Archive for the ‘NATURE’ Category



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.


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.


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 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.



A Simple Formula for Nature Discovery

Jim Lockyer
Wildomar, CA

"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

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.

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



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