The other weekend we made bird feeders to hang in our yard using pine cones, peanut butter and bird seed. This was a fun project for the girls, who could dab on the peanut butter and roll on the bird seed themselves. We hung them all around the yard, on aspen and pine trees. It took awhile for the birds to find them, but we’ve occasionally caught glimpses of Stellar’s jays and nuthatches on the feeders.
Although spring is a ways off, there has been plenty of material out in the woods for table centerpieces. On one of our recent walks, A. helped me to collect incense cedar branches (Calocedrus decurrens), a few twigs of big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) and the expired flowering stems of last year’s Plumas County beardtongue (Penstemon neotericus) and coyote mint (Monardella odoratissima). Best of all were the paired, linear, maroon-colored, seed pods of spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium), which we have watched split along their sutures and explode into a fluffy clouds of tufted seeds. We also included branches of green leaf manzanita (Arctostaphylos patula) that were very prematurely in bud. Once inside the house, they broke into clusters of bell-flowered blooms.
Yesterday morning, M. and I headed out into a frosty morning to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count. Although people post bird lists from all around the world during this 3-day event, we took it the event’s title literally and constrained ourselves to just our yard, and my mother-in-law’s yard. Last year it was A. who participated with me (in red cowboy boots, tutu, and crown over a wool hat, see below), but this year she preferred the toasty warmth of the house. M. bundled up and joined me this tie around. This year we saw mourning doves, of course, and had a small listing of our common yard birds (juncos, northern flicker, Steller’s jays, mountain chickadees). I don’t know many calls or songs, so we were limited to the birds that we could catch a glimpse of. Just when we were about to hang up our binoculars for the day, we heard a rasping chatter from a tall fir tree. We looked up to see a flock of evening grosbeaks, unmistakable with their fat beaks and yellow coloration.
As I was walking outside the other day, I found a pearly white eggshell laying on the pine needles about twenty feet from our house. This prompted a look up into the canopy of pines, where I caught a glimpse of a small nest set in the axil between a stout branch and the trunk of a pine. I snagged binoculars and a better vantage point, and saw a large, round black eye staring back at me. The mourning doves are nesting! The nest looks flimsy and small for such a large bird. From what I’ve read, it is the male that sits on the nest during the day, while the female takes over at night. Is February early? I’m not sure, but in this exceptionally balmy winter, this mourning dove pair is making a go of it.
We’ve spent the last few days hunkered down in the house, weathering a series of warm, wet, windy storms. Grateful for shelter, grateful for LMUD, grateful that we’ve been able to spend the time together as a family. Making cookie dough in the dark, playing charades by lantern light, appreciating our wood stove.
Today we ventured out toward Robbers Creek, which has been parched and dry in the drought. Of course we would have much preferred snow to rain, but it was still heartening to see water in the creek.
On Sunday, we decided to stop bemoaning the lack of snow and get outside, although enjoying sixty-degree temperatures in January seems somewhat sacrilegious. Areas normally unaccessible in the winter by car are currently an easy drive away. And so it was that we ended up at the shoreline of Mountain Meadows Reservoir. Two years ago, we skied our way out here. As soon as we opened the truck doors, we could hear who was in the neighborhood — thousands of tundra swans, whose earnest, raucous honking overwhelmed the air. We walked around a small point; adults taking the easy path around the shore, girls climbing through dense willow patches and trying to remain unseen. It was warm enough to sprawl out on the grass for a picnic lunch of crackers, cheese and salami before we headed back home.
Yesterday my 4-year-old joined me for the annual Midwinter Bald Eagle count at Lake Almanor. This long-term monitoring effort sends teams of surveyors out to the same, non-overlapping routes year after year to collect data on the eagles that spend the winter at Lake Almanor, Mountain Meadows, and Butt Lake. I had the luck to join a wildlife biologist who knows much more about birds than I do and could point out all that we saw.
As soon as we left the car, we were surprised to see a northern pygmy owl hidden in a willow thicket! We then set out across frozen Last Chance Marsh to look for eagles either out on the ice or perched at treeline.
As a botanist, it was fun to recalibrate the way that I see the landscape. Plants are either present or absent. Wildlife moves! While our first scans into the trees surrounding the marsh yielded nothing, we kept walking and looking, and finally spotted a few white heads perched in distant trees. Then they vanished again.
Hopefully I haven’t permanently turned my daughter off to wildlife surveys! She was a great sport as we crossed icy rivulets and hummocky meadow ground, collecting a “bouquet” of expired plants and counting tundra swans as they flew overhead. But she never could quite see the distant eagles. She let me know afterward that in the future she would be much more interested in surveying for horses or cats. Most definitely not eagles.
This small plant has somewhat unremarkable flowers, but fruits that are quite striking. In early spring, fringepod plants have a raceme of tiny, white, 4-petalled flowers that are easily missed. In fruit, however, this plant produces delicate, lacy, fruits that are about a quarter inch wide. Each contains a single seed within. The scientific name is derived from the Greek for “fringed” (thysanos) + “fruit” (karpos).
Fruits of plants in the mustard family are described as siliques, which have two fused carpels and are in general much longer than they are broad. In genera such as Thysanocarpus and Lepidium, however, when fruits are as broad as they are long, the fruits are referred to as silicles. Fringepod has a broad distribution across the California Floristic Province.
- Species: Thysanocarpus curvipes
- Plant Family: Brassicaceae (mustard family)
- Where I saw it: In foothill grassland, High Trestle Trail, Lassen National Forest
Cercis occidentalis is a shrub in the pea family. Like most pea flowers, they are described as papillonaceaous because the broad upper petal is reminiscent of a ‘papillon’ (French for butterfly). In a pollinator-friendly configuration, this upper petal attracts insects, while the lower petals act as landing pads and protect the stamens and stigma.
Redbud’s magenta flowers are first to emerge in the spring, followed by broad reniform (kidney-shaped) or cordate (heart-shaped) leaves. In the photo below, new leaves are just beginning to emerge atop the inflorescence. When in fruit, this species will produce pods that are several inches long.
- Species: Cercis occidentalis
- Plant Family: Fabaceae (pea family)
- Where I saw it: In foothill chaparral, High Trestle Trail, Lassen National Forest