Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Stinson's Gulch with Keith Hansen

Stinson's Gulch is the name for a valley in Marin County, California, that is associated with a stream that travels down Bolinas ridge and is located just north of Stinson Beach.  
Lovely, shrubby habitat with lots of berries and insect attracting spring flowers.  Above, a Western Scrub-Jay . Jays are among my favorite birds because of their assertive and inquisitive natures.  The jay above appears to be acting as a look out, though Western Scrub-Jays don't display sentinel behavior as systematically as the Florida Scrub Jay
As soon as we entered the habitat from the small parking area, warbler activity became apparent in the shrubby plants around us.  The first species was a species that I enjoy during the winter months in my yard, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, above.  
Mixed in with the yellow-rumps were Townsend's Warblers, a new species for me!  In fact, I enjoyed seeing a number of new species on our walk through this area!  One of the field marks that sets this warbler apart is that dark cheek patch you see above, that looks a bit like a black mask against the male's yellow face.
The males have a black throat, while the female's throat is yellow (above and below).  Females also have the distinguishing dark cheek patch, though its a faded version of the male's.        
If you have ever spent time straining your neck to see warblers as specks in the tip-tops of trees, you will agree that it is a real treat anytime you can view these birds at near eye-level.
Bushtits, above and below.  Though this little bird is described as "plain" and "drab-gray" in the field guides, there is nothing drab about their personalities nor was their any drabness in my reaction to seeing this bird for the first time.
Bushtits are smaller than chickadees, only 4" compared to a chickadee's 4 1/2 to 5", and their foraging habits are much like that of chickadees, including the habit of hanging upside down as they search for tiny insects. What is also delightful, they often travel and forage in flocks.  So if you miss your photo opportunity the first time, chances are you'll get a second chance!  
The females have the yellow eye, while the males have a brown eye, and look at that long tail!  Fun little birds!
Above, Keith Hansen, center, and my companions, Talissa and Wendy.

Next:  More firsts and an enchanted forest!

Visit all my posts on Stinson Beach, California
Stinson Gulch
Keith Hansen
Birds of the Sierra Nevada by Beedy and Pandolfing--Illustrated by Keith Hansen
Great book! Full of detailed life histories. As you might guess, I brought home an autographed copy!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Stinson Beach, CA--Birding with Keith Hansen

An ideal vacation includes birding with a local expert!  I was fortunate and excited to find Keith Hansen, both an extraordinary artist and birder.  

We started on the bluff overlooking Stinson Beach and progressed down to beach level to look at gulls, grebes, shorebirds, an oyster catcher, double-crested comorant, and a few ducks.   

Keith Hansen                                                       Photo credit:  Wendy Pitts Reeves

We saw four grebe species--horned, eared, red-necked and western.  The grebes are not difficult, but when you see them all together in winter plumage, remembering the field marks can be a challenge.    
Horned Grebe

That makes a field guide handy! 
Photo credit:  Wendy Pitts Reeves

Eared Grebe

The view was spectacular even with the early morning overcast.  Grays can be beautiful in all their subtlety.
Photo credit:  Wendy Pitts Reeves

And in the midst of all the neutrals, a few colorful blossums attracted an Anna's Hummingbird. What a treat to be so close when he arrived!

Next stop:  Stinson Gulch

Visit all my posts on Stinson Beach, California
Keith Hansen
Birds of the Sierra Nevada by Beedy and Pandolfing--Illustrated by Keith Hansen
Great book! Full of detailed life histories. As you might guess, I brought home an autographed copy!  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

White-tailed Kite at Point Reyes Seashore

Point Reyes is described as the windiest place on the Pacific Coast and the second foggiest place in North America. The area known as the Point Reyes Headlands juts 10 miles out to sea posing danger for ships coming into San Francisco.
The historic lighthouse functioned from 1870 to 1975, warning approaching ships, until it was retired and replaced with automated lights.
Needless to say, the walk to the lighthouse is spectacular.    
After our visit with the elephant seals, we walked back to the parking area and spread a blanket on the grass to eat the lunches we had packed.
This fence row near the parking area happens to be the favorite perch for a beautiful White-tailed Kite!  The kite's primary food source is voles which suffered a decline due to heavy grazing, and subsequently, kites declined.  California bought some of the former pastures to allow native grasses to grow, and the voles population increased and the kites are recovering.
While we ate, the kite hunted near us, circling the field, hovering above, and extending his legs and feet downward.  Cornell says kites hover as much as 80 feet above the ground and maintain their position without flapping by facing into the wind.  The leg hanging helps them to hold their position while hovering.
Visit Conrad Tan's beautiful images of the White-tailed Kite and watch a nuptial food exchange in flight.
Exciting bird!

Point Reyes National Seashore
Stinson Beach, California
Cornell--White-tailed Kite
History of the Point Reyes Lighthouse

Friday, April 18, 2014

Point Reyes National Seashore--Northern Elephant Seals

Northern Elephant Seals (Mirounga  angustirotris) are marine mammals with a life story that reads like a bizarre collection of extremes.
Above you see a bull seal bellowing and displaying his "shield", the cornified or thickly calloused skin that develops on the male's chest as he matures.  He is trumpeting with the aid of his probiscus, his elongated snout and its unique resonating chamber.  Two weaned pups lie on the beach in front of him.
In February, arrival at the Elephant Seal Overlook at Chimney Rock in the Point Reyes Seashore places you right in the middle of birthing and breeding season, one of the two times during the year that elephant seals come ashore.  In the winter they arrive for pupping and mating, and in the summer females and juveniles come ashore for a complete molt of their fur.
The males arrive first, establishing their breeding territory on the beach and defending it against the challenges of other arriving males. The pregnant females arrive after the territories have been established, become part of the "beach master's" harem, and give birth to their pups.  The females fast and sleep while they are nursing their pups and survive on the fat they have stored while foraging in the ocean for the previous six to eight months. The males also fast once their harems are established, and spend their time defending territories and mating.  Other males are permitted on the beach if they remain flattened and still.
Because the female body is capable of delayed implantation, the season's births are timed for this period in the winter and many of the pups are born on the same day. The female nurses the pup for about 30 days and the baby gains weight quickly on her rich, pudding-like milk. Even though the pup is weaned after only a month, they have enough fat stored to sustain them for the next thirty days when they are ready to swim and forage for themselves.
Here's where the story gets rough.  Adult males measure from 12 to 18 feet in length and weigh 4400 to 6000 pounds.  A bull rearing up to bellow can measure eight feet in height.  Adult females range from 9 to 10 feet in length and weigh from 1300 to 1900 pounds, making them approximately one-third the size of males. Mating begins about three weeks after the females give birth, and the male lumbers through the harem of females and newborns to breed, sometimes trampling pups in the process.
In the image above, a weaned juvenile comes very close to being trampled.  In the image below, you can see that he managed to wiggle out of the way while the male reared up.
Soon after mating the females return to the ocean and feed continuously. "Continuously" is meant literally. Scientist believe that elephant seals don't sleep while they are feeding, at ocean depths of over a mile, but take "cat naps" instead.
Elephant seals can spend 90 minutes at a time underwater, coming back to the surface for only a few minutes before diving again.  One of their many unique adaptations is the ability to compress their lungs and carry sufficient oxygen in their blood stream to remain under water for long perods.  This compression also reduces their bouyancy and aids in their deep dives.      

Hunted to near extinction in the 19th Century, the come-back of the Elephant Seals attests to the importance of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act.  Many other factors continue to impact their survival today, including climate change, over fishing and consumption of plastics.

Links and Resources:

Visit all my posts on Stinson Beach and Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes Elephant Seals
The Northern Elephant Seal Newsletter full of interesting facts about their lives and amazing adaptations.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Rock Wrens at Point Reyes National Seashore

I had only taken a few steps past the gate leading to the Point Reyes Lighthouse when movement on the rocks ahead of me caught my attention.
Along the rocky slope, adjacent to the trail, I discovered a pair of Rock Wrens.  From my position, they looked so tiny, yet they are the size of our Carolina Wrens, and sometimes an inch taller.  Their plumage so closely matched the rocks around them, that if I looked away and they were standing still when I searched again, it took some effort to find them.  
Rock Wrens are at home year-round in this area of coastal California.  
They measure 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 inches from the top of their heads to the tip of their tails and, standing on tall legs, appear more slender than their Carolina Wren cousins. The Birds of North America account of this species describes these wrens as a "mysterious" bird that has been little studied.  That may be, in part, due to its inaccessible nesting habitat.   

And here is one of those mysterious things that little is known about.  A breeding pair creates a "pebble path" three or more inches wide that leads to the nest cavity and the nest. No one actually knows what purpose this structure serves, but a great deal of effort goes into it.  

As you can see in the images above and below, these loose surfaced, sloping, rock ledges that form the cliffs descending to the Pacific Ocean, are not the most inviting of habitats for extensive human observation. 
Rock wrens are found in western arid areas and usually nest on rocky slopes or any place where there are lots of crevices, passageways, cavities, and "nooks and crannies of diverse sizes and shapes." The male is described as an incredible singer and having a repertoir of over 100 songs.
Both members of the pair gather rocks, sticks, and other extraneous materials (which may include nails and bits of trash) to construct the "pavement" leading to the nest site and the platform on which the nest is built (which the female builds alone).  In one two-hour observation, the female of a pair made 91 trips during the construction of the pavement and nest platform.  All of those rocks were carried in that tiny little bill!  
I don't keep a "life list", but I do know when I've seen a species for the first time.  Another first encounter for me, among many on this trip, and a delightful one!

Next:  Elephant Seals

Point Reyes National Seashore
Stinson Beach
Rock Wren at Cornell's All About Birds
Other "life" birds seen on this trip:  Snowy Plover
Carolina Wren
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For the Love of It...

...the sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror, and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the knowledge which it reveals.
Sendivogius (1750)

Your Uncapped Creativity...

Your Uncapped Creativity...
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly." ----the great dancer, Martha Graham