Sunday, February 28, 2016

Monsters at the Feeders

I'm a bit late with this post, but the subjects are still hanging around the house, so I don't feel too bad about the delay. In late January, we started getting visits at our window feeders from some new and unexpected creatures. Who's that hulking behind the little Pine Siskin?

Red Crossbill!

I had seen crossbills in the area already, so I knew they were around, but I had no idea they would come to feeders. Crossbill beaks are specialized for extracting pine seeds -- and the last time I saw crossbills fairly up close, during an irruption year back in Connecticut, that's what they were doing -- but I guess they must like sunflower seeds as well! I was actually away when the crossbills first showed up at our feeders, and Paul started sending me pictures asking about the identity of these new "monsters." I was super surprised, and happy that they decided to stick around so I could see them for myself. Monsters indeed!

Red Crossbills are now regular visitors at our feeders along with their finchy fellows the House Finches and Pine Siskins, and we've gotten the whole range of colors -- red males, orange males, and yellow females, sometimes all in the same feeder at once (ah, we really do need to clean these windows):

Most recently, deep red males have been showing up together in pairs; I don't know for sure that it's the same pair every time, but I regularly find myself announcing that "the boys are back":

I absolutely love the colors on these guys:

And I'd never noticed this wonderful iridescence before (also, look, crossbill tongue):

Also baffling is the fact that some crossbill beaks cross over on the right and others on the left:

And so I'll add yet another astonishing Northern California experience to the list. Such weird and awesome birds!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Another Owl?! Great Gray in Prairie Creek

OK, now I'm just getting spoiled. (Apologies in advance if this post causes owl envy in any readers. I'm even a little envious of myself, if that makes sense.) In late January, a Great Gray Owl wandered down into Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and it stuck around. Great Gray Owls apparently nest in small numbers not too far away, in southern Oregon, but this was the first individual seen in Humboldt County in 34 years, and people were coming from all around to see this bird. For context, here's an eBird map of Great Gray Owl sightings in 2015 and 2016 (the orange mark on the lower left is the Prairie Creek owl):

In short, the Great Gray Owl's range does not easily overlap with mine, and who knows if and when I'll ever be near one again! So last Saturday morning, I drove the 45 minutes to Prairie Creek in hopes of seeing this rare northern creature. (Have I mentioned how much I love and admire owls?) When I got to the field where the owl had been hanging out, a flock of devotees was already present:

That figure in a bare tree near the path... could that actually be a...?

Oh my goodness.

Yes, that's a Great Gray Owl. Just right there!

The owl seemed thoroughly unconcerned with the people clicking cameras and murmuring praise at it from not very far away. I talked with some people in the crowd who had driven down from Washington to see this bird. That's some celebrity status.

Here's a video of the owl doing its thing:

Wow. I have to say, I prefer to encounter owls on my own, without crowds of other people around, but it was well worth the trip to see this magnificent creature so calm and so close. The owl spent some time on a grooming session, displaying a super fuzzy leg and a much less owl-like face with all that beak showing:

Every one of the owl's movements set off a cascade of shutter clicks from the surrounding admirers. I hope the owl didn't mind too much! Here's a grooming session video:


I spent a good long while hanging out with this beautiful bird in the chilly morning shade:

Another view:

Eventually, I wandered off to warm up in the sunlight and see what other creatures were hanging out along the field's edge. A couple of Steller's Jays were making a big presence; we were close to a campground, and these guys seemed pretty used to people. I see Steller's Jays fairly frequently on the campus where I work, but I've been hoping for a good opportunity to get close to these fancy birds with my camera. What a strange-looking bird, like someone dipped a Blue Jay head-first into a pile of soot:

That black crest and those neon-blue forehead stripes are just too cool:

Steller's Jays certainly stand out among bare tree branches!

Hello, fancy bird:

A male Spotted Towhee popped up from the underbrush at the edge of the forest for a few glorious sunlit moments:

And again!

Goodness, what a handsome bird:

I also spent some time admiring the backlit moss-and-spiderweb-covered trees that still look so alien to me:

When I made my way back along the path, the Great Gray Owl was still sitting in the same spot, but now the light was totally different. So I had to take a few more pictures!

Oh wonderful owl:

You are beautiful from every angle:

I feel so amazingly lucky to have met this owl while it was hanging around. As I'm writing this, I don't believe anyone has reported seeing the owl in several days. Wherever you are, wonderful creature, I hope you're healthy and finding all the small rodents you could want.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Short-eared Owl and More at Arcata Bottoms

Whew! It's been a ridiculously hectic and stressful several weeks (but I am elated to report that I have recently reached the end of the process that was causing so much stress, hence why I have the time to write this now). This past Saturday, I decided I needed a break, so I went out to visit the Arcata Bottoms, an area of low-lying pastures and fields bordering the bay near my house. I drove slowly along roads behind farms, and I wandered into the marshy fields in a neighboring wildlife area, and it was quiet, full of creatures, and just wonderful.

I drive by this area on the way to work every day, and I'm always astonished by the number of raptors I regularly see here -- perched on fence posts and power lines -- as I speed past. Driving slowly and walking in the fields on Saturday was much more fun, and there were birds of prey everywhere I looked. Northern Harriers coursed low over the fields and picked up furry morsels:

Northern Harriers have such interesting faces, and I'm always glad to meet these sleek hunters:

White-tailed Kites are still an amazingly exotic bird for me, but they're downright common in these fields right now. I saw at least four individuals during my visit, sometimes hovering or hunting but mostly perched on trees:

What an awesome bird:

Fence posts made for especially popular lookout points. White-tailed Kite:

Northern Harrier:

More White-tailed Kites:

Ah! Owl!!

I knew that Short-eared Owls hang out in these fields in the winter, and I was hoping to catch a glimpse of one, but having a Short-eared Owl fly out right in the middle of the afternoon and land ahead of my car -- then proceed to hunt in the field next to the road -- was basically astonishing. My first Short-eared Owl! Oh my goodness.

Owls are certainly amazing, and as far as I'm concerned, days with owls in them are some of the best days. I love this creature's rounded wings, fuzzy feet, and black-eyeliner eyes:

Oh, you wonderful creature:

So that was amazing. Other highlights from the visit include a dainty Savannah Sparrow, a bird I haven't seen since my time on the Connecticut shore:

And around 1500 Cackling Geese foraging in the pastures. Here's a portion of the expansive flock:

This was my first time seeing Cackling Geese fairly close up, and they really do strike me as shrunken Canada Geese. Don't your necks stretch any longer, birds?

The geese made for some striking patterns, especially in such big numbers:

And once again, Northern California continues to amaze me. Even the most normal-seeming places -- fields, pastures -- have awesome wildlife, including lots of creatures I've never seen before (and am not likely to see again any time soon once I leave). The stress-inducing process I mentioned at the beginning of this post was a job hunt, and the end of that process means that I will be relocating yet again over the summer, back to the other side of the country. The eventual (permanent? is that even possible?) location is a very exciting one (for me), but I'll leave those details for another time. For now, I plan to take advantage of my remaining months in Northern California to explore the area as much as possible. There's still so much to see, and I'm so happy to have my outdoors time back!