Tuesday, October 29, 2013

White Film on Bird Bath Water

Have you ever had your bird bath instantly go from clean to layered with a gray filmy scum?

It's ash. Not necessarily ash from a burning fire, but often from a bird that has come through a burned area.

The first time I saw this was several years ago when a group of white-crowned sparrows arrived during fall migration and we had just had a wildfire that burned miles of hillside north of us. The white-crowns seemed to line up at the bird bath and when they were done the water was almost soapy. 

This past spring a large swath of the Santa Monica Mountains at the Camarillo Grade was severely burned. The area is northwest of us, up the coast. When I saw the state of the water I had changed the evening before, I knew that a bird had arrived who was flying down the coast. The amount of water splashed around suggested something larger than a white-crowned sparrow.

Then we heard an unfamiliar call, an American kestrel. This is a small bird of prey, much smaller than our resident Cooper's hawk or red-tailed hawk. We spotted the female kestrel sitting in the top of a dead tree calling. It's been years since we've seen kestrels in our neighborhood. It could be that this bird was returning to territory that was burned out. It will be interesting to see if she stays or moves on.

Rinsing out the ash only took a moment or two. It was nice to know we helped a traveler freshen up. That is what being an oasis of habitat is all about.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Painted Lady Butterfly

The milkweed and the butterfly bush are blooming and providing nectar for butterflies.

This beautiful painted lady butterfly stopped to rest and eat before continuing on its travels.  Some springs we have seen mass migrations of these butterflies.

In the past week I've also seen a mourning cloak, monarch and a checkered white in the yard. I'm hoping that the drift of nectar producing native plants we've added to the front hillside will attract and nourish a growing number of our native butterflies. Creating habitat for wildlife begins with providing natural food, shelter and water.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Cooper's Hawk Comes for a Bath

We had a visitor this morning: an adult Cooper's hawk. Typically they come to hunt the mourning doves and band-tailed pigeons, but this morning the bird bath was the main attraction.

Even birds of prey need a drink or a bath now and then. Both the red-tailed hawks and the Cooper's hawks seem to prefer the still, raised bird bath over the bubbling fountain 20 feet away. The juncos and the hermit thrush prefer a shallow dish placed under a rose bush. Water is vital for creating habitat.

Placing water in an open space enables birds to see any lurking dangers and frequently allows them to feel comfortable enough to happily splash and play in the water.

Cooper's hawks are frequent visitors and have even nested next door. This, however, was a pleasant surprise, a special moment shared because wild creatures see our yard as a safe and natural place to visit. Create habitat in your yard and you'll expand your own experiences.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Planting CA Natives in Fall

I love the autumn weather in California. The hot dry summer has come to an end and the promise of rain means it is time to plant native vegetation.

This past weekend we traveled north to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden to take advantage of their Fall Plant Sale (going on through Nov. 3). It is a wonderful place to see the enchantment of native plants and the habitat they create for animals; We saw a variety of birds, butterflies, lizards, a gray squirrel and two deer. We strolled through areas of the garden most like our yard and looked for plants that would thrive in a few of our problem areas: dry, sunny slope and dry partial shade under oaks.

We've discovered that native plants from the Channel Islands, especially San Nicolas Island and Santa Cruz Island, seem to do well on our dry, sunny slope. This beautiful pink yarrow is from San Nicolas Island. We planted yarrows between the Mexican mountain marigold and the San Nicolas buckwheat that we planted two years ago.

This native aster is a low-growing ground cover that we hope will thrive on our front slope.

With the buckwheat, sage, yarrow and milkweed, the front slope is becoming a nectar garden for butterflies.

In the spring, I always have itchy fingers to put plants in the ground, but too often, the summer heat pounds those plants and they do not survive. Autumn is California's season of renewal. Plant now and tender new plants will have nurturing winter rains to help them establish.

A monarch butterfly has been visiting our newly planted milkweed!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Ant Lions and Pocket Gophers

Have you ever seen one of these perfectly conical pits in the dirt?

This is an ant lion pit trap. It is about the circumference of nickel. The ant lion larva waits down at the bottom of its beautifully constructed pit waiting for an ant or other insect to wander in. The angle of the pit's sides make it difficult for the insect to get out easily. As grains of sandy dirt roll down the sides of the pit, the ant lion springs to action and grabs its prey.

In order to make this beautifully formed pit, the ant lion needs a specific texture of sandy dry soil. This summer I have been cursing a gopher that has eaten my wild roses and some of my wild currants. But in the midst of planting new plants, I noticed that everywhere there was a pile of dirt kicked out by the gopher there were ant lion pits.

This soil had the perfect consistency for the the ant lions. Hmm. The gopher's work turning the soil was facilitating the right habitat for the ant lions who are trying to control the ant population.

There are plants that the gopher seems to avoid: lemonade berry, Catalina and hollyleaf cherry and toyon. I'm also trying Cleveland sage and milkweed. There has to be something the gopher doesn't like.

These ant lion larva will survive the winter underground and emerge as winged adults that look somewhat like a small dragonflies in the spring.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Hermit Thrush Arrives Early in Southern California

For the past 12 years I have been documenting the birds that daily frequent our yard, the migratory birds that travel through and the species that visit during a specific season. The hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) is one of my favorites. On the small side, this bird typically arrives alone or with a single companion. It stands with its head raised like an American robin, but it is slighter in size has brown spots on a white chest, a gray-brown back and a russet tail. Spending the winter here in southern California, the hermit thrush is shy and elusive. By the time I spot it, there is no chance to grab the camera. It slips in and out of the shrubs, plucking a toyon berry or any of the variety of reddish round berries on the vegetation.

The only vocalizations are typically soft chirps in the early morning. (Imagine my surprise this summer in Alaska when I heard this beautiful singing bird and it turned out to be my quiet friend. In its breeding grounds, the hermit thrush is known as the songster of the forest.)

Another surprise was that this year the hermit thrush arrived on October 4th. It seemed early and it was. I graphed the arrival dates for the hermit thrush that I have recorded annually since 2001. The vertical axis shows dates with numerical values (November 15 = 11.5).

It's a graphic demonstration of gradual change. The arrival date of the hermit thrush varied dramatically in the first years of the century, fluctuating between mid-October and mid-November. However since 2007 the hermit thrush has been arriving in October. This year was the earliest date I've recorded. 

This corresponds somewhat with our rainfall levels. Since 2007, we have not had the dramatic years of heavy rainfall that we used to have. Another interesting aspect is where did this hermit thrush come from? Did it leave its summer breeding grounds early because of a factor in that far away place?  Is it a different individual bird?

Other migratory birds are passing through and arriving. Last Week. This weekend a female black-throated gray warbler stopped to rest and hunt for insects in the elm tree.

The white-crown sparrows arrived somewhat early too. Interestingly the snowbirds that usually arrive first in our yard are the Oregon juncos, and they have yet to show up. They had been arriving earlier and earlier each September. I wonder what their story is?