Sunday, January 20, 2019

Rainy Weather!

It POURED this week, for a total of 7.38" of rain!  This brings our "water year" total to 24.68"!   The river has really risen, with a peak flow rate of 4,000 cfs occurring last Wednesday night.  The large logs that have been visible in the river for the past few weeks are gone, carried away by the high water!  Surprisingly the river wasn't full of sediment this time.  It kept it's glass green color, and was just a little cloudy.  I found these underwater grasses to be incredibly beautiful, bent over in the swift flow of the newly risen river!  We really hope these heavy, wet storms keep coming!  It finally feels like winter!

North Yuba River 1/19/19

When the river was at its height you could hear the boulders clunking in the churning water.  The prediction is for 1-2 more inches of rain today.  It's raining heavily right now.  Up in the Lakes Basin the snow level stayed high this week, at around 6,000'-7,000'.  At Yuba Pass (6,709') there's approximately 4' of snow on the ground.  Yahoo! 
Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

Red-tailed Hawk!

While I was wandering in the rain, I saw this Red-tailed Hawk perched in a Douglas Fir Tree!  They are medium sized hawks, measuring 19" in length, with a wingspan of 49".  They are one of the mostly commonly seen raptors in North America, and are found from coast to coast in the U.S. and as far south as Venezuela.  If the winter is snow-free, they will live year-round in our neighborhood.  Locally I have also seen them in Spenceville, the Lakes Basin, and in Sierra Valley (photo below).  They like to perch in trees, or posts on the edges of clearings or meadows, and watch for prey.  Ground squirrels, gophers, rabbits, mice, snakes, lizards, kestrels, and meadowlarks are their main prey.  I watched this hawk for a few minutes, while the mist rolled in and out.  Such beauty!

Red-tailed Hawk in Sierra Valley - Buteo jamaicensis

The wide open Sierra Valley is a haven for raptors!  Last Fall I spotted this Red-tailed Hawk and several others over the course of a day.  Aren't its feathers amazing?!!

Anna's Hummingbird (male) - Northern Flicker (male)
Calypte anna - Colaptes auratus

A little Snow! 

Two weeks ago we got about 2" of heavy wet snow. The birds were super active, eating all day long!  I was thrilled to see an Anna's Hummingbird still feeding at our feeders, as well as a Northern Flicker pecking bites out of one of the few remaining local apples!  Flickers are normally insectivores, but consume seeds, berries, fruit and grains during the winter.  Although Flickers are woodpeckers, they do most of their hunting on the ground.  They drum on tree trunks in the Spring to attract a mate, but normally do not peck on trunks to find insects.  If the snow sticks around and accumulates, this Northern Flicker will move down to the foothills where the ground is bare, and food is more readily available.

Mule Deer tracks - Raccoon tracks - Gray Fox tracks
Odocoileus hemionus - Procyon lotor - Urocyon cinereoargenteus

A ton of animal tracks were visible in the newly fallen snow!  Most of them were down by our bird feeders.  Raccoons, Striped Skunks, Gray Foxes, Chickarees and Mule Deer tracks were all over the area!  We've see the skunk at night several times, but haven't seen any raccoons yet. 

Raccoon tracks with smaller Striped Skunk tracks - Chickaree tracks
Procyon lotor - Mephitis mephitis - Tamaisciurus douglasii

 Columbian Black-tailed Deer - Odocoileus hemionus columbianus

Mammal Update!

I've seen several deer off the highway during this rainy week.  Apparently, if rain is warm and not too heavy, deer will remain active.  When a rainstorm is heavy and cold, they tend to seek shelter and bed down.  But there are always exceptions!  Nature is not that predictable.  Rainy weather also has some advantages.  Rain makes dry leaves limp and quieter to walk on, increasing the deer's ability to be stealthy.  The increased moisture in the air also increases their sense of smell and hearing.  This young buck (above), bounded across a field of damp, dried grass when it saw me. The size of its antlers indicated its young age. 

 Gray Fox - Urocyon cinereoargenteus

The Gray Fox posed for me this week!  I was down on our property one late afternoon, and noticed this fox watching me!  It stayed for several minutes while I took lots pictures, and then slowly wandered off!  Wow!  I was happy to see it looking so healthy!

Gray Foxes are solitary most of the year. In winter they mainly hunt for small mammals from dusk to dawn, including cottontails, tree squirrels, voles, mice, and wood rats.  They will also eat fruits, seeds, and berries.  When it's rainy they will remain active.  If the storm is severe, they may seek shelter in an underground den, dense shrubbery, hollow logs or limbs, or rock crevices.

Gray Squirrel - Sciurus griseus

I saw this Gray Squirrel one morning before the rains started.  He looked so healthy!  There are 2 of these squirrels living on our property.  In winter they forage for seeds, acorns, tree buds, and mushrooms.  They also eat from small caches of stored food that they buried in the Fall.  Rain doesn't seem to bother them at all during their diurnal search for food.  At night they sleep in arboreal nests call "dreys".  A drey is  made from sticks and leaves, wrapped with long strands of grass.  The inside is lined with moss lichens, and shredded bark.  During winter they are large, round, and covered on top.  I'll have to see if I can find one!

What kind of birds are these?

What kind of ducks are these?

Who made these tracks?

What's happening in the Lakes Basin?

Check back next week for the answer to these questions and more!

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Sunday, January 13, 2019

A Brief Blog

Sierra Buttes 1/7/19

 It rained and snowed this past week, with a total of 4.58" of precipitation!  The snow level was pretty high, but we did get 2" of heavy, wet snow locally.  There were animal tracks everywhere!  More rain and snow is predicted for this coming week.  Yahoo!!!  Unfortunately, I don't have time to blog today.  Check back next week for the latest natural history news from my neighborhood! 

Your questions and comments are greatly appreciated. 
Please email me at! 

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Surprising Beauty!

Non-biting Midges - Chironomidae Family

I was walking along Highway 49 one afternoon this week when I spotted this incredible swarm of insects!  They looked like fountain spray!  The shape changed continually while I watched for 10 minutes!  I thought they might be 1,000's of gnats, so I caught one to make sure!  I took a photo of it and posted it on, under their "ID Request" section.  Right away I got an answer back that they were most likely Non-biting Midges, in the Chironomidae Family!

Midges are often mistaken for mosquitoes due to their similar size and body shape. They lay their eggs in shallow waters. The eggs sink to the bottom. In a few days the larvae hatch out of the eggs and burrow into mud, or construct a small tube in which they live, feed and develop. The aquatic larvae feed on detiritus in the water and are a great source of food for fish and aquatic insects. After 2-7 weeks, the larvae turn into pupae. The pupae then swim to the surface and the adults emerge from their pupal exuviae (cast off skin). Adults do not feed and spend their short, 3-5 day lives mating!

Most midges are active from Spring through Fall, but some orders fly in the winter! Adult midges are known for their large mating swarms. Often, these cloud-like swarms congregate in the early evening, when the sun is getting low. Usually they form just above some tall object such as a bush, tree, hilltop, or over a pool, stream, or lake. How lucky I was to watch this incredible spectacle!

Non-biting Midges swarm & inset - Chironomidae Family

Apparently midges aren't the strongest of fliers, and are easily pushed around by the wind.  I was mesmerized by the sunlit beauty of the swarm as it was fluidly moved from one position to another!

North Yuba River 1/1/19

River News!

About a week ago on a cloudless day, a dead standing tree by our bridge fell into the river! I didn't see or hear it fall, but all of a sudden there were big sections of a tree trunk in the river! At first I was totally puzzled by the broken trunk sections, until I finally noticed that the tree had fallen! It had been perched above the river, on the side of a steep slope for years! I have photographed many birds perched in this tree over the past 2 years, including Ravens, Northern Flickers, a Red-tailed Hawk, Western Tanagers, Bullock's Orioles, and Red-breasted Nuthatches! I climbed down and looked at the trunk where it broke off and it was filled with white, fungal hyphae. The main part of the trunk was actually still sound and not riddled with insects or their galleries! Maybe the high-water this winter will carry the trunks downstream. If not, it will be interesting to see how these trunk sections are used by the river critters!

Osprey - Hooded Merganser (female)
Pandion haliaetus - Lophodytes cucullatus

I saw 2 surprise avian visitors this week!  Both of them were so far away that I couldn't get great photos of them, but it was fun to watch them!  

The Osprey I saw wasn't right above the river, but rather up-slope and back from the river canyon.  Maybe it had just flown in for the day, as the weather was nice and sunny!  I kept watching for it to show up on the river later that day, but didn't see it.

The Hooded Merganser was a complete surprise to me!  According to the field guides they are uncommonly to rarely seen in our area!  However, I asked some local birding friends and apparently they have seen them in our area in the recent past.  At they do have Hooded Mergansers listed as visiting our area in the Winter, or non-breeding season!  I have never seen one before!  It was a wild looking duck with a really unusual wedge of feathers on the back of its head!  Classified as diving ducks, Hooded Mergansers eat small fish, aquatic insects and crustaceans, particularly crayfish.  They have serrated bills for grasping and handling slippery prey.  Their eyes are specially adapted to see underwater.  I went back several days in a row to see if it was still around, but didn't see it.  It was so exciting to see such an usual and uncommon duck right in our neighborhood!!!

Icicles on Dendroalsia Moss - Dendroalsia albietina

Moss, Lichens, and Fungi

Once again icicles are hanging from some of the mosses in our neighborhood!  The reason why moss can tolerate freezing temperatures is that moss has a natural anti-freeze (glycerol, sucrose etc.) in its cells!  This lowers the temperature at which water freezes, thus preventing damage to the plant cells. Lots of plants use this anti-freeze technique to survive the winter, including most evergreen shrubs and trees, some ferns, succulents, and liverworts! 

Mosses are non-flowering plants that typically grow in damp, shady environments.  When it's wet mosses thrive.  When it's hot and dry they become dormant.  Mosses do not have seeds and after fertilization develop sporophytes with unbranched stalks, topped with single capsules containing spores. There are approximately 12,000 species of mosses in the world!  

Dendroalsia Moss - Dendroalsia albietina

Moss can be found growing on just about any surface where it's damp and shady, such as rocks, tree trunks, and even man made structures.

Fruiticose Lichen - Crustose Lichen - Fruiticose & Foliose Lichen

Lichens are a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungus.  The algae is inside the fungus, and produces chlorophyll that feeds the fungus.  The fungus houses and protects the algae!  Lichens grow in just about any environment, from the desert to the arctic!  There are over 13,500 species of lichen in the world!!!  There are three main forms of lichen; fruiticose, foliose, and crustose.  Fruiticose lichen is shrubby and bushy.  Foliose lichen is flattened and leafy.  Crustose lichen is crusty and flattened. Winter is the time that lichens thrive.  They need water and moisture to grow.  During summer, when it is hot and dry, lichens become dried out and dormant.  

Questionable Stropharia - Stropharia ambigua

I haven't seen many mushrooms this year, and apparently they are quite scarce locally.  It's not a good year for fungus.  This one patch of mushrooms was growing right by our compost pile in the shade!  What a nice surprise!

Mule Deer - Odocoileus hemionus sp.

Mammal Update!

Across the Highway from where the midges were performing, I happened to see a female Mule Deer!  She checked me out and eventually went on with her grazing, while occasionally listening behind herself for other deer or predators.  I didn't see any other deer with her, but perhaps they were watching me warily from the woods!

Mountain Lion scat - Bobcat paws
Felis concolor - Lynx rufus

What I did see on our bridge was a bunch of recent Mountain Lion scat!  It was thick with hair, probably deer!  A good reason for that deer to be checking behind herself! 
I would love to see a Mountain Lion one of these days, preferably from the safety of my car!

Last week I asked "Whose feet are these?".  They are Bobcat feet.  Unfortunately, I was able to photograph them because the Bobcat had been hit by a car and died.  My friend BJ showed me the Bobcat.  It was so sad to see this beautiful animal killed on the highway.  I hadn't seen a Bobcat for 30 years!  Lots of wild animals, thousands, are annually killed by cars in California. There have been efforts to reduce the number of roadkills through signage, fencing, overpasses and underpasses, but the numbers are still high.  Sadly, we moved the beautiful Bobcat off the road and down the bank.  It was an honor to be able to see it so closely.

Lesser Goldfinches - Carduelis psaltria


Since the weather was sunny and cold, we decided to drive down to the Spenceville Wildlife Area for a hike.  It's located in the rolling grasslands, dotted with Blue Oak/Gray Pine forests, in the foothills. We saw several raptors on our hike as well as a flock of Lesser Goldfinches feeding on thistle and grass seeds!  Black Phoebes were performing their fly-catcher techniques of catching bugs, and Acorn Woodpeckers called loudly from their granaries!  It was a lovely, beautiful hike under the filigree of bare oak trees.    

For more information about the area, which is managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, visit their website at 

Lesser Goldfinch - Black Phoebe - Acorn Woodpecker
Carduelis psaltria - Sayornis nigricans - Melanerpes formicivorous

What kind of clouds are these?

What's the weather been like?  Any rain or snow in the forecast?

What's happening in the Lakes Basin?

How's that fox doing?

Check back next week for the answer to these questions and more!

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This is a glitch with, and I can't figure out how to fix it. Thanks!

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Sunday, December 30, 2018

Winter Birds

Steller's Jay - Cyanocitta stelleri

Birds have a variety of strategies to survive the cold of winter.  Puffing up their feathers keeps in the warmth and keeps out the cold.  Eating as much food as possible when it's available, helps them survive leaner times.  When there isn't much food, they tend to puff up their feathers and rest to conserve energy.  Roosting together or in a cavity keeps them warmer.  When resting or roosting, they perch out of the wind to conserve heat.  When it's raining, their outer feathers are good for shedding water up to a point.  They do have to be careful not to get thoroughly soaked, as they could easily die from hypothermia.  During long periods of heavy rain, most birds seek shelter and become inactive.  Additionally, some birds can drop their body temperature and go into a controlled torpor to conserve energy!  It amazes me that they can survive out there in the rain, wind, snow, and cold temperatures while living on seeds, berries and a few insects! 

Great Blue Heron - Ardea herodius

I've been seeing the Great Blue Heron on the river again!  We also saw it fly by yesterday evening at dusk!  I noticed that it was standing on one foot on a rock, and not in the water.  Apparently, standing on one foot is a strategy used to keep their feet warm. "Warm" is a misnomer!  In winter, most birds have very cold feet.  Usually they are just above freezing in temperature.  They don't get frostbite because there's not much fluid in the cells of their feet.  Also, the circulation in their feet is so fast, that the blood doesn't have time to freeze!  The blood vessels going from the feet to the body and body to the feet are right next to each other.  The cooled blood going back to the body is warmed by the warm blood going to the feet from the body!  Wow!

American Dipper - Cinclus mexicanus

American Dippers live year-round on our river. Their main food is aquatic insects and their larvae!  They swim and walk underwater searching for their prey!  To stay warm and dry, they have enlarged oil glands for waterproofing their outer feathers, as well as a thick undercoat of down feathers!  Lately I've been hearing them sing on the river!  They are the only "swimming" songbird in North America!

Grizzly Peak 12/26/18

Weather Update

The last time I reported our precipitation statistics was on 12-16-18.  Since then we have had an additional 3.31" of rain, bringing our total rainfall to 12.72"!  It was wonderful to get the rain!  Mists and clouds were in abundance!  However, it has been about a week since any rain has fallen, and it's been clear and COLD!!!  Temperatures at our house have been in the 30's and 40's!  
Sierra Buttes - weasel track - 12/27/18

Lakes Basin Update

We hiked up to Lower and Upper Sardine Lakes this week, which are around 6,000' in elevation.  It was freezing, windy, cloudy, and gorgeous!  There wasn't much snow on the ground on the south facing slopes.  It was patchy with about 3"-5" in the shaded areas!  The Sierra Buttes had a lot more snow, as they are at 8,587' in elevation.  We saw lots of animal tracks, mainly Chickarees, but also saw a lone weasel track (above right)!  The tail drag mark is distinct for a weasel!  

Both lakes were only partially frozen, but the ice patterns were gorgeous!

We could see wind blown "snow banners" up on the crest of the Buttes!  
The wind must have been roaring over the ridge tops!

Upper Sardine Lake 

We had the area to ourselves!  The clouds kept it dramatic and the wind was wild!  We even had a few snow flurries!  It was wonderful to be back in the Lakes Basin in the winter!

Anna's Hummingbirds - Calypte anna

I thought all the Hummingbirds had left our neighborhood, because I hadn't seen any for days.  However, two showed up at our feeders today!  I'm glad I hadn't taken the feeders down.  Maybe these two will spend the winter here.  

Fox Sparrow - Spotted Towhee - California Towhee
Passerella iliaca - Pipilo maculatus - Melozone crissalis

The Fox Sparrows and Spotted Towhees are still feeding regularly down at our feeding station.  New this week, I spotted a California Towhee!  I saw one of these in our garden in October.  Apparently, they can live here year-round!  They are overall grey-brown in color, with an apricot blush on their face and undertail.  They eat seeds, berries (especially Poison Oak!), and insects on the ground.  
Hermit Thrush - Gray Fox tracks
Catharus guttatus - Urocyon cinereoargenteus

I also spotted a Hermit Thrush near our feeders, eating Virginia Creeper berries!  Its name comes from its solitary elusive behavior.  Although they are supposed to be common in our area, I rarely see them!  They are well camouflaged when foraging in shrubs.  Hermit Thrushes flit their wings about and pump their tails when they're perching.  They feed on fruit and berries in winter. 

I haven't seen the fox lately, but I see his tracks regularly at our feeding station!

View of the North Yuba River off the Canyon Creek Trail 

The Canyon Creek Trail

Canyon Creek Trail begins where Highway 49 first crosses the North Yuba River.  It parallels the river downstream, and ends at the confluence of Canyon Creek and the North Yuba River.  It is approximately an 8 mile round-trip, fairly level, snow-free hike at 2,300' in elevation.  It's a lovely hike in the winter!     

Red-shouldered Hawk - Buteo lineatus

I always look for birds at the beginning of this trail, and last week I got super lucky!  I spotted a dead tree with what looked like a limp, orange, Maple leaf on the top!  I zoomed in with my camera and was delighted to find out that the orange color was from the feathers of a hawk!!!  I excitedly took tons photos, not knowing what kind of hawk it was.  I stopped in the library and looked it up, and identified it as a Red-shouldered Hawk!!!  I had never seen one before!  Wow!!!

Apparently these hawks are common in the central valley and foothills, but have increased their range into our area in the past few years!  They eat small mammals, frogs, snakes, crayfish, insects, earthworms, Mourning Doves, and sparrows!  Riparian areas and marshlands are their preferred habitat.  While perching they scan for prey on the ground, and then swoop down to catch them.  I was thrilled to see this beautifully feathered hawk!  I watched it for 10 minutes, before it flew off downstream.  Hopefully I'll see it again this winter! 

Mule Deer sp. - Convergent Lady-beetles
Odocoileus hemionus sp. - Hippodamia convergens

I also saw several deer take off into the woods, as well as 1,000's of Lady-beetles in the shrubs, on the sunny beginning of the trail.  If you get a chance, hike this trail this winter!  Let me know what you see!

Whose feet are these?

What's happening with the moss and lichens?

Are there any fungi in the forest?

Check back next week for the answer to these questions and more!

If suddenly you stop getting my blog in your email, you need to sign up again. 
This is a glitch with, and I can't figure out how to fix it. Thanks!

Your questions and comments are greatly appreciated. 
Please email me at!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Another Year!

I started my blog two years ago on December 23, 2016! It has been an incredible experience! I have learned so much, and have so much still to learn! This year I followed the progression of things with a welcoming of the familiar. The return of Bullock's Orioles, the blossoming of Scarlet Fritillaries, and the awakening of tree frogs all felt so wondrously right! I was also continuously surprised by seeing many new things happen! The arrival of a Hooded Oriole, the short-term residence of a Yellow-billed Magpie, the surprise of a Black Bear swimming across the river, all were all such unexpected gifts! Delight, surprise, joy, and bliss have filled my days! I am so grateful for seeing and experiencing such incredible beauty, and look forward to this coming year of observation and adventure!

I also enjoy sharing my discoveries and photos with the world!  Thanks go to all of you for following my blog, and for sending me your encouraging comments! This year I had 5,934 hits on my blog, from 14 different countries!  The most frequently visited post was (surprisingly!) "Early Birds & Bugs", on Feb.10, 2018. 

Here are some of my favorite photos from this past year!  
It was another incredible year!  Enjoy!

My thanks go to Cornell University for the incredible internet resources they provide for the public.  Their websites are numerous, my favorites are and  I am also so grateful for the input of other naturalists/scientists on, who have identified many bird species for me.

I am also so grateful for the website.  It is an incredible resource for identifying flowers/plants, with 1,000's of photos.  The website has been my source for identifying the local bugs.  It too provides 1,000's of photos and an identification service!

Watching wildlife is amazing!  If you see them, they've already seen you!
There are many websites about mammals available on the internet, my favorite is  It provides tons of scientific information on the habits of our local wildlife.

The landscape I live in is stunning! 
I never tire of watching the light change. Such beauty!

Best wishes to all of you for the coming New Year!  

Check back next week for the latest edition of!

Your comments and questions are greatly appreciated!
Please email me at

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Cold & Gray

North Yuba River - Winter

This week it was mostly cold, gray, and misty. The temperature hovered in the 40's. The river was low and COLD! I measured it, and it was a chilly 43°!  I haven't seen any fish, Mergansers, Kingfishers, or Great Blue Herons lately!  It feels really quiet and still.  I wandered for hours watching the mists rise on the ridges and canyons.  The damp cold chilled me completely, but I relished the moist air! 

 On Friday, .2" of rain fell, and more was predicted for Sunday.  So far our total rainfall for this "water year" (10/01/18 through 9/30/19) is 9.41".  Our average rainfall is around 60".  Hopefully the next couple of days will bring our total up a bit. 

old Alder cones up close - this year's Alder cones

After the rain fell a few weeks ago, the river was an opaque mocha color. Within a few days it changed to a clear brown, and now it's back to its beautiful glass-green color. The opaque milky-brown color occurs when sediments are first washed into the river. As the sediments settle, the river changes to a clear-brown color which is caused by all the tannins leached from plants.  Last week I posted this photo (above, left) of old alder cones.  I think the water drops on the cones are amber in color because they contain tannins!  I'm not 100% positive, but it seems the most plausible explanation.

The following excerpt from an online article explains tannins well.
"Tannins occur in many species of coniferous trees as well as a number of flowering plant families. These tannins can leach out of the plants. The water in the soil becomes rich with tannins and seeps into the ground water or drains into lakes and streams. These waters become brown in color and look like tea. Tannins are found commonly in the bark of trees, wood, leaves, buds, stems, fruits, seeds, roots, and plant galls. In all of these plant structures, tannins help to protect the individual plant species. Tannins that become stored in the bark of trees protect the tree from being infected by bacteria or fungi. Many bud scales on woody plants contain tannins to protect the inner leaf tissue from being consumed and in many seed plants the initial set of leaves from a germinating seed are also high in tannins."

  You can read the entire article at

Western Bluebird (female) - White-breasted Nuthatch
Sialia mexicana - Sitta carolinensis

South Yuba River State Park

Last Thursday, we went for a hike down in the Bridgeport area of the South Yuba River State Park.  It is a beautiful oak woodlands with the South Yuba River on one side and the combined forks of the North and Middle Yuba Rivers on the other.  Because it is at a much lower elevation (567') than where I live (2,674'), some of the birds are different!  

We saw several Western Bluebirds while we were there.  In the summer Western Bluebirds are primarily insectivores.  In winter they eat fruits and berries, such as juniper, poison oak, wild grapes, and elderberry.  They also particularly love to eat mistletoe berries, and will sometimes sleep overnight in a clump of mistletoe to defend their find!  They like to live on the edge of open areas, such as meadows or burned areas.  They are short-distance migrants, and generally move down slope in winter.  Males have brilliant plumage, and females are dully colored in comparison.    They are SO beautiful with their brilliant powder-blue feathers!

We also saw one White-breasted Nuthatch!  These are tiny birds, measuring only 5.75" in length!  In general they can be seen foraging head downward on tree trunks and large limbs, but they will also forage in any direction and on the ground.  They chip away bark looking for food, as well as probe in crevices.  They "pair bond" all year long, and will stay together unless one of them dies!  A lot of their time is spent hoarding food throughout their home territory, with only one item per cache!  They do not migrate, and remain in their home territory year-round!  Their name comes from their habit of cramming a nut into a tree trunk crevice, and then hacking it open with their beak!  We all thought it was a little woodpecker when we first saw it, because it seemed to be pecking away at a tree trunk!

Toyon Berries - Mistletoe Berries - Osage Orange fruit
Heteomeles arbutifolia - Phoradendron sp. - Maclura pomifera

As we drove down to the park, we drove past 100's of Toyon bushes loaded with berries!  Toyon berries form in June or July, but don't ripen until December! When they are green they contain cyano-glucosides in their pulp. When a bird tries to eat a green berry, cyanide gas is released and deters the bird! The unripened berries are also full of bitter tannins that discourage foragers! Over time the cyanide compounds gradually move into the seeds and the tannins diminish. In December, when the berries are bright red, they aren't bitter and the pulp no longer contains cyanide compounds! Approximately 20+ species of birds eat Toyon berries during winter! In addition to Western Bluebirds, you might see Band-tailed Pigeons, Cedar Waxwings, Hermit Thrushes, and Varied Thrushes feeding on them! Foxes, Brush Rabbits, Black Bears, and Coyotes also feed on the ripened berries!

We also saw lots of mistletoe with berries in the oak trees.  Over 28 species of birds in California eat the berries, as well as gray squirrels, raccoons, pine martens, chipmunks, porcupines, and ringtails!  Mistletoe plants are dioecious, with the male and female species being separate plants. The female plants are the ones that produce berries! Apparently mistletoe berries are so popular that some mammals and birds, including Bluebirds, actually spend the night in them! They may do this to establish "ownership" of the berries, or for the warmth of the dense clumps, no one knows for sure! If you squish a mistletoe berry between your fingers, it will stick to your finger and you can't shake it off!  They have a thick, viscous substance that makes them sticky.  Being sticky, the seeds are easily transported to new areas by birds. 

On the ground near the parking lot, we found several grapefruit-sized fruits of the Osage Orange trees. They are such strange fruits!  We opened one up and it looked like a pineapple inside!  The plant contains latex, which causes the fruits to be bitter and unpalatable to humans and wildlife.  This latex can also cause dermatitis in humans. The plants are dioecious, with the female producing the large fruits.  Osage Orange trees are not native to California.  They are indigenous to the Red River drainage of Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas, as well as the Blackland Praries and post oak savannahs.  They were planted across the US by settlers, mainly for hedgerows. .  The name is derived from The Osage Nation, a Midwestern Native American tribe of the Great Plains, who prized the plant for its wood, to make their bows.  The wood is heavy, hard, strong, and flexible, capable of receiving a fine polish.  Today, the heavy, close-grained yellow-orange wood is dense and prized for tool handles, fence posts, and other applications requiring a strong wood that withstands rot.

California Scrub Jay - American Robin
Aphelocoma californica - Turdus migratorius

California Scrub Jays live in the foothills year-round.  They are highly dependent on oaks and acorns.  Acorns are their main food during fall and winter.  One Jay will bury up to 5,000 acorns in small holes in the ground during the months of fall! These acorns will all eventually be dug up and consumed in the following seasons! Like other members of the Corvid family, Scrub Jays are quite intelligent and have excellent memories. They will also eat insects, other nuts and seeds, and ticks off of deer.

All the American Robins have left my neighborhood, but they are abundant down in the foothills right now.  They are short distance migrants, and usually just move up and down in elevation with the seasons.  When looking for food such as insects and worms, they forage on the ground. They catch worms by watching and listening for them!  Wow!  In the fall and winter Robins often roost in large flocks, and spend more time in trees and bushes eating berries and fruit.  

Gray Fox - Chickaree/Douglas Squirrel
Urocyon cinereoargenteus - Tamiasciurus douglasii

Mammal Update

I saw the Gray Fox again!  It watched me one evening, from a distance of about 100 yards, for a minute or so!  As soon as I started heading its way, it quickly left!  I hadn't noticed when I was looking at it, but in the photo its legs look kind of short!  Maybe this is a young fox that's still growing!  Hope I continue seeing it this winter!

The Chickaree that lives in our woodpile, has been busy harvesting and eating dry sunflower seed heads!  We plant sunflowers every year in our garden for the birds to eat.  This is the first year I've noticed a Chickaree eating them!  

Immature Cooper's Hawk (?) - Sharp-shinned Hawk
Accipiter cooperii - Accipiter striatus

Raptor Identification

Figuring out raptors, especially immature ones, is often quite difficult! I use for help with identifying them. Last week, my neighbor Cy found the small dead Hawk in the above photo. It was so small, only 11' in length including its tail, that I thought that maybe it was a Merlin. I posted the photo on and within hours it had been identified as a Sharp-shinned Hawk, not a Merlin! 

One of the commentators also provided some very helpful info on identifying Merlins. "Merlins have narrow white bands on a dark tail, and white spots on dark backgrounds on the primaries and secondaries. Being falcons, they also have little tubercles in the nostrils, which would be clearly visible in the portrait shot." Wow!

I really hope this little Sharp-shinned Hawk isn't the one I've been watching down by our garden.  The other dead bird I found several years ago on the ground.  It might be an immature Cooper's Hawk, but I'm still waiting on the ID from inaturalist. I'll keep you posted on the result! In the meantime check out, it is an incredible resource!

Sharp-shinned Hawk - Accipiter striatus

Where are all the fungi?

Are the moss and lichen thriving with all this moisture?

What is that Black Phoebe eating this time of year?

What's happening up in the Lakes Basin?

Check back next week for the answers to these questions and more!

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