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Friday, November 7, 2014

Welcome Winter Birds


Lewis's woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis) are some of the most vibrant winter birds on Tejon Ranch. Photo courtesy of Chris Gardner

                        
                One of the great joys of observing nature closely is witnessing how the world around us changes throughout the year. In this part of the world, the most spectacular time to observe these phenological events is from March-May, when wildflowers produce a riot of color, insects are emerging en masse, and birds migrating from tropical climes dazzle us with fresh, colorful plumage.
                In contrast, the transition from fall to winter can appear to be a less impressive time to observe nature in southern California-- particularly in a drought year. The hills have been brown for months and shortening days often yield less observation time. Although it may be more subtle, major changes are actually happening during fall in inland California. Just as with spring, there are plants blooming, such as many of the annual buckwheats (Eriogonum sp.), and birds are migrating with just as much urgency to avoid the cold of northern climates as when they come this way to breed.
Red-breasted nuthatch by Snowmanradio, Wikimedia Commons 
                Now that I am a father, I have less time to go out birding. In the past, this meant waking up early and heading to particularly wild locations with a good combination of food, cover, and water in search of hard-to-see and challenging-to-identify birds. Now, in my more domestic phase, I take pleasure in just noting how the avifauna has changed in my own yard and in my observations on Tejon Ranch. This fall, I’ve enjoyed noting when familiar birds settle into their winter homes, or noticing when the migrants are moving through on their way to wintering grounds.
                 One of my favorite things to observe is how the changing of the seasons can prompt birds to move up or down-slope. Red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta Canadensis), for instance, is a year-round resident of the high elevation fir forests of Mt. Pinos. However, when the pine nuts and acorns start to mature, these pert little birds make their way down into my neighborhood. I usually hear them before I see them, with their “yank yank yank” call echoing through the trees.
                 Another local migrant is the cryptic brown creeper (Certhia americana), which most often looks like a small chunk of moving bark on a tree. Unlike the nuthatches, who often face toward the ground as they forage on a tree, creepers typically face toward the top of the tree. Much like the nuthatches, brown creepers are usually heard before seen (if they are seen at all). Their thin seee call echoes through the canopy and the jubilation of their song are always a treat to hear in the dead of winter.
Brown creepers typically face up the trunk of the tree when foraging.

                Joining us from more northerly climes are the Zonotrichia sparrows, which are large-bodied, long-tailed sparrows with bold head and face patterns. Of the four U.S. species in this genus, two are common winter residents of the Tejon Ranch region. White-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophys) are typically most abundant, inhabiting brush piles, shrubs, and open fields next to dense vegetation. Golden-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla) are also numerous, singing their mournful “Oh dear meeeeee song. Both species tend to aggregate in large flocks, so if you see one of these sparrows, you are likely to see dozens.


White-crowned sparrows brave this area's coldest weather. Photo courtesy of Chuck Noble


Golden-crowned sparrow look similar to their white-crowned cousins, but have a distinctive gold stripe down the middle of their heads. Photo by berichard, Wikimedia Commons

Hermit thrushes have a spotted breast and an eye ring.
                A less conspicuous bird that has been inhabiting my yard lately is the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus), who has been enjoying the insects I’ve freed while splitting wood. It was interesting to observe one individual whose hunger for carpenter ants resulted in a fearless pursuit of the large insects just a couple feet from my axe. This allowed me to take a nice photo through my binoculars which captures this animal’s distinctive spotted breast and eye-ring. The rufous (reddish) highlights on the wings and tail are another indication that this is a hermit thrush, as opposed to the similar-looking Swainson’s thrush (Catharus ustulatus), which would be an unexpected visitor to this location at this time of year. 
                 Of the birds that tend to pass through our region during migration, one of the most impressively-colored is the red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber). These quiet woodpeckers have the interesting habit of drilling holes (or “wells”) in concentric circles around a tree’s trunk. These wells begin to weep sap, which is a sweet treat for the birds as well as insects, which are also part of the sapsucker’s diet. A few weeks ago, while taking a walk around the block with my family, we spotted two red-breasted sapsuckers calling to each other and flying from tree to tree. What also caught my eye was a group of Steller’s jays (Cyanocitta stelleri) following the sapsuckers in close pursuit. It seemed to me that the jays wanted a little piece of the action and were probably conspiring to bully the sapsuckers away from the trees and feast off of the woodpecker’s hard work. 
Red-breasted sapsucker drilling wells on a pine tree.

Lewis's woodpecker. Photo courtesy of Chuck Noble
                Although fall and winter are often less colorful than other seasons, we do enjoy the occasional flash of brilliant color. One could argue that the monotony of the landscape enhances the spectacle. One such show is the Lewis’s woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis), who’s general unusualness lends further intrigue. For one thing, it eschews the typical outfit of a North American woodpecker, choosing iridescent green and pink over black-and-white flecked with yellow/red. They also behave in an unusual way. Like the acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus), Lewis’s tend to enjoy each other’s company. Groups of up to eight birds have been seen on different parts of the Ranch this fall. But unlike their cousins, Lewis’s woodpeckers are typically very quiet. They are also aerial hunters, preferring to “sally” off of the top of a tree like a flycatcher over drilling for insects under bark, or caching acorns.
               With the small shot of precipitation last weekend, I can’t help but feel excited for the life that it will sustain. With a little bit of luck, our migrant and resident winter birds will have the resources they need to survive another season. I look forward to watching these stories unfold over the next few months as our day length wanes and the quiet chill of winter settles in once again.

PHOTO LINKS
Golden-crowned sparrow by Linda Tanner.
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zonotrichia_atricapilla_4.jpg Accessed 11/6/2014.

Red-breasted nuthatch by Snowmanradio.

Accessed 11/6/2014