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In Morro Bay, CA, there is a stand of eucalyptus trees that has been designated a natural preserve. In 1973 the Heron Rookery Natural Preserve was established to protect great blue herons (Ardea herodias) as they nested. Since then other bird species have taken to nesting in these same trees. When we were there at the end of May we saw these species with nests in the eucalyptus trees:

  • Great blue heron (Ardea herodias)
  • Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)
  • Great egret (Ardea alba)
  • Snowy egret (Egretta thula)

This particular rookery is not at all removed from human activity. It is right across the street from the municipal golf course and next to a hotel, and there is a walking/biking trail that runs directly under the trees. Signs advise people to keep their voices down, but pedestrians are walking under the trees all day, dodging the rainfall of guano from above. The birds don't seem to be bothered.

Unlike the Brandt's cormorants (Phalacrocorax penicillatus), which nest on cliffs and rocks, the double-crested cormorants nest in trees. Birds build nests with local materials, and there is a difference in what I could see making up the nests of these two species. The Brandt's cormorants at Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz were using seaweeds as the main building material; I could see birds flying back with algae in their beaks, and then either handing it off to a mate on the nest or tucking it into the existing structure itself. In some cases I could see the pieces of algae well enough to make a tentative ID.

Group of ~40 large black marine birds on a rock. ~12 nests of mounded algae, with a single bird lying on it. Other birds standing on rock, preening or presenting algae to their mate. Some birds show blue throats of breeding plumage.
Brandt's cormorants (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) nesting on rock arch at Natural Bridges
2021-05-14
© Allison J. Gong

Those are the Brandt's cormorants. The double-crested cormorants nest in the trees, as we saw at the heron rookery. Here's a pair that have a brood of three chicks:

Family of large black seabirds in a eucalyptus tree. The nest contains three chicks and one parent. The other parent is perched on a nearby branch.
Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) parents and trio of chicks
2021-05-23
© Allison J. Gong

At Morro Bay, which is an estuary rather than a rocky area, the double-crested cormorants use a lot of eelgrass (Zostera marina) in their nests. Eelgrass is very abundant in the Morro Bay harbor and Estero, whereas the birds would have to fly a bit farther to gather algae. Eelgrass, being a true plant, is less slimy than the algae are, and these cormorants' nests look much drier than the mounds of algae used by the Brandt's cormorants up in Santa Cruz.

A short distance up the coast at San Simeon the double-crested cormorants were nesting in a smaller rookery, also in eucalyptus trees. I liked the pattern of how these four nests were situated in three-dimensional space:

Four nests in a dead eucalyptus tree. There is one adult black cormorant in each nest.
Double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) nesting at San Simeon
2021-05-23
@ Allison J. Gong

Returning to goings-on at the heron rookery in Morro Bay, the herons and egrets were also raising youngsters in that stand of eucalyptus trees. Remember, this rookery is very easily visited by humans. Here's a view of the trees, taken from the small parking area:

Grove of eucalyptus trees
Heron Rookery Natural Preserve in Morro Bay, California
2021-05-23
© Allison J. Gong

It's difficult to photograph the nests because of all the branches obscuring the view. We were also there near mid-day, with the overhead sun making lighting conditions less than favorable for good photography. I did find one comparatively visible heron nest, containing one parent and one sullen punk-ass teenager of a chick. The nestling had started growing feathers but was still almost half fluff, clearly not ready to fly yet.

Large gray-ish blue bird and its partially-feathered chick in their nest in a eucalyptus tree.
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) nest at the Heron Rookery Natural Preserve
2021-05-23
© Allison J. Gong

Both great egrets (Ardea alba) and snowy egrets (Egretta thula) nest at the heron rookery. Here's a great egret nest with two chicks:

Large white bird with two white chicks in a nest in a eucalyptus tree
Great egret (Ardea alba) nest at the Heron Rookery Natural Preserve
2021-05-23
© Allison J. Gong

From what I could see, the herons and egrets don't use any marine material at all to build their nests. One factor that determines the suitability of a potential building material is proximity—even if a certain material is fantastic in other ways, birds may not use it (or may use less of it, compared to other materials) if it costs too much energy to fetch and bring back to the nesting site. For the herons at this site, sticks are easy to come by. Another thing to consider is that herons and egrets are not marine birds. Although some populations live and nest in coastal areas, most do not. Thus it is not surprising that their nests are built from materials that are terrestrial rather than marine.

I did not see any snowy egret nests in areas where they could be photographed well. However, there were some adult snowies in their spectacular breeding plumage. There was enough of a breeze to ruffle up those long plumes that used to be harvested to decorate ladies' hats.

Look at these beautiful birds!

White bird with long black legs and a black beak perched in a eucalyptus tree. Long white plumes blow away from the birds head, neck, and back.
Adult snowy egret (Egretta thula) in breeding plumage
2021-05-23
© Allison J. Gong
White bird with long black legs and a black beak perched in a eucalyptus tree. Long white plumes blow away from the birds head, neck, and back.
Adult snowy egret (Egretta thula) in breeding plumage
2021-05-23
© Allison J. Gong

For several decades now, the cormorants, herons, and egrets have been nesting in these eucalyptus trees, which brings to mind the consideration of native versus non-native species. The trees themselves, blue gum eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) are non-native, having been imported to California from Australia starting in the 1870s. This introduction was encouraged by calls to replace native trees that had been cleared for fuel and building material, both of which were desperately needed during and after the Gold Rush. Since ecologists began considering the effects of non-native species in the 1980s there has been a backlash against the blue gums. Given their large size, their having been planted in groups to serve as windbreaks, and their propensity for dropping a lot of debris, they are very conspicuous, and it is easy to get all hot and bothered at how in certain places they dominate the landscape.

Great egret (Ardea alba) in flight
2021-05-23
© Allison J. Gong

At which point, however, does a species cease to be considered non-native? Having been established in California for 150 years, what is the role of E. globulus in the ecology of the Golden State? There are many people and organizations that would like to see the blue gums eradicated, or at least their populations greatly reduced. On the other side of the argument, groups such the San Francisco Forest Alliance posit that blue gums should be treasured as heritage trees.

At the Heron Rookery, some of the eucalyptus trees are dying. One reason is sheer old age. Another is the several decades' accumulation of bird wastes onto the soil, which is slowly killing the trees. As the blue gums die, the birds will have to find other places to nest. One of the pro-eucalyptus arguments is that many species of native birds—not just these here but other species such as red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, and a whole host of songbirds—nest in eucalyptus trees throughout the state. If the blue gums are removed, then where will these undoubtedly native birds nest? Especially if the native trees have long been gone?

Taking the long view, my guess is that the birds will figure it out. Ecological communities evolve over thousands of years. The 150 years of the eucalyptus trees' presence in California seems like a long time, but in terms of ecological time they are merely a blink of the eye. The herons, egrets, and cormorants have been nesting at the Heron Rookery for an even shorter period of time. When this stand of blue gums is gone, due to either natural attrition or removal by humans, the birds will find another place to nest. They might not choose a place that is so easily visited and observed by people, though.

It never really feels like springtime until the swallows have returned to the marine lab. This year the barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) came back right on schedule in the last week of March. They have been flying around ever since. I've seen them gathering mud on the banks of Younger Lagoon, but they haven't been very serious about nest building. The cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota), on the other hand, were late arrivals, and I was beginning to worry about them. I didn't see the first cliff swallow until the 1st of May.

Unlike the barn swallows, the cliff swallows immediately started spackling mud on the buildings. There have been a few aborted attempts, but overall they have been very busy little birds. I've been keeping an eye on one nest in particular, as it seems to be the one progressing most rapidly. This nest is located on a building that has been used every year, by both barn swallows and cliff swallows. In previous years I've seen and photographed the nests side-by-side. There isn't any reason to expect them not to nest together again.

So here's what has been going on so far.

The first stage is a simple shelf of mud. The birds are building on vertical walls, but corners where they can use two walls are prime locations. Even a tiny ledge can be used to support those first splats of mud, and once the mud dries it becomes foundation for additional layers. See the mud in the swallow's beak?

Sometimes the birds get this far and then decide to abandon the nest. And sometimes they keep going. Here's what's going on less than a meter away from this nest.

Four cliff swallows building mud nests on wooden walls
Cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)
2021-05-07
© Allison J. Gong

Notice how the birds use their tails as braces so they can cling onto vertical walls. Woodpeckers do the same thing. Of the four birds in the photo above, the two outer ones look like they're just starting to build. I've seen two birds flying in and out of that larger nest, but have no idea whether or not they're the same two birds every time. I suspect they are a mated pair.

The cliff swallow's nest is the gourd-shaped one, with a body that narrows to a much smaller opening just big enough for one bird to pass through. When the nest I was watching got to the stage in the photo above, I thought the opening would be on the left, since there's already a nice curve along that side of the front edge.

I might be kind of right. Today the opening is much narrower, and located off-center towards the left.

Cliff swallow nest on wooden walls
Cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) nest
2021-05-09
© Allison J. Gong

This nest may be finished tomorrow or the next day. It will have taken the birds about a week from start to finish.

Why are there no birds near the nest, you may ask? Well, when I walked out of the building I noticed that all of the swallows were in the air, and nobody was at the nest site. The birds were making alarm calls and flying around, but it didn't look like they were feeding, and none were returning to the nests even for short visits. I looked around and up and found the reason for the swallows' unrest.

Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
2021-05-09
© Allison J. Gong

The hawk was perched directly across from the swallows' nest site, and the swallows were not happy about it.

(For some reason the embedded video isn't working right now. You can watch it from YouTube directly by clicking on that link in the lower left corner.)

Some of the swallows flying around the hawk were barn swallows. I think they are nesting in the breezeway of the building under the hawk. Anyway, the hawk's presence was obviously upsetting to all of the swallows. It hung out for about 10 minutes and then flew away over the field. And immediately, the cliff swallows got right back down to the important business of building a home for the next generation.

The other day I was on a field trip with a couple of students in the Natural History Club, at Younger Lagoon. We had permission to go down into the lagoon itself, where we chased tiny red mites around rocks in the intertidal without getting caught by waves, observed a very interesting interaction between a coyote and assorted water fowl, and witnessed killdeer mating. Did you know that in killdeer the actual copulation is preceded by about half a minute of massage? Neither did we! The purpose of the field trip, other than merely to be outdoors looking at cool stuff, was to spend some time doing focused nature journaling. As a result I didn't have my big camera with me. But I did have the good binoculars, and got to watch all of the action closely.

Nature journaling should be part of any natural history club. Over the years I have seen an increase in the tendency to equate nature journaling with science illustration or other types of art. This conflation is what causes people to believe that they can't keep a nature journal because they don't produce museum-quality works of art. While I appreciate a beautiful science illustration as much as anybody else, a nature journal serves a completely different purpose. A nature journal's job isn't to be beautiful. Its job is to be informative.

If you were to compare my nature journal entry with a photograph of the site, you would see that my sketch is nowhere near realistic in the sense of looking exactly like the real thing. I've compressed the entire lagoon into a short stretch that I could fit in these two pages. But I think the sketches and notes do convey the fascinating things what we saw that day. And even if I were not familiar with Younger Lagoon, I would be able to look at these pages and remember them. That's the job of a nature journal.

Entry in my nature journal

I returned to Younger Lagoon two days later with the camera in tow, hoping that some of the birds we'd seen on Monday would still be there on Wednesday. In addition to the usual Canada geese and mallards, I hoped to shoot a couple of water birds that I didn't recognize.

Let's start with the obvious:

Three Canada geese in flight
Trio of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) coming in for a landing
2021-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

All told, there were a couple dozen Canada geese, in the water, in the air, and on the sand. They were a noisy bunch, as usual. Except for when the coyote showed up. Read that little story in my nature journal.

Now take a look at these geese:

Gaggle of 12 Canada geese and one greater white-fronted goose swimming in Younger Lagoon
Gaggle of geese
2021-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

See the one goose that doesn't belong? That was the mystery goose I saw on Monday, and was fortunate enough to see again on Wednesday. From the photos in my bird field guide—National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America—I thought it might be a greater white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons), although I couldn't be entirely certain. I knew I hadn't seen one before, but a consultation with Cornell's All About Birds verified the ID. iNaturalist shows only a handful of observations of A. albifrons in the Monterey Bay region. The greater white-fronted goose is a long-distance migrator, breeding on the tundra of the high Arctic and overwintering in California's Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys and the Gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana.

Canada goose in water, greater white-fronted goose on land with wings outspread
Greater white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons)
2021-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

A third goose, and another winter-only bird, is the snow goose. It is a little bigger than the greater white-fronted goose. While the word "snow" implies white plumage, snow geese also come in a blue form, which is a dark blueish gray with a white head. The blue coloration is due to a single gene, and the allele for blue is incompletely dominant over the allele for white. The blue and white morphs are the same species and interbreed freely. The offspring of a pure blue bird and a pure white bird will be dark, but may have a white belly. Goslings from pure white parents will be white, and those from pure dark parents will be mostly dark but may have some white.

Snow geese (Anser caerulescens)
2021-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

Of the two snow geese in the photo, the one in the front is all white except for the black wing tips of the species, while the one in the back has more dark coloration. In the photo the beak looks dark, but in better light it's as pink as on the bird in the front.

So that's three species of geese. Now whose butts are these?

Duck butts at Younger Lagoon
2021-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

These tails belong to American wigeons (Mareca americana), a male and female pair in the background and a lone male in the foreground. As you might guess from the behavior, wigeons are dabbling ducks, foraging on aquatic vegetation. Like the greater white-fronted goose and snow goose, these are also winter visitors to California's waterways, and will soon be headed north.

In their winter plumage, the wigeons are rather dull. The breeding male has a brilliant green patch extending backwards from his eye and a broad white streak from the top of the bill over his head. During the winter the green patch becomes is much less conspicuous, although the white streak remains.

Trio of wigeons, with their tails sticking up out of the water
American wigeon (Mareca americana)
2021-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

Three species of waterfowl. I couldn't get the snow geese to cooperate and make up the quartet.

Greater white-fronted goose, American wigeon, and Canada goose
Left to right: greater white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons), American wigeon (Mareca americana), and a pair of Canada geese (Branta canadensis)
2021-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

Living as we do along the Pacific flyway, we find that spring and autumn are great times for watching birds as they migrate between summer breeding grounds and wherever they overwinter. Sometimes I think it's rather unfortunate that I don't get to see these birds in the glory of their breeding plumage, but that's okay because I get to see them in the winter. And the birds that left here for the winter are returning: I saw the first barn swallow of the season right after the vernal equinox! Soon they and the cliff swallows will be building their nests on the buildings at the marine lab. At home, the first of the season's hooded orioles flew past the back deck. He may have been on his way to a nesting site in a palm tree down the street. There is so much going on right now. I do love the spring!

A utility pole across the street and one house down has, for years, been an object of interest for a variety of birds. The hairy and downy woodpeckers drum on it in the spring, and various songbirds hang out and rest on the top. About a month ago now I saw a raptor up there, eating something. It was a female merlin (Falco columbarius). According to Cornell's All About Birds, merlins are in our area during the nonbreeding season, but I've never been certain about having seen one.

On the morning of Saturday 13 March I went outside to look around, and saw a bird on the pole. It appeared to be either eating or cleaning its beak. I ran inside to grab the camera, which fortunately had my longest lens and the 1.4x teleconverter attached, and snapped off a bunch of shots. The sun was rising, but I was able to get some decent photos of the bird even though from the best vantage point it was backlit.

Clearly, he's eating something:

Male merlin (Falco columbarius)
2021-03-13
© Allison J. Gong

But what is it eating? Rodent bits?

Male merlin (Falco columbarius)
2021-03-13
© Allison J. Gong

No, look at that foot. It's a bird!

Male merlin (Falco columbarius)
2021-03-13
© Allison J. Gong

Yep. Definitely a bird.

Male merlin (Falco columbarius)
2021-03-13
© Allison J. Gong

And here he is, taking a break between courses:

Male merlin (Falco columbarius)
2021-03-13
© Allison J. Gong

Merlins are members of the falcon family. Smaller birds make up the majority of a merlin's prey, but they also eat large insects such as grasshoppers. As with peregrine falcons, merlin populations were severely reduced in the years when DDT was widely used to keep insect populations down, but they have since recovered. Truly, the recovery of birds of prey after DDT was banned is one of the great successes of conservation biology.

There were feathers in the street below the pole. I assume they are from the merlin's prey, as when I looked at the top of the pole through binoculars I could see the same sort of feathers up there. I compared the feathers with photos on a few ID sites, but it's no easy identifying feathers without any additional context. Someone suggested that they might be from a male house finch. We have lots of those around all the time, so that's probably the best guess possible.

Feathers from prey of a merlin (Falco columbarius)
2021-03-13
© Allison J. Gong

So there you have it: Saturday brunch with songbird on the menu!

During what has become my daily check to see what's going on in Younger Lagoon, I got totally lucky and was able to see and photograph lots of birds. A morning with mostly cloudy skies meant good light for picture-taking. So I took lots of pictures! Some of these are series and need to be viewed in order to see the action. Sure, I could have just shot videos, but where's the fun in that? Sometimes still photos show a lot more than video.

It was a great day to watch wading birds! Legs and beaks come in varying lengths, and a particular species' combination of beak length and leg length determine where and how the bird forages.

Long-billed curlews, snowy egret, and marbled godwit on the beach at Younger Lagoon
Shorebirds at Younger Lagoon. Left to right: Two Long-billed curlews (Numenius americanus); snowy egret (Egretta thula); long-billed curlew; marbled godwit (Limosa fedoa)
2021-01-30
© Allison J. Gong

While the long-billed curlew (N. americanus) has the longest beak-length-to-head ratio of any bird, the marbled godwit and whimbrel also have impressively long bills. In the photo below, the three birds with slightly downcurved beaks are whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) and the one bird with the two-toned straight beak is the godwit (Limosa fedoa). Most of the godwits I've seen have beaks that are a smidge upturned, but this one looks pretty straight to me.

Whimbrels and marbled godwits in the surf zone at Younger Lagoon
Shorebirds at Younger Lagoon. Three whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) with downcurved beaks and one marbled godwit (Limosa fedoa) with straight beak
2021-01-30
© Allison J. Gong

All of these birds forage by probing the sand with their beaks. All sorts of infaunal invertebrates are taken, and the mole crab Emerita analoga is a favored prey item. Obviously a longer beak allows for deeper probing in the sand, and the variation in beak lengths among the shorebird species may allow for niche partitioning. In other words, a long-billed curlew can reach down for prey items that are unavailable for birds with shorter beaks. The flip side of this equation is that birds with the "short" beaks might be better at picking up prey buried that are buried at shallow depths.

Prey are also distributed patchily along the beach itself, from the surf zone to the dunes, and these birds forage in the entire range. The length of the legs determines how far down into the surf zone they can go. When the beach is steep, as it is now at Younger Lagoon, the birds don't have much time to dig around in the surf zone before the next wave comes up. Click through the slide show to see this group of godwits, curlews, whimbrels, and a snowy egret react to an oncoming wave. It's important to note that while these birds do have some waterproofing in their feathers, they do not swim. Nor can they take flight if their feet aren't on the ground. Getting swept up by a wave and carried off the beach would likely be deadly for them.

The long-billed curlew is a favorite of mine, because I can't imagine what it would be like to go through life with a 2-meter beak sticking out of my face. They are fun to watch, and can probe remarkably fast with that long beak. This is one of the phenomena that is best shown by video.

You can watch how the birds forage within the surf zone, as in the slide show above, and also how long-billed curlews probe the sand higher up the beach.

Shorebirds foraging at Younger Lagoon
2021-01-30
© Allison J. Gong

These long-legged wading birds also feed in protected bodies of water and estuaries. All of these species can be seen at Elkhorn Slough as well as on the open coast, as one would expect from the Slough's position along the Pacific Flyway. Some birds migrate to California from far away. Marbled godwits, for example, spend the summer breeding season in the interior regions of North America, and winter along the Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic coasts. The long-billed curlew also breeds in the interior of the continent. Snowy egrets, on the other hand, are year-round residents.

I am grateful to have access to places like Younger Lagoon, where I can spend time outdoors without other people around, remove my mask, and take pictures of birds. I love that the Younger Lagoon Reserve has so many different habitats to explore, from ocean to beach to dunes to coastal scrub, in a small area. Fingers crossed that sooner rather than later, we'll be able to once again bring students there to study the natural world in the Reserve's outdoor classrooms.

Still more or less under quarantine shutdown due to COVID19, I haven't been doing much outdoor stuff over the past several months. What with the pandemic and horrid air quality due to wildfires throughout the state, spending time in places I would normally like to hang out simply hasn't been possible. We're still getting too many out-of-the-area visitors for me to feel comfortable being around people, and weekends are especially bad. But last weekend I went to Moss Landing to take pictures of birds and other wildlife—I needed visual aids for a virtual lab my students will be doing in a few weeks.

It's the time of year for birdwatchers to get excited about winter visitors. I've had golden-crowned sparrows in the canyon behind the house for almost a month now, but I hadn't been down to a beach in a while. Moss Landing is a great place for birdwatching, because you can explore the estuarine habitat of Elkhorn Slough, the sandy beach, and the harbor during a 2-mile walk. That's three distinct habitats for very little effort!

Starting at the tidal marsh, I always keep an eye out for the long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus). They have the largest beak-to-head ratio of any bird.

Long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus) in salt marsh
Long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus)
2020-10-10
© Allison J. Gong

One of my favorite winter visitors to the marsh area is the willet (Tringa semipalmata). Unlike most shorebirds that are speckled or mottled, willets in winter plumage are a beautiful soft gray-ish brown color. Every time I see a willet I ask myself, "Willet, or won't it?"

Willets in marsh at low tide
Willets (Tringa semipalmata)
2020-10-10
© Allison J. Gong

And when they take off in flight, willets show these striking black and white wing patterns. They always take me by surprise, even though I know to expect it.

Willet in flight, showing white flashes on wings
Willet (Tringa semipalmata) in flight
2020-10-10
© Allison J. Gong

A whole flock of willets taking off at once is quite an impressive sight!

Flock of willets in flight
Willets (Tringa semipalmata) in flight
2018-11-14
© Allison J. Gong

From the marsh it's a short walk over the dune and onto the beach.

I always look forward to walking this beach because of the dead things. Don't get me wrong, the living things are fun to see, but in some ways the dead critters can be more informative. For every species there is always some baseline level of mortality in the ocean, so you expect a certain number of dead things to wash up. However, an unusually high number of corpses could indicate that something is going on at sea. This trip I didn't see very many dead critters: just a few grebes that had been there for a while, nothing out of the ordinary.

Oh, and an otter pup. At least, I'm pretty certain it was an otter.

Yes, we came across a dead sea otter pup, my first ever.

Dead sea otter pup on the beach
Dead southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis) on the beach
2020-10-10
© Allison J. Gong

The body was missing a head, but the parts that remain were a bit longer than my booted foot. Although most of the soft tissue had been scavenged, the carcass had distinct paws, meaning it wasn't any kind of pinniped (seal or sea lion). Also, pinnipeds don't have fur like this, as they rely on blubber for thermoregulation. Sea otters, on the other hand, have the densest fur of all mammals, with the oft-cited 1 million hairs/in2.

But let's be honest. I like the beach because I like photographing birds, and there is always interesting bird life at this beach. I'm not one of the crazy bird people who keep a life list and need to be the first person to spot a particular something-or-other. And, unlike the idiots I saw tramping through the pickleweed in pursuit of a Say's phoebe that day, I don't climb over fences and trespass where I'm not supposed to be. Besides, even the everyday backyard birds are fun to watch. Whoever says that familiarity breeds contempt certainly is not a naturalist!

And who doesn't love a snowy plover or two?

Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus)
2020-10-10
© Allison J. Gong

The snowies aren't nesting at this time of year so the upper part of the beach isn't roped off. They do still get disturbed by people wandering around, who probably don't even know the birds are there. They (the snowies, that is) are so tiny that when they hunker down behind a divot in the sand they disappear completely. If you sit or stand quietly, they will pop up and make short dashes from hillock to pile of beach wrack and back again, feeding on the insects and crustaceans they find.

In addition to the snowy plovers, another tiny "peep" bird runs around on the beaches, often in large groups. These are the sanderlings, Calidris alba. I've only ever seen them in nonbreeding plumage, as they nest in the high Arctic.

Sanderlings (Calidris alba)
2020-10-10
© Allison J. Gong

Sanderlings are the little birds that run back and forth from the waves. As a wave recedes the sanderlings frantically stab their stout beaks into the sand, grabbing up small mole crabs and other crustaceans that are right at the surface. When the next wave arrives the sanderlings run back up the beach. They have short legs and don't swim, so getting swept out to sea would be a very bad thing for them.

Sometimes even the long-legged shorebirds forage on the beach. I've seen the curlew there, as well as whimbrels and godwits. This day the godwits were stealing the show.

Marbled godwits (Limosa fedoa)
2020-10-10
© Allison J. Gong

The godwits, with their longer legs, are able to stand their ground when the waves wash up. They can catch food that is buried more deeply into the sand. On mudflats they pick their way over the flat at low tide, digging for worms, clams, and crustaceans. They can feed on a mudflat only at low tide. But on the beach they can feed at any time, just moving with the tide as it floods and ebbs.

And my friend the long-billed curlew was there on the beach, too!

Long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus)
2020-10-10
©Allison J. Gong

The curlews are not as eager to forage in the waves themselves as the godwits seem to be. The curlews might wander down to where their ankles are swashed by the waves, but do not seem to like getting wetter than that. But that bill can probe very deeply into the sand or mud. I've watched them feeding on mole crabs on the beach, and on worms on the mudflats.

Autumn and winter are good times to watch birds around here. There's a bit of a lull in bird activity once the swallows leave depart for the south and before the winter residents show up. For me, autumn begins when the golden-crowned sparrows arrive in the neighborhood, which this year was September 25. I'm listening to them now as I write this! Being located on the Pacific Flyway means we get lots of birds resting for a bit on their migration even if they don't winter here. I'll try to get out to Moss Landing during the winter months, to keep track of the avian comings and going.

2

For some reason, the barn swallows at the marine lab like building their nests above doors. It seems that little 1/2-inch ledge of the door frame provides support for the mud nest. And the birds don't always choose little-used doors, either. This year a pair constructed their nest above one side of a double-door that people walk through all day. The mother laid and incubated her eggs, but would occasionally get flushed off the nest if someone came through the door. I always tried not to disturb her any more than necessary. The animal is always right, so I figured she knew what she was doing.

The eggs hatched about a week ago, I think. The mom would sometimes leave the nest when people approached, and even though I couldn't see anything in the nest I'd hear little cheeps. Earlier this week I thought I could see little heads poking above the edge of the nest.

It seems there are three baby birds in this nest!

Trio of baby barn swallows in nest
Trio of nestling barn swallows (Hirundo rustica)
2020-06-27
© Allison J. Gong

I haven't spent much time watching the nest closely, because I don't want to scare the mother off and keep her away. Today I was lucky and stuck around just long enough, and with the big camera at hand, to capture both parents returning to feed the babies. The first parent arrived with an insect and landed on the nest. The other parent alit on the door frame.

Parent barn swallows return to the nest
Parents arrive at the nest
2020-06-27
© Allison J. Gong
Parent with insect, and babies waking up
2020-06-27
© Allison J. Gong
Baby barn swallow opening mouth to be fed
Open wide!
2020-06-27
© Allison J. Gong
Parent barn swallow feeding a nestling
So many gaping mouths to feed!
2020-06-27
© Allison J. Gong

After depositing the insect into one of the gaping yellow mouths, the first parent flies off. The second parent doesn't seem to have anything to offer the babies, though.

Three nestling barn swallows and one parent
Not enough bugs to go around
2020-06-27
© Allison J. Gong

Ooh, maybe this parent has food!

Three nestling barn swallows, and second parent flying towards nest
Oh, maybe Dad has something for us!
2020-06-27
© Allison J. Gong

The second parent lands on the nest. . .

Parent barn swallow on nest containing nestlings
We want more!
2020-06-27
© Allison J. Gong

. . . and promptly takes off again. . .

Parent barn swallow leaving nest containing nestlings
Alas, no luck this time
2020-06-27
© Allison J. Gong

. . . leaving the babies alone in the nest again.

Three nestling barn swallows showing yellow gapes
Hungry nestling barn swallows
2020-06-27
© Allison J. Gong
Three nestling barn swallows
2020-06-27
© Allison J. Gong
Three nestling barn swallows
2020-06-27
© Allison J. Gong
Three nestling barn swallows
2020-06-27
© Allison J. Gong

These babies still need to grow feathers, although they are clearly big enough to thermoregulate without a parent sitting on them. Growing feathers takes a lot of metabolic energy, and aside from when the parents arrive with food the nestlings will sleep. But it's funny. They seem able to keep an eye (or maybe an ear) out for the parents flying around, and whenever one flies past the doorway they all perk up and start cheeping. There are lots of swallows at the marine lab right now, and I wonder if these babies can identify their parents from among all the other adults in flight.

They'll grow fast, being fed frequently by their parents. They'll have to get big and strong, to prepare for their migratory trip south in the fall I've never noticed exactly when they leave, I think because by the time they head south they've dispersed from the nest site. I always look forward to their return in the spring, though.

Every year we are fortunate to watch a pair of red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) raise young in a tree across the canyon. We're not always sure if the parents are the same birds every year, and I think this year's female is a different bird from last year. Her mate may be the male who has used this nest site for a couple of years now, but again, we don't know.

This year the parents raised three youngsters, who have just begun leaving the nest. They prepare for their first flights by making their way to the edge of the nest and flapping their wings to exercise the flight muscles. This is usually fun to watch, as they don't seem to care whether or not a sibling is in the vicinity. This flapping activity begins before the bird is fully feathered, and they look like awkward punk-rocker teenagers, trying to be cool and not even close to pulling it off.

The hawk nest is in a eucalyptus tree. As the time to fledge approaches, one or both of the parents often perches at the top of a nearby cypress tree. Usually the youngsters' first flights are to the cypress tree. Cypress trees may be the ideal location for fledging, because they have lots of soft-ish branches to fall on when the birds biff the landing. The first flights don't go far from the nest, and the birds end up hopping along branches as they flap their wings. So they are called branchers.

With raptors, the females are bigger. Males tend to leave the nest before their sisters, who have more growing to do, so we always assume that the first one to depart is a boy. This year the females lagged by only a day or so behind their brother. And all three of them seem to be progressing pretty quickly, compared to cohorts we've watched in previous years. Good little branchers!

Pair of sibling red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), or branchers
2020-06-12
© Allison J. Gong

We watched these two for a while in the early evening. I don't know where the third one was. The branchers watch their parents soar around effortlessly. Here they are at the very top of the cypress tree:

Pair of sibling red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), or branchers
2020-06-12
© Allison J. Gong

Okay, my digiscoping skills need work. I did, however, get lucky enough with the spotting scope and my phone to catch a few video clips.

You can see them trying to maintain their footing as the wind blows the tree around. They're able to use their wings for balance, but then they catch a little lift and get knocked about. In the second clip one of the birds is hanging out when its sibling crashes into it. If they were human teenagers, you'd hear one yelling "Look out below!" while the other hollers "Get off me!" Yeah, landing is toughest part of flight!

Over the next few weeks the branchers will get better and better at landing, and their flights will get longer. They will learn how to find thermals and soar. Their parents will continue to provide food for them, but at some point the kids will learn how to hunt on their own. Rodents of the neighborhood, look out! Eventually the branchers will be as badass as their parents. Then they'll disperse to find territories of their own.

We have all heard about hummingbirds and their ability to hover and fly backwards. These tiny feathered jewels are a delight to observe. They are birds of the New World, and I feel sorry for people living in parts of the world that don't have hummingbirds. Where I live, on the coast of Northern California, the resident hummers are Anna's hummingbirds (Calypte anna). We get the occasional Rufous and Allen's hummers (Selasphorus rufus and S. sasin, respectively) passing through on their migrations, but the Anna's are here year-round. We have front-row seats to watch their mating displays, and I know they must be nesting nearby even though I've never managed to locate a nest.

The other day, while sheltering in place at home, I went outside to photograph birds. The Anna's hummers were putting on quite a show. The males have been displaying since February, flying straight up-up-up and then plunging into a J-shaped dive near an observant female. At the bottom of the dive the male uses his tail feathers to create a sharp and very loud chirp. When this occurs about a meter from your head, it sounds like a pistol shot. Trust me on this.

Anyhow, that day I was lucky and captured some shots of a male Anna's hummingbird hovering in place. These aren't National Geographic quality photos, but then again I'm not a National Geographic-caliber photographer. For anyone who is interested in such details, here are the EXIF data:

  • Nikon D750
  • 300mm f/4 lens
  • 1/2500 sec at f/4
  • ISO 900

At a shutter speed of 1/2500 sec, you can freeze even the movement of a hummingbird's wings. You can see very clearly that although the bird's wings are moving, his head remains perfectly skill and his position doesn't change at all.

Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna)
2020-04-03
© Allison J. Gong
Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna)
2020-04-03
© Allison J. Gong
Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna)
2020-04-03
© Allison J. Gong
Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna)
2020-04-03
© Allison J. Gong

A hovering hummingbird moves its wings in a figure-8, similar to the sculling motion of a skilled rower. If you use your imagination a bit you can see the rotation of the wings in this set of photos.

Given the mandate to shelter in place at home, I don't know how many of the upcoming morning low tides I'll be able to explore. On the one hand, I'd be by myself, not risking exposing anyone to any germs I might be carrying. On the other hand, staying home means, well, staying home. The tidepools are calling to me, but this year I might not be allowed to accept the invitation. All for the greater good, right?

1

We Californians are all under a state-wide mandate to stay at home, to minimize the spread of COVID-19 this spring. School hasn't been cancelled, but all classes have converted to distance learning. I had four days to figure out how to deal with that. Fortunately we are in spring break this week, which gives us all a little bit of a breather. I'm going to use the time to catch up on grading and plan for the second half of the semester.

The marine lab is also closed for business. Only essential personnel are allowed to be there. The term 'essential personnel' includes people whose responsibilities are animal husbandry. Since animals will die if I'm not there to feed them, I have met that criterion for essentiality. That's not a word, but you know what I mean. With so many fewer than usual people at the marine lab, there's a lot more wildlife activity. A few days ago I saw a long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata) chase down and capture a young brush rabbit. I just barely had time to catch a quick shot with my phone.

Long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata) capturing a young rabbit
2020-03-17
© Allison J. Gong

The most noticeable thing, though, is the increased birdsong. The sparrows, finches, red-winged blackbirds, mallards, doves, towhees, and hawks are all making a lot of noise. The barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) returned to the lab on the 21st, right on time! Maybe this year they'll have a more successful nesting season than they did last year.

Yesterday I witnessed something I'd never seen before: a territorial dispute between a black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) and a barn swallow. The fact that I had never seen it before in no way implies that it happens only rarely; maybe I've just never paid that much attention to these things before, or they've never happened while I've been around to watch.

Here's the story, in a series of snapshots.

Prologue. The barn swallow (H. rustica) is perched on one of the outdoor light fixtures. The phoebe (S. nigricans) swoops up from below.

Perched barn swallow (H. rustica) turns to face a black phoebe (S. nigricans) approaching from below
2020-03-23
© Allison J. Gong

The swallow takes to the air, only to be divebombed by the phoebe.

Black phoebe divebombing a barn swallow
2020-03-23
© Allison J. Gong
Black phoebe divebombing a barn swallow
2020-03-23
© Allison J. Gong
Black phoebe divebombing a barn swallow
2020-03-23
© Allison J. Gong
Black phoebe divebombing a barn swallow
2020-03-23
© Allison J. Gong
Black phoebe divebombing a barn swallow
2020-03-23
© Allison J. Gong

The swallow retreats. . .

Black phoebe divebombing a barn swallow
2020-03-23
© Allison J. Gong

. . . and the phoebe perches, triumphant, on the rain gutter.

Black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans), victorious at last
2020-03-23
© Allison J. Gong

The entire altercation lasted maybe as long as four seconds. I didn't see where the swallow flew. The phoebe remained on the rain gutter for about a minute or so, then took off over the meadow. Perhaps it has a nest somewhere nearby and was defending it. Both species build mud nests on cliffs and buildings, so these birds could be competing for nest sites. Or maybe phoebes just don't like swallows. Either way, this was the sort of interaction that I don't notice when there is a lot more human activity at the marine lab. Nature has a way of re-asserting herself when humans are removed from the scene for even a short period of time.

Stay safe and be well, friends!

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