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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First Snow Bunting Sighting for Shasta County

Snow Bunting in Shasta County

Snow Bunting in Shasta County

The Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) is a widespread breeder in rocky habitats on high arctic tundra across northern North America. In addition to their breeding grounds in North America (see map below), they also breed in rocky regions of the Palearctic:1 Iceland, higher mountains of northern Scotland, Svalbard (Norway), and most Russian arctic islands; on the mainland they breed in tundra regions of Norway east through northern Finland to Kola Peninsula (Russia), then east through Siberia to Chukchi and Kamchatka peninsulas and Komandorskiye (Commander) Islands.

Snow Bunting Range Map

The Snow Bunting’s winter diet is mainly weed seeds of ragweed, goosefoot, aster, goldenrod, grasses and grains like wheat, oats and barley. They forage on the ground, pecking at food. Again, according to Birds of North America Online, they winter in open weedy and grassy fields, grain stubbles, and shores; after heavy snowfall, they are conspicuous on roadsides and in farmyards. “They are also attracted to winter fields where farm manure has been recently spread; they appear to feed on undigested seeds in manure.”

Snow Bunting with Seed

Like most birds this lone Bunting stopped briefly for a little stretch, showing its outstretched wing.

Snow Bunting Stretch

Following a bit more foraging, I finally saw the bird fly. It flew up to roost on a nearby pile of old wooden posts. As is the habit of many birds after foraging and/or bathing, this Snow Bunting did some preening and posing for yet more photos.

Snow Bunting Perched

What a treat to see this first Snow Bunting on record in Shasta County and a lifer for me! Thanks to conscientious birders and our local list serve, Shasta Birders! Here is a Google Map to the location: https://goo.gl/9fqaPA

Snow Bunting Perched

Snow Bunting video from Cornwall, England. Thanks to Paul Dinning.

References: 1Birds of North America Online

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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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Plants for Birds

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing on Toyon by Jay Thesken

After the long heat, the season for planting approaches. The local CNPS will hold its fall sale of native plants at the Shasta College Horticulture area on October 14, 8am-2pm. It may be an opportunity to dress up both your yard and the birds!

We only survive and flourish because of photosynthesis, the green-plant magic that turns solar energy into food energy. Without plants we would lack the wit to see a bird, as well as any birds to see. None would sing, or sprout a golden feather.

Praying Mantis

Praying Mantis

Fortunately, many plants survive our summer droughts and winter frosts. Trees, shrubs, forbs, and grasses provide a feast of seeds, nuts, berries, leaves, and nectar. Native plants support insects—caterpillars, leaf-hoppers, aphids, and more. Buckwheats, sages, coffeeberry, and toyon are among the many plants that support our pollinators—native bees, wasps, flies and beetles. The insects become food for so much of animate life, including our local fledglings who this month are fueling their first flights south.

Western Bluebirds

Western Bluebird Fledglings Waiting to be Fed

Many birds are strongly associated with oaks. Besides making nesting sites, oaks make acorns, which are devoured by jays, magpies, crows, ravens, turkeys, and band-tailed pigeons. Acorn woodpeckers store the acorns in rotting branches for winter dining. Lewis’s woodpeckers do the same, but meticulously shell and split the acorns first!

Acorn Woodpecker Granary

Acorn Woodpecker Granary

And oaks pass storms of insect energy on to hungry birds! Woodpeckers, titmice, and nuthatches dine on the beetles, ants, and spiders of the woody branches, and on the wasp larvae in oak galls. A stunning 534 species of butterflies and moths are known to lay their eggs in oaks, and those caterpillars feed orioles, warblers, vireos, mockingbirds, and bushtits. Bluebirds and flycatchers hawk the insects that take wing, and robins, sparrows, and towhees pick dinner from the detritus under the trees. Oaks are the crowning gem of many a lively yard!

Oak Titmouse with Insect

Oak Titmouse with Insect

Quail will roost in the oaks, but will gladly poke about at ground level in the thick protection of Ceanothus bushes, where foraging wrens and towhees may join them. Nearby lupines, after their bright show of blue flowers, will draw the quail out to dine on their nutritious seed pods.

California Quail Female with Chick

California Quail Female with Chick

The fruits from Coffeeberry, Toyon, and Elderberry attract robins, bluebirds, mockingbirds, waxwings, and nuthatches. Currants will also draw these berry-loving birds.

Goldfinches flock to sunflowers and thistles. Milkweed supports not just monarchs but eleven other species of butterflies and moths, too. Colorful grosbeaks dine on their seeds, and hooded orioles use the plant fibers to weave their nests.

Swallowtail On Western Vervain

Swallowtail On Western Vervain

Four species of hummingbirds are regularly seen in our area, and many flowers sustain them—woolly blue curls, larkspurs, penstemons, monkeyflower, fuschia, currants, and salvia. Some of these plants bloom through the winter, sustaining the resident Anna’s hummingbirds.

Anna's Hummingbird on Thistle

Anna’s Hummingbird on Thistle

For the adventurous, poison oak provides fruit and cover for quail, thrushes, sparrows, goldfinches, flickers, juncos, kinglets, sapsuckers, wrens, titmice, and a host of other songbirds. Don’t get carried away with toxic adventures, though. Nandina, known as heavenly bamboo, is a colorful but dangerous invasive that poisons birds with its cyanide-laced berries.

Gardening for birds is best done with a dose of indolence. Leave those dead-heads on the plant; they’ll feed the finches. Leave the leaves on the ground. Towhees and sparrows will breakfast on the bugs that turn them into mulch. Native plants are generally a great bet. Together with the birds they form a beautiful gift to yards all over. Enjoy!

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