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This past weekend I participated for the first time in the Audubon Society's Great Backyard Bird Count, in which ordinary folks spend at least 15 minutes observing birds in their own yards. Turns out you can also observe in other sites, but I opted to watch birds from my back deck. As my house backs up to a more or less wild arroyo, I decided to count the entire canyon as my backyard. I'm neither clever nor coordinated enough to take photos while trying to identify birds, so I have no pictures to share with you. I do, however, have data!

Saturday 13 February 2016, 16:51-17:18

Saw and was able to identify:

  • American robin (Turdus migratorius)
  • Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)
  • Oak titmouse (Baeolophus wollweberi)
  • Golden-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)
  • Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) - nesting in a eucalyptus tree across the canyon!
  • Fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca)
  • California towhee (Melozone crissalis)
  • House finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)
  • Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)
  • Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna)

Heard and was able to ID:

  • Western scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica)
  • California quail (Callipepla californica)
  • Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus)
  • American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)

Sunday 14 February 2016, 12:14-12:33

Saw and was able to ID:

  • Northern mockingbird
  • Red-tailed hawk (the same nesting pair)
  • Wrentit (Chamaea fasciata)
  • Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura)
  • Anna's hummingbird

Heard and was able to ID:

  • Chestnut-backed chickadee (Poecile rufescens)
  • Red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus)

Monday 15 February 2016, 16:57-17:27

Saw and was able to ID:

  • Red-tailed hawk (in nest)
  • Anna's hummer
  • Purple finch (Carpodacus purpureus)
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Chestnut-backed chickadee
  • American crow
  • American robins
  • Golden-crowned sparrow
  • Wrentit
  • Fox sparrow
  • Western scrub jay

Heard and was able to ID:

  • Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus)
  • Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus)

All told, in the three observation periods I identified a total of 20 birds from my backyard. Granted, what I'm calling my "backyard" is a lot bigger and more wild than most, which is why I love living where I do: I get to look down to watch birds in flight. I have no idea if 20 is a lot or a few bird species to see at one time in a single location. There are at least that many other species I see commonly or occasionally but that didn't show up this weekend.

This little project helped me validate my intuition by demonstrating that the middle of the day is not the best time to watch birds if your goal is to see lots of different birds. Clearly, more birds are active in the early evening than during midday. I intended to have a sunrise observation period but never managed to get my act together enough to pull it off. I would expect perhaps as many species as in the early evening, but not necessarily all of the same species. As I write this I can hear the hooting of a pair of great horned owls, audible even over the din of the chorus frogs. The owls hoot back and forth to each other, sometimes all night and into the hour or so before sunrise. Even though I've never seen one, it makes me happy to know that they're in my backyard, along with the raccoons, skunks, opossums, nesting hawks, deer, and the occasional bobcat (and who knows, maybe even a mountain lion every once in a great while). I am fortunate to have all of this nature literally right outside the back door. I do indeed live in paradise.

Yesterday afternoon when I got home I checked out the red-tailed hawk nest across the canyon and didn't see anybody home. Then I started scanning the trees on both sides of the canyon to see if the parents were around. While I was looking the dad flew in with prey and perched on the top of one of the trees. But he didn't start eating right away so I thought he might have been showing the prey to the kids. Sure enough, we found one of the juveniles perched just a short distance away.

Buteo jamaicensis (red-tailed hawk) father (left) and newly fledged offspring (right), 14 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Buteo jamaicensis (red-tailed hawk) adult male (left) and newly fledged offspring (right), 14 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

The adult male's plumage is nice and sleek, and he perches quite easily on a branch that sways dramatically in the afternoon wind. The juvenile's feathers are rumpled and its head looks small, probably because it hasn't been feathered very long, and it had some problems with balance.

At some point the juvenile managed to hop over to its dad, who then shared some of his food.

So we knew for a fact that at least one of the juveniles had fledged; however, we didn't find the other juvenile anywhere. We did see the adult female perched atop a tall snag on our side of the canyon; she was looking around but didn't seem worried so we figured that the second juvenile at least wasn't on the ground or in some other danger.

And lo and behold, as the sun was beginning to set and light the other side of the canyon, we found both juveniles and the adult female perched on trees across the way. So both of the kids had fledged successfully!

Buteo jamaicensis (red-tailed hawks), newly fledged juveniles (left and lower right) and adult female (upper right), 14 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Buteo jamaicensis (red-tailed hawks), newly fledged juveniles (left and lower right) and adult female (upper right), 14 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong

I don't know what the juvenile on the left is doing and why it appears not to have a head. We still haven't actually seen either of the juveniles flying, but by the time it was getting dark both had returned to the nest for the night. I imagine they slept well after all the day's exertions!



Our red-tailed hawk chicks are sooo close to fledging now! I've been told that the tree-nesting raptors usually first leave the nest to hop around on branches; hence they're called "branchers." This afternoon I watched the chicks and was able to catch some of the maneuvering, which included hopping around the edge of the nest.

One of the chicks seems more adventurous than the other. I know that female raptors are larger than males, so I think that males reach their fledging size sooner than their sisters. Which would mean that this earnest almost-brancher is a boy. He'll be flying soon!


The red-tailed hawk chicks across the canyon from us continue to practice their flapping, preparing to take their eventual first flights. We frequently see one of the chicks standing up in the nest, flapping away and whacking its sibling in the head. They're too big now for both to be flapping at the same time.

The parents are being kept busy bringing food to their hungry offspring. One or the other is often perched on the top of a pine tree within sight of the nest occupants, usually being pestered mercilessly by a marauding crow, while the other is out hunting. The grown-ups are also, I think, trying to entice the kids out of the nest, by hanging out where the they can be seen and showing the kids how it's done. I expect that the young ones will fledge in the next couple of weeks. We may not see the actual fledging flights, but I'm certain we'll hear about them.

Our red-tailed hawk chicks are growing bigger every day, and trading fluff for feathers as well. Their bodies are almost completely feathered by now, which makes their heads look small and strange, as though the heads are developing more slowly than the rest of the body. Given that the head is where the brain is located, maybe it actually is growing at a different rate from the body.

For quite long stretches of time now, both parents are away from the nest. Usually the chicks are just lazing around, napping below the level of the nest rim so that we can't see them. But occasionally they stand up and look around. Already they've got that "eyes like a hawk" thing going, and they'll stare back at us through the spotting scope. And we can tell when the parents are approaching with food before we can see them, because the chicks make a holy hell of a racket. From what I've observed, they've been eating a lot of rodents lately. Good hawks! Eat all the gophers!

Sometimes the chicks get up and stretch. They need to build strength in their growing flight muscles, so they stretch up and flap their wings a bit. They're pretty long-legged and gangly now. They look sort of like bald eagles, but that's only because they don't have feathers on their heads yet.

Watch this:

Having never kept close eyes on baby red-tailed hawks before, I can't guess how long it'll be until these chicks fledge. My experience watching peregrine falcons fledge at the marine lab tells me that, for those raptors at least, fledging doesn't occur until the head is more completely feathered. If that also holds for red-taileds, then these guys have a bit of feather-growing to do. Besides, the more time they spend stretching and flapping, the better shape their muscles will be in for when they take that eventual first journey into the air.

I've been told what to expect when these guys get close to fledging, and what to do if one of them ends up on the ground. I'll keep you posted!


In case you were wondering, here's what our red-tailed hawk nest looks like from our deck:

Red-tailed hawk nest in eucalyptus tree, 16 April 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Red-tailed hawk nest in eucalyptus tree, 16 April 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

See that little red circle? That's the nest. Without the spotting scope, even with binoculars it's hard to find.

WITH the spotting scope, we can spy on the nest from our deck. And using a nifty gadget that clips an iPhone to the lens of the scope, we can take photos and video. This video shows the dad feeding the bigger of the two chicks. I can't see what the prey is, but I hope to god the hawks are eating a lot of gophers.

In hawks, as is typical for raptors, the female is larger than the male. But when there's only one bird on the nest it's difficult to tell if it's the bigger one or the smaller one. In general, the dad has longer looking legs, while the female looks a bit bulkier and heavier. We know this parent is the dad because he was seen flying in with food. The mom hopped out of the nest for a bit of respite while her mate took over the feeding duties. I think that as the chicks get bigger they'll need more food, and both parents will have to spend time away from the nest foraging.

For the past several weeks we have been watching a pair of nesting red-tailed hawks across the canyon. They built a nest in a eucalyptus tree, then the female began incubating a clutch of eggs. The male would bring her food and spell for short stints on the nest, while we spied on them through the spotting scope. The phrase "eyes like a hawk" is very a propos, I found. Every time I trained the scope on her she looked right back at me through the other end. It was a little unnerving.

We first noticed chicks in the nest about two weeks ago, I think. We could see a parent eating and feeding something (presumably babies) in the nest but couldn't see exactly what was going on. Several days ago now, the babies got big enough for us to see over the edge of the nest. They were floppy fluffy white blobs.

Today I finally got some pictures of the babies. There are two chicks in the nest, and one looks quite a bit bigger than the other. I took some photos through the scope but never managed to get even a half-way decent shot of both chicks at the same time. Here's the best that I was able to capture today:

Red-tailed hawk chick in nest, 13 April 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) chick in nest, 13 April 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

I also got lucky enough to see the female return to the nest. I think she had been perched in a tree on our side of the canyon while her mate was flying above, screaming loudly. There must have been a mid-air prey exchange that I missed.

Female red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) returning to nest with prey, 13 April 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Female red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) returning to nest with prey, 13 April 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

The female then proceeded to tear apart whatever prey item it was, and feed it to the chicks.

If you can stomach the somewhat shaky video, I did catch about a minute-and-a-half of the feeding.

From this angle I couldn't see if both chicks were getting fed, but they are both growing. So far these hawks are good parents!


As a native Californian, I've been living with drought my entire life. Well, maybe not so much during the El Niño of 1997-98, but even then the thought "We have water now but might not later..." was always in the back of my mind. This season we had a great few weeks of rain in late November and early December, then January was bone dry and February has been disappointing as well.

This weekend an Arctic storm is moving through the region, bringing rain and cool temperatures to coastal areas and (hopefully) snow in the Sierra Nevada. Here in Santa Cruz it hasn't rained much yet but we did get a few decent showers this morning. It just so happened that I headed down to the marine lab between showers, and the light was magnificent. The water was that magical color of aquamarine and seaglass green that I associate with the tropics. The sun was shining, casting cloud shadows on the water, which added depth to the color palette when combined with the kelp bed. So pretty!

Looking east towards Natural Bridges from Terrace Point, 28 February 2015. ©Allison J. Gong
Looking east towards Natural Bridges from Terrace Point, 28 February 2015.
© Allison J. Gong
See how translucent and green the water is? 28 February 2015. ©Allison J. Gong
See how translucent and green the water is? 28 February 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

Brown pelicans (Pelicanus occidentalis) were one of many bird species whose populations were devastated by widespread use of the pesticide DDT in the mid-20th century; in 1970 it was listed on the federal Endangered Species List. After the general use of DDT was banned in the United States in 1972 the population began to recover, and in 2009 the brown pelican was removed from the Endangered Species List (I believe the bureaucratic jargon for that is "de-listed"). It is now not unusual to see long lines of pelicans skimming the waves as they fly just above the ocean surface.

Today I didn't see any large groups of pelicans in flight, but I did catch this one flying by right in front of me.

Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) flying past Terrace Point, 28 February 2015. ©Allison J. Gong
Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) flying past Terrace Point, 28 February 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

Anyone who knows me personally knows that I'm not a big cheerleader for the marine mammals. However, seeing cetaceans in the wild is always a treat. This morning I was lucky enough to catch this pod of dolphin-type critters as they swam right off the point. There were 6-8 of them, I think. As they swam past the marine lab a couple of them indulged in some tail slapping.

Dolphins swimming past Terrace Point, 28 February 2015. ©Allison J. Gong
Small cetaeans swimming past Terrace Point, 28 February 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

I'm not enough of a cetacean expert to be able to identify the animals from photos. They did have dolphin-like dorsal fins but I couldn't see a prominent rostrum on any of them. I didn't have my binoculars with me . . . and I call myself a naturalist??

Since the animals were not traveling very quickly I decided to see if I could catch them on video. I was lucky enough to get this clip:

Can anybody help me identify what these animals are?

This afternoon I was enjoying the sunshine and watching the small finchy birds flitting about in the big coffeeberry bush off our back deck. I call this bush the "conference bush" because every spring the birds congregate in it and chatter to each other like conventioneers. When the bush blooms it becomes populated with foraging honeybees, which add their own buzz to the cacaphony. I had identified lesser goldfinches, juncos, chestnut-backed chickadees, and the impossible-to-distinguish purple/house finches and was watching a male Anna's hummingbird making his diving displays. I was looking for the female he was displaying to when out of the corner of my eye I saw a brown bird, about the size of a scrub jay, crash into the bush.

All of the little finchy birds fled the bush instantly and the bush became silent. Training my binocs on the locus of the commotion I saw a sharp-shinned hawk perching in the tree.

Juvenile sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus).
Juvenile sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus). © John Rowe, October 2010

It was a very handsome bird. It perched and looked around for a few seconds then did a bit of preening. Directly above the hawk's right shoulder I saw a female finch, perched desperately frozen to her twig. I don't know why she hadn't escaped with the others. She was obviously trying her hardest not to be seen, but the writing was on the wall. While I was watching through the binocs the sharpie exploded up and grabbed the finch, then busted out of the bush, carrying its prey out of view. I heard the poor finch squawking for about half a minute before she finally died.

This is definitely the most amazing thing I've seen so far this week. Nature, in all her glory, is every bit as unsentimental as she is spectacular. Wow!

A couple of months ago I posted about the vernal equinox and the arrival of spring as heralded by the return of the swallows to the marine lab. This spring I've been keeping an eye on the mud nests that have been going up under the eaves of one of the buildings. It seemed to me that the swallows were a bit slow getting started with the nest-building, but in the past handful of weeks they've gotten more serious about it and have started raising babies.

When the birds are flying, it's pretty easy to distinguish between barn swallows and cliff swallows because barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) have a very deeply forked tail.

Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) in flight
Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) in flight

Cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota), on the other hand, have a more trapezoidal tail that is not forked:

Cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) in flight
Cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) in flight

This spring both species nested together under the eave of the Younger Building. When the birds' little heads are peeking out of the nest you can't see the tail (obviously) so it's harder to tell the species apart, especially when the parents are away. Turns out the species' nests have different shapes: barn swallows have nests that are described as "cup-shaped" while cliff swallows' nests are gourd-shaped. I'd read this description before but didn't really understand the distinction; this year it was pretty easy to tell the difference between the two.

In my case, the nests look like this:Swallow nests, LMLI like how the nests are just crammed in together. Most of these are cliff swallow nests, but the right-most three are barn swallow nests. That's a barn swallow flying directly towards the camera. I've seen as many as four babies peeking out of that second-from-the-right barn swallow nest. They've obviously fledged, as quite often all the nests are empty, but they will return to the nest as long as the parents keep feeding them.

Here's a closer view of the two types of nest:

Two cliff swallow nest (left) and one barn swallow nest (right)
Two cliff swallow nests (left) and one barn swallow nest (right)

As recently as this past week I saw parents sticking additional dabs of mud on the nests. Perhaps there will be a second brood once these fledglings leave for good?

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