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.
Category Archives: Fauna
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.
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.
A skiff of snow the other day was far short of the foot or so that was promised (and desperately needed), but did offer the opportunity to see who’s out and about in our local woods. Raccoon tracks crissed and crossed our path, and then the girls decided to make their own:
The federal furlough has granted me something that is normally in short supply in my life — time! More specifically, time to kill in Chester while the girls are in school. I have spent some of this time exploring the trails behind Chester Park along the North Fork of the Feather River, where I strung together a few small loops to create a great three-mile trail run. But it wasn’t until I actually slowed down to a leisurely walk today to appreciate the fall colors of willow and cottonwood that I saw this bobcat. The wind was gusting hard and the bobcat was on the prowl. I saw it a few minutes before it realized that I was just 30 feet away. A treat! I have seen plenty of tracks in my time, but never an in-the-flesh bobcat. It stared me down for a few moments before bounding away soundlessly.
Every so often, we will hear the creaky call of a Pacific chorus frog in our yard. It is a siren song for M., who will hunt and search until the frog has been located, caught, and observed for awhile. I always fret a little, knowing the fragility of frogs and the inadvertent squeezes and poking that come along with exploration. But M. has a gentle touch, and frogs tend to linger a few minutes cupped in the palm of her hand. This fine specimen had just taken quite a ride in the bow of a kayak that was transported by truck from Chester to Westwood. We heard its call after the kayaks had been unloaded, and M. ducked into the kayak to retrieve it. We set the frog into its new home in the garden, and are still hearing its call every few days or so. Pacific chorus frogs come in an amazing variety of colors, from gray to brown to bright green. Whatever the color, the girls are always delighted to find them.
I am usually so transfixed upon plants that I fail to see the insects and amphibians that share their habitat. But these past few weeks, when forced to pause for one reason or another, I was afforded these special glimpses of life forms that often escape my notice.
These are Pacific tree frogs, peeking out from a crack in a downed log that spanned a dry creek bed near Big Lake. As I would step toward the log, the frogs would disappear into the crack. When I took a step back, they would one by one venture to poke their heads back out to investigate. My ever-observant co-worker called these to my attention after I had marched right over the log while conducting plant surveys. And I just now noticed the frog occupying the tiny hole near the bottom of the frame!
And here is a monarch butterfly, obtaining nectar from a showy milkweed flower (Asclepias speciosa) near Humbug Valley. I would not have seen this butterfly had I not stopped to GPS the milkweed patch for the Xerces Society‘s Project Milkweed. As I waited for my GPS unit to log points, three monarchs spiraled around me in a setting so quiet that I could hear the flapping of their wings. This survey of milkweed stands aims to generate a spatial inventory of milkweed stands that may serve as summer breeding sites for monarchs.
And lastly, here is an English sundew (Drosera anglica) with a leaf coiled around an insect that it is slowly digesting. I was exploring Willow Lake the other weekend with my children, and we brought ourselves down to ground-level to appreciate this tiny scene.
I went to grub out a neglected strawberry bed a few days ago. Lawn grass had invaded, along with mint and oregano stragglers whose brethren were transplanted last year. As I approached a sage plant, ready to dig it up and transplant it as well, out flew an black-headed darkeyed “Oregon” junco. I peeked beneath the arms of the sage and there, nestled into the ground, was this perfectly round nest containing four pale, speckled eggs. Needless to say, a limited operating period has been imposed until the juncos hatch and fledge. The strawberries can wait.