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The American Badger: A Lesson In Respect

As the conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote, "There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot."

I am one who cannot.

A rare encounter with a very special mammal recently left me pondering this idea, the notion that living in touch with nature adds something profound to the value of our human existence, that my life would be sorely lacking if I had not grown up with one foot in the wild, and didn't live that way still.

As a kid, my parents took me all over the western half of the U.S., traveling, hiking and exploring.  Today, my husband and I often venture out together, for little reason other than simply to enjoy being in nature and to see what we can see.  From massive humpback whales, elephant seals and dolphins in the Pacific, to bears, bobcats and pika in the Sierra, and bison, moose and bighorn sheep in the Rockies, I've encountered quite a few mammals in the wild, and every time I am left awestruck.  I am stopped in my tracks and fall sil…

12 Monthly Tips to Up Your Birding Game - February: Alpha Codes

Last month, I started a series of "Twelve Monthly Tips" with the goal of sharing ideas for ways to improve one's skills as a birder, naturalist and citizen scientist.  These methods have all been tested and approved, and are beneficial for beginners as well as long-time nature nuts, like myself.

My tip this month is directed at stream-lining the process of taking field notes, rather than identifying birds.  Because, notes are crucial!

It's great fun to watch birds, but the pursuit only becomes beneficial to others - and science - when we make an effort to accurately record and report what we see and hear in the field.  Of course, the first step is to make a habit of using a field notebook (or an app - but I prefer paper) to record species and keep a tally of how many of each species were seen (or heard).  Most of us can only keep track of so much information in our heads before accuracy begins to decline!  The second step is to transfer information from our field not…

Celebrate Biodiversity on World Wetlands Day!

Celebrated annually on February 2nd, World Wetlands Day marks the anniversary of the 1971 Ramsar Convention, also known as the Convention on Wetlands, an international treaty created to support the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands around the world.  Currently, there are over 2,300 Ramsar sights, or Wetlands of International Importance, that have been designated worldwide - which is good news considering the sad state of our world's wetlands.

Since 1970, 35% of wetlands have been lost, at a rate three times greater than the loss of forests (source).  In the continental United States, over half of all wetlands have been destroyed since the 1700's (source, source). California alone has lost between 90 and 95% of its wetlands.

World Wetlands Day, first celebrated in 1997, was created so that government agencies, non-government organizations, communities and citizens could come together to raise public awareness for the value of wetlands and their benefits to people an…

Glimpses of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

I really like blue-colored birds: Blue Grosbeaks, Lazuli and Indigo Buntings, Tree Swallows, Steller's Jays, and of course the bluebird trio (Western, Mountain and Eastern Bluebirds).  One day, I would love to see Black-throated Blue Warblers and Cerulean Warblers, east coast birds which only very rarely turn up in California, mostly along the coast during migration.

But my list of blue birds wouldn't be complete without a small, often overlooked insectivore, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea).

I spotted the bird in these photos while birding along the coast in Monterey recently and, in the bright sunlight, managed to get a few decent photos.  (As I've said before, I'm not much of a photographer, but I do try!)

Gnatcatchers are agile and quick, almost constantly in motion as they move through trees and shrubs gleaning tiny insects from leaves and bark.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers range across much of the United States, though many populations are migratory.  He…

Pine Siskins!! In My Very Own Backyard!

One of the greatest things about being a new homeowner, for me as a naturalist, has been having the space and freedom to cater to the wild birds by landscaping with native plants, installing nest boxes and setting up a bird feeding station.  Now, I watch with a smile as flocks of House Finches, American and Lesser Goldfinches, and White-crowned Sparrows show up each morning to patronize my birdfeeders.  Mourning Doves clean up seed that falls to the ground, and a few Golden-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos round out the assemblage.  Yellow-rumped Warblers visit the birdbaths, while American Robins and Cedar Waxwings perch at a distance in the pecan tree.  But of course, as a birder, I always want to see more birds and new species, and occasionally, something really amazing comes along, like the Peregrine Falcon that visited last week.  I have, in the back of my mind, a list of less common birds that could someday turn up at my backyard feeders, birds that are just within the real…

North America's Darling: The Diminutive Downy Woodpecker

Found in every state in the continental United States as well as in most Canadian provinces, the Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) is certainly a crowd favorite.  Downies favor open woodlands, particularly deciduous forests along streams, but take readily to parks and backyards landscaped with a variety of deciduous trees; in many parts of their range, Downy Woodpeckers are the most likely woodpecker species to visit backyard feeders.  And with the distinction of being North America's smallest woodpecker, this diminutive darling is an undeniably "cute" bird.

In my neck of the woods San Joaquin Valley oak savanna, Downy Woodpeckers stick pretty closely to riparian areas: forest fragments along the Merced, Tuolumne, Stanislaus and San Joaquin Rivers offer suitable habitat, along with shrubby areas along Dry Creek, Del Puerto Canyon Creek, and other creeks and wetland areas with willows and deciduous trees.  Since my town is situated miles from the nearest river, plant…

The Unfading Beauty of a Gentle and Quiet Winter

There is no quiet like the stillness that comes with a dense early morning fog, a heavy blanket of gray mist wrapped snugly around the immediate world, insulating and isolating.  Sounds come through faintly, if at all, heard as if from a great distance.  There is no sunrise, just a gradual lightening as the day dawns and the very atmosphere, rather than the sky, fades from slate, to smoke, to silver and pearl.

Squinting into an enshrouding mist, eyes stinging with cold, shapes begin to appear: Tundra Swans glide elegantly, silently past; Northern Harriers course low over leaden water; a White-tailed Kite perches motionless, nearly invisible, a study of black-on-white-on-gray.

The seasons in central California are unique.  In many parts of the temperate world, the dazzling brilliance of ruddy autumn fades into the piercing cold of a white winter as wild storms blow, blizzards rage, trees bend beneath the weight of snow, and ice chokes waterways.  But not so here.  In the unique Mediter…