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About a week ago, as part of yearly summer fire prevention, some of the fields at the marine lab were mown. After this happens many of the little critters living in the dried grasses are left homeless and become relatively easy prey for predators of all sorts. Since the mowing I had been seeing a great blue heron hunting in the field, and it took me until the day before yesterday to remember to bring the camera with me. Fortunately it was overcast that morning and the heron was there!

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) hunting for rodents at Long Marine Lab
28 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I watched the heron hunt (unsuccessfully) for a while, then my attention was drawn to a much more dynamic avian predator. A juvenile red-tailed hawk, possibly the one that grew up and fledged from the nest across the canyon from my house, flew overhead and perched in a cypress tree. From there it had a birds-eye view of the field, and it didn't take long for it to spot a late breakfast. The heron left, squawking loudly to protest the interruption to its hunting.

Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) with prey, at Long Marine Lab
28 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The hawk actually skinned the rodent before eating it. . .

Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) consuming prey, at Long Marine Lab
28 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) consuming prey, at Long Marine Lab
28 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

. . . and then it ate the skin!

Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) consuming skin of prey, at Long Marine Lab
28 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) consuming skin of prey, at Long Marine Lab
28 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The hawk did not linger on the ground after eating its rodent prey. It flew back across the road up to the cypress tree again. I got lucky and managed to catch a few shots as it flew by.

Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) in flight
28 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) in flight
28 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) in flight
28 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Of course, I have no way of knowing if this young hawk is indeed the one we watched grow up. I'm reasonably certain that the marine lab is in the parents' foraging territory, as I've watched them leave the nest site and fly towards the lab. At some point the juvenile will have to disperse away from its parents and establish a territory elsewhere. In the meantime, it, along with other birds of prey, will have easy pickings in the fields. This has been a banner year for wood rats and gophers (ugh!), which means there should be plenty of food to go around.

By the way, the heron did not catch any rodents while I was watching. It did not return after the hawk arrived.

1

This morning, after months of invitations that I could not accept due to teaching commitments, I was finally able to join a group of folks at the Younger Lagoon Reserve (YLR) for their weekly bird banding activities. During the summer months they start early, trying to catch birds in the few hours after dawn. I didn't get out there until almost 07:00, and they had been "fishing" for about 45 minutes already. They were finishing up the process with a Wilson's warbler and went out to release the bird as I came up.

Bird banders waiting for some action at Younger Lagoon Reserve
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Bird banding activities are overseen by a person who holds state and federal permits to work with birds. The permit holder for the Younger Lagoon Reserve and the Fort Ord Natural Reserve is Breck Tyler. Either he or his partner, Martha, must be on site whenever birds are being banded. The other regular participants are YLR staff members Vaughan Williams (Restoration Field Manager), Kyla Roessler (Assistant Restoration Steward), and various UCSC undergrads who are interns, volunteers, or students visiting with classes. Back in March I brought my Ecology students to YLR to observe bird banding and work on vegetation restoration in the Reserve's terrace lands; on that day we did help with planting, but got skunked on birds.

When I arrived this morning it was sunny and cool. Vaughan told me that the best weather for bird banding is one of the overcast, foggy mornings that we often get in the summer. When it's sunny, like it was today, the birds can see and avoid the nets.

Mist net at Younger Lagoon Reserve
8 June 201
© Allison J. Gong
Bird banding equipment
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The mist nets are made of an extremely fine nylon mesh. They are very loose and flexible and don't hurt the birds. A bird flies into the net and gets tangled in it. If the bird is heavy enough, it and the mesh it is tangled in fall into one of the pockets of the net. The banders check the nets about every 20 minutes, so a bird isn't tangled for very long. At the end of the morning the nets are taken down and put away so they aren't a hazard to birds. In addition to the nets, the banders set traps at ground level. The traps are kept in place all the time and are baited with seed so the birds know they can get food there. During a banding session the trap doors are allowed to shut on a critter that ventures inside, but at other times the doors are clamped open so animals can wander in and out. This morning we caught a vole in one of the traps. I didn't get to see it because I was with the group of people checking the nets.

But the first bird I got to see was caught in a trap! It was a California scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) that had clenched its feet around the wire of the cage, making for a difficult extraction. Sophie, the intern wrangling this particular bird, had quite a job of it.

Sophie working to extract a scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) from a trap
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The bird, once extracted from either net or trap, gets put into a cloth bag and taken to an area called The Yard to be worked up. Each bird gets the following treatment:

  • A complete formal ID, which can be really easy or really difficult
  • Banded on the left leg with a unique number
  • Sexed, if possible
  • Aged and life history stage determined. Age can be guesstimated by examining patterns of wear on the feathers. Missing feathers can indicate either a molt or some recent mishap in the bird's life. Some species are not sexually dimorphic, but females that are incubating or brooding have a patch of bare skin on the front underneath the feathers. Our scrub jay had a brood patch and is thus a girl!
  • Measured and weighed

The banding itself has to be done by either Martha or Breck. They are the ones with the training required to squeeze tiny bracelets around skinny legs.

Martha crimping band around the leg of a California scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica)
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

It takes practice and skill to hold a bird immobilized but still able to breathe. You also have to avoid the feet, which are equipped with sharp talons. Elizabeth, the intern to whom Martha relinquished this bird for the remainder of the workup, neatly solved the problem of the feet by giving the jay a bag to hold onto. The bird's left leg, wearing the band, is tightly clenched and the right one is grasping the bag.

Scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) with clenched feet
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Elizabeth examining a scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica)
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

To examine the skin the handler blows up the feathers. To me this was surprisingly effective. I sort of assumed the bird's down feathers would be too thick to blow through. A good puff blows the feathers up and uncovers the skin.

Birds the size of jays are weighed in bags hung from a spring scale. The scrub jay in its bag weighed 90 grams. The empty bag weighed 15 grams, so the bird's body weight was 75 grams. The weighing was the last part of the workup, and after that she was released. Birds with an active brood patch are probably tending eggs or babies, and should be released in the area where they were caught so they don't have to expend a lot of energy flying back to the nest.

In addition to the scrub jay, we also caught a bushtit and a Bewick's wren. Bushtits can be problematic because they flit around in large flocks, and sometimes 20 or 30 of them will fly into the nets all at once. This results in a frenzy of activity for the banders, who want to work up the birds quickly so they aren't overly stressed. Breck said that while the data are important, the birds are more important, and if they have to let birds go without working them up, then they will. Bushtits are tiny birds--look at how small that wing is!

Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) getting its workup
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The last bird we caught was a Bewick's wren (Thryomanes bewickii). These little birds have a reputation of getting pretty tangled in the nets, because when they hit the mesh they start thrashing and making things worse. When I went out with Elizabeth to check the nets we saw the wren wrapped up in the net. It took Martha's expertise to get the bird free, and it screamed the whole time. That's a good sign, as a bird that complains is a bird that is angry rather than scared. Sometimes the net needs to be cut to free the bird, but this time patience and expertise were all it took.

Disentangling a Bewick's wren
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Bewick's wren (Thryomanes bewickii) in mist net
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Bewick's wren is more substantial than a bushtit, although not by much. And it has a tiny leg that requires a tiny band.

Breck placing band on a Bewick's wren (Thryomanes bewickii)
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And the coolest thing is how they weigh these teensy birds. They're so small that they can fly around inside the bag, which means they aren't confined and would be unlikely to hold still long enough to get an accurate weight measurement from the spring scale. But years ago there was a company named Kodak that manufactured and sold millions of small plastic canisters that probably make up a significant proportion of landfill materials around the world. These little plastic containers happen to be the perfect size for containing the head half of a wren-sized bird, keeping the bird calm so it can be weighed.

Weighing a Bewick's wren (Thryomanes bewickii)
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Worked like a charm!

2

For a long time now I've wanted to document a phenomenon that I've observed many times: the way that some birds change color when they move from the light into the dark. I'm sure you've noticed this before, in the vibrance of a peacock's tail that turns to black when the bird moves into the shade. But have you ever thought about why some feathers change color with changing light, while others don't?

It turns out that there is more than one explanation for feather color. Some feathers are colored because of the pigments they contain. Pigments are molecules that absorb some wavelengths of light and reflect others; the wavelengths that are reflected are detected by our eyes and interpreted by our brain as color. There are three groups of pigments that occur in feathers, each of which contributes certain colors to a bird's plumage: (1) melanins--responsible for pale yellows, dark browns, and blacks; (2) porphyrins--producing reds, pinks, browns, and greens; (3) carotenoids--contributing bright yellows and oranges. Pigments can work in concert, too, as when melanins and carotenoids combine to produce olive-green.

Pigment molecules are independent from the underlying structure of a feather. It turns out that the structure itself can produce color. For example, the blue in the feathers of Steller's jays (Cyanocitta stelleri) is due to scattering of light by tiny air pockets in the feathers. When sunlight strikes the filament of a feather, the blue wavelengths are refracted back into the atmosphere where they can be picked up by our retinas, and the other wavelengths are absorbed by a layer of melanin at the base of the filament (which is why we don't see them).

A second kind of structural color is iridescence. This is due to the microscopic structure of the feather's barbules. These barbules act like prisms, refracting light as it hits the feather. The appearance of the light (brighter or darker) changes as the angle of viewing changes.

My favorite example of iridescence in birds is in the hummingbirds. These ornithological gems flit about so rapidly that it can be hard to get a good look at them, but their brilliant colors are stunning. This afternoon I was finally able to take a series of photographs that show how minute changes in a hummer's posture can change its coloration. This male Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna) posed very nicely and allowed me to snap off a series of photos. In this series of photos I have edited them only to crop them to the same size and center the bird in each one. I have made no adjustments to color or saturation.

Male Anna's humming bird (Calypte anna)
26 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Male Anna's humming bird (Calypte anna)
26 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Male Anna's humming bird (Calypte anna)
26 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Male Anna's humming bird (Calypte anna)
26 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And to drive home just how brilliant that pink head is, here's a shot of the same bird, this time on the opposite side of the feeder.

Male Anna's humming bird (Calypte anna)
26 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Anybody who says pink isn't a masculine color has obviously never seen a male Anna's hummingbird in full sun!

The other day I was walking along Pescadero Beach about an hour north of where I live. My husband and I had gone on a short afternoon hike in Pescadero Marsh and decided to return to the car via the beach. It was a windy afternoon, making photography difficult, but I did enjoy the chance to get out, stretch my legs, and observe some nature. The ocean was quite lively, and as always it was fun watching surf scoters playing in the waves crashing on the beach. These ducks breed in freshwater lakes in northern Canada and Alaska, but spend their winters along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America, where they forage on small invertebrates.

Surf scoters (Melanitta perspicillata) bobbing around in the surf at Pescadero Beach.
26 December 2017
© Allison J. Gong

High on the beach well above the high-tide line we spotted some little brown puff balls, perfectly colored to match the sand and tiny enough to disappear completely in the divots formed by the footsteps of previous beach combers. They would run along the sand and duck behind a small hillock of sand, where they would be protected from the wind and from visual predators. See how well they disappear?

Can you spot the snowy plover?
26 December 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Snowy plover (Melanitta perspicillata) at Pescadero Beach
26 December 2017
© Allison J. Gong

These are the delightful snowy plovers in their winter plumage. The field guides describe them as inconspicuous, pale little birds, which they certainly are. Unlike the sanderlings and other 'peeps' that frequent our beaches, which gather in large flocks and run away from both waves and people, snowy plovers react to human presence by hunkering down in small depressions and relying on their cryptic coloration for protection. Snowies live in California year-round, but I see them usually in the winter and spring. They nest in the sand, laying eggs in small depressions lined with shells, pebbles, and other like debris. Both parents incubate the clutch of 3-4 speckled eggs, which hatch into speckled nestlings.

Snowy plover (Melanitta perspicillata) at Pescadero Beach
26 December 2017
© Allison J. Gong

It's this habit of nesting on sand that imperils the snowy plover. They are not as a species considered endangered, but some populations are declining. Human activities and the presence of dogs on beaches disrupt breeding birds and destroy eggs. Such tiny birds have a high metabolism and need to feed constantly. Every time they are disturbed into running away from humans they expend precious energy that they cannot spare. This is why some beaches where snowies are known to be nesting are closed to humans during the nesting season.

So if you see one of these signs on the beach, stay out of the fenced areas and keep your eyes open for tiny sand-colored puff balls. Even when the birds are not breeding they should be left alone and watched from a distance. Use your binoculars to get a close-up view of them.

Remember that gull we rescued last week? After my husband took it to Native Animal Rescue here in Santa Cruz it was transferred up to International Bird Rescue's San Francisco Bay Area center in Fairfield. I e-mailed and asked how the gull was doing and whether I'd be able to witness its release back to the ocean. Yesterday I received this response:

Hi Allison,

This is Cheryl Reynolds, the Volunteer Coordinator for Bird Rescue. Thank you so much for rescuing the juvenile Western Gull and getting him into care at Native Animal Rescue. Hooks and fishing line can cause severe injuries but fortunately this guy is doing okay at this time. He/she had surgery yesterday to repair some of the damage the line caused to his leg and is being treated with antibiotics. He's not totally out of the woods yet but luckily gulls are pretty tough! I'm giving you his case number here at Bird Rescue #17-1887 but I will be happy to follow up with you on his progress. 
To answer your other questions.. We don't have a timeline yet on release, it depends on how he progresses. We don't usually send the birds back to Santa Cruz, we have so many young gulls we like to release as a group and in an appropriate location locally. 
If you would like to contribute to this birds care please go to our website at https://www.bird-rescue.org/. You can also sign up to receive our Photo of the Week and patient updates and also find us on Facebook. 
Thanks again for caring for this birds welfare. 
Kind regards,
Cheryl
We hadn't realized that the fishing line wrapped around the bird's leg had caused damage that would require surgery. This makes me doubly glad that we were able to rescue it from the surface of Monterey Bay before the injuries became more severe. It sounds like the prognosis is good for this juvenile western gull, and I hope it and several of its cohort can be returned to the skies and sea very soon.

2

This is the time of year when whales visit Monterey Bay and often come quite close to shore. Humpbacks, in particular, are commonly seen from beaches in the fall. Earlier in the summer they are out over the Monterey Canyon feeding on krill. In the late summer and early fall they switch to feeding on anchovies, which school in shallower water over the continental shelf. Last week they were putting on a show, to the delight of whale watchers who pay for whale watching trips out of Moss Landing and Santa Cruz.

Yesterday evening my husband and I borrowed a friend's little boat and went out looking for whales. A humpback had been seen from the beach around the cement ship at Seacliff State Beach, lunge-feeding and breaching. Even the Monterey Bay is a big body of water, and I'd rated our chance of finding a whale at about 50%. We did eventually find one swimming parallel to the shore. And I have pictures to prove it!

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) near Aptos, CA
17 August 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) near Aptos, CA
17 August 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits humans from approaching any marine mammals, so we kept our distance. The whale undoubtedly knew we were there and it did get a little closer than this, right around the time that we noticed a flock of ~25 pelicans fly overhead and start circling over an area a short distance away. It was starting to get dark and we had to turn around and head back, and on our way we ended up where the pelicans were hanging out.

As we approached we could see a bird flapping about on the surface of the water, but unable to get airborne. It didn't take long for us to see that it was somehow tied up with a dead common murre and a piece of kelp. We were able to pull the kelp toward the boat and grab the live bird. It appeared to be a juvenile gull.

Here's the dead murre:

Dead common murre (Uria aalge) tangled in fishing line
17 August 2017
© Alex Johnson

And here's the gull:

Injured juvenile gull tangled in fishing line
17 August 2017
© Alex Johnson

It had a hook in its right nostril and a hook in each foot. The hook in its beak was attached to line that went around its body, making the bird unable to raise its head. Fortunately Alex was able to cut the line while I held the bird. We didn't have the tools to try removing the hooks, so we decided to head back in. We wrapped the bird loosely in a towel to keep it from flailing around and held onto it for the long, wet ride back to the harbor.

When we back on land I called the Marine Mammal Center because: (a) I had the number programmed into my phone; and (b) I knew they'd have a live person to answer the phone, who would be able to tell me who to call about this bird. The person I talked to transferred me to Pacific Wildlife Care in Morro Bay. The recorded message told me to place the bird in a box or pet carrier on a towel and leave it in a warm, dark place until we could bring it in the morning. We weren't about to make a 2.5-hr drive to Morro Bay, but fortunately there is an organization right here in Santa Cruz that we've taken animals to before: Native Animal Rescue. We got home, dug out the kitty carrier, and tucked the bird in for the night. The only warm place we could think of that the cats couldn't get to was the pantry, so the bird spent the night there.

Injured gull
17 August 2017
© Allison J. Gong

I had a school meeting this morning, so Alex took the bird to Native Animal Rescue. The woman who met him said the bird was a juvenile western gull (Larus occidentalis)--another WEGU. She took the bird out, wrapped it in a towel, and calmed it by simulating a hood on its head.

17 August 2017
© Alex Johnson
17 August 2017
© Alex Johnson

Poor bird. Fortunately the hooks went through the webbing in the feet, so there wasn't any damage to bones or soft tissue.

Fishing hooks in the feet of a juvenile western gull (Larus occidentalis)
17 August 2017
© Alex Johnson

The woman pulled the hook out of the nostril pretty easily. To remove the hooks from the feet she had to first cut the barbs and then pull them back out. Alex said the whole thing took about 5 minutes. The bird seems otherwise uninjured. The folks at Native Animal Rescue will keep an eye on it for a few days and then release it back to the wild. I think I'll give them a call tomorrow and see if we can be there when the bird is released.

Update Sunday 20 August: We called Native Animal Rescue this morning and were told that the bird had been transferred to a wildlife care facility up in Fairfield. All of the seabirds that come into Native Animal Rescue get sent up there. So we won't get to see "our" gull be released back into the wild.

Earlier this week I accidentally came upon a baby bird. I was on my way out to the cliff at the marine lab to dispose of a corpse (a fish that died of natural causes) when I noticed a western gull perched on the fence railing and allowing me to get unusually close. It was wary, though, and very alert. When I stopped to listen and watch for a while I heard a high-pitched "cheep-cheep-cheep" coming from beyond the shrubs on the other side of the fence. To get to the point where I could throw the dead fish off the cliff I had to pass closer than I wanted to the chick, which I could then see standing among the ground cover.

Western gull (Larus occidentalis) adult and chick at Terrace Point
2 August 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The western gull (Larus occidentalis), or WEGU in birders' parlance, is a California Current endemic species. It is a bird of the Pacific coast of North America, and is rarely found more than a few miles inland. So if you don't live right on the coast and have problems with gulls in landfills or parks, you cannot pin the blame on a WEGU. Western gulls are present year-round, feeding on whatever they can get. Like many gulls they are quite efficient scavengers and have a varied diet that often includes human refuse. They have become quite adapted to human presence, and have taken advantage of the fact that we tend to leave our garbage all over the place.

Western gull (Larus occidentalis) adult and chick at Terrace Point
5 August 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Yesterday the chick was in the same area, only a little more visible from directly above. I'd seen as many as five adults hanging around the chick, with no idea who the actual parents are. The chick is big and feathered enough to thermoregulate on its own but is still entirely dependent on its parents (and other cooperative adults) for food.

Being a gull, it is very vocal. It doesn't sound like a gull, though. The calls sound like they're coming from a much smaller bird. It cheeped continuously during the 20 minutes or so I was watching it, even with its parents standing right next to it. When this chick fledges, the only direction it can go is out over the water. Unless it can steer its flight well enough to land on one of the intertidal benches to the left of its present location, it'll end up in the water. I imagine it will be able to swim just fine, but the next thing it will have to learn is how to get up in the air from the water.

Western gulls do not migrate and, garbage notwithstanding, depend on the California Current for most of their food. And while it may seem that there are gulls all over the place with plenty to burn, the WEGU's restricted range makes this species vulnerable to perturbations in the ecology of the coastal ocean. Not only might their food supply be interrupted as prey species' distributions change, but their nesting sites on cliffs may be inundated as sea level rises due to climate change.

Western gull (L. occidentalis) in adult breeding plumage
5 August 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Gulls have a reputation as trash birds, but the adult WEGU really is beautiful. Their large-ish body size, pure white head and front, and pink legs/feet are pretty distinctive. WEGUs are the only gulls that I feel at all comfortable IDing in the field, and that's only when the birds are in adult plumage. This species, and many other gull species, takes four years to attain the adult coloration. The juveniles of many species all look very similar, which makes field identification a hazardous exercise. To make things even more complicated, western gulls are known to hybridize with the glaucous-winged gull (Larus glaucescens); fortunately for California birders, the hybridization zone is further north in Washington State.

Seabirds of all types depend on their feathers for insulation. Small-bodied endotherms like birds have an unfavorable surface area:volume ratio and would be unable to maintain their body temperature in cold water if they didn't have insulation. One of the adaptations that enables a life in cold water is a preen gland near the base of the tail. This gland secretes an oily substance that the bird spreads over its feathers as a waterproof coating, very effectively shielding the body from the cold water. Feathers themselves have water-shedding properties of their own, but augmenting this feature with oil is sheer genius. You've heard the phrase "like water off a duck's back"? We can say that because ducks and other water fowl have preen glands.

Feathers must be clean and lie properly for a bird to fly and thermoregulate, and birds at rest spend a lot of time grooming. All birds preen, but for aquatic birds this activity is especially crucial. Watching a bird preen is like watching a cat take a bath: the sequence of actions appears to be haphazard, but eventually the whole body gets attention.

The red-tailed hawk parents across the canyon are being kept busy by their hungry chicks. This year they have a trio of youngsters to feed--last year they successfully fledged two chicks--but apparently they've not had any trouble finding enough food for all three of them. If I had the luxury of staying home all day to watch hawks I'd probably get to see several feedings throughout the day. As it is, most days this week I've been able to watch a late afternoon feeding when I come home.

The chicks are now big enough to thermoregulate on their own, and quite often will be left in the nest alone for extended periods. The other day when I was home for lunch I happened to see the mama hawk fly up the canyon and alight in a pine tree close to my house. A quick check of the nest showed that the chicks were sleeping (I didn't see any fuzzy lumps above the rim of the nest) so I concentrated on the mom and was able to take this photo:

Female red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), taking a break from nest duties. 13 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Female red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), taking a mid-day break from nest duties.
13 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

All told she was away from the nest for about 15 minutes. She basked in the sun, did a bit of preening, and spent quite a lot of time looking down (I assume for prey on the ground). A raven and a pair of Anna's hummingbirds tried to engage her in some extracurricular activity, but she ignored them.

This afternoon I got home at about 17:30 and went out back to check on the nest. Turns out I made it home just in time to view the evening feeding. One of the parents, I couldn't tell which, was feeding the chicks long bloody strips of some mammal that had gray fur. All three chicks were fed. Here, see for yourself:

The chicks are growing real feathers now and look like awkward pre-adolescents. They've lost the cuteness of the fluffy baby stage and haven't yet attained the badassness of their parents. In fact, right now they're downright ugly. In the next couple of weeks they'll start looking like punky teenagers as their feathers continue to come in. They'll also spend more time walking around the nest.

Oh, and by the way, the nest is attracting flies now. Good thing birds don't have a keen sense of smell, because it's gotta be pretty stinky up there, what with all the bird poop and rotting bits of previous meals. Also good (for the humans in the neighborhood) that the nest is about 100 feet above the ground.

Our nesting red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) across the canyon have THREE chicks! Last year they successfully fledged two. This year we weren't sure how many chicks were in the nest until I saw three white fuzzy heads today. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Or more precisely, in this video:

The parents have a lot of work to do in the next few weeks. For us human observers on the ground, it'll be fun watching the chicks get bigger, grow feathers, and hopefully take their first flights. Stay tuned!

2

For as long as sentient humans have walked across the surface of the planet, they have observed the world around them. Quite often these observations had direct life-or-death consequences, as most of survival had to do with finding food while not becoming someone else's dinner. Fast forward a few million years and we find ourselves mired in technology, often interacting with the outside world through some sort of digital interface. And yes, I totally get the irony of writing that statement in a blog. Be that as it may, I've found that people generally don't pay much attention to what's going on around them. My job as a biology professor is to teach some of the forgotten skills of the naturalist, including the practice of observation.

Today I took my Ecology students birdwatching. We looked at other things, of course, but birds were the primary focus of today's observations. We started the day near the mouth of Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, where we were immediately challenged to identify some shorebirds. Fortunately we had a guest lecture from a seabird biologist yesterday, and she gave us some important clues to help us with our field IDs.

Some shorebirds are fairly easy to identify, such as this long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus). It was foraging in a stand of pickleweed just off the road, which is the only reason I was able to take a decent photo of it.

Long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus) at Elkhorn Slough. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus) at Elkhorn Slough.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

We also saw marbled godwits (Limosa fedoa), willets (Tringa semipalmata), as well as the flocking "peeps," which we never got a really good look at but all agreed might have been sanderlings (Calidris alba).

One of the things we had been warned about was the difficulty of identifying gulls. There are some features that help when the birds are in adult breeding plumage, but gulls go through several juvenile plumages before attaining their adult colors and there's a lot of phenotypic overlap among species. Case in point:

Gulls (Larus spp.) on Moss Landing State Beach. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Gulls (Larus spp.) on Moss Landing State Beach.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Some of these adults are western gulls (Larus occidentalis) but some look different (smaller bodies, different beak coloration). They might be sub-adult westerns or another species entirely. And even the birds in juvenile plumage varied a lot; some were speckled or mottled while others were more uniformly colored. Several birds (not in this photo) had pale gray backs and pale tan flanks. According to my field guide, National Geographic's Field Guide to the Birds of North America, there are several species that have this plumage in their second or third winter. We kind of gave up on the gulls, but to be honest we didn't have a lot invested in identifying them.

The highlight of the beach part of the field trip, at least for me, was seeing snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus). These tiny birds are perfectly colored to hide in the sand, and unless they move they are almost impossible to see. I found them because we unwittingly wandered too far up the beach towards the dunes and accidentally flushed them from their divots in the sand.

Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) at Moss Landing State Beach. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) at Moss Landing State Beach.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Can you spot all four plovers in this photo? Here's another quartet:

Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) at Moss Landing State Beach. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) at Moss Landing State Beach.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This morning I saw my first humpback whale of the season. A couple of whale watching boats were lingering around the mouth of the harbor, which should have clued us in that there was something going on. However, it took a kayaker to tell us that there were breaching humpbacks just off the jetty before we realized. And I call myself a naturalist? Sheesh.

This bird is, I think, a third-winter western gull (L. occidentalis).

Western gull (Larus occidentalis) at Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, CA. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Western gull (Larus occidentalis) at Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, CA.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This species is endemic to the California Current, which means that it is found nowhere else. The pink legs are characteristic of western gulls, and the black on the tip of the bill indicates a third-winter bird. Adults have a red spot towards the end of the bill but not on the very tip. If you look closely you can see that this bird has a tiny bit of red immediately proximal to the black smudge.


After lunch we convened at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve visitor center, across the highway and inland a bit from our morning site. The students got a 30-minute orientation to the history and geography of the Slough, then we went on a hike.

Orientation to the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Orientation to the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The first leg of the hike was a short walk to what is appropriately called the overlook. This is where I gave the students their only real assignment of the day. They had to spend 10 minutes in silent observation. They could write in their notebooks and look around with binoculars, but they were not allowed to talk at all. With some groups this is a nigh-impossible feat, but these students did a fantastic job. After the 10-minute observation period we discussed what they had seen and heard. One student said he heard 26 bird calls, but didn't know how many of them were the same bird making different calls. Others mentioned the sounds of human activity--traffic on the highway, planes flying overhead, the beep-beep-beep of a truck in reverse--as well as the buzz of insects and birds. I asked if anyone else had noticed the shadow of a turkey vulture that flew directly over us.

Silent observation period at Elkhorn Slough. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Silent observation period at Elkhorn Slough.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I think this is a very valuable exercise and would like to extend this period of silent observation to 15 or 20 minutes for future classes. In a lot of ways class always feels a little frantic, and to slow down and simply be a part of nature is a luxury of time that many of us don't have. Alas, we had other places to visit on the hike and needed to get moving again.

Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) in flight over Elkhorn Slough. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) in flight over Elkhorn Slough.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Much of Elkhorn Slough used to be a dairy, and the Slough is still surrounded by agricultural fields. There are two barns on the Reserve, named Big Barn and Little Barn. Little Barn is used for equipment storage and isn't open to the public, but you can walk into Big Barn. There are two barn owl boxes in Big Barn. We searched under them for owl pellets; we didn't find any intact pellets but did see some that had been dissected by previous human visitors.

Little Barn (foreground) and Big Barn (background) at Elkhorn Slough. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Little Barn (foreground) and Big Barn (background) at Elkhorn Slough.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I don't think I've ever seen this much green at Elkhorn Slough. All of the El Niño rains have brought forth a lot of wildflowers and grasses. We hiked past a large stand of non-native poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) on our way to Big Barn. That stuff is going to be difficult to eradicate, as it spreads quickly and outcompetes native species. And yes, this plant is highly toxic to mammals and was, in fact, used by the ancient Greeks for human executions (including that of Socrates).

When we returned to the visitor we asked the Reserve's naturalist, Jane, to take our picture. So this is class photo #1 of the semester. It's not complete, as three students were absent today. I hope to get a picture of the entire class another day.

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I wanted to take the students to the woodpeckers' acorn granary, but we didn't have time to hike that far. Spring break is coming up week after next, and I think I'll go back to the Slough to say "hello" to the family of acorn woodpeckers. I'm looking forward to having more time than I do at the moment to play outdoors. I want to do some drawing, too!

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