking the wetlands, listening a little bit more carefully.  And then one day I hear it: the distinct croaking call of the Sandhill Crane!

Yesterday, I heard the call and was delighted to look up into the sky and see the familiar shapes of cranes flying in their neat v-formation, a flock forty birds strong headed south, presumably to one of the wetland areas not far out of town.

The arrival of the  majestic Sandhill Cranes is one of the great events in the year of a naturalist in California's Great Central Valley.

Check out last year's post on the return of the Sandhill Cranes by clicking here.

If you too feel like getting in the spirit and celebrating the return of these remarkable and beautiful birds to our humble valley, mark your calendars for Lodi's annual Sandhill Crane Festival, taking place this year on November 2-4.

But if that seems like too long to wait, you can always head out in search of the majestic cranes before then; more flocks are arriving each day!  Try visiting one of our local wetlands, like Merced National Wildlife Refuge or Cosumnes River Preserve.

Happy Fall!

Just as I finished writing this, a flock of 36 Sandhill Cranes flew over our house!  I heard their calls and ran out to look for them... like a kid who hears sleigh bells on Christmas Eve!

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Birds of the Sierra: Red-breasted Nuthatch

Summer has officially drawn to a close, and autumn is upon us, despite the lingering heat.  Soon, some of my favorite winter migrants will be showing up in the San Joaquin Valley, like Cedar Waxwings and Sandhill Cranes.

The summer has flown by (no pun intended) in a whirlwind of activity, as I have found myself up to my ears in new projects, like demolishing our kitchen, building shelves for our library, and beginning a complete overhaul of our new quarter-acre property! 

But I did manage to squeeze in exactly two birding trips to the Sierra Nevada (which is not nearly enough).  One of my most memorable encounters was with a diminutive denizen of mixed conifer forests, the Red-breasted Nuthatch.  The photo below is not the best quality, but it will have to do since it's the only one that turned out at all!

Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis)

Predominately birds of coniferous forests, the Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) is found across much of the United States and Canada.  During the summer breeding season, they inhabit western forests, such as the mixed coniferous forests of the Sierra.  When the food supply on their breeding grounds is adequate, they tend to stay put through the winter.  However, northern populations and those living where the winter food supply is scant migrate south and/or "downslope," the term used to describe altitudinal migration whereby species move down in elevation for the winter.  (A number of birds that breed in the Sierra Nevada during favorable summer months, including Golden-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-crowned Sparrows, move downslope into the mild Central Valley for the winter.)

Red-breasted Nuthatches are often heard in the Sierra Nevada before they are seen, their odd and distinctly nasal "yank" call echoing through the trees.  (Have a listen here.)  When these small birds are spotted, it is almost always as they are moving very quickly up and down tree trunks and limbs in search of arthropod prey.  During winter months, they tend to switch from a diet of ants, beetles and spiders to one of conifer seeds, or other seeds provided at bird feeders. 

A peaceful scene along a Sierran stream before returning to work on the house!

A note on our new digs: I've already begun a survey of birds and other wildlife present on our property and in the neighborhood.  We have Western Screech-owls and foxes in the backyard, along with Western fence lizards (always welcome in the garden), butterflies and dragonflies, at least one Cooper's hawk, Nuttall's woodpeckers, a handful of Anna's hummingbirds, and a flock of Bushtits.  I'm looking forward to seeing how many new species the addition of a wildlife habitat garden of native plants will attract!

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Birds of the Sierra: Western Wood-Pewee

If you heard the name "Western Wood-Pewee" (or, Contopus sordidulus, if you prefer) you might not be able to readily put a face to the name, so to speak.  But if you've spent much time in the Sierra Nevada mountains (or other western woodlands) you just might recognize this little bird by its voice.  To me, the call of the Western Wood-Pewee is part of my summer soundtrack, forever associated with the scent of pine and mountain misery hanging heavy in warm mountain air.

The Western Wood-Pewee is a fairly common tyrant flycatcher, but they are certainly more often heard than seen.  And even when you do see one, it can be a challenge telling this small, plain flycatcher from the smattering of similarly colored and shaped flycatchers in the west. 

Western Wood-Pewees are at home in a variety of woodland habitats, particularly riparian areas in coniferous and mixed conifer forests.  While these flycatchers breed across much of western North America, from Alaska to Mexico, they migrate south for the winter, spending the cooler months in the tropics.

Like other flycatchers, Western Wood-Pewees feed almost entirely on flying insects and are most easily spotted in their typical flycatcher pose: perched out on the end of a dead snag, waiting for prey to pass by.  To capture their meal, flycatchers "sally" (that is, they fly out) from their perch to nab the insect in mid-air, usually returning to the same perch.  This makes flycatchers especially enjoyable birds to watch.

This summer has flown by in a whirl of activity - unfortunately with very little opportunity for birding, hiking or exploring the outdoors in general.  Fall migration is already beginning to get underway, with a few early migrants turning up in the Valley, like Rufous Hummingbirds and Cedar Waxwings.  I advise heading to the Sierra to catch a glimpse of our summer birds before they, too, take to the skies as autumn approaches!  (Which is hard to even imagine only halfway through the heat of August!)

Visit Audubon's Guide to North American Birds to listen to the call of the Western Wood-Pewee.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

American Coots & Baby... Cootlings?

Coots are not ducks.  That's probably one of the first lessons in waterfowl taxonomy you ought to learn.  In fact, they're not even kind of sort of related to ducks. 

American Coots (Fulica americana) belong to the Rail family (Rallidae), along with rails (naturally) and gallinules.  Going one taxonomic step above family, they belong to the order Gruiformes, which also includes the crane family.  Ducks, geese and swans, however, are members of the order Anseriformes, quite a different branch of the avian family tree.

So, the next time someone inquires about an all-black "duck" with a white bill and funny-looking feet, feel free to kindly share with them that the coot is not a duck at all, but actually more closely related to Sandhill Cranes!

Adult American Coot with two juveniles

Because American Coots are terribly common birds on almost every body of water across nearly the entire North American continent, I pay them very little mind.  They're always a January 1st bird for me; meaning, when I begin counting species for the year, it's pretty much guaranteed that I'll see a few coots on day one.  From lake edges and marshes to city parks and sewage ponds, coots are perfectly at home.

Last summer, Eric and I spent a few weeks in Switzerland and on day one, lo and behold, what did we happen to spot floating on Z├╝risee (Lake Zurich) but... coots.  How ordinary!  Of course, in Europe the species is the Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra), which is slightly different from ours... but not much.  (The Eurasian Coot also has a large range, found across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, reaching as far as the Pacific Coast of China and Japan, and even Australia.)

Eurasian Coot, Lake Zurich, Switzerland

And that's not all.  Nine more species of Fulica coots populate the globe, with six in South America alone.  (Those are the Red-fronted Coot, Red-Gartered Coot, White-winged Coot, Giant Coot, Andean Coot and Horned Coot, if you wanted to know).  The Red-knobbed Coot is found in southern Africa, and the Caribbean Coot and Hawaiian Coot (with self-explanatory ranges) pretty much fill in the gaps, assuring a coot for every continent and clime, barring frigid Antarctica and the Arctic and subarctic regions of the north.

So, if a baby duck is called a "duckling" and a baby goose is a "gosling," what are baby coots called?  Seeing as they are so far removed from ducks and their kin, can we call them "cootlings"?  Cootlets?  Cooties?  Just plain chicks?  Or perhaps hatchling or juvenile, as age would allow, is more appropriate?

In any case, a few days ago we happened upon a pair of newly-hatched coots on one of the ponds at CSU Stanislaus.  I've seen a few batches of coot young'uns this year and in years past, but never babies so freshly hatched!  Young coots can swim just a few hours after hatching, and they are... unique-looking, to say the least!

Perhaps its a face only a mother could love... 

But just look that those wee little wings!  Though they swim well right out of the gate (or right out of the shell?) it will be nearly two months before these little guys are strong enough to take to the skies in flight.

American Coots feed on aquatic vegetation, and their favored habitats almost always include a decent amount of emergent vegetation surrounded by adequately deep water.  (Think reeds and other such water plants that emerge - hence the name - from a foot or two of water.)  Nests of woven plant material are built on floating platforms, hidden in and anchored to emergent plants (tules, cattails, reeds, grasses, etc.).  Females typically lay clutches of eight to twelve eggs, and are capable of raising two broods per summer.  Personally, I've never seen that many young coots in one brood; but they are extremely prolific birds, so it must work for them!  Coot parents pick bits of aquatic vegetation and feed it to their young until they learn to forage on their own. 

As I was taking these photos, the mother (I assume it was the mother, but I suppose only they know for certain; male and female coots look the same and both parents participate in nest building, incubation and brooding) was plucking algae from the stone pillars of a bridge and feeding it to her little baby... cootlings.  A sweet moment from one of our most common and overlooked birds!

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Birds of the Sierra: Black-headed Grosbeak

Experiencing a dawn chorus in the forests of the Sierra Nevada is a soul-stirring experience I wish everyone could appreciate.  Snuggled in a downy sleeping bag, the first rays of golden light peek over mountain ridges and pick their way through conifer boughs, sending streaks of color through the gray pre-dawn sky.  At the first signs of dawn, diurnal songbirds begin to stir, a chorus of glorious birdsong beginning quietly and gradually growing to fill the trees with earth's sweetest music.

And one of the key musicians of this dawn chorus is the Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus), a handsome black-and-orange bird, with a sturdy bill and sweet song. 

Like the Western Tanager, the Black-headed Grosbeak is a member of the Cardinal family (Cardinalidae).  They are birds of western forests, where they inhabit high treetops, gleaning insect prey from foliage.  In the winter, Black-headed Grosbeaks retreat to the warmer climes of Central America, passing through my Central Valley haunts during migration. 

While thousands of tourists flock to Yosemite Valley during the summer months, I prefer less crowded reaches of woods to fully appreciate a good dawn chorus.  Favorite places to hike, camp, and see and hear Black-headed Grosbeaks (along with plenty of other forest birds) without being pressed by throngs of people include the high country portions of Yosemite National Park, Sonora Pass and the Kennedy Meadows area, and Ebbetts Pass and the Lake Alpine area.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Birds of the Sierra: Western Tanager

With bright red heads and brilliant yellow bodies, Eric calls them "Popsicle Birds."  Western Tanagers (Piranga ludoviciana) are abundant in the mixed conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada during the summer months, filling the canopy with their beautiful song.  (For a few weeks during migration, they can be seen in the Central Valley, particularly along riparian corridors.) 

Though they are one of our most brilliantly colored songbirds and their voice is a staple part of any summer soundtrack in the Sierra, they tend to keep to the canopy and are not as frequently glimpsed as might be imagined.  You have to really want to see a Western Tanager - or just get lucky, like I did with this bird that was having a snack at our campsite's picnic table when we pulled in.

While true tanagers are birds of the neo-tropics, Western Tanagers are more accurately placed in the Cardinal family, along with Grosbeaks and Buntings.  The Western Tanager breeds in the Sierra, in semi-open coniferous forests of ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine and Douglas fir up to about 10,000 feet in elevation.  As the warm season comes to a close in the Sierra, Western Tanagers migrate south to Central America to join the true tanagers, and bring a splash of the tropics to Sierran forests when they return each summer.  In fact, Western Tanagers bring the colors of tropical sunshine farther north than any other tanager, spending the summer or breeding months as far north as northwestern Canada.

Much of a Western Tanager's day is spent foraging for insects high in the canopy, and even these conspicuous birds can be tricky to track down with a pair of binoculars.  But once you see a flame-like male Western Tanager, with his red head, yellow body and black wings, you won't soon forget it!  I recommend learning the song of the Western Tanager (listen here or here) so that the next time you're enjoying a summer day in the cool forests of the Sierra, this bird's voice will tip you off to its presence in the canopy above.


Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Importance of Pickleweed & The Plight of California's Coastal Salt Marsh

The evidence is there: I am a proponent of the underdog, and that sentiment extends to underappreciated habitats.  Marginalized, abused and under appreciated habitats abound in California, right alongside majestic Sierran peaks and captivating rocky Pacific shorelines.  From coastal dunes to deserts, sagebrush scrub to the grasslands and wetlands of the Great Central Valley, much of California's less glamorous habitats have been largely degraded. 

The coastal salt marsh is certainly one such habitat. 

Picklweed-dominated salt marsh, with shallow salt pan and dunes in the background, blooming gumplant in the
foreground. Salinas River NWR.
Coastal salt marshes, also called tidal marshes, occur in protected areas of bays and estuaries that are subject to tidal influence but sheltered from the strong winds and waves found elsewhere along the coast.  Salt marshes are found widely scattered along California's coast, and in an unaltered system they function in conjunction with tidal flats (mud flats), shallow naturally occurring salt pans and freshwater streams to create a diverse and highly productive habitat mosaic.

In Northern California, Humboldt Bay, Tomales Bay, San Francisco Bay, Monterey Bay and Morro Bay all support remaining patches of salt marsh habitat.  Farther south (and outside of my realm of expertise) remnants of salt marsh can be found in the Carpenteria Marsh south of Santa Barbara, Ballona wetlands in Los Angeles, Bolsa Chica near Huntington and lagoons in the San Diego area.

In the Monterey Bay region, I highly recommend a visit to Elkhorn Slough and Moss Landing harbor.  Salinas National Wildlife Refuge also provides access to salt marshes, salt pans and dune habitat.  In the San Francisco Bay area, there are a few salt marsh areas left and some are being restored.  Try visiting Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, China Camp State Park or the small restored marsh at Crissy Field.

Salt marsh at China Camp State Park

Around the year 1800, scientists estimate there were approximately 190,000 acres of salt marsh in the San Francisco Bay alone.  By 2009, that number had dropped to about 40,000 acres, with less than a quarter of original salt marsh remaining.  As the largest estuary on the west coast of North and South America, the tidal marshes around the San Francisco Bay provide critical - and critically endangered - habitat for an array of wildlife species in addition to providing a number of ecosystem services to surrounding areas.

Historically, tidal wetlands, like freshwater wetlands, were seen as unproductive, wasted land, and herculean efforts were made to "reclaim" this land.  (I hate that phrase, by the way; it's a total misnomer.)  Around the San Francisco Bay, dikes and levees were built to create arable land, and wetlands were backfilled for urban development.  Flood control projects were instated and extensive salt ponds were created, further reducing tidal wetland habitat.  (Ironically, the creation of artificial salt pond habitat during the late 1800's and early 1900's corresponded with the draining (e.g. destruction) of important and extensive inland wetland habitats of the Great Central Valley, such as Tulare Lake, and provided some shorebirds, like American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts, with an alternative suitable breeding ground after they were forced to abandon the Valley.)

But there is good news.  For the past decade or two, efforts have been underway to restore some of the Bay's salt marshes, as well as other California tidal wetlands.  The goal is set for San Francisco Bay: 100,000 acres of salt marsh are needed for the ecosystem to successfully sustain itself.  In the southern part of the Bay, former salt ponds are being reconfigured to a more natural state in an effort to strike a sustainable balance between salt pond management and tidal marsh habitat.  According to reports, the plan is working; salt marsh habitat is returning, and with it, endangered wildlife is also making a small comeback.

Salt marsh and mudflats provide food and shelter for an abundance of birds at Moss Landing harbor

Wetland areas such as the coastal salt marsh provide a number of services to human populations as well as to wildlife.  Wetlands provide flood control, acting as a sponge to soak up flood water and store it safely.  They also function as a filter, improving water quality, and a barrier, preventing shoreline erosion.  (Think of those long tubes of straw you see at construction sites, only much, much larger, more efficient and far more aesthetically pleasing!)  And of course, wetlands possess the intrinsic value shared by all natural, unspoiled areas.  We need beautiful places, like wetlands, in which to reconnect with nature as adults, as well as introduce children to its never-ceasing wonders.

The climate of coastal salt marsh areas is generally about the same as nearby coastal strand habitats (beaches and dunes, collectively): mild year-round temperatures, a long growing season, little available freshwater and low rainfall, thick fog, and heavy salt spray driven by harsh winds.  But despite these tough conditions and twice-daily inundations of saline sea water, a number of plant species are able to thrive - particularly, halophytes (salt tolerant plants).  One of the most important and conspicuous of these is Pickleweed (Salicornia spp.)


Pickleweed, also called Glasswort and Pacific Swampfire, was indeed used for making pickles at one time by early pioneers, due to its high salt content.  Surprisingly, it was also used to make glass, as another of its names would suggest.  High sodium content in the fleshy leaves of Pickleweed was converted to soda ash when burned, which is one of the raw materials used in glass production.  (I don't know a whole lot about it, but it seems soda ash allows silica - the raw material sand - to melt at a lower temperature.  The type of glass produced by this method is called soda-lime silica glass, so named for its three essential ingredients.)  The moniker "swampfire" is descriptive of the plant's succulent leaves, the tips of which turn red and drop off as they accumulate excess salts.

Illustration of the zonation of plants in salt marshes and adjacent communities, from one of my favorite books,
A Natural History of California, by Allan A. Schoenherr

Other plants of the salt marsh vegetation types grow in accordance with their tolerance of tidal inundation.  For example, salt grass (Distichlis spicate) doesn't tolerate inundation and is therefore found only along the upper edges of the marsh.  (Salt grass is also found in inland areas of alkaline or saline soils, near wetlands as well as some upland areas in the Great Central Valley, east of the Sierra Nevada crest, and in desert regions.)  Cord grass (Spartina foliosa), on the other hand, tolerates being covered with sea water during rising tides and is found along lower margins of the marsh.

Salt marsh gumplant

Plant diversity is low in the costal salt marsh, but other species indicative of this unique habitat include arrow grass (Triglochin spp.); the succulent-leaved sea blight (Suaeda spp.); the humble yellow-flowered Marsh Jaumea (Jaumea carnosa) and showy yellow-flowered salt marsh gumplant (Grindelia stricta), both of Asteracea; alkali heath (Frankenia spp.), which is not really a heath at all; the equally misnamed marsh rosemary or sea lavender (Limonium californicum), which is neither a rosemary nor a lavender but pretty nonetheless; and the curious dodder (Cuscuta spp.), which infests salt marsh plants (as well as desert plants) with its strange, parasitic orange strands and is actually related to morning glories.  (Will the wonders of botany ever cease?) 

This mosaic of plants serves to support banks and prevent erosion, filter water by trapping sediments and taking up nutrients, and provide valuable habitat for a number of species of birds as well as mammals.  The high productivity of salt marshes produces an abundance of detritus (particles of decomposing organic matter) which feeds amphipods and other invertebrates such as worms and snails, which in turn support an abundance of avian life.  Herons and egrets patrol the edge of still water, while Long-billed Curlews probe the mud.  Black-necked Stilts forage in the shallows and American Avocets filter food from the water using their upturned bills. 

Along the water's edge, the rarely seen endangered Ridgeway's Rail (Rallus obsoletus), which was known as the California Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris obsoletus) prior to 2014, and the California Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis coturniculus) make their homes in dense marsh vegetation.  The Ridgeway's Rail is almost entirely restricted tidal marshes of the San Francisco Bay.

Belding's Savannah Sparrow

Several sparrows are also salt marsh obligates, requiring this unique habitat type for survival.  The Belding's Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis beldingi) lives in pickleweed, feeding on seeds and able to drink sea water. Three distinct subspecies, or geographic "races," of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) exist in salt marshes around the San Francisco Bay: Alameda (M. m. pusillula), San Pablo (M. m. samuelis), and Suisun (M. m. maxillaris).  These populations are highly sedentary, as pairs remain on their territory year round, able to raise multiple clutches of young on the abundance provided by perhaps less than one acre of salt marsh habitat.

Also endangered and endemic (restricted) to the San Francisco Bay's salt marshes is the Salt-marsh Harvest Mouse (Reithrodontomys raviventris).  This little nocturnal mammal builds its nest in the marsh vegetation, and has adapted to survive on sea water.  Due to the extensive loss of salt marsh habitat, the Salt-marsh Harvest Mouse has become restricted to a few isolated patches of habitat around the Bay.
A tangle of pickleweed, perhaps the most important plant of the salt marsh

Whether birding along the shore of a pickleweed marsh, hiking upland coastal trails or kayaking through Elkhorn Slough, I hope you are able to take a moment to appreciate the intricate ecosystem that is the coastal salt marsh.  Habitats like these don't often get the publicity of glamorous Coast Redwood forests, and it's likely you're far more familiar with charismatic Spotted Owls or awe-inspiring California Condors than secretive rails and mice, but these little creatures require our attention anyway - even more so due to the years of degradation their habitats have suffered.

For an uplifting read (with photos a million times better than mine), check out this National Geographic article: How the Bay Area Is Restoring Nature's Delicate Balance.