Archive for the ‘Wildlife’ Category

IN THE CROWS PATH

IN THE PATH OF CROWS

I’ve always had a casual interest in crows. Primarily for their social structure and intelligence. But I, like most people, have taken them for granted over the years. This all changed soon after our arrival in Southern California.

We were introduced to the Murrieta Crows Roost early after our California arrival in late 2009. While we were looking for a home we rented an apartment in Murrieta, CA. The apartment complex is located adjacent to the Murrieta Retention Basin. The retention basin contains water year round and is host to the largest contiguous forest of large trees in the area. The trees extend into the apartment complex area and our unit was located under a number of large trees. The retention basin is a terrific birding spot with a trail around its perimeter but the area doesn’t attract a lot of birders since there is a lack of parking in the area.

Murrieta Retention Basin-01-w

It’s easy to see that the large tall trees (pines, sycamores, eucalyptus, and others) provide the perfect place for a communal crows roost.

It rained for three straight days when we moved into the apartment and nothing out of the ordinary occurred, although the local residents thought three straight days of rain was quite “unusual.” At sunset on the fourth day we heard a lot of crows calling. We went out on the patio to see what all the commotion was about. It was quite a surprise as “calling” crows dropped into the trees by the hundreds. The crows would sit for a while then rise up and put down again. This went on for some time before they all settled down in the trees for the night. At sunrise the next morning all the crows were gone.

I asked some of the other residents of the apartments whether this was a regular occurrence and they casually responded, “Yeah, it happens every night!” From then on we witnessed the evening event on a regular basis making sure to get under cover on their arrival. It was common for the crows to “dump their excess baggage” before settling down.

A month and a half later we found a home five miles north of the Murrieta Retention Basin. We moved into our new home under a steady two days of rain. Our new welcoming neighbors remarked about the “unusual” amount of rain. During a downpour our first yard bird at our new home ran around on our front lawn occasionally posing on a boulders. The Greater Roadrunner welcomed our arrival. I took this event as a harbinger of more good birding things to come.

RoadRunner-20100206-02-w

After settling in to our new home, I had more time to start renewing my acquaintance with the western birds and to begin creating my new yard list. I also had time to enjoy the cool evenings in the backyard and immediately became reacquainted with the crows once again. Our new home is located “in the path of crows” that fly to the communal roost each evening from the north to the roost five miles south.

MAP-CROW FLIGHT area -N-w

Since first witnessing the crows roost and now living along the northern route of the crows, I have become interested in learning more about the nature and structure of the roosting crows. Apparently there is little known with regards to why, when, and where crows decide to share a common roost.

The website crows.net lists the number of crows at the Murrieta Crow Roost to be in excess of 3,000 birds. The site also indicates that there are only two crow roosts in Southern California.

I have been at different locations in the Temecula/Lake Elsinore valley in the evening and have observed crows flying to the roost from all different directions. It appears that the northern component (the ones that fly over us) make up at least one third to perhaps one half of the total roost population. This would make sense since Lake Elsinore and the area north of the roost site is more rural than south and east of the roost site. The area west of the roost site is the Santa small numbers of crows heading east to the roost at sunset.

crows at sunset-01-wcrows at sunset-02-w

I have conducted a number of crow flight counts to get an idea and to see if there are any patterns that might be of interest occurring. During the 2012 Christmas Bird Count, I counted 1,268 American Crows (AMCR) heading to the roost. During a BIG SIT in 2011, I counted 1,195 AMCR heading to the roost. I also conducted a 12 day count in 2011 which resulted in a 12 day average of 664 AMCR (9 days of 500 or more, and 2 days of inclement weather). Just this past week I was up early to photograph the full moon setting before sunrise – during that time I count in excess of 700 AMCR heading north from the roost site.

crows passing moon-01-w

It appears that there are three or four distinct flocks coming through each evening from the north. The first flock passes through just before sunset, the second flock shortly after sunset, and the third and fourth flocks closer to dark. There are always a few stragglers bringing up the rear. I’m guessing that the distinct flocks may be related to the distance the crows are from the roost when they initiate their flight (the first flock – closest to the roost, the remaining flocks- further away).

The crows roost essentially ceases to be during the breeding season with the exception a few non-breeding birds that continue to fly to the roost each evening. Soon after the breeding season ends and the young have fledged the numbers heading to the nightly roost start picking up again. During this time there is a lot of “calling” among the crows during the flight to the roost, perhaps the parents trying to keep the youngsters on task.

There appears to be a pre-flocking process that is used from time to time. Prior to initiating their flight to the roost the crows first gather at a staging area. A lot of “calling” takes place during this process and at some point a command is given and the flock of crows begin heading towards the roost site in silence. The staging areas appear to be random and may not be used on a daily basis. The purpose for these staging areas remains unexplained but may be weather related or perhaps staggering the flocks so they don’t all arrive at the roost at the same time.

crows-stormy weather-w

The line of flight of the crows each evening is weather dependent. Generally from our vantage point we can see most of the crows heading to roost each evening even if the flocks choose an alternate route. During inclement weather or heavy winds the flocks may be hard to see. The crows fly low in the valley and blend in with the trees along Murrieta Creek.

We are very fortunate that our new home in Wildomar, CA provides us the rare privilege of witnessing nature’s free outdoor entertainment almost every evening.

 

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A Simple Formula for Nature Discovery

Jim Lockyer
Wildomar, CA
BCDC WESTERN OUTPOST

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” Marl Twain

2012 Stonehurst BIG SIT

Sunday, October 14, 2012

TEAM: Stonehurst
TEAM MEMBERS: Jim Lockyer
TEAM CAPTAIN: Me!

Last year I wrote a brief account of my first BIG SIT event in California and explained the rules and history of the BIG SIT in that account. That information is still available in my BLOG account of the 2011 BIG SIT.

2012 Stonehurst BIG SIT

The scope and camera were setup and ready to go at 7:30 AM, with a cup of coffee in my hands and my bins (binoculars) around my neck I found a comfortable chair. The 2012 Stonehurst BIG SIT was underway. The skies were clear with calm winds and the temperature was a cool 57 degrees.

It wasn’t long before the first bird of the day appeared, a skulking White-crowned Sparrow under the shrubbery gleaning for seeds beneath the feeders. The sparrow was still a bit shy while he waits for more of his comrades from the north to arrive for the winter. Once there is safety in numbers, the White-crowned Sparrows are quite gregarious. The sparrow was quickly followed by two California Thrashers arriving to gather sunflower seeds and drink at the water feature. These two birds were introduced to our feeder/water complex by their parents earlier this year, and have been regular visitors ever since.
 
White-crowned Sparrow                                                       California Thrasher

Other birds began to trickle in here and there but for the most part the bird activity remained relatively slow. The non-resident breeding birds had already left and the wintering birds were just beginning to arrive.

The weather forecast for today was HOT. It’s the middle of October and the forecast temperature for this day was 95 degrees. At 11 AM the temperature had risen to 82 degrees, and still no soaring birds had chosen to go skyward. Twenty-two Bushtits made a brief appearance to glean what they could from the plantings, seldom standing still for more than a second or two. Anna’s Hummingbirds frequented the feeders regularly only to be chased away by the “bully” Anna’s Hummingbird after a brief feed. A single Costa’s Hummingbird made a brief appearance.
 
Bushtits

House Finch

At noon the temperature had risen to 86 degrees. I took a short lunch break from 12:30-1:00 PM to cool off a bit while still keeping an eye to the sky from inside the house. When I returned to my count circle the temperature had reached 91 degrees.

With the sun now on the south side of the house, I moved under our covered patio to take advantage of the shade. We had the patio covering installed last year we wanted a lattice-type covering, but the salesman convinced us that a solid covering would provide more shade and keep things dry during the rainy season. At the time that seemed like a good idea so we went with the solid patio covering. Now after our second summer with the patio covering we are realizing that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all. The south facing patio Alum wood cover serves as a heat trap during cloudless sunny days. After mid-day, the temperature under the patio covering begins to increase at a rate of 5-10 percent over the ambient air temperature. This continues until the sun sets. At 1:00 PM both the ambient and shade cover temperatures had risen to 91 degrees.

Finally a few soaring birds began to appear. A Turkey Vulture flew over and a couple of Red-tailed Hawks rode the few thermals caused by the rising temperatures.
Red-tailed Hawk 
Red-tailed Hawk

At 1:15 PM, a bird or birds caused a shadow to be cast when passing the sun. I jumped up to see what I expected to be a large hawk or vulture, but was surprised when I noticed a flock of 26 blackbirds. They came in from the south passed our home then made a sharp turn to the northeast. They were moving fast but I was able to get a quick look at the birds through my bins as they disappeared out of sight. I was speechless and astonished to what I had just witnessed. As the birds rapidly passed by, the flash of yellow to the throat and breast of these blackbirds left me in awe. I had seen this bird a number of times in the east and Midwest, but usually as a solo bird mixed in with a flock of other blackbirds. I was thrilled to see my first flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds. This was also a CA State bird for me. These birds were most likely migrants heading for the San Jacinto Wildlife Area 9 miles to our northeast which was the direction they were heading. Yellow-headed Blackbirds are regular winter visitors at the San Jacinto Wildlife Area.

At 2:00 PM the ambient temperature was 93 degrees as the shade cover temperature had risen to 98 degrees. The afternoon count slowed as the temperature rose. At 4:30 PM the ambient temperature was 95 degrees and the shade cover temperature was now 100 degrees.

I began preparing for the Stonehurst BIG SIT finale, COUNTING CROWS. Each evening at sunset crows from the north head to a common roost site at the Murrieta Retention Basin, 5 miles to our south. Usually the crows fly above the skyline making them easy to count. At 6:00 PM the sun dropped behind the mountains, the winds were calm, and the ambient and shade cover temperature both dropped to a comfortable 86 degrees.

At 6:08 PM the first crows began to appear, tonight with calm winds, they were low below the skyline making counting a challenge. For the next 22 minutes I counted a steady flow of crows. The final tally was 1,195. While counting the crows I noticed two Phainopepla capturing insects at sunset, I clicked another bird species to the total BIG SIT count.

I thought about staying out to see if I could get the Barn Owls that regularly forage in our area, but decided to shut down the 2012 Stonehurst BIG SIT at 6:30 PM, the temperature as now down to 81 comfortable degrees, and we opened the house to let the cool evening air flow in. I do like this Mediterranean climate.

All in all it was a nice relaxing productive birding day! It’s been a long time since I have spent a day totally devoted to a birding activity.

Jim Lockyer

TOTAL COUNT: 26 species (6 more than last year).
EXPECTED BIRDS MISSED: White-tailed Kite, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Barn Owl
OTHER SIGHTINGS: Sky Jumpers, Vintage Aircraft (returning from the Miramar AIR SHOW in San Diego at sunset)
  

© Jim Lockyer, jl-studio 2012
All Rights Reserved.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.  Mark Twain

FROLIC in the FLOWERS

 

Yellow Mariposa Lily
(Calochortus weedii)

My passion to learn more about the design of nature leads me to examine nature at close range.  I seize on the opportunity to record photographically natural events at the macro level and flowers are often a favorite target.

Recently while photographing Yellow Mariposa Lillie’s (Calochortus weedii) I located a flower that had a small bee with its pollen sacks at full capacity and started to photograph the event. I concentrated on getting the right angle and composition while making sure to get as much in focus as I could. The bee moved around in the flower with great speed and efficiency but I knew I would be able to see the details when I processed the photos.

 

Female bee with loaded pollen sacs

While photographing the event I noticed a second bee entered the flower but then disappeared. I thought the second bee had left to find another flower.  I continued to shoot more images and while turning away to make an adjustment to the camera when I looked back a second bee appeared in the flower again. My thought was that perhaps the second bee had returned to the flower once again.

The rewards in nature macro photography come in the processing of the photos. You have a pretty good idea of what you captured, or wanted to capture, but you don’t really get to see the details until they are processed. The photos  are static images of moving objects, so what you couldn’t accurately discern while taking the photos are now seen in great detail. This is when you have the opportunity to study the beautiful design of nature and the individual components of the image of interest.

This is also the time that is often filled with wonderful surprises that are not usually seen by the naked eye when studying nature at the macro level. This shoot proved to be one of those times.

When processing the photos, I realized that the second bee that entered the flower never left. It turns out that the bee was a smaller male bee who apparently decided to take advantage of the larger female bee while she was busy gathering pollen from the flower.

Smaller male bee taking advantage of female while she harvests pollen.

Mission completed

After this male bees successful venture he is seen departing the flower, but he won’t be going far. Male bees, having lost most of their internal organs during the mating process, usually die immediately or soon after the event.  The female bee continued on her way seeking more pollen.

Jim Lockyer

© 2012 jl-studio
All rights reserved

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.  Mark Twain

 

2011 BIG SIT – WILDOMAR, CA

Wildomar BIG SIT Panorama

What’s a BIG SIT (don’t say these words too fast), you ask? Bird Watcher’s Digest, the official sponsor, describes The BIG SIT as, “A Tailgate Party for Birders!” The original idea began with the New Haven, CT Bird Club 17 years ago. Though touted as an international event its popularity resides primarily in the Midwest and Eastern US.

The rules are pretty simple. The counting team (one or more individuals) must stay within a designated 17 foot diameter circle (you can cram as many individuals, pets, and food in the circle that will fit) to count and tabulate the birds that heard or seen from the circle.  BIG SIT sites can pick their own hours, 24 if they like (12:01 AM – 11:59 PM), but most sites run their BIG SITS from dawn to dusk. For complete BIG SIT “honorary” rule information check out the Bird Watchers Digest BIG SIT RULES.

I must say BIRDERS, when it comes to their birding, adhere and abide by an honorary rule system like no other I have ever seen. Its success is simple however. Avid Birders are extremely knowledgeable about all aspects of their recreation. A single bird species migration dates, range, habitat, most recent sightings, songs, calls, and subtle feather markings are all recorded in the birdalogus portion of left hemisphere of their brain. This establishes an immense database that provides a very strong cadre of individuals with regulatory power to maintain the BIRDERS Honor System. As you might imagine any deceitful, dishonest, or birding braggart that might show up in the birding community is quickly found out and exposed. Occasional bird miss-calls and improper identifications by reliable birders are graciously forgiven. But if a continued pattern of sensational sightings and/or birding claims prevail the reporting party is deemed unreliable and the name of the individual ripples through the entire birding community.

A portion of my 17 foot BIG SIT circle

Hmm, why did I go there? This is somewhat of a stall from reporting my meager results of the 2011 WILDOMAR, CA BIG SIT. Since I was the only one participating in my 17 foot diameter circle in my backyard at Wildomar, CA, as far as I could tell there were probably no others doing a BIG SIT within a 25 mile radius of my location. I had all the opportunity to inflate my count and noone would ever know. Well, noone but myself and the other excellent birders in the area where we now reside!

I was fortunate to be tutored by some of the best birders in the Midwest and East Coast and they taught me well. They have more birdalogus brain matter than I have in my little finger nail and I would never disrespect them by doing something stupid. Plus, I’m a member of the ABA (American Birding Association) and for any kind of fraud I would surely be excommunicated from the organization, unless my dues were paid up, of course.

I woke up on Sunday morning forgetting that it was BIG SIT day. When running through my daily computer stops; CA earthquakes since I last looked the night before, the weather, the news, email, and Facebook – there it was on Facebook. A message appeared that the Rose Tree Park HawkWatch (A location where I spent over 10 years of  hawk watching) BIG SIT was under way.

My BIRDER TAILGATE PARTY started in my WILDOMAR, CA BIG SIT circle at 0800 PDT with me as the single partygoer.

The weather was very nice and the views beautiful with cirrus clouds streaming over the Santa Ana Mountains.

 

NOT FOR ME, THANKS!

The first aerial activity viewed from the circle began at 0930 PST when the first sky dive plane gained altitude over our home before depositing its contents further north. I thought it was a bit early for a drop but once it was made I realized it was some sort of sky dive team doing a rather dangerous maneuver.

Sailplane Tow

At 0945 PDT the first sailplane was observed in tow overhead. By 1030 PDT the winds from the west had increased and the sailplanes called it a day, as did the birds. West winds don’t favor the soaring planes or birds and it seemed to kill other bird activity as well.

I finally decided to make this a SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA BIG SIT so I shut down the circle at 1200 PDT, had a nice lunch – Tuna salad on Jalepeno Cheese Bread, and took a very nice long SIESTA (for those of you who don’t speak Spanish SIESTA=NAP).

At 1600 PDT I reopened the Count Circle for business, well casual business at best. I did pick up two distant soaring birds, one diving on the other.  Putting the scope on the activity it turned out to be a White-tailed Kite diving on a Red-tail Hawk. This turned out to be the best sighting of the day.

I ended up counting a whopping total of 20 species of birds, a reptile and a few insects. Nothing exceptional or not expected were seen. Perhaps the late Black-chinned Hummingbird might be considered unexpected.

It was nice to see the White-crowned Sparrows back for the winter and the 18 soaring Ravens were a morning highlight.

The THREE Stooges - House Sparrows . . . . The FOURTH is sitting in a chair watching them!

I will mark the date on my calendar for next year and do it again. Once you have been infected with the birding bug it is impossible cure.

 

Jim Lockyer

 

 

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.  Mark Twain

 

 

RAINBOWS and BOBCAT

It was 7:00AM on Sunday, May 29 while photographing early morning rainbows that my attention was drawn to a number of agitated crows in our front yard. I turned to see what had prompted all the commotion. Crossing the street was a bobcat with a live rabbit clamped in its jaws. The bobcat casually moved along with its ears cocked back in the direction of the crows. The bobcat took its time as it wound its way across our neighbor’s front porch, into their backyard, then over their back wall and into the dense chaparral.

Bobcat with prey passing neighbors front porch possibly heading for her den.

It was last year on the 25th of May that a female bobcat visited our front porch with two kittens. It was a brief appearance and the bobcat family departed before I was able to locate my camera. This sighting occurred within minutes of learning of the passing of Judy’s beloved uncle Bernie. At the time we thanked Bernie for his gift of sending the bobcat family to our front door. Bernie, a self-taught naturalist, has been a great influence and inspiration to both Judy and I.

I saw a bobcat about a month ago as it passed by our front porch but it disappeared by the time I got outside. At the time I thought about Bernie and hoped that we would see the bobcat again soon. I’m assuming that this year’s bobcat is the same that paid us a visit with her family last year. At that time I thought the bobcat probably had her den in the green-space, our extended backyard, adjacent to our home. This space comprises nearly 300 acres of grassland, chaparral, and oak woodlands. This Sunday’s bobcat sighting would however indicate otherwise.

Sunday’s bobcat was carrying live prey into the development. Live prey would suggest that the bobcat had young and she was taking the live prey to her den. The purpose of live prey is to provide her young with a necessary lesson in successful predation. It is more than likely that the bobcat’s den is located within our development. This actually makes good sense. The housing development would provide the bobcat with better protection from her natural enemies than would the adjacent green space. Apparently this bobcat has adapted to our human community and we welcome her and her family as good neighbors.

I provided our neighbor with a photo of the bobcat that graced his front porch. He then told me that he and his wife occasionally see the bobcat in their backyard. This would further suggest that her den is probably below their back wall in the dense chaparral and eucalyptus trees.

I’ll be heeding the crows in hopes of seeing this beautiful animal and family again soon.

Thanks Bernie,

Jim

Travel is fatal to bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and prejudice.  Mark Twain

SRP RAMBLINGS – Rattlesnake Love?

SANTA ROSA PLATEAU ECOLOGICAL RESERVE, Riverside County, CA – APRIL 22, 2011

While on a wildflower photography hike this day, I approached the Tenaja area of the Vista Grande Trail. A family of four were near the bridge crossing at Cole Creek. I overheard the father ask his daughter, “What was the shape of it’s head?” She replied, “Diamond-shaped!”

My interest immediately peaked and I headed in the direction of the voices. I arrived as the two daughters and their mother were moving away from the area and their father was trying to locate the object of concern in a large clump of deer grass adjacent to the Cole Creek bridge crossing.

As I arrived the father had located a large rattlesnake, and then exclaimed, “It looks like there are two snakes in there!” The rest of the family continued to retreat up the bluff on the Visitor Center side of Cole Creek and observed the proceedings from their new location. The snakes were well hidden in the dense grass. The larger of the two snakes would occasionally move to reposition itself finally showing off its 13 button “rattler.”

Two SRP rattlesnakes - head to head.

The family decided to head back towards the visitor center. I thanked them for locating the snakes and continued to observe and photograph the area hoping that they might better show themselves – unfortunately they did not.

The snakes were Red Diamond Rattlesnakes. The larger snake was over 4 feet long and had a 13 button rattle. The second snake was smaller and remained motionless other than occasionally flipping a 7-8 button “rattler.” The second snake was lighter colored than the larger dark-colored snake. The larger snake also displayed a black-and-white “raccoon-banding” on its tail just before the rattle.

The large snake finally departed the area heading north from the observation site, while the smaller snake, as far as I can tell, remained in the original location but deeper into the deer grass.

The large Red Diamond Rattlesnake had a rattle of 13 buttons.

The snakes behavior was unusual with regards to their close proximity to human traffic (5-6 feet). There was no apparent anxiety prompting the snakes to warn of their presence. The larger snake appeared to be preoccupied with trying to evoke a response from the smaller snake. The smaller snake on the other hand didn’t appear to show much interest.

The day before this observation a large-bodied snake track was found on the bluff above the river bed. The distance between the track and this observation was approximately 4-5 yards.

JL – 04.22.2011

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”  – Mark Twain