Cabin Birds (Earth Day 2020)

My love of birds was born by spending time at my family’s cabin above the backs of the San Lorenzo River in the Santa Cruz Mountains. My grandma put up a feeder on one corner of the deck that attracted the local chestnut-backed chickadees, pygmy nuthatches, and Steller’s jays.

While I was planning to spend my Spring Break traveling on the California Zephyr to Chicago, the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into the works (and changes the lives of others across the world). Instead I headed down to my cabin to shelter in place.

The spring is one of my favorite times at my cabin. Things are finally starting to dry out and temps are gradually warming up. You really start to feel, see and hear the changing of the seasons.

First you feel the air warm against your skin. You start to see the world of green slowly coming alive on the trees and bushes from the desk. And you start to hear the sounds of the neotropic migrants arriving on there summer breeding grounds.

These are the birdsongs that I have not heard in almost a year and I sometimes have to become reacquainted with them, like hearing the voice of a forgotten friend.

The most vocal newly arrived avian member is the diminutive Wilson’s warbler. This little flash of gold is a very vocal member of the spring choir. It calls constantly from the midsts of trees out back. The males at this time of year are setting up their breeding territories and also hoping to attract new-arrived females.

Another migrant is the Pacific-slope flycatcher, of the tricky genus Empidonax. Most of these similar flycatchers can be identified by call alone and I far more ofter hear the “pee-wheet” call of the Pac-slope. Welcome home.

A resident that becomes very vocal at this time is the diminutive Pacific wren, which boasts one of the fastest songs in the avian world at about 32 notes per second! What is amazing is that such a small, drab looking bird can create such a loud and splendid song. I painted a wren from a photograph of a singing male in my backyard bramble.

A pair of common mergansers roosting near the waters of the San Lorenzo River.

Cabin Birds Part Two (Audubon’s Birthday)

“Spring work is going on with joyful enthusiasm.” —John Muir

“to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go”. -Mary Oliver

Spending two weeks during my Spring Break at my cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains gave me the opportunity to slow down and notice the most important things in life. That is life itself. (A nod to you Mr. Ebert)

Birding just adds another layer to experience. It is a soundtrack that not many hear. To those aware, the signs of spring are everywhere. To the calls of the Pacific wren and dark-eyed junco to the sounds of the newly arrived neotropic migrants like Wilson’s warbler, Pacific-slope flycatcher, and black-headed grosbeak. The latter bird I heard on my last day at my cabin, when I heard a district “clip” contact call. I headed out to the deck to see this beautiful flash of orange, back, and white.

This was a First of Season (FOS) bird for me. The males arrive on their breeding grounds from Mexico just ahead of the females and the males proclaim their place in the world with their robin-like song. This has always been a favorite cabin bird and it arrives in mid April most years.

The sky above the San Lorenzo River is filled with newly arrived swallows at this time of year. The most common species are tree and violet-green swallows. Swallows are insectivores and are aerial acrobats that catch flying insects on the wing. Like the Swallows of San Juan Capistrano, swallows are a sign of renewed and the turning of the season from winter to spring.

The aerial insectivore, one of North America’s most beautiful swallow.

Just as I was packing up the car to return to San Fransisco, the natural world gave me a parting gift. I noticed that a pair of chestnut-backed chickadees were cleaning out one of the nesting boxes that I had built and hung on a redwood near the parking lot. This gives me such a sense of joy that I have played a small part in helping to create life.

The two weeks I spent in Paradise was a great was to slow down and really appreciate life.


First of Season (FOS)

The unfolding of the year
And now our season is here
All the balances are clear
Now that our time is here

~Season Song, Blue States

A student of mine, let’s just call her Amelia, keep requesting that I post more bird drawings. I’m sure she’s tried of trains and more trains. So I decided to do a bird sketch in these times of social distancing.

The previous weekend, before anyone really got the message about shelter-in-place, I headed out to the San Mateo Coast to do some sketching and birding. (Two sketches from that outing were posted in my blog: Sketch in the Time of Covid.)

I was birding mainly on the coast, looking for kittiwakes and northern fulmars but I decided to take a detour inland to do some birding in a riparian habitat.

I took a right turn off of Highway One on Tunitas Creek Road. I remember the first time I birded this road was on an afterwork excursion. When I told my fellow teacher where I was going. She said, “You going now?! I wouldn’t go there. Be careful.” She then told me that Tunitas Creek Road was haunted and she had grown up in Half Moon Bay and no sane local would ever be on that road at dusk or in the night. Yeah right, I though, sounds like the rural coast’s version of an “urban myth.”

I birded Tunitas Creek afterwork and had a nice experience and I didn’t see any ghosts. When I got back home I did and an internet search with “Tunitas Creek Road haunted” in the search window and I came across the website titled, “10 Scariest Haunted Roads in Northern California”. I looked at the website and I scrolled down, scanning the 10 entries, not seeing Tunitas Creek Road. I had to reach the bottom of the page until there was any mention of the road in question because Tunitas Creek Road was ranked number 1 as the most haunted road in Northern California!

There have been reports of a long-armed blue lady who had been seen haunting this road at night and also bodies strewn among the bushes, the spirit reminders of a long ago Native Californian slaughter. But I was here on a mild March Saturday to see what I could find in the roadside bushes. I was not looking for bodies but birds!

I parked in a dirt pullout and walked west down the road, birding by ear. This is the time when bird calls and songs that I have almost forgotten come back to me. These are the times when migrants from Mexico and Central and South American are slowly returning to their breed grounds, here in the trees and bushes of Tunitas Creek.

Across the creek came the song of a bird that I am very familiar with. A fellow birder described the call as sounding like one of those lawn water sprinklers. It was a call that I hear from the deck of my cabin in spring and summer. This was the call of the Wilson’s warbler.

This was the first Wilson’s that I had seen since the turning of the year and it would be noted as FOS, meaning “first of season”. This data provides ornithologist with an idea of the pattern of migratory birds over time. Are these warblers migrating at the same time every year or are the arriving earlier or later than usual?

I love this warbler. It’s one of our smallest warblers and the adult male is easily identified with it’s bright yellow face and body and it’s black “yamaka”. This warbler is always in motion and in the spring and summer, calling frequetly.

As I walked along the road I came across a loose feeding flock of bushtits and chestnut-backed chickadees. In the flock was a bird I hadn’t seen in a long while. This is a bird that is often confused with the over-wintering ruby crowned kinglet but once this bird sings, it is all vireo. This is Hutton’s vireo.

It was nice to see these migratory birds. It is nature’s way of signaling the changing of the seasons. From the cold dark days of winter to the longer, green days or spring. The air filled with the scent of flowers and sounds of birdsong.

A male Wilson’s warbler photographed from my deck in the Santa Cruz Mountains, last spring.

The Renewal of Life

Marin Headlands-Sunday March 24, 2019

This morning I spent a few hours in one of my favorites places in the Bay Area, the Marin Headlands. For 14 seasons I spent each fall as a volunteer hawk bander for the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory (GGRO) but now I was here in the early spring.

The signs of spring were all around. Especially with the avian fauna of this open space, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

When I pulled in to the parking lot of the visitor’s center, a quarter of a hour after eight, I heard the call of a northern flicker, followed by rapid drumming on metal. This was a sign of a male proclaiming his place in the breeding world and he was using a roof vent  on one of the old military buildings to help amplify his announcement. Shortly afterwards I saw a pair flying from tree to tree. This was followed by an American crow flying overhead with a twig in it’s beak, a sure sign of nest building.

Spotted towhee at the Marin Headland Visitor’s Center.

Another sign of spring was the shear depth of bird song. Spotted towhees were calling from the coyote brush and a hidden purple finch was letting loose his fluid song from the top of a eucalyptus. Juncos trilled from the roof and as I walked west along the eastern shore of Rodeo lagoon with Dickcissel, a first of season (FOS) song made me dig into the depths of the catalog of bird songs in my head to identify a singing male Wilson’s warbler, recently arrived from the south.

A FOS singing Wilson’s warbler.

Along the trail, bushtits, normally found in large groups, were now only found in pairs as they foraged and prepared for nesting season. Orange-crowned and Wilsons’s warblers sang from the upper branches of trees. Ravens playful harassed a red-tailed hawk (ravens seem to do this all year long, to the annoyance of red-tails).

We came upon a chestnut-backed chickadee excavating a nesting cavity in a tree, prepared for a future brood of birds. The chickadee would disappear into the tree cavity and reappear with tiny bits of wood in it’s beak. Time for some spring cleaning!

A spring cleaning chestnut-backed chickadee.

Spring was certainly here and the biological clock proclaimed the hour. This is the time of growth and renewal!