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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!

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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!

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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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The astronomical onset of spring is the vernal equinox, which this year occurred on Thursday 20 March 2014. The date is determined by the movements of the Earth and the sun, and occurs regardless of weather conditions anywhere on the planet. Some people look to plants for an indication of spring: the first day that a crocus pops up through the snow, or the first blossoms on a cherry tree. For me, I know that spring has sprung when certain birds show up in my world.

The first red-winged blackbirds make themselves heard in January, which is too early to be thinking about spring but at that point in the year it's nice to be reminded that the days are getting longer. The red-wingeds' calls are heard throughout February and March; it always makes me smile to hear them lekking. Some time in March I see the first barn swallows at the marine lab, and once they start plastering mud under the eaves I know that spring is here.

A few years ago the swallows chose a site sort of under a stairway to build their nest. They started plastering mud in a corner of the wall and constructed a neat little home in which to raise their young. That year they raised four babies successfully.

At this point they're the same size as their parents.
At this point they're the same size as their parents.

The parents were still feeding them, but the babies almost didn't fit into the nest anymore. It was so cute. I'd walk under them to get to the door and they'd all pivot their heads down to look at me.

The parents were pretty blase about people walking under their nest all day:

The parentsIt was up to us to make sure we didn't get pooped on. Sometimes you'd have to dodge the splat.

Once the babies fledge and start feeding themselves, we get barn swallows swooping around the courtyard. They seem to be more active in the afternoons, when the wind picks up. They look like they're having so much fun, zooming around like miniature 737s.

I bet it's fun to be a swallow in the springtime.

 

We are fortunate to have a lot of wildlife in our backyard, which is actually a canyon. On any given day we can look out and see finches and hummingbirds squabbling over their respective feeders, jays trying to steal whatever they can, and hawks either swooping through the brush or soaring overhead. The soundtrack of afternoons around here is punctuated by the sharp high-pitched "teek" of towhees and the chickadees can be heard just about any time of day. And every once in a while a mockingbird tricks me into thinking that I'm hearing something that I'm not.

Among our favorite birds is our state bird, Callipepla californica, or the California quail.

California quail male (left) and female (right)
California quail male (left) and female (right). Source: Wikimedia Commons

In our canyon we have quail year-round, and we call them collectively the "dudes." The males, with their typically gaudy male plumage, are the dudes and the females are dudettes. In the winter, the quail form a covey of anywhere from 15-25 adults of both sexes, banding together for safety.

Males (dudes) in a winter covey
Males (dudes) in a winter covey

Once the days begin to lengthen in the spring, however, the males begin squabbling for territory and females, and the covey breaks up. After that we see the quail in male-female pairs. Interestingly, the pairs will forage in more or less the same area, but when one of the males crosses some invisible (to me) line the other will get all bent out of shape. Females seem to forage wherever they want.

Nesting occurs in the bushes somewhere, and in July we see the babies for the first time. Usually it's the dads who bring out the dudelets; I think the females may be incubating a second clutch of eggs at this time.

Needless to say, the dudelets are very cute. The youngest we've ever seen were little speckled fluffballs. It's hard to see in this photo, but at this age the dudelets already have tiny plumes.

Dudes and dudelets
Dudes and dudelets

Like most baby birds, the dudelets grow fast. After a couple of weeks they've grown more feathers and begin to look more like their parents. This year (2013) we missed the fluffball stage and today we saw the dudelets for the first time. They were brought up by both parents; we saw two males, one female, and 4-5 dudelets. It's hard to get an exact count because these birds are so good at melting into the shrubs and becoming invisible. Even though there was a dudette present, it was the dudes that were watching over the dudelets.

Watchful dude and two dudelets
Watchful dude and two dudelets

Eventually the dudelets will grow up and the males will have to disperse to find and defend their own territories. The winter covey will re-form, and next spring we will be on the lookout again for the next generation.

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We are still about a few days away from the vernal equinox, but it is impossible to mistake the signs of spring:  Trees are blooming (gesundheit!), bees are buzzing, and birds are singing. In our canyon, the California quail have disbanded their large winter covey and are foraging in male-female pairs. In the past few weeks I've watched and listened to red-shouldered hawks claiming their territory. All that I'm waiting for is the return of the downy woodpeckers drumming on the utility poles and the arrival of mud-carrying swallows at the marine lab to know that spring has truly sprung.

One of my favorite spring sights--and sounds!--is the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). They are in California year-round, but their raucous mating displays make them much more visible in springtime.

Male red-winged blackbird in display posture
Male red-winged blackbird in display posture

Male red-wingeds are a glossy black with puffy red epaulettes, which they flash as they are calling. This time of year it is common to see a bird perched on the end of a twig, showing off his shoulders and his loud, clear voice.

Here's what it sounds like: Call of red-winged blackbird

The conspicuous markings and piercing call serve to advertise a male's territorial claim. He states very emphatically, "This is my patch of rushes, so BACK OFF, DUDES!"  If he is successful in holding off interlopers, a male may mate with several females within his territory. This is a Good Thing, no? Females benefit from this arrangement because a male who can stake out and defend a territory is presumably vigorous and will pass those healthy alleles to his offspring. So it's a win-win situation and the best possible baby blackbirds are produced every generation.

Sexual selection in action!  Gotta love it!

Sometimes even a naturalist gets to go on vacation, and I was fortunate enough to get to spend a week in Kaua'i.  My favorite spot on the island was the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on the north shore of the island, where I got to see albatrosses, frigatebirds, and boobies in flight, as well as humpback whales breaching and flipper-slapping offshore.  Amazing!

As much fun as it was to watch all these birds flying around, it was just as entertaining to drive through the adjacent neighborhood and watch albatrosses in people's front yards.  I'd love to have albatrosses in my front yard, but alas, it's not going to happen in California.

Just what are those albatrosses doing in people's front yards, you ask.  Good question.

The Laysan albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis, is a north Pacific species which breeds primarily in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  Like all seabirds, their food comes from the ocean.  Albatrosses are known for their super-efficient gliding flight; their long, narrow wings are the inspiration for the design of gliding planes.  The Laysan albatross has a wingspan of 6-7 feet.  On the ground they look somewhat like ordinary gulls, but in flight and close-up they are truly magnificent birds.

Albatrosses are also extremely long-lived birds.  The bird in the photograph below has a band on her right leg.  The information on the band tells biologists when the bird was banded.  This female bird was 60 years old when she was photographed at Midway Atoll in 2011 by John Klavitter of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Laysan_albatross_fws_age60in2011

It turns out that albatrosses return to the sites where they hatched as they get old enough to breed.  The Kaua'i albatrosses had been using the north shore of the island as a breeding ground when the housing developments were built, and apparently don't mind either the construction or the people living there.  The human residents take great pride in their avian neighbors, putting up signs telling tourists to keep their distance and leave the birds undisturbed.

We made several passes through the neighborhood to look at the albatrosses, and finally got some good pictures.

Albatross in someone's front yard in Princeville, Kaua'i
Albatross in someone's front yard in Princeville, Kaua'i
A trio of Laysan albatrosses on a beautifully manicured lawn.
A trio of Laysan albatrosses on a beautifully manicured lawn.
Laysan albatross right next to the driveway!
Laysan albatross right next to the driveway!

Some of the albatrosses on lawns are incubating eggs, and some are juveniles hanging out and scoping out future mating possibilities.  If all goes well, albatrosses will be nesting in and fledging from this neighborhood for many decades to come.

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