Saturday, January 28, 2017

Tundra Swans: Why the Central Valley is a Special Place After All

The Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus) just might be the bird that started it all for me, which would be an easy argument to make, considering its beauty alone.  Add to that the fact that they migrate all the way from the Arctic to spend the winter in California, and no one would question the inspirational powers of this swan.

It's hard to say when I got started on the path of birding, since my dad gave me Peterson's First Guide to Birds when I was two years old.  Weekend trips to the Sierra Nevada mountains for hiking, the central coast for tide-pooling and local wildlife refuges for casual birding were frequent in our household.  In high school, I honestly thought everyone knew the difference between a Scrub Jay and a Steller's Jay; I mean, come on, how could you not?!  And I was annoyed anytime someone referred to one as a "Blue Jay," since these don't occur on the West Coast. 

But it wasn't until just after college that my interest in birds really peaked.  During the winter, Eric and I visited one of my childhood stomping grounds, the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge.  Along the auto tour route, I spotted a flock of large white birds and recognized them immediately: Tundra Swans!  I experienced my first "birder's high," that feeling of elation that occurs after seeing a new species or having a particularly incredible wildlife experience.  Maybe you can relate.

I was struck with how absolutely mind blowing it is that these birds, these Tundra Swans, travel so far every year, from their breeding grounds in the Arctic all the way here, to the Central Valley of California.  I couldn't get over the fact that the birds in front of me hatched in the Arctic, flew all the way to California, and would return to the Arctic in the spring to breed.  I was amazed!  Every year, these magnificent birds spend the whole winter here, of all places!  Right here in my very own Central Valley, the place I've called home my entire life!  Never before had I realized how special the Central Valley is, what critical habitat it offers for so many species, including majestic swans.  Who knew?! 

Now, of course, I know that a very long list of special birds travel great distances to make the Great Central Valley their winter home: Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese and Ross's Geese, Cackling Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese are some of the more obvious species that visit from the Arctic; many duck species also travel quite a ways south to stop here, including Northern Shovelers, Wigeons, Teals, Canvasbacks and Scaups.  And let's not forget some of our less flamboyant winter visitors, demur Arctic-nesting shorebirds like Dunlins, Sandpipers and Black-bellied Plovers, all of which also make the long journey south each winter, but rarely make headlines as do the more conspicuous cranes and geese.

Prior to my first Tundra Swan experience, I confess that I thought of the Valley as a rather unremarkable place, a place of pavement and towns that run together along Highway 99, a place of row crops and almonds and cows, a place of summer heat and winter fog, a place one must leave in order to experience good "nature."  But never again will I view the Great Central Valley in such a way; now I know the true value of our prairielands and wetlands, and I owe my thanks to the Tundra Swans.

If you too would like to marvel at these majestic migrators, take a trip out to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge; now is the peak season for waterfowl of all kind, and you can expect to see tens of thousands of overwintering birds from the Arctic, including all of the species I mentioned above.  And in case you're wondering, an encounter with an enchanting little Black-bellied Plover is no less incredible than one with a Tundra Swan!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Campground Spotlight: Hole-in-the-Wall, Mojave National Preserve

There comes a time in the life of every naturalist when an overnight adventure is in order!  And let's be honest with ourselves, camping is really the only way to go!  Thankfully, I was taught the art of camping at a young age and can think of no better way to spend a weekend (or a week, or longer...) than forgoing my bed and hot showers for a cozy tent, fluffy sleeping bag and the great outdoors.  And even more thankfully, I am married to a man who is willing to accompany me on these crazy incredible adventures!

Eric & me, doing the tourist thing in Death Valley

I typically write about the wildlife, plant life and rock life (geology) I come across, but wanted to set aside a few moments for a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a traveling naturalist: namely, the places we camp along the way, those beautiful little patches of ground where we sleep under the stars.

As spring begins to unfold in California's desert regions, I will be writing quite a bit about our desert adventures of 2016.  I'm also looking forward to a return trip to Death Valley this February.

Last spring, we loaded up our little car and embarked on a week-long camping trip in the Mojave desert to experience the "Superbloom" in Death Valley and the even more stunning "regular bloom" in Joshua Tree National Park.  In between the two National Parks, we spent one night in the vastly underrated Mojave National Preserve at Hole-in-the-Wall campground. 

A rather inauspicious name, granted, but it is an incredibly beautiful campground nonetheless.  Set against a stunning backdrop of sculpted cliffs of volcanic tuff, the eroded holes in this wall of rock gave the campground its name.  Hole-in-the-Wall sits underneath an endless sky, overlooking a desert expanse of mesas and yuccas. 

Visit in the spring, and you will be treated to an unforgettable wildflower display.  A path between the campground and visitors' center highlights local flora with plant labels along the trail, for all those botany enthusiasts out there, like me!

A base camp at Hole-in-the-Wall gives wilderness enthusiasts access to Mojave National Preserve's many attractions, from Joshua Tree forests to the Kelso Dunes.  The campground is situated near the trailhead for the Rings Trail through Banshee Canyon - an absolute must-do hike.  Don't skimp on the warm clothes, though: when we visited at the end of March, we experienced a surprise desert snow flurry, followed by a very cold rain and a fair amount of wind!  Thankfully, we were prepared!

35 campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, for $12 per night.  The campground has vault toilets and potable water, and each site has a fire ring and picnic table.  Visit the National Park Service's website to learn more.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Common Mergansers

Mergansers are neat birds, with their fluffy feather crests and pointed bills, atypical for ducks.  This January, a small flock of female Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser) has been hanging out on the ponds at CSU Stanislaus; several stopped here last winter as well.  One foggy morning last week I stopped to get a few photos. 

Common Mergansers are typically found on freshwater lakes and rivers, and occasionally in estuaries during the winter.  They spend the summer months in northern forests, from Northern California up to Washington and across the Rocky Mountains, as well as across much of Canada.  There they nest in tree cavities near water, most commonly in mature forests.  They winter over much of the United States, with the exception of the southeastern part of the country.

Common Mergansers are diving ducks, perfectly suited for catching fish using their serrated pointed bill.  They prefer lakes and streams that are less than about 12 feet deep, though they have been known to dive deeper in search of fish. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Meet the California Thrasher

I heard this bird before I saw it.  My husband and I had just finished our picnic lunch yesterday at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge and were about to set out on our birding hike.  We weren't even out of the parking lot when I spotted a conspicuous bird, perched at the top of a large clump of Quailbush (Atriplex lentiformis) and singing its heart out: a California Thrasher (Toxostoma redivivum).

These birds are typical of California's chaparral habitat, though they are not often seen in the open as their habit is to forage on the ground beneath shrubs, using their bills to uncover insects in the leaf litter.  The California Thrasher is the largest of the thrashers, and is endemic to California and Baja California. 

There is nothing particularly striking about this thrasher's appearance, though their bills are certainly distinct.  But you will no longer think of them as plain after you've heard them sing!  Thrashers are in the family Mimidae, along with the more familiar Northern Mockingbird.  This becomes evident upon hearing the song of the thrasher, a long series of phrases that vary greatly between musical and harsh.  Listen to the song of the California Thrasher at Cornell's All About Birds.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Snapshots at Sunset (Part II): San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

The Great Central Valley has been experiencing much-needed rainstorms recently, but a break in the weather a few days ago provided the perfect opportunity to explore another local protected area, the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge.

It was good to see the river full and waterfowl enjoying the adjacent flooded areas.  But California's water woes are far from over.  So many people seem to be fairly short sighted: it's raining today, in fact it also rained yesterday and is supposed to rain tomorrow, therefore we have abundant water again!  Not quite so.  Water conservation and a massive shift toward wiser water use are still in order, for everyone from farmers and businesses to homeowners and to those insulated in the city. 

If you're interested, check out this article about factors influencing California's water crisis, why the rain won't really help that much, and why almond orchards are causing the land to sink.

There is a lot of finger-pointing and blame-laying going on in the "who uses more water" debate.  Farmers point to urban areas, with their lush lawns and luxurious swimming pools.  City homeowners place blame squarely on the shoulders of farmers, what with all those dairy cows and almond orchards and wine grapes and all. 

Us environmentalist-types tend to agree that both sides are to blame, pat ourselves on the back for turning off the water when we brush our teeth, and wish the rivers could just flow freely from the mountains to the sea... though I do appreciate the electricity I have in my home, a direct result of hydroelectric power generated by dams upriver.  You begin to see how complex water issues in California are.

The truth is, all 38.8 million of us Californians are partially responsible.  The data is out there: Southern California residential areas use an exorbitant amount of water per capita; even in my area in the Central Valley I see green lawns and swimming pools and other questionable water practices that make me squirm a little.  But conversely, farmers are drawing water from deeper and deeper below ground as aquifer levels drop to irrigate luxury crops - I'm looking at you, almonds and wine grapes!! - that are largely exported. 

A moment of transparency: I read these articles, look over the statistics, listen to knowledgeable speakers in the field talk about California's water related issues... and feel very, very small and inadequate.  I hear a scoffing voice in my head tell me that in the grand scheme of things, I'm not really doing that much to conserve water here in my little  household, in comparison to how much water is being used to irrigate that new almond orchard they just planted down the street.  And while that's partially true, I am doing something, and if every single Californian, farmer and homeowner alike, did a little something to conserve water, it would turn into something much larger.  But as I said before, it will take a shift in thinking, a different way of viewing our water resources, and a change in habits.

But by all means, you can still enjoy the rain we're getting!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Snapshots at Sunset: Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Winter is a beautiful time of year in the Great Central Valley: the grasses are green, the seasonal wetlands are full of water and teeming with birdlife, and the sun sets early at the end of crisp, bright days.  And this year, we've even had rain!  It's the perfect time of year to pay a visit to a nearby National Wildlife Refuge. 

One of the best (in my opinion) is the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, with flocks of Snow Geese and Ross's Geese, as well as Sandhill Cranes, nearly as far as one can see.  And it's particularly lovely at sunset.

The Great Central Valley was once a vast prairie, supporting abundant life: Salmon and Grizzly Bears, Pronghorn Antelope and Tule Elk, vernal pools and unchecked rivers feeding seasonal wetlands, stunning carpets of wildflowers and an abundance of small but wonderful creatures which have largely gone underappreciated and unnoticed as they have slipped away, like endangered Kangaroo Rats (Dipodomys spp.) and Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizards (Gambelia sila). 

Today, nearly all of that is gone, paved and plowed, replaced by cities, roads and agriculture.  But at a select and precious few protected sites, visitors can still experience a hint at the California that used to be, a fleeting glimpse of the Great Valley's former glory.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A Special Guest Appearance at CSU Stanislaus: Cackling Geese!

Flocks of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) are a commonplace sight around urban ponds in the Central Valley.  Ponds on the campus of California State University Stanislaus boast a substantial population of the large waterfowl year-round, augmented by overwintering birds this time of year.  While out for a walk a couple of days ago, I noticed something small and out of place as we passed a flock of Canada Geese: one of these geese was not like the others!  One of these geese was significantly smaller than the others; one was a Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii)!

Notice the small size of the Cackling Goose on the left, compared with much larger Canada Geese.

I'm sure most people would have walked right by (perhaps even with some level of annoyance at the mess the geese leave behind and their habit of blocking traffic).  But not I!  I excitedly returned with my camera and discovered there was not just one, but four Cackling Geese at the pond!

Note the short bill of the Cackling Goose, and the hint of a white neck ring.  The ring isn't as pronounced as is typically
seen in the Aleutian subspecies, but maybe this could be a variation or a hybrid between subspecies?

You might still be wondering what all the fuss is about.  Like I said, we see geese all over the place.  But not these geese!

These geese, Cackling Geese, are a relatively new species, as of 2004.  Previously, they were considered to be the smallest subspecies of the Canada Goose.  (For more on "lumping," "splitting," and new species, read this post on the California Scrub Jay.)

Branta hutchinsii minima

Ornithologists have determined that Cackling Geese are distinct enough to be classified as their own species, with four subspecies, two of which find their way to our Great Central Valley during the winter.  The subspecies B. h. minima is the smallest of the four, with a dark brown to purplish cast on the breast.  The subspecies B. h. leucopareia, known as the Aleutian Cackling Goose, has a complete and prominent white neck ring; this subspecies has been considered endangered in the recent past, but has since been delisted. 

Cackling Geese breed in the Arctic, in coastal marshes and tundra ponds.  Their diet is entirely herbaceous, consisting of plants such as grasses, sedges, grains and berries.  They migrate south for the winter, spending the cold months in the central potion of the United States and the Great Central Valley.

Compare the size of these Cackling Geese to that of a Mallard.  They're pretty comparable, which is surprisingly
and obviously small for a goose.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Anna's Hummingbird: An Unlikely Mountaineer

In my previous post, I talked a little bit about some common winter birds of Sierra Nevada mid-mountain forests.  These are the birds you would expect to see riding out a mid-elevation snow storm: Steller's Jays, Juncos, Flickers and the like.  But let us not overlook one of the tiniest residents of this area, the Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna).
You might be aware that hummingbirds are an entirely New World group of birds, and that the vast majority of hummingbird species are found south of California, in Central and South America.  You might even know that we as Californians are privileged with our lovely selection of these little humming jewels; seven species nest in or pass through our state, while the east coast hosts just one species, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). 
But if you live in lower and mid-elevation areas of the Sierra, or visit developed areas there during the winter, you might be surprised to see these little flying gems persist in gardens and backyard feeders throughout the year.  I was surprised the first time I saw an Anna's Hummingbird at a feeder during a snowstorm several years ago, and I've thought about that little bird ever since.  Just recently, after several people asked me if hummingbirds stay in the mountains year-round, and I answered that they do indeed, I decided it was time to do a little more reading on the subject. 
Taken on January 2, 2017, in a neighborhood at roughly 3,500 feet in the Sierra.
The first thing you must realize is that although little hummers adore our bright red hummingbird feeders, they evolved for countless years without them; they don't actually need them.  Hummingbirds do feed largely on nectar, but they also feed on small insects and spiders to meet their protein requirements.  Those long bills are equally adapted for probing nectar-producing flowers as they are for gleaning tiny arthropods from leaves and bark crevices; they also capture flying insects, and help themselves to insects caught in spider webs or sap.  They feed on the sap itself as well, sucked from holes that have been drilled by woodpeckers and sapsuckers.
Now for the interesting bit, the part I've had a sneaking suspicion about all along.
The original breeding range of Anna's Hummingbird reached across chaparral areas of southern California.  But sometime during the mid-1900's, that range began to extend farther north, as far as the well-watered gardens of British Columbia.  This movement corresponded with urbanization, as well as the widespread planting of an introduced tree species, the popular winter-blooming Eucalyptus.
Hummingbirds absolutely love the fluffy pink flowers of Eucalyptus, which conveniently bloom during the winter when other blooms are scarce.  Traditionally, hummingbird migrations follow the wave of blooms through the season, from south to north, up and down mountain slopes.  But it seems hummingbirds, particularly the largely non-migratory Anna's Hummingbird, has taken to following a new wave of bloom: the wave of blooms that follow newly developed residential areas, with gardens of exotic flowers and those ubiquitous and enticing red feeders.
Male Anna's Hummingbird on a feeder in Turlock.
Traditionally, hummingbirds in southern California have depended on currants, gooseberries and manzanitas of the chaparral, with their long growing seasons and winter flowers.  Now, popular landscape shrubs meet their need for winter blooms with plants such as winter jasmine, sweet box, heather and witch hazel.  Coupled with a few eucalyptus trees and hummingbird feeders, plus all those tasty little insects and woodpeckers to help access sap-filled trees, you have a perfectly suitable hummingbird habitat farther north, and even upslope in the Sierra.
Anna's Hummingbirds have one more handy trick up their sleeves: they can enter a state of torpor.  During severe winter weather and the cold of night, hummingbirds have the ability to essentially go to sleep and wait it out.  When in torpor, a hummingbird drastically lowers its body temperature from between 104 and 107°F to about 48.2°F.  It's respiration rate falls from 245 breaths per minute to just 6, and it's metabolic rate decreases to 300 times lower than when active, saving a massive amount of energy.  This allows Anna's Hummingbirds to spend active winter days feeding on sugar and converting it to fat, then enter into torpor during long, dark winter nights, living off of stored fat until morning.
The photo that started it all.  Taken 6 years ago, the first time I noticed an Anna's Hummingbird in the Sierra
(approximately 3,500 feet in elevation) during the winter - and in a snowstorm to boot!
So while our other hummingbirds - Costa's (Calypte costae), Allen's (Selasphorus sasin), Rufous (S. rufus), Calliope (S. calliope), Broad-tailed (S. platycercus) and Black-chinned (Archilochus alexandri) - are making dangerous migrations south, hardy Anna's Hummingbirds stay behind to capitalize on cultivated gardens, introduced exotic plants, and generous offerings of nectar in specialized feeders.
A note on feeding hummingbirds: The best way to attract hummingbirds and other wildlife to your yard is always to plant flowering California native plants, as well as provide water and shelter.  Nesting sites often include oaks, sycamores and eucalyptus (not native), as well as vines and shrubs such as Ceanothus and manzanitas.  Great information on growing hummingbird gardens can be found on the website of Las Pilitas Nursery or through the California Native Plant Society.  Check out the links!  It's also still okay to provide sugar water in hummingbird feeders, but remember a couple of rules: the ratio always needs to be four parts water to one part sugar, and don't add food coloring!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Snow Birds of the Sierra

A few days ago, I had the privilege of watching a beautiful winter storm descend on the hills of the Sierra, around 3,300 feet in elevation, between the towns of Murphys and Arnold.  Blowing snowflakes created a winter wonderland outside, while I watched from behind a window, snug and warm indoors.

The plant communities at this elevation are comprised of species typical of mid-mountain forests, found in the Sierra between 2,500 to 6,000 feet: Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa), Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) and Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii).  Gray Pine (Pinus sabiniana) and plants more typical of lower elevation foothill chaparral exist in this region on dry, warm south-facing slopes.  Manzanitas (Archtostaphylos spp.) and Ceanothus (Ceanothus spp.) make up most of the shrub component of the ecosystem.

Looking out on a snowy forest, one would assume all of its resident fauna are curled up in warm dens, old woodpecker holes, burrows and the like.  And plenty are, surviving out of the way of the icy wind, while others have long since migrated south or downslope to the snow-free Central Valley.  But if you watch long enough, you will see the hardy denizens of mid-mountain forests emerge.

This Steller's Jay fluffed up his feathers for warmth, and paid no mind to the blowing snow, though the wind tousled his jaunty crest.  Many birds endure cold temperatures by fluffing up their feathers, trapping warm air close to their bodies and increasing their feather's insulating properties.  Often, birds will then tuck their feet under their feathers, hunker down and ride out the storm.

Birds, like this Northern Flicker, also have waterproof feathers.  They are coated in waxy, water-resistant oil produced by preen glands at the base of the tail, which is distributed through their feathers as they preen.  Preening also serves to realign and interlock the tiny barbs along each feather, further sealing out moisture.  You've probably observed this characteristic of feathers.  Pick up a discarded, mussed feather and begin running your fingers along it, smoothing it out as you go.  The minute hooklets and barbules on each barb realign and connect, creating a smooth, tightly linked surface, which insulates and waterproofs the bird.  This is why carefully preened feathers are so critical to a bird's survival.

In the photo above, the Goldfinch on the left is fully fluffed, sitting on its feet to keep them warm; the bird in the middle is preening its feathers meticulously; and the bird on the right is posing for a photo!

This Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) was taking refuge from the storm inside dense shrubs, periodically emerging to have a look around and forage on the ground for seeds and the like.  At this elevation during the winter months, you are also likely to see Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Mountain and Chestnut-sided Chickadees, Golden-crowned Sparrows, California Towhees and Spotted Towhees, California Quail, Ravens and California Scrub Jays, a variety of woodpeckers, and raptors, such as hawks and owls.  Down in a marshy area, I spotted a pair of Canada Geese.  And in a wooded, residential area, I found these tracks, made by...  Can you guess?

These large and rather dinosaur-like tracks were made by Wild Turkeys!  Wild Turkeys are large birds that primarily walk as a means of transportation, though they can fly well and, surprisingly, even swim!  These birds are always an impressive sight, strolling through the woodlands.  Though they are native to North America (specifically the eastern half of the continent) they were introduced to California as game birds. 

I will add a note that I have read Wild Turkeys, or at least an ancestral species of turkey, existed in California during the late Pleistocene (around 10,000 years ago), according to fossil records.  This would mean we can consider them to be reintroduced, rather than an introduced exotic species.  An interesting perspective, I think.  If you're really interested in the evolution of wild turkeys in California, check out this discussion, by Don Roberson, author of five books on California birds and creator of the natural history website Creagrus.