Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Nesting Killdeer

Last week, I wrote about the diminutive and disguised nests of the Anna's Hummingbird.  March is nesting season for many resident birds in California's Great Central Valley, and hummingbirds are certainly not the only birds that go to great lengths to hide their nests from predators.


Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) are a familiar species to many birders and non-birders alike across the United States.  The cry of the Killdeer is a plaintive and distinctive call heard across open ground from coast to coast, and you may be acquainted with the sight of these beautiful plovers scurrying across the ground in wild as well as suburban areas.


Killdeer inhabit a wide variety of open spaces, from rural fields and mudflats to urban lawns and gravel parking lots.  They are opportunistic foragers, feeding on invertebrates like worms, snails, beetles and larvae, as well as seeds and even the odd frog or fish, if the opportunity presents itself.


Because they are adaptable to a wide range of habitat and food sources, killdeer have been relatively successful in the face of change.  But living in such close proximity to humans is not without its risks, and birds are susceptible to collisions (with cars as well as buildings), pesticide poisoning, and nest disturbance.


Like most other shorebirds, killdeer are ground-nesting birds.  Nesting sites are on open ground, such as areas of short grass, bare soil or gravel.  (Gravel roads, parking lots, canal banks and even rooftops seem to be favorite nesting sites in our area.)  While water is not always present, nests seem to be more successful when placed near a shallow water source, which offers good feeding areas for newly hatched chicks.


Nest building consists of little more than creating a shallow scrape in the ground, roughly three inches in diameter.  Pebbles, sticks, shell and other bits of debris may be added as a nest lining.  Typically, four heavily blotched eggs are laid, and both parents take turns incubating them for 22 to 28 days.  In California's warm climate, a killdeer pair may raise two or even three broods in a season.


The eggs look remarkably like small rocks, and are well-camouflaged in their open habitat.  To this disguise, killdeer parents add one more trick to deter predators.  Killdeer parents commonly feign a broken wing, fluttering helplessly along the ground in the opposite direction from the nest.  This ploy serves to lure would-be predators away from the nest and even fools many human intruders!


If you hear the distinctive cry of the killdeer (learn the sound here or here) or see one of these beautiful birds scurrying or fluttering on the ground, be aware that a nest could be near by.  And then watch your step!  Nests are fragile, and just as with their threatened cousin the Snowy Plover, a careless human could easily destroy a clutch of eggs, by stepping on or running over them, and never even notice.  Keep an eye out especially along gravel pathways, driveways, roads and parking lots, where the small nest of speckled eggs disappears effortlessly into the rocks.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Wetland Report: Catching the Tale End of Winter at Merced & San Luis NWR

Personally, I'm not sad to see winter go.  March in the Great Central Valley is a mixed bag of late winter storms and early spring sunshine, but warmth is certainly on its way!  With the last few days of winter at hand (if a beautifully calm, sunny day of 70 degrees can be considered winter!), Eric and I paid a visit to our local wildlife refuges to have a look at the changes being wrought across the landscape.

The wetlands at Merced NWR

At Merced National Wildlife Refuge and nearby San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, the numbers of winter waterfowl have certainly decreased.  A good number of ducks and geese are still present, though.  (And there always seems to be an abundance of American Coots!)  Northern Shovelers are present in the highest numbers, but a few teals, gadwalls and wigeons are scattered among them as well.  The brilliant blue bills of the male Ruddy Ducks are beginning to show some color.

A pair of Cinnamon Teal

A large flock of Snow/Ross's Geese is still hanging around the wetlands at Merced NWR (though they were too far away to identify.)  Flocks of Greater White-fronted Geese and Cackling Geese, several hundred strong, are still present as well, mostly in the pastures and grain fields surrounding the wetlands.

Distant Snow/Ross's Geese and Sandhill Cranes at Merced NWR

A few hundred Sandhill Cranes are still here as well, their croaking calls carrying great distances on the still air.  If you haven't gotten out to see these beautiful birds yet this winter, you still have a chance!  But they won't be around much longer before they take to the skies and return to their northern breeding grounds.

Lingering Sandhill Cranes

The descending whinny of the secretive Sora and the maniacal laughter of the Pied-billed Grebe are common sounds of the late winter and early spring wetlands.  Also listen for the strange, resonate plump-plump call of the American Bittern and the incessant chattering of the Marsh Wren.

A somewhat rare glimpse of a secretive American Bittern

Check the shallows and mudflats for sandpipers and plovers.  Late winter seems to be the best time to spot elegant American Avocets feeding in shallow water.

Elegant American Avocet

Trees and stands of reeds are alive with large flocks of boisterous blackbirds: Red-winged and Brewer's Blackbirds are the most common, but keep an eye and ear out for colorful Yellow-headed Blackbirds and our Central Valley special, the Tricolored Blackbird.  They both sound different than their more familiar Red-winged kin, and an oddly hoarse note out of place can alert a good birder to the presence of another species.  For me, it's often much easier to pick out Tricolored Blackbirds by their song than to decide if the wing patches are fire engine red and yellow (Red-winged Blackbird) or brick red and white (Tricolored Blackbird)!

Two Yellow-headed Blackbirds hanging out with a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds.  Their hoarse calls gave them away!

Warmer weather brings out the flying insects, and flying insects bring swallows!  Migratory species like Barn, Cliff and Northern Rough-winged Swallows have returned to join our resident Violet-green and Tree Swallows.  Swallows are always a delight to watch as they perform their aerial acrobatics overhead.

Tree Swallows - for once sitting still!

Be on the look out for mammals as well!  Coyotes, mule deer, rabbits and ground squirrels were all out in force, enjoying the sunshine and fresh new growth of spring.

A pair of mule deer wade through the grasslands of San Luis NWR

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Nesting Anna's Hummingbird

It is that most beautiful time of year again - spring in the Great Central Valley!  All around, grasses are greening up, wildflowers are beginning to show their faces and our local avifauna are getting restless.  For some birds, the time to depart and return to their northern breeding grounds is drawing near.  For others, our resident birds, the breeding season has already begun. 

I've written before about our little gem of a resident, Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna), defying the odds to remain in Northern California throughout the winter.  And I've also written about the beauty, intricacy and strength of hummingbird nests.  Today, I have the good fortune of being able to combine the two in a couple of special photos I took yesterday of a female Anna's Hummingbird on her nest.


The nests of Anna's Hummingbirds are extremely difficult to spot.  Though they build their nests fairly low on horizontal limbs of trees and shrubs, they take great care to camouflage the outside of the nests so that at a glance they appear to be nothing more than a knot on a branch.  Even when you know where to look they can be tricky to find! 

Anna's Hummingbirds are less than 4 inches long and weigh only a few grams when fully grown.  The female takes about a week to construct her cup-shaped nest, sitting on it and using her small body to shape the nest as she builds it up around herself.  She uses soft down from plants such as cattail, willow and thistle, bound together by spider webs.  When finished the cup measures about 1 inch tall by 1.5 inches in diameter.  The outside is covered with bits of lichen, bark and mosses to further hide it from predators. 


The female herself, lacking the flashy gem-like coloring of the male, is barely noticeable as she sits quietly on her nest throughout the average 16-day incubation period (which can range from 14 to 19 days).  Each nest typically contains two impossibly small, white jelly bean-sized eggs.  When the young hatch, they are tiny, naked, blind and helpless.  To see them, you would be sure there is no way they could possibly survive.  But survive they do!  Young hummingbirds remain in the nest for about 3 weeks while the female alone cares for them until they are ready to fledge (leave the nest).  If she is lucky, a female Anna's Hummingbird may raise two or three broods each breeding season, with as many different males.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Designing a Native Plant Garden, Part IV: Where To Buy Native Plants

We are almost to the stage in the process of designing a native garden that goes beyond planning to actually planting - but not quite yet!  First, we have to figure out where to find these elusive native plants!  Unfortunately, buying native plants to incorporate into your design is not as easy as popping down to the garden center at your local home improvement store and picking up a few native manzanitas and salvias.  It's not even as simple as paying a visit to your local nursery, since most retail (and wholesale) nurseries dedicated to ornamental plants carry very few natives.  (At least that is true in my area; it may be different where you live.)  Finding native plants takes a little bit more effort.  And because of this additional effort, simply locating native plant nurseries and scoping out what varieties are available warrants a step of its own in this grand process.

First, let's recap our progress so far:
Step 1: Do your research!  (Hit the books and the internet to find out just what it takes to grow natives.)
Step 2: Analyze your site  (Grab your tape measure and sketch pad to find out what will grow best in your garden.)
Step 3: Visit local native gardens  (Head out to see how others have designed their native gardens.)

Step 4: Discover Where to Buy Native Plants... and Create Your Shopping List

Scout out nearby native plant nurseries to find sources for your plant material.  I purposefully listed this step before finalizing your planting plan because it can be all well and good to incorporate lots of wonderful plants you've read about and seen in other gardens into your plan, but if you can't actually find them for sale near you... it can be very discouraging.  (I speak from experience.)

If you have no idea where to begin, try using Calscape's nursery finder tool.  If you live in the Bay Area or Los Angeles area, you're in luck; if you live in the middle of one of the big empty patches on the map like I do, you'll have to look a little harder.  Try a Google search for nurseries that carry native plants.

Start to compile a list of nurseries that carry the varieties and cultivars you have selected for your landscape.  Scouring their websites is a good way to do this, as many nurseries keep updated plant lists.  Or you could always call ahead and ask!  (Probably the better way to go, actually.)  Finding your plants can either be a fun treasure hunt-type project, or an extremely frustrating undertaking.  Or, like it was for me, a little bit of both.  Where I live in the San Joaquin Valley, there are very few nurseries that carry a wide selection of natives.  Collecting all of my plants required three separate full-day trips to nurseries an hour or more away (two in Sonora, one in Davis, one in Prather), a visit to a local native plant propagator, a trip to the fall plant sale hosted by my local chapter of the California Native Plant Society, an online seed order from Theodore Payne, a quick stop by Las Pilitas Nursery while in San Luis Obispo for my cousin's wedding, and a trip to a local concrete recycling facility by the sewage plant that also doubles as a nursery and happens to grow a few natives for Caltrans landscaping projects (I was sure I'd turned into the wrong driveway that time!!).  Like I said, it was a treasure hunt!


When selecting your plants, remember that bigger is not better!  Choose smaller container sizes: 4-inch pots and 1-gallon containers are best.  Smaller plants suffer less transplant shock when they are planted out into the garden and quickly catch up to their larger counterparts in size.  They are also less expensive!  In some cases, you might want to go even smaller and choose to start your own plants from seed.  This is especially practical and cost efficient when you need more than a few of one type of plant to cover a large area.  And, if you live far from native plant nurseries like I do, seeds can be shipped at minimal extra cost.  Annuals, perennials and some shrubs are good candidates for starting from seed.  I've had good success with buckwheats, lupines, blue-eyed grass, columbine and of course poppies; I plan to start some grasses and milkweed next.



Online order seed sources:

Larner Seeds

Theodore Payne Foundation

I highly recommend finding your local chapter of the California Native Plant Society and visiting their native plant sale(s).  Most chapters have annual or biannual plant sales that are well worth checking out.  These can be great local sources for regionally-appropriate native plants and seeds.

A few of California's larger and well-known native plant nurseries are listed below:

California Flora Nursery, near Santa Rosa (north of San Francisco)

Yerba Buena Nursery, Half Moon Bay (south of San Francisco)

Las Pilitas, near San Luis Obispo (Central Coast)

Matilija Nursery, Moorpark (north Los Angeles area)

Theodore Payne Nursery, Sun Valley (Los Angeles area)

Tree of Life Nursery, near San Juan Capistrano (south Los Angeles area)

For more nurseries, try using Calscape's nursery finder tool.

Don't forget to ask for California native plants at your local nursery.  You never know what they might have tucked away somewhere, or what they might be able to order for you.  And by asking specifically for natives, we create a demand that nurserymen will begin to recognize.

Next up in the series, Part V: Finalize Your Plan & Buy Plants

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Designing a Native Garden, Part III: Visit Local Gardens

If you've been following along with the "Designing a Native Garden" series, by now you have amassed enough plant photos to create your own picture book, created miles of lists, and otherwise gleaned all the information you could find on growing native plants.  You've also measured and sketched out your planting site.  So what's next?  At some point in the process of planning your native garden, you will want to visit other native gardens to get ideas and see plants in person.  (I suppose you could even do this as the first step in the process.)

Books are indispensable resources, but nothing quite compares to seeing plants in person.  For one thing, no matter how excellent the photos and text descriptions in books and online, nothing can prepare you for how wonderful a native garden can smell!!

Step 3. Visit Local Native Plant Gardens.

Visit public gardens during each season to gain an understanding of the seasonal rhythms of a native garden.  Spring is the perfect time to start visiting gardens, as many garden tours and events take place during these highly floriferous months.  Go on garden tours to see how other homeowners have designed their own private gardens.  Make an effort to see a wide variety of plants in person, and in different seasons.  (Remember, late summer is the dormant season for many California natives.)


Perhaps one of the most important steps, and one that is least done, is to visit natural areas adjacent to your home/property and identify the native plants that grow there.  Recreating natural habitat is typically the whole point of these projects, after all!  Look for spaces that are similar to your own to get an idea of what will work best in your own yard.  For example, on the gravel bars and flood plains of the river nearest my house (the Tuolumne River), silver bush lupine, pictured below, grows in patches.  (But silver bush lupine is not a riparian plant, which is important to note; it also grows in rocky upland with access to virtually no water whatsoever for six months of the year, so it should do well in my yard.)  Additionally, Calscape lists silver bush lupine as a shrub native to my zip code.  So it is a must-grow plant for my garden!

Silver Bush Lupine, which grows wild in my area, in a garden setting.

The best California Native Botanical Gardens are:

Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (Claremont)

Regional Parks Botanic Garden (Berkeley)

University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Visit the California Native Plant Society's website for a list of more public gardens with native plant collections.


Native plant garden tours take place usually only one day or one weekend each year (in spring).  On these special days, generous homeowners open their private gardens to visitors, allowing guests to wander through, viewing gardens and asking questions.  Garden tours are an excellent way to see how native plants function in real-life yards and gardens.

I highly recommend saving the date for one of the following tours.  (Dates listed are for 2019)

Gardens Gone Native  (Sacramento, Free)  April 27, 2019

Going Native Garden Tour (San Francisco, Free)  May 4-5, 2019

Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour (East San Francisco Bay Area, Free)  May 5, 2019

Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour  (Los Angeles area, $25-$30)  April 6-7, 2019

While visiting gardens, take lots of notes and photos!  Compile a list of favorite plants that you want for your garden.  Maybe even keep two lists, one for the lightly irrigated north side of the house, and another for the dry south side.  You might fall in love with both desert willow and Pacific iris, and you can have both - but in different micro climates in your yard!  Make decisions based on what occurs naturally in your area, what other natives thrive in similar conditions to those found in your area, what will fit in your space, and what you like the looks of.

Be sure to include specific cultivars in your lists, especially when dealing with large and highly varied groups of plants, like the manzanitas and ceanothus.  (Because some can be 8 feet tall or more, while others stay below 18 inches; and this matters, a lot!!)

Most of all, take time to enjoy the beauty of a native plant garden - and get excited about your own future garden!

If you're not able to get out this spring, take a virtual tour of native gardens, courtesy of the California Native Plant Society.  Click here and here.

If you missed them, here are links to Parts I and II in the series:
Part I: Planning
Part II: Analyze Your Site

Stay tuned for Part IV: Where to Buy Native Plants