Tag Archives: owls

California Hills and Harbors

I’m finishing up my brief stay in California.  Yesterday, I drove through an area called the Panoche Hills (west of Fresno).  It was beautiful country, and I didn’t capture any photos that did the magnificent scenery of the area justice.  Here’s my best one:

Panoche Valley

My main reason for visiting this region was to stop by Mercy Hot Springs, a local resort.

Mercy Hot Springs

In addition to hot and cold pools of mineral water that you can soak your body in, Mercy Hot Springs is also home to a wintering colony of Long-eared Owls.  I had already tried to find Long-eareds in four other locations in Washington and California, but they had eluded me thus far.  This time was different.  I found both owl pellets and the owls that crafted them.  True to form, these Long-eared Owls were nestled up in some fairly dense foliage, but I was able to get good looks at them through my telescope and also get a few photos.

Longeared Owl2
Long-eareds are the tenth different species of owl I have recorded on my big year – and I’ve actually posted pictures of seven of those species on this blog.  Not too bad, if I do say so myself.  Most species of owls are hard to find and hard to see.  There are nine more species that occur annually in North America, and I’m hoping to find at least a few more before the year is up.

Today I drove down to Monterey.  I had never visited this area before, and was impressed with its natural beauty.  I spent a couple hours just watching the wildlife in the Monterey Harbor.

Monterey Harbor

Highlights for me were two Sea Otters lounging on their backs munching something (sea urchins?), dozens of California Sea Lions, about 100 dolphins frolicking just beyond the jetty, a quick look at a Gray Whale (inside the jetty!), and a couple dozen species of birds.

Sea lions

Unusual birds for the area included Northern Fulmars (usually seen out in the pelagic zone miles from shore) and an Arctic Loon (that should be wintering in Siberia right now).  I got a few photos of the Arctic Loon:

Arctic Loon1

Arctic Loon3


This Common Murre also swam by close enough to have its picture taken.  It is already molting from its winter plumage into its breeding plumage.

Common Murre

Most birds molt twice a year, and some (like the Common Murre) actually grow different colored feathers depending on the season.  In the early fall, this Murre replaced many of the dark feathers on its head with white ones, so that the chin and throat area were snow white.  Now you can see that most of the white feathers below the bill have been replaced with dark ones for the spring and summer.  The mottled appearance indicates that the replacement process is not yet complete.

After spending much of the morning watching wild animals, I drove over to the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium.  It was impressive – I especially enjoyed seeing a school of one-ton tuna race around the open ocean tank.  The leafy sea dragons and the sand dollars were pretty cool too.

Sand dollars

Tomorrow I’m taking the 6:10am flight to Phoenix.  Gotta get some rest…

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Duck Farms and Raptor Ranches

I’m in California’s Central Valley for a few days, exploring a region of the country that I have not yet visited this year.  Many people know the Central Valley as one of the nation’s agricultural hotspots.  It produces almost a tenth of all of the fruits and veggies grown in the US, supplying much-desired produce especially during the cold winter months when much of the country is snowbound.  Apparently it’s especially suited for growing almonds, as the Central Valley produces 70% of the world’s almond supply.  Who knew?

In the far northern valley where I am now (northwest of Sacramento), many of the farm fields are fallow or flooded for the winter.  But that doesn’t mean that they are idle or empty.  Three million ducks and almost a million geese use the valley as a wintering site, and many of them spend much of their time in these muddy or flooded fields.  Raptors who breed further north also come down to feed on the abundant rodent population (rats and mice are so numerous here in part because they feed on the grain crops that grow in the spring, summer, and fall).  So during the winter, the farms and ranches of the central valley switch from growing asparagus, corn, and tomatoes to growing ducks, geese, hawks, and owls.


Here is picture of a Northern Shoveler.

Northern Shoveler

Shovelers have huge, spatula-shaped bills that they swing back and forth in the water, straining out small aquatic invertebrates.  In 30 minutes of walking approximately half a mile down a rural road in Yolo County, I passed an estimated 3000 Shovelers.  No, I didn’t count each one.  But you can count a group of ten ducks, and then see what that looks like.  Then you can count to a hundred by counting ten groups of roughly ten ducks each.  And so on.  And that’s not including the other ducks present: Buffleheads, Gadwall, Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks, Scaup, Green-winged Teal, etc.

Bird of prey are also out in force.  I’ve seen 11 species of hawks, falcons, eagles, and owls in only two days.  Like this charming Burrowing Owl, who posed on a fence post before yakking up a owl pellet:

Burrowing Owl

Or this adult Cooper’s Hawk, who rested nonchalantly in a bare tree:

Cooper's Hawk

Or this White-tailed Kite who huddled on a power line in the cold morning dampness:

White-tailed Kite

Or this Red-shouldered Hawk who stared down at me from a lamp post:

Red-shouldered Hawk

In addition to birding backroads along farms and ranches, I visited a number of National Wildlife Refuges including Colusa and Sacramento.

Sacramento NWR

These refuges control the water levels inside the refuge to create good wintering habitat for waterfowl (generally, broad expanses of shallow water interspersed with some mud or vegetated areas for resting and roosting).  A treat for me was watching these Ross’s Geese, the smaller cousin of the Snow Geese we have back home in western Washington state.

Ross Geese
While most of the birds here are relatively common to this area, I did see one rare one – another lost bird from Eurasia.  This one is called a Tufted Duck.  It looks like a Scaup, but it has an all black back.  And if you look really closely, you can see the hint of a tuft on the back of his head.

Tufted Duck Lake Merritt

This one was too sleepy to take much notice of me, but he did open one yellow eye to give me the once over.

Up next: the search for more owls.

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Things That Were Petrified: Wood, Partridges, and My Fingers

Last week I took an overnight trip to Eastern Washington.  It was my first birding trip there since my Okanogan Adventure last August.  Needless to say it  was a completely different experience.  Snow blanketed the ground, day time temperatures hovered in the mid-20s, and birds were scarce.

Snowy Eastern WA

Why would I travel over the icy mountain passes for two days in this frozen landscape?  Winter is when some avian residents of the high arctic descend from the subzero darkness of mid-winter Alaska and northern Canada into the relative warmth and light of 47 degrees north latitude.  If you want to see these birds in Washington state, January is prime season.

I started in Yakima County, where I picked out three Bohemian Waxwings from a flock of Cedar Waxwings.  Cedar Waxwings are relative common year-round residents of Washington, but the Bohemians are their bigger, beefier northern relatives.  They usually only venture down in the dead of winter, and then only in small numbers.  Both waxwings love to eat fruit, so if you can find a large crop of winter berries (like mountain-ash), waxwings will probably be close at hand.  The Bohemian is the larger, grayer bird near the middle of this photo facing to the right.

Waxwings (1)

Not visible in this photo (but I saw it in the field) is the yellow Harry Potter-style lightning bolt that adorns each folded wing on the Bohemians.  A few seconds after I snapped this picture, a Kestrel chased out the waxwings and took ownership of the tree.

Yakima Kestrel

I traveled on to Vantage, where I-90 crosses the Columbia River.  The lower elevation and moderating effect of the water meant that there was less snow here.

Winter Columbia River

I stopped to visit Gingko Petrified State Forest, which is a remarkable area where you can see many kinds of well-preserved petrified wood.  Millions of years ago, trees and logs were buried in sediment (perhaps volcanic ash from one of our nearby volcanoes).  The low-oxygen environment prevented decay and bacterial decomposition.  Over the eons, the organic material in the wood was replaced with minerals.  The resulting petrified wood was exposed by floods and other erosion events.  You can see over a dozen different kinds of ancient trees at the park’s Interpretative Center overlooking the Columbia River, and at the nearby hiking trails.

Petrified Wood

Petrified Wood

Travelling north, I birded my way to Wenatchee where I spent the night.  This Northern Shrike was a fun find along the way.

Northern Shrike

The next day I continued northeast up to the Waterville Plateau, an area of rolling hills in Chelan and Douglas counties.  The snow was several feet deep here, and the low clouds and fog created white-out conditions.  Looking over the landscape, you could not tell where the ground ended and where the sky began – everything had a uniform pearly glow.  Driving east on US-2, out of the blinding whiteness a half dozen dark shapes streaked across my path.  They were Gray Partridges, flapping their wings furiously as if their very lives depended on it.  They did, in fact, depend on it – for in hot pursuit was a Gyrfalcon.  This largest of the North American falcons spends most of its time in the high arctic, but a small number of them winter in Washington state where food is easier to come by.  This Gyrfalcon was planning on a partridge lunch, and was gaining fast on the poor chubby game birds.  I screeched to a stop on the shoulder of the deserted highway to watch.  Just at the last second, the partridge found cover – a short hill of chest-high sage brush covered in another three feet of snow.  Lunch disappeared in a poof of powdery snow, as the little birds quickly scampered through the maze of snow-covered sage and were gone.  The Gyrfalcon was pissed.  It circled three times overhead (giving me great looks), screaming the whole time.  Then it landed some distance away in a snow bank, where I managed a ghostly photo through the fog.


After a moment, it raced off to find a different meal, and I continued my trek north, turning from US-2 onto icy back roads.  Near the town of Bridgeport, I passed one of the many Columbia River dams – the Chief Joseph Dam.

Chief Joseph Dam

Near the dam overlook, a Short-eared Owl was making good use of a convenient perch that was so thoughtfully provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Short-eared Owl

Short-ears are not strictly nocturnal – they are often out at dawn and dusk (and sometimes even midday), so they are one of the easier owls to get a good look at.  The “ears” are just tufts of feathers on the tops of the head – owls have no external ears, but they do have internal ears and excellent hearing.  Large, asymmetrically-placed holes in the sides of the head allow them to pinpoint a sound’s direction and range with amazing accuracy.  Experiments have shown that Barn Owls can hunt successfully in total darkness using only their hearing.  This Short-eared uses both sight and hearing in combination.

Short-eared Owl2

Just up the road was Bridgeport State Park, my final stop for the day.  Like many Eastern Washington state parks, it is officially closed in the winter – meaning no services of any kind are available.  But you are allowed to park outside and walk in.

Bridgeport SP

The park had a number of unexpected treats, included some Western Bluebirds – common in the summer, but very unusual in winter east of the Cascades.  I also found quite a number of owl pellets under at least a dozen different conifer trees.  Owls swallow their prey whole, but have a hard time digesting the bones and fur of the small rodents that make up much of their diet.  A while after they eat, most owls form an aggregate of indigestible material and cough it back up.  These owl pellets provide an excellent record of what owls eat, and can be a good clue to finding where an owl roosts during the day.

Owl pellet

By searching under trees for pellets and owl droppings, birders can often pinpoint an owl’s daytime roost.  Counterintuitively, to find an owl in a tree, you should study the ground.  I looked and looked for roosting owls, but I didn’t find any.  These conifers had amazingly dense networks of branches, and it was hard to see more than five or so feet up into the tree.  I’m not positive what kind of owl made this pellet, but I suspect it was probably a Northern Saw-whet Owl – it’s a rather small pellet, and Saw-whets (named thus because their call is said to recall the sound of a saw being sharpened – ya, whatever) are known to winter in the park.

I had a long drive home, and the sun was rapidly setting on this frozen landscape, so I headed back towards I-90.  It was a great 36 hours, with the highlights being Bohemian Waxwings, Gyrfalcon drama, petrified wood, and owl pellets.

Frozen Sunset
I’m currently packing like mad for my next trip – more soon!

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Owling in Boston Common

On my way back to Logan airport in Boston I made a few final stops on my trip.  I had read that a couple of owls were seen in day roosts, and I decided to check it out.

Finding owls often involves prowling around in the middle of the night, listening for hooting and shining your dim flashlight up in the trees.  The owls are active, and often hard to spot.  Some people use tapes or recordings of the owl’s call to draw it in closer, which can potentially disturb the owl – especially if it happens frequently or during a sensitive time such as nesting season.

Finding owls at their day time roosts can be quite challenging, but if you do get a good lead it is the easiest way to see owls.  The light makes the owl much easier to observe, and it is usually sleeping so you aren’t as likely to be bothering it as long as you stay quiet and don’t get too close.

At Fresh Ponds in Cambridge, I located this mostly-asleep Eastern Screech-owl:

Eastern Screech-owl

It was roosting in a hollow tree near the lake.  Eastern Screech-owls come in different color morphs – this one appears to be a red morph.

Then it was on to Boston Public Garden, immediately adjacent to Boston Common near downtown.  This Barred Owl was doing its best to ignore the scolding chickadees that were quite upset that this interloper had invaded their usual willow tree.

Barred Owl

Barred Owls aren’t usually seen inside Boston, but there is an irruption this winter – probably hungry owls moving south in search of food.

Time now to pack up my scope and head to the airport!  It was a good trip.


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Canyons of Arizona

I’ve been spending the last several days in the “sky islands” of southeastern Arizona.  These are the border mountain ranges that rise out of the desert thousands of feet, creating a host of different habitats for plants, birds, and animals.

While many people think of southern Arizona as desert, that’s far from the whole story.  Yes, there are lowland areas of beautiful Sonoran desert, with the saguaro cacti, elf owls, and scurrying lizards.

But when you get to the mountains and start to ascend, the habitat changes.  As the air rises up the mountain and cools, some of the moisture condenses – so the higher elevations typically get cooler and wetter.  The next area up from the Sonoran desert is the mesquite scrub, where you find short trees and birds like this Black-throated Sparrow:

Moving higher still, you get into juniper and then oak trees.  The canyons often have creeks and streams which provide additional water, and sycamores, maples, and oaks mix with some pines.

Up in the canyons, it is often at least 20 degrees cooler than the deserts below, and you can find a multitude of warblers, flycatchers, vireos, and other goodies like wild turkeys.

And Spotted Owls!  I managed poor photos of an adult sleeping…

… and nearby a fledgling not too far out of the nest.

Above the oak canyons you actually get into firs and spruce – a true coniferous zone!  The mountain tops at 7000-8000 feet same kind of habitat you find in much of boreal Canada.  Some scientists have estimated that for every 1000 feet of elevation gain, the temperature and humidity differences are equivalent to travelling 300 miles north.  So by driving up the mountains a dozen miles or so in the Arizona sky islands, you can visit most of the different habitats you would see by driving from Mexico to Canada!  Which explains why they are such great places to go birding, as each local “life zone” has its own distinctive suite of inhabitants.  Also, quite a number of essentially Mexican birds reach the far northern limit of their distribution here.  If you want to see Red-faced Warbler or Painted Redstart in the US, this is the place to come.

My time in Arizona is rapidly coming to a close, and while it has been a great trip I am excited to get back to Seattle to see my family.

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My Idea of a Good Time

You know what would be fun?  To fly down to LA, rent a car, and then drive a couple hundred miles into the deep desert.  Let’s go in late July, when the temps will top out near 120 F.  You can get a sunburn in about 20 minutes.  I know of a particularly desolate area, with a small amount of water.  It smells a bit like a cross between a particularly boggy marsh and a sewage treatment plant.  We can drive the dusty dirt roads while the air condition tries (and fails) to cool the inside of our car.  Why would we do this?  Well to look for a seagull, of course.  And after we’re done we can drive 30 miles back into town for dinner at the fanciest restaurant in the whole area (McDonald’s).  Any takers?

Sometimes I find it hard to explain my hobby.  Many times it’s much easier to say I was in California, um, visiting relatives.  Yeah, that’s it.  But if I wasn’t into bird watching, I certainly never would have visited the Salton Sea, which is a fascinating and bizarre place.  The Salton Sea is a 400 square mile lake in southeastern California, and is less than 10 feet deep in most places.  The water is 50% saltier than sea water, meaning that only the hardiest of fish species can live there.  It was formed by accident a century ago, when efforts began to channel and dike the Colorado river to bring irrigation to this extremely dry part of California.  The mighty Colorado would not be so easily tamed, however, and in 1905 after heavy rains the river broke through the dikes and began to pour into a low-lying rift valley.  For nearly two years, almost the entire flow of the Colorado River poured into this valley, forming the Salton Sea.  Eventually, engineers managed to repair the damage, but not before a new inland sea was formed, one of the largest lakes in western North America.

Birds and wildlife were attracted to this desert oasis, and people too.  During the early and middle part of the 20th Century, the Salton Sea was a popular resort area.  But eventually the lake began to shrink.  Nearby rivers were diverted to provide water for the growing coastal cities, and the inflow of water slowed.  Meanwhile, evaporation removed water at a fierce rate, concentrating the salt that had dissolved from the rocks when the lake was formed.  Now the lake is dying, drying up.

The Red Hill “Marina” is now nearly a quarter mile from the water!

The boat ramp doesn’t quite work anymore.  Actually this picture is pretty deceptive.  That water is just a puddle that ends right around the corner – the lake is actually another 200 yards away!

Plans are underway to try to save the Salton Sea, but with water supplies in the area so scarce its future is uncertain.  It is an accidental creation after all, and not really a natural feature.  But at least for now, it provides many animals an oasis in the desert.  Among birders, it’s known as the only place in the US or Canada to see Yellow-footed Gull.  If you want to see that bird, you have to come here.  A few of these gulls wander up to the Salton Sea, but typically only in late July and August, when it’s nice and toasty.  After 30 minutes of searching, I found a couple.  Note the yellow legs and feet!

But believe me, 30 minutes walking around in 116 F heat (the highest temp my car recorded today) feels more like 30 hours.  It’s so hot and dry, you don’t even feel yourself sweating – the perspiration evaporates almost instantly.  I drank nearly three liters of water (most of a gallon) in less than two hours, and didn’t have to use the restroom.

Of course there’s more here than just gulls!  I didn’t take a lot of photos (it was too dang hot!), but I saw ducks, grebes, terns, coots, cormorants, and thousands of herons and egrets.  Oh, and about 300 American White Pelicans.

Here are a few of them.  Unfortunately this picture doesn’t really do them justice.  They are magnificent birds, with a ten-foot wingspan.  That’s about 3 feet more than the height of Lakeside’s 6’10” Upper School Director, Than Healy.  There aren’t many things with a wingspan longer than Than.

Oh yes, and the Burrowing Owls.  Too cute!  They spend their days mostly underground, and come out at dusk to look for food.  I saw a little colony of maybe a dozen of them.  There were a few reptiles too, like this four-foot snake.

A California Kingsnake, maybe?

After the sun set, I got back into my car, and put it in drive.  By then, the temperature had plunged to 111 F.  Who doesn’t love a cool evening breeze?

1103.9 miles driven, and an unknown number remaining.  The next morning, I began the long drive to Tucson, passing this sugar plant.

As I mentioned, this whole area is a rift valley.  Water poured into the valley in 1905 because it is at such low elevation.  The shore of the sea is about 230 feet below sea level!  This sugar plant, 20 miles away, is also below sea level – note the marking (visible just above the power line on the left) showing where sea level is compared to the height of the building.

Tomorrow – Arizona!


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