Friday, December 30, 2016

Loggerhead Shrike at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

The Loggerhead Shrike is a fascinating little bird.  One of the first things you might learn or notice about the habits of this shrike is that it is a songbird in the traditional sense, but acts more like a raptor.  It is typical of open country where it sits on low, often conspicuous perches, scanning for suitable prey, which includes insects, such as grasshoppers and beetles, lizards, frogs, small rodents, and even other small birds. 

Since shrikes lack the gripping talons of true raptors, they have devised a strategy to make do with what they have: shrikes are well-known for impaling their prey on thorns and barbed wire, or wedging it into crevices, to hold it conveniently in place.  Like raptors, the actual killing blow is delivered by the shrike's pointed beak to the base of the neck of its prey. 

According to Cornell's All About Birds, the Loggerhead Shrike is capable of carrying prey equal to its own mass, by holding it either in its feet or beak.

This particular Loggerhead Shrike didn't display any interesting behavior other than perching and scanning, but I was still happy to spot this beautiful bird of California's grasslands.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Northern Shoveler

Winter in the Great Central Valley is the time to visit our beautiful National Wildlife Refuges.  The wetlands are full of life, providing just a glimpse of the biodiversity this area used to support.  Winter days are crisp, clear and sunny - or they at least have the potential to be, once the fog burns off - and dusk falls early, allowing naturalists to hear owls call and watch flocks of waterfowl settle in for the night, all before supper! 

Our local wetlands are bursting with avian life at this time of year: Sandhill Cranes, Tundra Swans, American White Pelicans, geese like you've never seen before (Snow and Ross's Geese, Canada and Cackling Geese, as well as Greater White-fronted Geese) and more ducks than you'll know what to do with! 
One of the most abundant species of duck, and surely one you will encounter on any wetlands visit this winter, is the Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata).  Learn this duck, and you'll be well on your way to identifying a large proportion of our local waterfowl. 
The Northern Shoveler is so named for its large, dark, shovel-shaped bill, a wonderfully obvious key to its identification.  In addition to the large bill, look for the male Northern Shoeveler's dark green head, gold eyes, bright white chest and reddish sides.
Northern Shovelers are dabbling ducks, using their spoon or shovel-like bill to strain food particles from the water.  They feed on plant matter and seeds, as well as small aquatic invertebrates.

Monday, December 19, 2016

California Christmas Berry

Oh, lovely Christmas greenery: the holly, the ivy, the evergreen, the mistletoe... the toyon!  I've personally never heard a Christmas song about that last one (and if you have, I'd love to hear it), but here in California, toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is our very own native Christmas shrub. 
Also called California Christmas Berry or California Holly, toyon is an attractive and hardy shrub of the Great Central Valley and surrounding foothills below 4,000 feet, a part of the chaparral community.  It can be found across the state, from coast to mountains, north to south, but is excluded from deserts and high elevations.  Toyon is not only native to California, but endemic to California and Baja California, found nowhere else in the world.  It is an evergreen shrub, but it is around Christmas time that toyon really shines, clusters of bright red berries (technically pomes, like apples and pears) covering the large 15-foot shrubs.
Toyon plays an important role in its community.  Dense evergreen foliage provides cover for ground-dwelling species such as California Quail, and nesting sites for California Towhees, California Scrub Jays, Anna's Hummingbirds, and others.  Woodrats often build their houses against the trunks of toyon, moving about under the thick cover of branches.  Small flowers in the summer are a source of nectar and pollen for native bees, butterflies, moths and hummingbirds (including 27 species of native bees).  It is the larval  host for 50 species of moth, meaning the larvae of these species may feed at times exclusively on its host species.
Perhaps most notably, Toyon is a valuable source of winter food for fruit eating birds, such as cedar waxwings, thrushes and robins.  I've also seen Western Bluebirds, Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-crowned Sparrows feasting on ripe toyon berries.  During the winter in California's chaparral and oak woodlands, toyon and mistletoe (another plant associated with Christmas that provides a long list of surprising benefits to the ecosystem) are the sole providers of berries for a number of bird species.  In addition to birds, plenty of mammals rely on toyon as a source of food as well, including Black Bears, Coyotes, foxes and rabbits; deer browse new growth, but only woodrats have adapted methods to eat the mature leaves, which contain cyanide compounds and tannins that make them unpalatable to other animals.

Toyon is well-adapted to the wildfires that are a natural component of the chaparral community.  They re-sprout from the crown, near the ground, after the top of the plant and bulk of its biomass  has burned.  The living roots of toyon provide erosion control in recently burned areas, holding precious soil in place as the ecosystem begins to recover.

This winter, if you get the chance, take a drive into the foothills of the Coast Range, the Sierra or the mountains of Southern California, and keep an eye out for California's Christmas Berry, brilliant shrubs resplendent in their winter glory.

If you're interested in reading more about toyon and other plants and animals of California's oak woodlands, I highly recommend Kate Marianchild's beautifully written and illustrated book, Secrets of the Oak Woodlands.  In it, the author captures all the wonder of one of our most remarkable and recognizable plant communities, making readers fall in love with our oak woodlands ecosystem.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

At Home With A Naturalist: A Simple, Meaningful Christmas

I love Christmas.  I love celebrating the birth of our Savior, and enjoying time with my family.  I appreciate the general feelings of warmth and love, generosity and kindness that seems to pervade at this time of year.  I love Christmas trees and the stockings.  I love snow in the Sierra.  I love the candlelight Christmas Eve service at church and exchanging gifts with my family.

But there are things I dislike about Christmas, too.  And that's ok.  I dislike the rampant consumerism of the season and giant inflatable "decorations" covering front lawns.  I dislike all the waste that comes with mountains of wrapped gifts.  I dislike advertisements that sell expectations, and commercials with starry-eyed kids and shiny cars with big red bows on top. 

I dislike the focus-shift that has happened.  Christmas is NOT about shopping or buying gifts, over-decorating your home with shiny things, or even the "winter solstice" (though early Christians did intend for Christmas to supplant pagan winter festivals).

Christmas is about Jesus, the ultimate gift of love.  It is, in fact, about giving, and about family.  Even to some extent, I admit Christmas is linked to the beauty of a wintery landscape, with all those snowy evergreens and red berries!  But Christ is still the central reason we celebrate Christmas.

In our home, Christmas looks pretty different from the TV commercials.  For example, we have :

Plenty of blank space on the calendar.  I am far from a social butterfly (though if Christmas bird counts and ice skating entirely replaced typical Christmas parties, I would be all-in!), but I do love my immediate family.  We kindly say "no thank you" to many Christmas parties in order to have time to spend with our closest family members.  We have pared down our Christmas time activities to the few that we enjoy the most.

Fewer decorations.  We cut a fresh Christmas tree at a local farm every year, and decorate it with pretty natural things, like pinecones and red berries.  In my opinion, trees are perfectly beautiful in their own right; they don't really need our help or adornment.  This year, I made a cedar wreath for our front door with boughs cut from the bottom of our Christmas tree, and decorated it with foraged berries and pinecones.  We put up stockings, throw a cozy blanket on the couch, and call it Christmasy! 

Fewer baked goods.  I bake your typical star-and-tree-shaped Christmas sugar cookies with my sister-in-law, a tradition we started a few years ago.  They look nothing like magazine or Pinterest photos, but they taste great and we have fun!  My grandmother and I make traditional braided Swiss bread, and my mom makes pumpkin pie for dessert Christmas Day.  In past years, I've baked all sorts of extra goodies to give as gifts, and even tried candy-making, only to learn that I don't really enjoy baking, and candy-making is the worst! 

More time spent at home with family, and outside in nature!  We enjoy walking through neighborhoods looking at Christmas lights and listening to Christmas music at home.  I absolutely love a nice snowy snowshoe trek through the woods or ice skating.  And nothing sets the tone for me quite like the candlelight Christmas Eve service at our church.

Fewer presents.  And they're wrapped in some combination of compostable/recyclable brown paper, fabric, or gift bags and boxes that have been around for a while, reused every year.  We make lists of what we want to both give and receive for Christmas, to maximize the probability of giving (and receiving) useful, wanted gifts! 

Gift ideas to feel good about, as a naturalist or other eco-friendly type, include the following:

The Gift of Giving
Donate to a charitable organization in honor of a loved one.  Favorite local organizations, churches and causes are always a fine choice.  Other organizations include Samaritan's Purse, Compassion, and Heifer International.  For the nature-lover, consider adopting an animal, like a pika or reindeer through the National Wildlife Federation or snowy owl through Audubon.  You can also adopt an acre of the Sierra, Rockies or Plains, or even coral reef through the Nature Conservancy.

Especially field guides (for naturalists and naturalists-in-training) or other reference books, which will be used for years!  Field guides and nature books are available for all ages and skill levels, from picture books to technical resources.  Also consider a subscription to National Geographic or other publication.  These gifts have the added benefit of being educational as well!

A National Park pass or State Park pass can be used all year; a gift card, tickets, or even a membership to a nearby zoo, aquarium or museum is also a great idea.  A favorite gift my husband and I received last year was a gift card to Monterey Bay Aquarium, from my sister-in-law.  You might also plan a camping trip, day hike, snowshoe hike, ice skating session or kayaking venture.

Practical & Useful Gifts
Things that immediately come to mind are wool hiking socks, lip balm and soap.  "Pretty" soap, of course!

Garden Gifts
Vegetable, flower and herb seeds, potted plants and even bare root fruit trees are great gifts for those of us who enjoy playing in the dirt.  Native plants for attracting wildlife to the yard are also great for naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts.  For birders, try bird feeders, bird seed, suet (for cold areas - it melts in Central California!) and bird baths.  Consider having a loved one's garden certified as wildlife habitat, through the NWF.

Eco-friendly Gear
For those new to the eco-friendly lifestyle, gifts of a reusable water bottle, travel mug, or Thermos are sure to be welcome.  Other items include glass food storage containers, cloth napkins, a titanium spork for on-the-go meals, canvas shopping bags and fabric produce bags.  Basically, anything to help green their kitchen.

Homemade Gifts
Some easy ones for those who knit or crochet are scarves, beanies, doggie sweaters and socks.  Try sewing some simple fabric produce bags or canvas shopping bags.  For artists and crafty types, the possibilities are endless!

Edible Goodies
A few good ideas include nice olive oil and vinegars, nuts and dried fruit, dark chocolate, local honey or maple syrup, tea or coffee, quick bread or other baked goods (that you actually enjoy making!)

Merry Christmas!!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Great Horned Owl at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

I think owls are my favorite group of birds.  I think.  (There are so many birds to choose from, after all!)  On a rainy day birding over the weekend, I was excited to spot this Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) roosting in a willow at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. 

For me, there is something extra-special about seeing an owl in the wild.  Something in those eyes, the way they gaze so intently directly at you.  They really do inspire awe, and I can understand why owls are so often touted as being wise.  Can't you see the wild wisdom of the ages in this sage owl's expression?

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Snow Flurries in the Great Central Valley!

Flurries of Snow Geese, that is! 

Avian confetti! 
Snow Geese, Ross's Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese and Cackling Geese swirl in the air at the San Joaquin
 River National Wildlife Refuge, viewed from the platform on Beckwith Road.
That wonderful time of year is upon us, when our arctic visitors descend on the Great Central Valley, blanketing wetland refuges with our own unique version of "snow."  Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) and similar Ross's Geese (Chen rossii) arrive by the thousands, their numbers peaking in January.  Stirred up by a perceived threat, or coming in to roost for the evening, Snow and Ross's Geese rise into the air, mixing with Cackling Geese (Branta hutchinsii) and Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) to create a swirling mass of avian confetti, whirling above the fortunate observer and raising a din that can be heard for miles.
Central Valley "snow."
Snow Geese breed on the tundra in Canada and northern Alaska near the coast, preferring areas near ponds, marshes and streams.  According to Cornell's All About Birds, some Snow Geese that winter in the western United States breed as far away as Siberia!  The Great Central Valley has been a key overwintering ground for a number of species of waterfowl for thousands of years; as you can imagine, they have faced great threats during the past couple hundred years as the Valley was drastically altered. 
Snow [Goose] flurries at Merced National Wildlife Refuge.
Though the overwhelming majority of Central Valley habitat has been developed (something like 95%), organizations have sought to preserve habitat for waterfowl and other species through a series of National Wildlife Refuges running the length of the state.  Farmers working with the Fish and Wildlife Service grow crops such as corn and rice specifically for the birds, even flooding their fields during the winter season to provide critical habitat and support biodiversity.  Hunting Snow Geese was banned through the early and mid-1900's, allowing decreased populations to recover.  Today Snow Geese are thriving, with populations on the rise; they are one of the most abundant species of waterfowl on our continent.   
Snow Geese at Merced NWR.  Juveniles can be distinguished by their gray bodies and heads.
 If you get the chance this winter, take a trip out to visit one of our local wildlife refuges.  At the top of the list are the Merced, San Luis and San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuges in the San Joaquin Valley, along with the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge complex a little farther north, in the Sacramento Valley.  Visiting one of these amazing places is a little like stepping back in time, getting just a glimpse at what the Great Central Valley would have been like pre-development.
Snow Geese and Ross's Geese at Merced NWR. 
Rare blue morph, or "Blue Goose," in the foreground, distinguished by a dark body and white head. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Dark-eyed Junco

My first introduction to Dark-eyed Juncos was in May a couple of years ago, at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz area.  The man who told me what they were called seemed pretty unimpressed by them, kind of the way I, a spoiled Californian birder, would describe our endemic tropical-looking Yellow-billed Magpie to someone from, well, literally any other state.  This man was from San Francisco, where Dark-eyed Juncos flock to backyard birdfeeders year-round; I am from the Central Valley, where they only visit during the winter, and I had apparently not yet noticed them at that time.  It was a new bird for my life list that day, so I was thrilled! 

I was charmed by these little hooded sparrows, hopping along on the ground.  After seeing them in the redwoods, I started noticing Dark-eyed Juncos more often.  I saw them in the Sierras, both east and west of the crest, during the summer.  And just recently, on Thanksgiving Day, I spotted a flock of these lovely little birds foraging for seeds on the ground in a grassy area at CSU Stanislaus.  They are ground feeders, gleaning fallen seeds from the forest floor, often emitting "chip" calls as they do so.  Dark-eyed Juncos are in the family Emberizidae, along with other new-world sparrows (such as the White-crowned Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow and Song Sparrow).

Dark-eyed Juncos are birds of conifer forests across Canada, the western United States, and the Appalachians; during the winter, they spread out across the rest of the United States, flocking together in woodlands as well as fields, parks and backyards.  In California, they are year-round residents of the coast regions and Sierra, venturing into the Great Central Valley during the winter months.
There is great regional variation in the coloration of Juncos; in California, we see what is known as the Oregon race.  Other races include the slate-colored, pink-sided, white-winged and gray-headed Dark-eyed Juncos.  15 races are described, but really these six are considered the most easily distinguished.  A general rule is that the slate-colored race is found on the east coast, and the Oregon race on the west.  See a good field guide to North American birds for more details.  (I highly recommend The Sibley Guide to Birds.)

Saturday, December 3, 2016

White-crowned Sparrows

It's a special treat each year when White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) show up in the Great Central Valley.  These lively little birds make a lovely winter addition to our local avifauna, and my family sometimes call them "Christmas tree birds," as they remind us of old-fashioned spun cotton bird ornaments.  Small and quick, White-crowned Sparrows may first be mistaken for "just another little brown bird," but upon closer inspection you will notice the striking black-and-white stripes on this little bird's head which gave rise to its common name. 

White-crowned Sparrows are year-round residents of the Sierra Nevada (and central coast region of California) venturing down-slope into the Central Valley as the weather changes in the fall; they are summer breeders in Alaska and Canada as well, wintering over much of the United States.  Preferred habitat includes tangled brushy areas, from true wilderness to city parks and backyards.  They are often seen low in bushes and hopping about on the ground, so patches of bare or grassy ground are important habitat features.  Their main food source is grass and weed seeds, though they will also feed on berries and insects when they can get them.

Interestingly, Cornell's All About Birds site indicates that although breeding pairs of White-crowned Sparrows spend the winter months apart, about two-thirds of the pairs will re-form the following breeding season.

Look for these pretty little sparrows this winter at your backyard bird feeders as well as out in the wilds, and listen for their beautiful and familiar whistled song, usually the first clue I get that they have returned!  (You can also listen to the song of the White-crowned Sparrow on Cornell's site, by following the link here.)

Friday, December 2, 2016

At Home With A Naturalist: Rejecting Consumerism for the Environment's Sake and Yours

The Christmas season is upon us!  Evergreen trees, bright red berries, pinecones, sparkling snow and... mountains of crumpled wrapping paper? 

Though it might be economic heresy to say it, our country's consumer habits are out of control.  I don't claim to be an economist, but I can tell you a little bit about what our consumer mentality has done to both our personal happiness and the wellbeing of the environment.
A snowy walk through the woods: perfection for a naturalist, and 100% free of consumerism.
First, we have to realize that we are being taken gross advantage of by marketing and advertising.  Companies know that American consumers don't really care what the product is, we only care how it is marketed to us.  Is it faster?  Bigger?  Shinier?  Easier?  Better?  Anything to make us look cooler, thinner, stronger, smarter, better.  Americans want it, and they can't shell out the dough fast enough to get it, whatever "it" may be this week.  No one seems to realize... that the only thing these ads are telling us is that we aren't good enough or happy enough the way we are. 

Now, there's nothing wrong with trying to better oneself... but true betterment comes from practicing things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, compassion, generosity... you get the idea.  Nothing you can buy will accomplish this. 
American consumer debt is through the roof, completely out of control.  And mostly due to purchases that we wouldn't have even considered, had we not turned on the television or walked into that big fancy store.
And, oh, the waste generated by all of this stuff!  The environmental damages wrought by our unquenchable lust for stuff!  Not only do our possessions require raw materials to manufacture, fuel to ship across the globe, even more materials for packaging... not long after we acquire them, we're done with them, tossing them into a landfill, incinerator or cargo ship to be hauled back overseas for disposal.

Of course, we have to buy some things.  We have to have clothes and shoes, and my husband and I would both argue that books are basically a necessity.  But there are limits we must set for ourselves.

So, what does it look like to "reject consumerism" on a practical level, in our home?

One of the most significant things about our home is that we don't have a television.  Not just that we don't "get" TV or pay for cable or whatever, but we don't have the appliance at all.  This means that we don't see or hear television commercials.  And when I do hear them, boy what a shock they are!  Last summer, we watched some of the Olympics at my parents' house... and saw commercials.  On Thanksgiving Day, again at my parents', the Macy's parade was on television, followed by the National Dog Show, followed by football.  So. Many. Commercials!!!  They are so pretentious and actually painful to watch in their glaringly desperate attempt to get to you buy something.

We also don't have a radio in our home, so radio ads are eliminated.  In the car we enjoy the quiet, listen to our extremely eclectic "road trip playlist," or talk.  No annoying radio commercials allowed!

When junk mail comes, with all those glossy advertisements - and the tease of possible coupons - it goes straight into the recycling.  And then, I go online and figure out how to stop these ads from clogging up my mailbox every week!  You'd be surprised what you have the power to unsubscribe from.  (The same goes for email.)

I am a ruthless clicker of the "close" box when internet ads pop up on the screen.  I haven't figured out how to get rid of internet ads entirely, but I will persevere!

Another great habit to develop is one of not shopping.  We just don't go shopping for the sake of shopping.  Stay out of stores; avoid the flashy billboards and sales signs like your life depends on it.  My husband will attest to this: shopping makes me cranky.  And when I do have to go to the store, I go as if I am on a mission!  I plan my route, bring along the coupons or gift cards or what-have-you, decide in advance what I need and how much I'm going to pay for it, and then attack.  I get what I need, nothing more.  Again, ruthless! 

The number-one way to reject excessive consumerism at home, of course, is simply don't buy things you don't need! 

Rejecting consumerism has a vast number of benefits to both the environment and our own personal sense of contentment. 

So much happiness could be gained, and resources conserved, if we shift our priorities away from material things.  Focus on loved ones, generosity and giving to others, kindness and compassion, the natural world.  Learn to be happy with less stuff; learn to appreciate the outdoors and nature, take delight in the birds and wild things, find joy in a hike or walk through the wilderness.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Desert Cottontail

On our recent trip out to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, one lovely Desert Cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii) ventured across our path, nibbling on some greenery and twigs and seeming pretty unconcerned about our presence. 

Some are surprised to learn that the most commonly seen rabbit in these parts (California's Great Central Valley) is the Desert Cottontail.  I remind them that our valley is technically not that far removed from a desert... and that this lagomorph is pretty adaptable, ranging from North Dakota and Montana south to Texas and Mexico, and west to California.  (It is absent from the Sierra Nevada, Cascade and northern Coast ranges, as well as Oregon, Washington and Idaho.)  Their preferred habitat is varied, but predominately consists of dry lowlands (below about 6,000 feet) including grasslands, brushy areas and pinyon-juniper woodlands as well as deserts.
Desert Cottontails are larger than the similar Brush Rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmani) and can easily be distinguished by the bright white cotton ball-like tail and black ear-tips.
This particular Cottontail looks as if he had a narrow escape from the jaws of a predator at some point in his life, judging by the gouge in his ear.  Generally abundant and widespread, rabbits and hares of all species play a vital role in many ecosystems across the globe.  They are known as primary consumers, herbivores that eat plant matter and in turn are eaten by secondary consumers, the predators of the food web.