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Birds Count

749No degree required, science and research are not just for PhD’s. Many research institutions recognize the importance of citizen science: collecting and analyzing data relating to the natural world by the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists.

In case you missed the Great American Backyard Bird Count earlier this year, there’s another opportunity coming up this Saturday, May 13.  Called Global Big Day, the Cornell Lab for Ornithology is helping to promote the event, and collect the data from around the world.  In a single day, watchers worldwide across political boundaries and language barriers will report their observations. In 2016, 17,000 people from 153 countries took part. Capturing a global snapshot for day would be impossible for a network of researchers. But, collecting observations by interested people around the world provides a perspective that would be impossible to achieve over decades of research efforts by a single organization.

Steve Feeds the Hummers

Here on Berta Ridge, chances are that there will be a few changes in the list from February’s Great Backyard Bird Count, as the wintering sparrows and thrushes will be headed north to their summer homes. Lately, we see more quail under our seed feeder, and crossing the road in the morning. And, the hummingbird traffic is picking up at our feeders. Perhaps I will do my count early in the morning: maybe I’ll spot the owl I often hear before sunrise, somewhere up in the pines.



Raiders of Berta Ridge

You may be thinking, “What is this in the tree?” We wondered, too. Here’s the story:

GreyFox 7

We saw a crow cawing, swooping and diving over an oak tree near the top of the canyon, below the fire break. I grabbed my binoculars, thinking that I would spot one of the resident hawks, bothering the crow with it’s presence. Imagine my surprise when I spot a very bushy gray tail wGreyFox zoom 2ith a black stripe down the middle.

This could only be one thing: a gray fox.

Wait a minute: a fox up in a tree? Yep, this one was about 30-40 feet off the ground, and from what I could see through the binoculars, it appeared to be raiding the crow’s nest. The distance made it hard to get a good look, so we set up a spotting scope. By this time, the fox was done raiding, and had settled in for an afternoon snooze in the tree branches, swaying in the breeze.

According to the AudGreyFox6ubon Mammals iPad app, the gray fox is the only American canid (dog family member) with true climbing ability. They are known to forage in trees, and take refuge there, too. Seldom seen, as they are usually active at twilight and at night. We first saw one about seven years ago because it was making a terrible racket, screeching/howling, which made us look outside to see what was going on. We’ve also caught one on the trail camera, but we usually see more red fox more often than gray fox.

Gray foxes have a typical foxish omnivorous diet: small rodents, grasshoppers, crickets, rabbits, and lots of plant materials. In this area, this probably means berries from manzanita, cotoneaster, and pyracantha. And, apparently, they like eggs.

While the crow seemed quite distressed by the gray fox, the crow itself is often a raider of bird nests, too. It’s part of the cycle of life on Berta Ridge, and we were happy to catch of glimpse of this handsome fox, living quite comfortably in the neighborhood, helping to keep the rodent population under control.

Here’s a trail cam video from our backyard of a gray fox :

Gray Fox from Carolyn Shimek on Vimeo.

Audubon Guides for your iPad


New and Improved Trail Cam

For the past five years or so, we’ve been running a trail cam to catch sight of any of the wildlife “traffic” that transits the back yard. The elements have finally taken out the original gear, and the next generation cameras provide better clarity, better color and now, sound! Although first camera had been down for a while, we see that our usual visitors have not much changed.  Enjoy some of the first videos from our new camera!


The Great Backyard Bird Count

Scrub Jay

Birds are all around us.  They are our own local avian dinosaurs. Their presence, or absence, tells us what’s happening in our environment. Literally, canaries were carried down into coal mines in a cage: the miners’ early warning indicators of a carbon monoxide buildup. Remember DDT? This one-size-kills-all-bugs was the wonder of the post-World War II world. Until folks noticed broken, unhatched eggs in the nests of hawks and eagles and falcons.

While technology has taken over the sensor duties in mines, birds still provide environmental services for humans. The smaller birds eat weed seeds and pesky insects, while the larger predators control rodent populations.

They still serve as harbingers: white crowned and yellow crowned sparrows, and hermit thrushes at our feeder tells me that winter is near. And, once they disappear, I know that spring is on it’s way. Their songs announce a change in the weather, a change in the seasons, a prowling cat nearby. Their colors can camouflage or illuminate.

As environmental indicators, they are small and mobile and not always obvious, which makes it hard to track the health of bird populations. There are researchers who band and track birds, but they can only gain a small window on bird welfare. Enter the Great Backyard Bird Count: a joint project of the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Over the years, many research endeavors have turned to “citizen science” to collect data and better understand the state and patterns in nature.

The Great Backyard Bird Count allows people all over the world to submit just 15 minutes (or more) of observations in their own backyard. Simply by reporting your observations, you provide invaluable data for scientists, and help the planet. The results, with maps and photos, are published here, with links to details. All of this information gives bird scientists a much better picture on the health of bird populations, which reflects the health of our environment. There are plenty of resources to help identify birds on the site, and Audubon has apps to help identify birds and track your sightings. eBird, a result of the collaboration between Cornell and Audubon provides a place to report your sightings all year long.

Think birding is nerdy? Well, yes, it is a bit nerdy. But, it’s also the new cool. Many people who watch birds don’t necessarily talk about it. And like any endeavor, participants range form the occasional “nice bird” observer to the mad, globe-trotting, list-obsessed birder.

Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle. Yes, I keep lists, especially when we travel. There are at least seven books on US/Canadian birds on our shelves, and at least the same amount for other international locations. We have two seed feeders, three hummingbird feeders and a bird bath outside our windows. A list of the “usuals” in our yard can be found here.

Anyone, yes anyone, can appreciate the beauty and the charm of neighborhood birds, from the tiny Anna’s Hummingbird, to the behemoth turkeys that stroll our driveways. Make it a part of your everyday routine to enjoy the feathered neighbors here on Berta Ridge.

Mountain Lions Among Us

mountain-lion-001Nothing seems to stir so much awe…and so much panic…as a predator among us. They are large. They are elusive. They are smart stalkers. And, in the case of most lions, they are hard-wired to give chase to anything that flees.  So, when the news came out about a mountain lion chasing and eating a deer in a suburban area at the edge of a wooded area and near a state park boundary, somehow the residents were surprised.  Really?  I’ll bet they see deer all the time; what made these folks think they would not see, at least once, a predator that eats deer? (Other than a speeding SUV that catches a hapless one in the middle of a dark road, that is.)

Humans build their environment around them, and then get complacent when they think that they now control that environment.  Yes, they can trap the gophers in the yard, but it’s tough to fence out fliers and climbers, like birds and raccoons.  Skunks and opossums have a way of finding weak spots in fences or foundation screens.  Hornets built nests under eaves: bats and bees have been known to invade attics. And deer can pretty much be found anywhere where there is browse and cover.  They’ve been chased off of our deck, browsing on our potted rose bushes, citrus trees and cherry tomatoes.  Nature abhors a vacuum: sooner or later, with herbivores roaming around, the predators who feed on them are soon to follow.  We haven’t had wolves or grizzly bears in California for a very long time (see Hitched to the Universe). But, we do have mountain lions.  And despite their name, they don’t necessarily need high mountain habitat to survive.

WarningJust as it is for other furry, four-footed predators, humans are not at the top of the menu.  Chances are good that you will never actually see a mountain lion in the wild.  But, if you behave like prey, like trying to run away, this motion fires the neurons in the cat’s legs to pursue, without any critical thinking about what’s (hopefully) about to be for dinner. So, those folks in Scotts Valley got a close-up look at what’s been happening in the woods and park behind their neighborhood for centuries and centuries.  If they thought that their built environment somehow isolated them from the natural world, they just had that notion banished.

Hopefully, this incident banished that notion for others, too, without planting an unwarranted amount of fear.  When we moved to Berta Ridge, we hoped to see all parts of the food chain, and not just the sweet songbirds, or the fuzzy rabbits.  When we moved to a place with such a significant amount of land dedicated to open space, we knew there was a chance of finding evidence, or even witnessing, a predator-prey encounter.  Within the first six months of moving in, we happened to look out our windows to see a shadow slinking along the edge of the wooded area at the far side of the fire break between our house and the woods.  It was a hazy afternoon, and the edge was in the shadows – not ideal wildlife viewing conditions.  But, suddenly we saw the long, lanky tail that could only belong to a mountain lion.  We suppressed our excited gasps, and just watched the mountain lion slide out of view, not bothering to scramble for a camera.

Thrilled with our sighting, we shared our observation a few months later at the homeowner’s association annual meeting.  Expecting the others to share our excitement, we were flabbergasted by the reactionary fear, as people asked about reporting to the state fish and wildlife department and depredation permits.  We tried to temper things, saying that we moved here just for those kinds of opportunities, and that with this much open space, these sightings, however rare, should not be unexpected.  Or feared. We went home that night vowing to never divulge another mountain lion sighting in the neighborhood.  Keeping quiet seemed the best way to minimize the disturbance to the resident cats.

Unfortunately, we have not seen another mountain lion in the past four years.  But, we don’t believe for a minute that there are no mountain lions out there in the neighborhood.  We installed our trail camera three years ago right along the edge of the fire break, on the same path we saw the mountain lion.  Alas, no trail cam shots of mountain lions, either.  But, we are hopeful.  We’ve captured smaller predators: foxes, coyotes and bobcats with the trail cam, so we think its only a matter of time before another mountain lion patrols our woodland edge.

More information about mountain lions:

Santa Cruz Pumas
Mountain Lion Foundation

Update January 23, 2015: Indeed, the mountain lions are among us. Our “green spaces” act as corridors, but are sometime a cul-de-sac for young adult cats looking to establish new territories. Among all the curious sights that can be seen in downtown Santa Cruz, we can now add mountain lions to the mix.

Mountain Lion Sightings Reported Downtown Santa Cruz

Entertainment by Turkeys

I love our wild turkeys.  I see them nearly every day, and I never get tired of them.  They are unlikely looking birds, especially as they peck the seed below our feeder, while the more spritely chickadees and titmice and juncos zip in and out of the trees to the feeder perches. But, they are a good illustration of how birds evolved from dinosaurs.

Benjamin Franklin argued that their virtues qualified the wild turkey to be our national symbol. In a letter to his daughter, he wrote, “For the truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”

Turkzilla and MinionsCurrently, we have four big toms that are nearly daily visitors.  We’ve dubbed them Turkzilla and His Minions, as one is clearly larger than the rest.  And, none of them are really small. I am sad and anxious for them on a day when they don’t show up.  Steve says that they are coming to court “the lady of the house,” (that would be me).  They are molting right now, leaving lovely iridescent chest feathers and mottled tail feathers scattered about our side yard.  Steve teases that these are “love notes” for me.  Indeed, the tail feathers are perfect for tying flies: material ideal for wings for caddisflies and hoppers.

Turkey and HondaWhile they are big (photo with front of Honda Civic for scale), I don’t find them to be all that aggressive.  In fact, usually when we go out to the deck or the garage service door, they move away from us.  Not fast, but they do move away.  One time, I came around the end of the garage to the side of the house where they like to hang out, forgetting that they were there.  More intent in putting something in the recycling bin, one of the turkeys stood straight up and gobbled at me – that got my attention!  But, I quietly retreated, and the turkeys resumed their preening.  Maybe it will be different during mating season, as you sometimes hear about urban turkeys getting aggressive. In particular, they seem to be invading Boston recently.  Perhaps planning a new tea party in a belated protest at being passed over as the national bird?

Despite the four big toms, I’ve been worried about the local turkey population.  When we first moved here, we had plenty of hens around, and clutches of “turklets” each year.  But, we’ve had a series of dry years, and then the oak moths decimated our oak trees and the acorn crop last year.  But, we just checked our trail cam, and found that a mixed flock has been through the area.  Don’t know if these are our “boys,” but with healthier trees and prospects for an acorn crop this year, I hoping for even more turkeys around next year.

After Hours

While we see wildlife pretty regularly, we were pretty sure that we were missing even more visitors in the yard between sunset and sunrise.  One Christmas, Santa brought a trail camera: a weatherproof unit that had a motion-activated shutter, and infrared light to capture the night time action.  Although we only capture 16 seconds of video, we quickly learned that there was plenty going on at night.

Fooling Squirrels

Bird Cam SquirrelLiving in an area chock full of acorn-producing oak trees, you are guaranteed to have acorn-eaters: turkeys, deer, jays, woodpeckers and squirrels.  The acorns are not available all year long, and hardly at all the last few years, as the cyclical outbreak of oak moth really stripped many of the resident oak trees of their leaves, and their ability to produce acorns.  In better years, we all have “volunteer” oak tree seedlings sprouting up in odd places, liked in the potted plants on our deck – forgotten acorns stashed away by the squirrels and jays for the leaner parts of the season. But, our neighborhood squirrels have discovered an easier target for food: our bird feeders.

Truth be told, “fooling squirrels” is an oxymoron – they eventually figure out whatever obstacle or contraption you concoct to keep them out of the bird feeder. When we first moved to Berta Ridge, we hung two cylinder bird feeders: one with wild bird mixed seeds, and one with thistle (nyjer) seed, so that we could attract a variety of birds.  We added a bird bath and we soon found our yard to be a popular spot for a variety of songbirds. It took several months, but soon we found that the feeder would empty completely in one day.  We knew that we didn’t have that many birds.  Eventually, we discovered that the seed thief had four paws and a long bushy tail.

We checked in with our favorite wild bird supply store, and they had just what we needed: a concave, clear plastic dome that fit over the top to the feeder.  This dome was clear so that the birds could still locate the feeder from above, but it was broad and smooth and slippery to little paws that are better adapted to clinging to rough tree bark.  Or, so we thought.

The dome did its job for more than a year.  Then the feeder started to empty again.  Imagine our surprise to look out one day to see this extent of squirrel acrobatics:

That was the end of the dome.

We returned to our favorite wild bird store and searched online, and discovered a lidded wire cage that fit loosely over the feeder, creating more than a squirrel’s arm length space between the outer cage and the feeder openings.  We installed this new contraption, and it probably worked for a month or two.

1240We slowly realize that we are dealing squirrel Houdinis – and that was the end of the cage around the feeder.  And we were seeing more squirrels, which means they were learning more contortions to beat our contraptions…from each other.

We tried another feeder that was supposed to close up the feeder slots as soon as something heavier than a bird landed on the feeder.  It was only a couple weeks before the squirrels thwarted that one, too.

We’re now on yet another feeder.  This one integrates the cage option with the weight-sensitivity feature.  We have also further rigged this feeder, suspending it from a piece of heavy fishing line so that it swings freely.  So far, so good.  But, I’m sure that it’s only a matter of time before our fuzzy Houdinis crack this puzzle, too.

Hitched to the Universe

Grizzly“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
–John Muir

We have heard the warnings all our lives: the industrial activities, and simply the sheer burden of the number of people on the planet are greatly altering our environment.  Hollywood has made millions upon millions of dollars, illustrating the dire consequences to be played out over the succeeding decades and centuries. But, sometimes people get it right – they make changes that benefit the ecosystem.  Think about the ban on DDT, and the reversal of reproduction fortunes for peregrine falcons and eagles.  Or the efforts to ban lead ammunition in California to support the recovery of the condor.  Simply removing hunting allows animals to move back into their natural ranges and expand their population, such as the sea otter.

Yellowstone WolfSo today’s news says that research shows that grizzly bears are healthier in Yellowstone due to the reintroduction of wolves.  Turns out, there were just too many elk browsing on plants and reducing the availability of plants for grizzly food.  (Yes, grizzlies eat a great amount of berries, and only an occasional tourist or Boy Scout.) So, when you add the wolves back in, who help keep the elk population in check, it benefits the bears.

Now, there may seem to some contradictory findings, as the bears were also eating elk, and there was some concern about the elk populations.  But, by adding the wolves back into the ecosystem, the berry-bearing bushes and shrubs are recovering, and the bears are enjoying this fruity harvest.  And, the wolves have increased the complexity, and hence the stability, of the ecosystem.

Some may think that wolves and grizzly bears are dangerous and should be “controlled.”  After all, we haven’t had a grizzly in California since 1922 (except on the state flag).  And, we haven’t had a wolf in California since 1924…until recently.  In late 2011, a lone wolf wandered over the border from Oregon to check out the real estate. While these big predators can be intimidating, as general rule, humans are not on their preferred menus.  But, their presence signals a more balanced and healthy ecosystem, which in the end, is good for humans, too.

Read more:

Yellowstone grizzlies put on the pounds, thanks in part to wolves

California Wolf Center

California’s Grizzly Bears

And for you science nerds, here is the link to the journal article:

Journal of Animal Ecology: Trophic cascades from wolves to grizzly bears in Yellowstone

Cooper’s Hawks

We’ve spotted a hawk occasionally hanging out near the bird feeders.  It is usually tucked well into the oak tree outside our dining area, just above the feeders. At best, I would catch a glimpse of a banded tail:  Cooper’s hawk or sharp-shinned hawk?  I could never see enough body to see size or other markings.  I know we have red-shouldered hawks – they make a lot of noise declaring their territories in the spring, But, a red-shouldered hawk has a shorter tail, with different banding on the tail.

As it sometimes happens, our (indoor) cats all point in the same direction, or start racing between windows for a better look: a sure sign something unusual is going on outside.  Early one morning last week, the cat behavior told me that there was something on the deck.  I had heard some noise, and I quietly got up, thinking that we had a deer up on the deck again. I peered between the open bathroom door and the door frame to find two fledgling Cooper’s hawks perched on the deck railing.

There was still more noise, and as I peered around the other bathroom window, I saw a third fledgling on the corner of the deck railing.  By now, they are getting agitated because they can see the cats and me moving around.  They flap off of the deck, following an adult Cooper’s hawk (mama?), straight into the trees above our bird feeders.  The adult has brought them right into a target-rich environment, as Cooper’s hawks have long tails and short wings that makes them agile in pursuing smaller birds through trees and bushes.

But, these are gangly teenagers, and they flap a lot and land clumsily in the tree branches, sitting in full view and scaring away all the smaller birds. There was no poaching on our bird feeders by this gang that day.

But, it seems that they can still count on mama for a meal: a few mornings later, I heard some little plaintive squawking on the deck, and found one of the fledglings still looking for a handout.