Author Archive | Dan Greaney

Black Phoebes Make Doughty Neighbors

Black Phoebe

Black Phoebe photo courtesy of David Bogener

Winter is not traditionally mosquito-buzzing or cricket-singing season. The bugs lie low, not with summer music but tucked mutely into a puddle or under a log or leaf, usually as eggs or larvae or pupae. They wait for the revolving Earth to point us sunward, waking them up and rousing the crescendo of photosynthesis that prospers life seasonally all over the planet’s surface.

Songbirds, of course, know these seasons at an instinctual level. Our summer birds head south to sunnier latitudes not to keep warm but to keep in grub. Flycatchers, who snag six-legged prey right out of the air for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, are particularly reactive to insect dormancy. Customarily, they enjoy Acapulco or similar resort destinations this time of year.

But there’s always a nonconformist. Come drenching winter rains, pounding hail, hard frosts, and coats of snow, one little flycatcher finds a way to live through winter right here in Northern California. The black phoebe is one of our pluckiest neighbors.

Black Phoebe with Spider

They are no shrinking violets, nor much vegetative at all. Although scarcely the length of your handspan, and dressed in buttoned-down black-and-white, they engage life with redoubtable effervescence. They abundantly sing out their name, phoe-be, phoe-be! as if announcing nature’s vitality on even a frosty morning. They fly-catch when flies—or moths or mosquitoes—are few and far between, and expand their hunt to snatch prey from blades of grass or the surface of ponds. They flick their tails incessantly as if life simply requires dancing. They wear just a hint of a punk ‘do in their headfeathers, just enough to keep more sedate heads wondering.

And they not only survive, they flourish. When spring comes with readier food supplies, pairs reunite, and the male takes his mate on a tour of possible nest sites, fluttering enticingly under bridges or shady eves, or in the cleft of a tree-sized boulder. She chooses a spot and builds a nest, a half-bowl of mud plastered to the selected vertical surface—possibly refurbishing a site that the pair used in prior years.

Black Phoebe Nest

Phoebes defend their turf, chasing off other insectivores and reserving the local winged protein for themselves and their nestlings. But plucky is not foolhardy. They will generally flee a hunting hawk. Still, they are known to harass a fox or cat, and have been observed chasing jays thrice their size to protect their helpless young.

Black phoebes have done well with people. As long as water is nearby, with its provision of insects for eating and mud for nesting, human development has multiplied the vertical surfaces that make continuing life possible for this hardy neighbor of ours. Keep an eye and an ear out: there is likely a clear “phoe-be, phoe-be” near you!

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Christmas Bird Counts Create a History of Information

Black-throated Gray Warbler

Black-throated Gray Warbler

It’s a team sport. It’s parallel play. It’s research. It’s art. It’s an exercise in hope. It’s a long cold day outdoors!

The tradition of Christmas Bird Counts was begun by Frank Chapman in 1900. People often do things because they don’t know what else to do, and Chapman wanted to provide an alternative to the then-popular Side Hunts—Christmas Day competitions to kill and gather the biggest pile of furred and feathered animals. It was the era when John Muir was chastising Teddy Roosevelt for expressing his love of animals by shooting them, and when the Audubon Society had recently formed to dissuade people from killing egrets so their plumes could adorn ladies’ hats. The Bird Counts quickly caught on.

From that first rudimentary count in 1900, in which 25 areas from Massachusetts to Pacific Grove, CA were surveyed by 27 people to tally a total of 90 species, the annual count has grown into a massive inventory of Western Hemisphere birds. Some 75,000 people now identify and count all the birds they can in over 2500 established circles. The circles are 15 miles in diameter. The counts are held between December 14 and January 5. Good-weather years can yield 60 million birds in over 2600 species.

Locally, bird watchers conduct four Counts. The oldest, the Redding Count, was begun in 1975. It extends from Shasta College through most of Whiskeytown Lake, and from Shasta Dam down to South Bonnyview Road. Up the road, the Fall River Count was established in 1984, and is always popular as a location where valley, mountain, and Great Basin species can be found in its open fields and abundant waterways. South of Redding, the Anderson and Red Bluff Counts abut each other where the temperate Central Valley provides winter homes to numerous songbirds and waterfowl.

Together, the four counts this year hosted 81 people covering a total of 109 miles on foot, 939 miles by car, and 13 miles by kayak or canoe to tally 165 species and 75,712 individual birds.

There are always some rarities on the counts, but this year had many. In addition to a wayward swamp sparrow from the eastern US, and a handful of mute swans, who are elegant but destructively ravenous invasives, the rare birds mostly seem to reflect warm weather. Kayakers on Redding’s stretch of the Sacramento River found a black-throated gray warbler and a Hammond’s flycatcher, both of whom are expected to be sunning in Mexico this time of year. A boater in Fall River found a red-breasted merganser and a red-necked grebe, who usually winter in temperate coastal waters. A burrowing owl in Anderson, and Red Bluff’s sage thrasher and white pelican are all pushing their wintering range northward.

Perhaps the warm weather, holding some southland birds here, is also keeping many of our traditional birds away, farther north. Fall River compiler Bob Yutzy reports, “The numbers of most species were down.” Low numbers are repeated throughout the North State. Brooke McDonald’s report on the Anderson count includes “We had 18 Mallards, which is shockingly low. The average is 132 and the previous low was 81. We had 25 robins and the average is 201.”

From Red Bluff Michele Swartout reports, “We have had little precipitation so far this winter season, which meant very little to no water in our local ponds and wetlands. The lack of waterfowl, in both species and quantities was very obvious during this year’s count.”

Bill Oliver, compiler of the Redding count, sums up his findings: “The species total was a high average, but the number of [individuals] was below average, as it has been for the other local Counts.”

While the ecological disruptions of a warming climate cannot be welcome, we can hope that for now our missing North State birds are temporarily elsewhere, perhaps discovered in other counts. National Audubon is compiling the data and, if wet weather doesn’t bring the birds in sooner, will be able to let us know before long.

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North State Gold

Lesser Goldfinch Male

Lesser Goldfinch Male

Nature offers relentless beauty, free—not for the taking, but still for enrichment. One of this season’s beauties is goldfinches.

If you hang a feeder with thistle seed out your window, then a dozen or more of these lemon cuties may well deck the twigs nearby. They’re tiny, just elongated ping-pong balls, but on a chill winter morning they can turn bare branches into a Christmas tree.

The birds are known as Lesser Goldfinches. “Lesser” because they are smaller than their cousin American Goldfinches, and because in summer the cousins have more stunningly bright plumage. But in winter the larger birds lose their brilliance, turning an amber tan, while the lesser goldfinches continue to shine.

As is common in birds, the males are the prettier ones. Their wings are black with small flashes of white, and they wear smooth black caps. Their greenish backs melt into bright yellow undersides. The females dress in similar colors, but muted and without the hat.

It is uncommon to see a solitary goldfinch. They are gregarious, hanging out together like teens at the mall, and filling the air with their wheezy chittering and trills. In their native western US and Mexico, they can be seen wherever the small seeds they thrive on are abundant. They scour sycamore pods high in city treetops; they flock through weedy lots and fields; and they congregate at feeders. Development does not seem to have reduced the presence of weeds or seeds, and the goldfinches are prospering.

Our North State climate is temperate enough that the goldfinches out your winter window will stay in the neighborhood for their spring nesting. Finches are singers, and a male will twitter and tweet until a female succumbs to his melody and allows him to perch by her. He will eventually begin feeding her, a consideration he will continue as she selects a nest site and does the work of construction. She is practical in this task, weaving her grassy cup in a leafy tree or shrub and lining it with fluff from flora or fauna, making a soft, warm bed for the naked nestlings.

The nest is usually just 4-8 feet off the ground. Keeping it low facilitates his food delivery to her while she incubates their eggs, and later, their exhaustive efforts to fill the bottomless pits of their annual handful of children. In under two weeks of incubation, the young hatch out scrawny and helpless, but strong enough to demand that incessant deliveries of seeds and insects be gathered from the neighborhood and fluttered up to them. In less than two weeks more they will be as big as their parents, feathered, and flapping awkwardly from the nest.

Lesser Goldfinch Female with Nestlings

Lesser Goldfinch Female with Nestlings

After a little more tending, the weary parents can take a break. Their energetic young flutter on, replenishing the local flurry of color and song, continuing the persistent beauty of the natural world.

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Saying Thanks for the Birds

Northern Pintail Drake

Northern Pintail Drake

Family, warmth, beauty… There is so much to be thankful for. Perhaps we can be especially thankful for just that – our capacity to appreciate.

Appreciate is one cool word. It means both “to be thankful for” and “to increase the value of.” Those two things seem properly bound in a single word.

We appreciate birds in many ways. At our homes we may grow brush and trees that give birds places to forage and rest. Perhaps we reduce or stop our use of toxins in the yard. In our neighborhoods we sustain parks, with thickets of trees, ponds, creeks, and rivers; maybe we decrease the number of introduced predators. In these places of earthly beauty the birds can sing and scratch the leaves, and we can enjoy it all.

On a grander scale, too, we have done some good for birds. Banning DDT and lead has reduced those toxins in the ecosystem, famously supporting the comeback of eagles and falcons, and now the health of waterfowl. However, sometimes our large-scale societal actions seem distant and convoluted; we don’t even know what good we do.

Take the Farm Bill. In 1933 it was created to help farmers suffering from Depression Era crop prices. Now, with its impact on not just rural economies but global trade, food safety, nutrition, and conservation, it is often the subject of hard-nosed debate as Congress tries to discern just what the good thing is. Other issues aside, the bill has been able to steer a path that seems to support both farmers and wildlife.

Well over 60% of the Lower 48 is private land, including 911 million acres of farmland and 400 million acres of forests or tree farms. Forest birds had declined 19% in the two decades measured when, in 1990, the Farm Bill created financial incentives for timber companies to improve habitat. Since then woodland bird numbers have stopped their decline and edged up a modest 3%. Also in the 1990’s wetland easements were introduced, paying farmers to keep their fallow fields flooded. Since then ducks and shorebirds ended their decline of 10% in the prior 22 years and have increased an impressive 51%.

Grassland birds had also declined, by nearly half from 1968-2003. Then grassland easements were begun, paying farmers to leave their upland, often marginal, acres untilled. The bird decline stopped and, like the forest bird populations, have crept up a hopeful 3%.

Farm Bill conservation is also credited with keeping 22 million tons of soil out of waterways in 2013 alone. That much soil would put a big hole in your yard—or in Redding, or in the Central Valley; and it couldn’t be good for salmon, or birds that eat fish, or any who, like us, drink river water. Our choices have kept that land in the fields and forests where it should be. Farm Bill conservation is further credited with generating $430 million annually in hunting and bird-watching activities and with water absorption and flood control valued at $150 billion.

Our choices matter, and we’ve made some good ones. But we are, thankfully, alive, and so the responsibility and opportunity of making choices continues. The Farm Bill subsidizes agribusiness and timber companies to do good on private land. Now Congress is deciding whether we should subsidize oil companies with our public land in the Arctic, not to protect habitat but to turn it into oilfields. Further, our House representative just forwarded a bill that would absolve those companies from responsibility for marine mammal and bird kills in the Arctic, the Gulf, or anywhere else. Arctic oil would produce about 1% of the world’s total, not enough to affect gas prices or create security; but it would degrade nesting grounds and contribute to climate change, which greatly harms birds and people alike.

We get to make all kinds of choices. A basic choice is deciding what we want to appreciate.

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Avian Spooks Haunt the Night

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Who-h’hoo-hoo-hoo! Not a Halloween ghost, but an owl. Some owls are smaller than robins, others bigger than your poodle, but they live all around us, locally and worldwide, almost invisibly.

Most common in North America is the Great Horned Owl. It’s not really horned—just feather-tufted—but these owls have the hearing, eyesight, feathering, talons, and instincts that make them formidable nighttime spooks .

Being nocturnal, the owls must keep warm. Their thick blanket of soft feathers does the job. Their feathering is so plush that a child’s finger poked into it can disappear. The Great Horned Owl is about the size of a housecat, but weighs only half as much, maybe four pounds. The rest is feathers.

The softness of these feathers helps insulate the birds, but it also promotes their silence. You may have heard the stiff flapping of, say, a raven winging by in daylight hours. But the owl’s feathers, soft and fringed at the wings, slip silently through the air, so that an unsuspecting rat is given no warning of its doom.

“No warning” is important. Daytime raptors—hawks and eagles—generally catch their quarry only 20% of the time. Snatching prey in the night can only be more difficult.

But owls are up to the task. They have huge eyes; imagine tennis balls on our human faces. Their pupils can open wide to catch dim shades in the dark. Their retinas are rich in rod cells, the photoreceptors that see only black and white, but still see when color receptors have shut down with dusk. Their huge eyes leave no room for their pupils to slide left-right as ours do, but they compensate with 14 vertebrae in their neck, twice our number, allowing their famous three-quarter head swivel.

Owl hearing is exceptional. Their cheek feathers form two little dishes that funnel sound into their ears, one on each side of the head, one high and one low. That high/low offset helps the owl pinpoint the source of a sound, much as a dog will by cocking its head. Tests on barn owls have shown their ability to capture prey in total darkness, by sound alone.

Once its prey is located, a hunting Great Horned Owl will loft from its perch and wing forward like a shadow. Its talons—not the typical three toes forward, 1 toe back of songbirds, but rather angled two forward/two back—will encircle its prey. Scarily strong—reported to be able to pop a steel-belted tire—the talons will pierce the lungs or heart.

Great Horned Owls are not picky eaters. They may hop on the ground to snatch scorpions and other invertebrates; they may eat frogs, mice, rats, or rabbits; coots, ducks, or other birds; squirrels, cats, or, thanks to an absent sense of smell, skunks.

Their nocturnal versatility—night, after all, happens all over—permits Great Horned Owls to live in forests, fields, wetlands, and deserts. They hoot to establish a territory and to coax a mate. In spite of her larger size, she hoots the alto and he hoots the bass. All dueted up, they will nest in trees, in stick nests or cavities, or in old barns, or on rock ledges, where they will deliver shreds of the local vermin to their hungry chicks.

And at this Halloween time of year, you may hear their hoots, but also the hisses, shrieks, barks, whistles, and wavering cries with which owls haunt the darkened skies.

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