birds

RAIN

-this from my weekly post for Molino Creek Farm

Tuesday, most of the day, it was sunny but noticeably cooler. There was a breeze and then it started getting colder after noon. It was 1pm and I glanced towards the ocean and was surprised to see thick fog down there. Another look at 3:30 pm- clear at the beach but a deck of clouds suddenly obscured the whole sky. It smelled like rain, but the rain didn’t start for hours. Sometime in the early dark hours of Wednesday morning, I awoke thinking a coyote was lapping water in the birdbath, but it was the pitter patter of rain dripping from my roof into the rainwater catch buckets. It’s been raining on and off all day, raindrops vying to be the teeniest of them all: a small raindrop contest! Mist was so thick it stuck to everything on all sides, wafting in from all directions. Then some bigger drops pelt down for a bit, then misty drippiness returns, again. Everything sparkles with droplets under a silver-gray sky.

This “first significant” rain started a month earlier than the past two years, when the first real rain was at Thanksgiving…following uncomfortable lengthy hot spells. What a welcome difference! Tomorrow, we’ll have petrichor, the smell of the freshly wetted soil, which takes a bit to emerge.

Thus far, Molino Creek Farm might have had a little over a half inch of rain, judging from the rain buckets and the amount of soil wetting. Our soil is ancient- more than 300,000 years old. It is hydrophobic once dry, so wetting it takes some time…droplets scoot down soil pores or sit on the soil surface or reluctantly soak in. Once the soil starts accepting water, it takes 1” of rain to saturate 1 foot of soil. If we get the expected 4” of rain between now and Sunday, the soil will be gushy four feet down!

Ten Pound Mud Boots

As one neighbor remarked, farmers must now reluctantly stop working, though there is much to do. If we steal off to try to harvest something…and there is much to harvest…we’ll end up with “ten pound mud boots.” Farm field mud is so sticky that each step adds more globs onto your shoes, making huge hunks of mess: you are quickly 4 inches taller walking on mud platforms that stick out 3” in every direction. Lifting your feet makes your pant legs muddy, very muddy.

Boots that weigh ten pounds are good if you want to exercise without moving far, but practically speaking, they are an absolute and unarguable hinderance to vegetable harvesting. We must wait for things to dry, and that’s going to be a while. “Luckily” the show goes on…we rushed and harvested enough prior to the rain to go to market, so off to market we go. Boxes and boxes of late season delicious tomatoes, glowing piles of beautiful winter squash, piles of shiny red ripe peppers will soon grace our sales tables.

Two Dog Farm’s Beautiful and Even More Tasty Red Kuri Squah

The rain has put a stopwatch to the end of the tomato season. The wetness means melt down. Already, a wave of russet mites seriously damaged the Molino Creek Farm plants. Patches of plants started turning a characteristic russetty-brown that you can see half a mile away…the patches spread quickly in all directions, vibrant deep green healthy plants folding over to this vicious pest. And now, the rain. Thousands of tomatoes remain on the plants…

Molino Creek Farm’s Dry Farmed Tomatoes…nearly end of the season

Ravens Back to Normal…and other birds

With the advent of the rainy season, Maw and Caw are back to their normal selves. Everyday inspections of the farm reveal just these two Farm Ravens without their rowdy children or their rowdy children’s proud new mates. Once this past week there were three other ravens, Maw and Caw talking loudly to them, spinning up to meet them high above the farm. Do our two friends feel they must chase away their kids to protect their territory, now? Are the playful windy days of spring the only days they feel comfortable to reunion with their more extended families? Oh, to know the dynamics of Raven Society. I love these two, they are such good friends, and I’m so happy to see them each and every time (especially when they are hopping up and down with their characteristic wing flicks).

We have a kestrel back on the farm and a (single!) sapsucker returned. The kestrel seems to be scooping up Jerusalem crickets these days, sometimes with a few accidental grass stalks. Its plumage is particularly vibrant and so seems very healthy. Why do we only ever get one individual kestrel…and only once did another show for just one week…?? Speaking of pairs, there is, once again, only one sapsucker. So, this second widow(er?) will linger how many winters in this territory before we get another year or so with none and then a pair shows again- that seems to be our story. This got me to thinking that sapsuckers might not have that large of populations…how well are they doing?

At dusk…gliding, prowling, and perching…great horned owls: easy to see around the farm right now.

No Till Orchard Crops

Back to the mud boots…are lack thereof. As we do not till our orchards, we can walk in those, still, to harvest and to harvest some more. We are 1,000 pounds into our expected 4,000 pound harvest. Almost all we have been harvesting has been Gala apples- the old trees our forebearers planted in 1998. They were laden with the most beautiful glowing red fruit, now all boxed up or as fermenting juice for next year’s cider.

You, yes YOU can get these incredibly sweet, crunchy, and beautiful Gala apples at the Food Bin, right on the main drag…Mission Street (and Laurel) in Santa Cruz. Support us Community Orchardists and go buy a bag of these gems. An apple a day….does what? (and have you done it?)

Next up…Fuji apples. In fact, we are sending Fuji, Mutsu, Gala, and Golden Delicious apples with Judy to the Palo Alto market this Saturday. So, if you are over that way…more diversity, more deliciousness. Plus, this is the run up to the last tomatoes of the season- we might not be at markets after another 3 weeks (or sooner for the mud boots).

For internal use only, us Community Orchardists are sharing the prized quince fruits. The legendary addition to apple sauce…the quince jam…the quince juice…the smell and beauty of this novel and ancient fruit. The test this year: do we need to plant more, or is 4 bush/trees enough for our needs? Already, people are suggesting we plant more, but they sit at the markets, unmoving.

Quince! Beautiful.

Golden Crowned Sparrow Returns to Central California

GoSp

Bold markings on this golden crowned sparrow indicates a ‘powerful’ individual.

Weary Willie’s distinctive call is waking up our neighborhood for the first time in five months.   Last night, during the full moon, the first Golden Crowned Sparrows arrived here in Davenport from their migration to British Columbia or perhaps Alaska.

Nicknamed ‘weary Willie’ for their call – “I’m so weary,” – this sparrow is our wintertime friend here, with ~20 bird flocks returning to exactly the same small shrub patches they inhabited last year here at Molino Creek Farm.  Well, at least SOME of the birds return, and some of those with their young which were born perhaps as far north as the ‘Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.’  Way up north, the a male feeds his mate as she incubates eggs.  Between flying back and forth, making a nest, feeding each other, fledging and raising young, they’ve been very busy since they left.  I’m fascinated with them because of their social structure and their tendency, like me, to be ‘home bodies.’

Bruce Lyon, a professor at UC Santa Cruz has been studying flocks at the UCSC Arboretum.  He finds up to 50% (or more!) of the birds returning in fall migration.  He has confirmed what many have noted – ‘high site fidelity’ – with the Arboretum birds.  Bird banding makes all that possible; I wish I could recognize individual birds well enough to do that from memory.

Individual birds are recognizable, and their plumage can tell you how high on the pecking order they reside.  Lyon has also noted that the size and color of their golden crowns, the patches of yellow on their heads, varies with their status in their flock.  The bigger and more striking the yellow, the more dominant the birds…including yellow patches on females that are dominant over duller males.  Taking the time to distinguish and even name individual birds in our flock is fun and helps me to understand a little of what is going on in the yard.

In past years, I have noticed that the birds ride the first winter cold fronts around Fall Equinox, perhaps taking advantage of the winds to help carry them.  I also wonder if they migrate more during the darker moon phases that intersect with those cold fronts, though this year they arrived during Full Moon.  I understand that many birds migrate mostly at night to avoid predation.  A small group of us sometimes place bets on first rain date as well as first golden crowned sparrow arrival dates.  This year, they came right on time…

Welcome back Golden Crowned Sparrows!

I’ll keep track of arrival and departure dates (with a few notes) from various years here, starting this fall:

Arrival: 9/21/15- first posted this post on that date.

Arrival: 9/21/21, full moon, day before Equinox, directly after N Cal atmospheric river event

The Monument-Worthy Birds of Cotoni-Coast Dairies: An Analysis

Introduction and Background

Obama’s Proclamation giving National Monument status to Cotoni Coast Dairies included protection for an interesting list of birds: a challenge or a nose-thumbing to preservationists? We don’t know, but in this essay I present both perspectives. First, a reminder that experts presented the President with a science-based white paper suggesting a list of sensitive natural resources worthy of protection by his Proclamation; most local conservation organizations wrote letters supporting this proposal. The white paper included 7 species of birds that are protected by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, but not protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA)…and so, without mention in the Monument Proclamation, might not be protected on BLM lands:

  • American peregrine falcon –  Falco peregrinus anatum– CA fully protected
  • Bryant’s savannah sparrow – Passerculus sandwichensis alaudinus – CA Species of Special Concern
  • Ferruginous hawk – Buteo regalis – California Watch List (wintering)
  • Grasshopper sparrow – Ammodramus savannarum – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Northern harrier – Circus cyaneus – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Olive-sided flycatcher-Contopus cooperi – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Short-eared owl –Asio flammeus – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Tricolored blackbird – Agelaius tricolor – CA Threatened
  •  White-tailed kite – Elanus leucurus – CA Fully Protected (nesting)

The white paper also included recommendation for recognition of species that are federally protected as long as they are on California BLM’s sensitive animal list:

  • Burrowing owl – Athene cunicularia – BLM CA sensitive animal; CA Species of Special Concern
  • Golden eagle – Aquila chrysaetos – BLM CA sensitive animal; CA fully protected

And, experts mentioned two other notable bird species that frequent the property:

  • Red-tailed hawk – Buteo jamaicensis – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Short-eared owl – Asio flammeus – IUCN Status: Least Concern

At first glance… the Proclamation was a moderate success for bird conservation- experts proposed 11 bird species for the Proclamation, and the President’s Proclamation included 9 bird species. But, the Proclamation included just two of the species experts proposed: the white tailed kite and peregrine falcon. Besides the kite and falcon, the other species listed by the President are common and widespread enough to not warrant any conservation concern. Here are the other 7 birds listed in the President’s proclamation, along with their listing status:

  • American kestrel – Falco sparverius – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Black swift – Cypseloides niger – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Cooper’s hawk – Accipiter cooperii- IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Downy woodpecker – Picoides pubescens – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Orange-crowned warbler – Oreothlypis celata – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Tree swallow – Tachycineta bicolor – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Wilson’s warbler – Cardellina pusilla – IUCN Status: Least Concern

Optimism: A Presidential Challenge?

An optimist might consider the list of birds in the President’s Proclamation could be seen as a challenge to biologists, preservationists, and BLM. The President might have been truly insightful, providing protection for species common enough across the property for scientifically sound analysis of the impacts of varying levels of future visitor use. Only when there are enough nesting attempts of a bird species can we compare nest success in areas with and without visitors, or between areas of varying visitor use types/intensities.

With all of the biota listed in the Proclamation, BLM is required to provide protections in their management plans, setting scientifically-based preservation targets, and monitoring the status of these resources over time. Establishing preservation targets for species will involve developing various hypotheses, such as:

  • What is a minimum viable population size?
  • How many individuals are necessary to maintain their ecological functions?
  • How many individuals are necessary in various parts of the property to ensure that the public has an opportunity to view them?

It is likely that at least some of these birds are common enough across the property right now, when the property is seeing very little visitor use, that experts can inventory their densities and then notice change over time in response to varying management decisions. This would not be the case with more uncommon species.

I should point out that this optimistic viewpoint is difficult to completely uphold because the President did not include the expert’s suggestion of olive-sided flycatcher in his Proclamation: this is a species common enough on the property to meet the criteria outlined above.

Pessimism: A Presidential Nose-Thumbing?

The pessimist might consider it a purposeful snub by the President when he ignored most of the birds recommended by experts for inclusion in the Proclamation. He might have various reasons for snubbing the experts.

For instance, in recent Santa Cruz County history, and with the Monument Campaign in particular, we have seen political leaders leveraging and emphasizing the divide between pro-access, maximum use, recreation advocates and conservation advocates. If the pro-access, maximum use advocates had leverage with the President, they may have advised that inclusion of the conservation community’s recommendations as something to ignore.

An additional and perhaps additive possibility is that the President’s advisers were opposed to preservation of grassland habitat on the property, possibly because of the near necessity of using livestock grazing to maintain that habitat. Despite a growing scientific consensus, some maintain that California’s coastal grasslands are largely ‘unnatural’ relicts of human management, evidenced by their ‘natural’ succession into mixed coniferous forests. And, while fire is sporadically used to maintain California’s coastal grasslands, livestock grazing is more common. Many of the bird species that experts recommended for inclusion are dependent on extensive grassland habitats; some may even require livestock grazing to maintain structure that is conducive to nesting success. The reader is no doubt cognizant of some of the environmental community’s opposition to livestock grazing on conservation lands, and this philosophy could well have been in play when advisers helped the President to draft his Proclamation. None of the birds included in the President’s Proclamation rely on grassland habitat.

A final additional and perhaps additive possibility is the Presidential adviser philosophy that the protection of grassland dependent birds might interfere with maximizing visitor use of the property. Grasslands on the property offer the easiest opportunities for access to the many visitors desiring expeditious photographic opportunities. And so, perhaps the President’s advisers refused protection of grassland birds in order to more readily allow for maximum visitor use.

Concluding Remarks

The future will help inform the prevalence of the optimistic or pessimistic interpretation of the President’s motivations for naming the Monument-worthy birds of Cotoni Coast Dairies in his Proclamation. With luck, we may be able to have conversations with the President’s Proclamation advisers to learn, first-hand their rationale. And, we may gather more clues in the advocacy of Monument Campaign organizers and others during the planning process for the property. We will share our discoveries to help science-based conservationists better engage with similar situations in the United States. And, we will use what we learn to improve our strategy moving forward with preserving the sensitive natural resources of Cotoni Coast Dairies.

Postscripts

  1.  One reviewer suggested an alternative possibility for the President’s advisers largely avoiding the experts’ list of sensitive bird species: the advisers may have not recognized the credibility or legitimacy of the source of information.
  2. Another reviewer pointed out the irony of the Proclamation recognition of indigenous peoples and yet the lack of inclusion of those peoples’ iconic birds: eagle and hummingbird.
  3. Bird experts point out that the President’s inclusion of American kestrel was cogent because of a regional decline in nesting, a phenomenon that isn’t explicable but warrants attention.
  4. Bird experts also point out that the President’s inclusion of black swift is curious because the species has never been known to nest on the property, and nesting areas anywhere nearby have long been abandoned.

Robin Irruption!

 

American Robin

Licensed under CC: Photo by Flickr user Lucina M. All rights revert to originator.

Thousands of robins are visiting California’s central coast: lots more than usual, an ‘irruption.’ Unfortunately, I lack records of the timing of their arrival, but many people are talking about their astounding numbers, including: Feynner at Big Creek Reserv
e in Big Sur and Brock Dolman in Occidental, Sonoma County…and birders with the Monterey Bay Birds list serve. Feynner’s says maybe they came this way to avoid big burned areas inland and North. I counted 200 in about 10 minutes, flying in squeaky-talkative groups across a North Coast Santa Cruz field. This has been a daily occurrence for many weeks.

I have spent a little while standing among flocks of hundreds of robins in the fields and orchards at Molino Creek Farm, watching them. They scratch the mulch under the apple trees or poke at the ground in the fields, each bird holding their own few square feet. Some birds rest, alert high in nearby branches in two’s and three’s. I hear the crackle crackle crackle-squeak of a perturbed bird chasing away another, too close; they chatter their beaks by clicking them together rapidly when they seem especially territorial in a favorite food spot. These birds are apt to live up to the cliché, a worm hanging sideways out of their mouths.

Robins were Rachel Carson’s indicator species for the ‘Silent Spring.’ In 1950’s Michigan, researchers documented that elm leaves containing a pesticide applied to battle Dutch elm disease were digested by earthworms, and the earthworms by Robins. Pesticide poisoning made the Robins’ egg shells too thin, and they faced reproductive failure at a landscape level.  Mornings got quieter and quieter in the Great Lakes states as the friendly dawn chorus of Robins quickly faded. Thanks to Rachel Carson and a host of others, America woke up and stopped large-scale broadcast spraying of pesticides.

Robins seem especially wise. Their gaze is intent. Someone once saw an American Robin sweep leaves aside using a twig- tool using intelligence. I imagine their vocal chatter is carrying lots of information. Their friendliness towards me suggests that they know I don’t eat them- people once hunted them for food. They are still food, but for other species: while hiking the other day, I walked towards a cacophony of Robin voices. As I do for all flocks, I spoke gently saying “don’t worry about me!” But, they wouldn’t stop and, after another dozen strides at my feet was a freshly dead Robin, neck broken, just killed…probably by a Cooper Hawk. Cooper Hawk and Sharp Shinned Hawks must be well fed this winter.

I’m pleased to have witnessed this Robin irruption, reminding me that terrestrial ecosystems of the Western United States can still produce bird abundance. This is the third irruption in recent years. 2014 was the Varied Thrush irruption. Winter of 2012/2013 was a Red Breasted Nuthatch irruption. What next? Don’t miss this one! Take time at dawn or dusk in the fields around the Central Coast to see the many Robins and hear their “chock chock” talk. (Check out their big beaks, too!).