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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International Vulture Awareness Day 2017

Turkey Vulture

The first Saturday in September each year is International Vulture Awareness Day.

Vultures are an ecologically vital group of birds that face a range of threats in many areas that they occur. Populations of many species are under pressure and some species are facing extinction.

The International Vulture Awareness Day has grown from Vulture Awareness Days run by the Birds of Prey Programme of the Endangered Wildlife Trust in South Africa and the Hawk Conservancy Trust in England, who decided to work together and expand the initiative into an international event.

Turkey Vulture Adult and Juvenile

Turkey Vulture Adult and Juvenile

It is now recognised that a co-ordinated international day will publicise the conservation of vultures to a wider audience and highlight the important work being carried out by the world’s vulture conservationists.

On the first Saturday in September, the aim is for each participating organization to carry out their own activities that highlight vulture conservation and awareness. This website provides a central place for all participants to outline these activities and see the extent of vulture conservation across the world. Additionally, it is a valuable resource for vulture workers to learn about the activities of their colleagues and to perhaps develop new collaborations or exchange information.

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Birds Pull Out Their Winter Coats

Bald Eagle Juvenile

Bald Eagle Juvenile photo courtesy David Bogener

What’s up with our backyard birds? Where are they?

You may have seen them over the last months busily carrying load after load of insects to feed their ravenous nestlings, then being raucously pursued by fledglings demanding yet more food – sometimes with two or even three batches of babies through the season. All this effort has taken a toll on the adult birds’ feathers and now, despite the daily care they have taken preening and cleaning them, the feathers are worn out. The birds are lying low during their molt – the annual or twice yearly loss and regrowth of feathers done by most songbirds. But don’t expect to catch a glimpse of bald birds – each worn feather becomes loosened in its socket and is pushed out by the growth of a new feather.

The process takes from 5 to 12 weeks for songbirds, after which some will appear in winter plumage quite different from the bold patterns some males sport in summer. For example, American Goldfinch males are bright canary yellow with bold black accents during the breeding season, but become a quieter butterscotch color, much like females and juveniles, in their winter garb. Similarly, you may see a male Western Tanager that has lost his gaudy orange head feathers and exchanged them to the muted gray of a female before starting the long, dangerous migration to Costa Rica for the winter.

Bald Eagle 4 Year Old

Bald Eagle Sub-Adult photo courtesy David Bogener

Other groups of birds go about the molt differently. Ducks, geese and some other water birds go through a rapid “synchronous molt”. They change their feathers quickly in a period as short as two weeks which renders them flightless for that period. This seems like a risky business – but researchers have deduced that since these birds are heavy relative to their wing surfaces, losing a few feathers at a time would seriously hamper flying ability, so they get it over with as quickly as possible and minimize the length of time that they are especially vulnerable to predators.

Raptors (eagles, hawks, falcons and their kin) “make their living” on the wing and can’t afford to suffer periods of impaired flying abilities. These birds may take as long as two years to complete a molt. The loss of flight feathers must be symmetrical or flying would be skewed. A woman who raised an owl that could not be released into the wild observed this in action. She reported that her feathered friend pulled a loose wing feather out and gave it to her, then immediately removed the corresponding feather from the other wing.

Bald Eagle Adult

Bald Eagle Adult photo courtesy David Bogener

To give young Turkey Vultures a good start, they don’t molt their flight feathers until they are two years old. The vultures soaring over minus a couple feathers are almost certainly adults.

In most birds, tail feather replacement is from the center of the tail toward the outer edge. Woodpeckers reverse this for a very good reason. Watch closely the next time you see one ratcheting up a tree and you will see that it braces itself firmly using its stiff tail feathers. The key for this is an inner pair of long feathers. Those are retained until the outer tail feathers have been replaced with fresh, strong vanes, keeping the woodpecker able to fully function searching for insects in the bark.

You may find a single feather in your yard – evidence that one of “your” birds has cast it off for a brand new set of feathers to get it through the winter or prepare it to head off to winter habitat in Mexico, Central America or South America. Enjoy the memento!

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