Thursday, July 29, 2010

Feathers and spiders

In the past couple of weeks I've been finding bird feathers littering the earth, just about everywhere I walk. Most of the feathers I find are from American crows (), but I've also found others at Howarth, including this 13 cm long owl feather.

Looking in my Sibley Guide to Birds, I found three owls that might dwell in Howarth Park.

I didn't think I'd be able to identify the owl this feather came from but The Feather Atlas has given me a tentative identification of a Western Screech Owl (Megascops kennicotti), a small nocturnal owl that's equally at home in open woodland and urban and suburban settings. The reason I know it's an owl feather is that, when I found another one a few weeks ago, my friend, JoAnn identified it immediately by the fine hairs covering the whole feather, which appear to help muffle the sound of the wings moving through the air, allowing the owl to fly silently.
While drawing the owl feather I noticed a lovely spider and web stretched across my outdoor work space (our umbrella-covered patio table). At this time of year, these webs can literally be run into just about anywhere! Even though they're large and usually stretched across an open space, it's easy to miss them when the light is wrong. If that happens to you you'll find yourself snared by the European Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus) that built the web.

The female is the web builder and, apparently, she eats the web and all of the caught prey each night before building a brand new web for the next day.

More about owls:

 and about feathers:

and spiders:
Nick's Spiders
Bug Guide

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Grass, insects, birds and rodents

A few days ago I drove south to the outskirts of Rohnert Park to visit Crane Creek Regional Park. It's small but full of treasures. It's in open grassland and home to many wildflowers in the spring, as well as many birds and hawks that I don't usually find in the more heavily wooded Howarth Park.

The grasses were as tall as I am and bleached pale tan, looking quite lovely against a brilliantly blue sky. On one, I found a rather large (2cm long), colorful insect and sketched it. Insects aren't always amenable to being sketched. Imagine a giant insect hovering over you and peering at you through a magnifying glass and you get the idea. Anyway, this one was a very cool customer and more or less ignored me as I drew. Later I was able to identify it as a Bordered plant bug (Largus sp.).

The bird sketch was an attempt to capture the markings of a Lark sparrow (Chondestes grammicus) that I saw feeding it's offspring on a trail. They're lovely little birds but their markings are like a jigsaw puzzle to me and it'll take some more study to capture them.

In summer, I rarely think about ticks at Howarth Park. They seem to disappear when the rain stops. At Crane Creek, I wandered off the trail to try to blend into the scenery and get some birds sketched, without taking my usual precautions against the nasty little bugs. The grass had formed several inches of matted, bouncy padding above the ground and it was odd to sit on,  and I worried about Chloe and the many foxtails surrounding us, so, after only a few minutes, I picked up my pack and my dog and went back to the trail. For the next several hours I kept finding ticks on my body. Ick! Chloe came away unscathed, amazingly. Once I'd gotten them all off, I wondered why there were so many at Crane Creek and so few at Howarth and came to only one conclusion -- rodents! Crane Creek is a haven for the California vole, a rodent that loves open, grassy places. Although I only saw one that day, I surmise that the wet winter and plentiful grass probably caused a population explosion of the little varmints, which in turn caused a population explosion of the ticks. These weren't deer ticks but I didn't save any to sketch and identify. I do keep meaning to do that but when I find them I only want to see them gone. Anyway, I'll stick to the trails for now and make sure to button my sleeves and tuck my socks into my boots the next time I'm there!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The "other" swallow

At just about any location in Howarth Park I can look up and see Violet-green swallows (Tachycineta thalassina) circling above me. In the past few months, while sketching ground squirrels at the edge of Lake Ralphine, I almost always see some Violet-green swallows flying low over the water to catch insects along with another swallow that moves so fast that I've never been able to tell much more than that it was brown. I always meant to look it up when I got home and always forgot by the time I got here.

Today it was cold when I set out on my walk so I just kept moving, hoping that the sun would come out from behind the fog and warm things up. A few Violet-green swallows circled overhead but it seemed that most other birds were huddled up somewhere trying to stay warm. The light was rather gray and dingy, not very conducive to sketching, so I found myself walking just for the sake of walking, a pleasant change from my usual industrious search for something to draw. I enjoyed the quiet and the muted colors and, most of all, the opportunity to keep my hands warm in my pockets.

Chloe likes to go the long way around Lake Ralphine and today I indulged her. Toward the end of the trail around the lake, as I reached the dam that marks the beginning of the end of the walk, I heard the unmistakable sound of young birds calling for food. Looking out toward the lake I saw three little puffed out birds sitting on a snag, with their heads popping out of the fluffy down just enough to call out with great frequency. I immediately recognized them as young "other" swallows and began to sketch, thinking they'd be gone in moments. They stayed right where I found them, except once when something big flew nearby but out of my range of vision. That caused them to flutter off of their perch and circle wildly until they settled back down and resumed their positions on the snag. Both parents flew by frequently and dropped food into the open beaks without landing or stopping. The youngsters fluttered their wings and called out loudly each time they saw a swallow fly over, even when it wasn't one of their parents. I sketched for 45 minutes and, at the end, one parent came and perched on the snag for a very brief time, until the other parent came and did some sort of maneuver that caused the first parent to go flying again and then they both landed and stayed on the snag before taking off once again.

Now I know what to call "other" swallow --- Northern rough-winged swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis). The name comes from the series of barbed or hooked primary feathers on the wing, which can be felt, though not seen. No one seems to know why these feathers are barbed.

To learn more about Northern rough-winged swallows visit:
All About Birds
Bird Web

Monday, July 19, 2010

Sunday at the park

Yesterday I was able to get myself going early enough to arrive at Howarth Park before the sun emerged from behind the fog and before the other humans began to arrive en masse. Most days that I walk at the park, I walk a counter-clockwise loop through the trails. Today, I was feeling adventurous so I walked clockwise. I always seem to forget what a difference there is when I do this! It's like taking a whole different walk, even though I cover the same trails. The first part of the walk was in the gray, even light of a foggy morning. As the light grew brighter and we headed to higher ground I began to hear birdsong and see dragonflies. Suddenly, the sky was blue and the sun cast dark shadows against brilliantly lit fields and trees. When the light changes that way, I always feel as if I've suddenly entered an entirely different world. I love the gray foggy world, where every spider web is visible and you can look inside and easily see the spiders in the cool, even light. Then the sun comes out and it's world of nearly black shadows and bright washed out colors. The spiders and their webs disappear, unless you look very closely. Suddenly, the strong shadows draw my eyes farther out to the shapes of rocks in yellow fields of dried grasses and the shapes of the shadows in the trees.

I haven't been seeing much of the wilder California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi) since breeding season began, but they've begun to be more visible, looking rather majestic, for rodents, in that bright early morning light. One appeared to be surveying it's kingdom in the open, rocky grassland near the edge of the park. I was drawn to the other one by it's call of alarm as it sat on lookout from it's perch above a large brush pile between Howarth Park and Spring Lake Park. I never discovered the cause for alarm and watched it relax as I sketched from a distance.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

More about the cemetery hawks

I'm fascinated by the Cooper's hawks (Accipiter cooperii) at Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery. Although this species' natural habitat is forests, Cooper's hawks have found the suburbs to be an excellent place to live and raise a family. Their main source of food is other birds and they prefer larger birds, which explains why I've seen several small songbirds perched, with what seemed to be an astounding lack of concern, near the hawks on several occasions. Doves, pigeons, jays and robins are among their preferred meals but they also eat small mammals. In fact, they have become regular visitors at some backyard bird feeders, where the hunting is easy.

Cooper's hawks hunt by flying fast, through the trees, taking their prey by surprise. However, one recent study showed that it's a dangerous way to hunt. According to All About Birds a study revealed old healed fractures in the chests of 23% of more than 300 Cooper's hawk skeletons.

The male is much smaller than the female and submissive to her. When it's time to mate he waits for her vocal encouragement before approaching. It's his job to build the nest then feed her and the nestlings until they fledge.

Cooper's hawks migrate south for the winter which explains why I didn't start seeing the mated pair until April this year.

All About Birds
Project Feeder Watch

Saturday, July 17, 2010

It's all happening at...the cemetery

I hadn't been to Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery since June so last week I thought I'd head on over there and see what I'd been missing. It turns out I'd been missing quite a bit! A family of Black-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) (left) foraged about the trail very industriously. The juveniles have become more difficult to distinguish from the adults as their plumage takes on a more mature look. Young Black phoebes (Sayornis nigrescens) (below) sprang wildly into the air for
insects and then chased each other around and about the oaks with wild abandon.

Remember the Cooper's hawks (Accipiter cooperii) I saw in April? Their offspring (below) can now be seen perched in the same trees their parents were frequenting last spring. They also perform daring acrobatic flights, flying among the treetops faster than my eyes can follow. This morning I watched one of them amuse himself chasing a Brown creeper (Certhia americana) up and around a tree and then nearly tip over as he landed a bit clumsily, before taking off again and disappearing into the canopy.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Squirrely day

I love Howarth Park in the early morning. When the sky is clear the sun rises over the eastern ridge creating beautiful shadows among the trees and grasses. On foggy days you can see hundreds, maybe thousands of funnel spider webs woven between grasses and attached to tree trunks. When it's foggy the light is flat and even, allowing you to see things that are invisible on bright, sunny days. If the wind is right you can barely hear the traffic on Summerfield Road and, if you're lucky, songbirds will be starting their day, too, and singing about it.

A week ago I walked on a trail I hadn't visited in a while. It skirts the edge of Howarth Park, where it meets Spring Lake Park. There's a place there where logs and brush are piled up, creating hiding places for California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi) and Black-tailed jack rabbits (Lepus californicus). The rabbits freeze in an attempt to be invisible and then kind of lope off when they catch me looking at them. I've yet to be able to get a good sketch of one. One of these days I'm going to have to just park myself in the grasses and wait until they come back from wherever they go when I arrive.

A little farther along the trail I encountered a ground squirrel nestled in the crotch of an Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana). We stared at one another for a while before some runners came along and he scrambled down the tree and disappeared in the tall grass.

Later in the day, I watched one of the western gray squirrels (Sciurus griseus) that roams our neighborhood as she climbed the bean trellis and leap acrobatically onto the bird feeder and vacuumed up most of the seed while the poor, starving birds waited patiently in the apple trees and on the bean trellis. We've tried all sorts of things to prevent the squirrels from raiding the feeder but have finally given up and let them have their way with the food. So, now we buy a little more seed and I get some nice life drawing in return.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Crow party

One of the sounds of summer in our yard is the plaintive cries of young American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) begging to be fed by their parents. Although a pair built their nest around the corner this year, they like to spend their afternoons in the valley oak in our back yard, often parking the kids there while they go out to find food for them. Our dog, Chloe, listens for the cries of the babies and heads outside when she hears it because it means that she can have the food that doesn't make it into their beaks. This can be anything from bits of donuts to packets of mayonnaise and ketchup. Yum!

Last week, several crows came around at the end of the day, two days in a row, and loudly congregated in some redwoods a block away from our house. I've seen large numbers of them congregate in those same trees as the seasons change, but this was a midsummer party.

The black and white bird in the upper left corner was drawn earlier in the day at Howarth Park. I saw it foraging on a trail but didn't recognize the markings. After watching for a bit I thought it seemed very familiar and then realized it reminded me of a California towhee (Pipilo crissalis) which led me to realize that it was a young Spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus). The adults  have such distinctive coloring that this drab youngster fooled me for a few minutes.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A couple of birds on a wire

Drawing the birds that come to my front yard poses a dilemma. If I sit outside, which is where I'd rather to be, most of the smaller birds just fly right by the nice feeder and the irritating human and her dog. I imagine that they visit feeders all over the neighborhood, so it's like they're on the bus and just skip the stop, traveling right on to the next one.

The rock pigeons (Columba livia) and mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) perch on the phone wire above our sidewalk or on the roof of our house, where I can see their shadows if it's afternoon,  and wait. I try to take advantage of the unusual view and sketch bellies, butts and feet, hoping they'll give up and fly down closer. Surely, they're sitting there hoping I'll give up and go inside so they can come and eat. They're always right! If I draw from the kitchen window I cease to be a threat.

Both birds thrive among the company of humans. Although mourning doves are native to North America, the rock pigeon was brought here from Europe in the 1600s. They've been domesticated by humans for about 5,000 years leaving their place of origin impossible to determine.

You can find more information about mourning doves and rock pigeons at All About Birds.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

While washing dishes.... night this summer I heard the distinctive call of an Oak titmouse (Baeolophus inornatus) and automatically looked out the window to see what it was up to. Recently,  a pair of these small birds had begun bringing their offspring to our feeder and I found that the four youth were careening madly around our yard and the yard next door, gathering seeds, chasing one another and generally behaving like rowdy teenagers. While the remaining dishes sat in the sink I was able to make several sketches before they took off.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Unexpected guest

Summer was slow to arrive here this year. One evening, in mid-June, I sat at the kitchen table, sketching birds as they came to our feeders. I was pleasantly surprised to see a Chestnut-backed chickadee fly furtively to a platform feeder and eat some millet or sunflower seeds. Like the oak titmice that are frequent fliers in our yard, the chickadee grabs a seed, places it between it's toes and stabs with it's beak until the seed breaks open. This is a much different method of shelling the seeds than the California towhees, house finches, house sparrows, mourning doves and rock pigeons all of whom use their stout beaks to break open the seeds.

Chickadees eat mostly insects and I can only surmise that the insect population was still low because of the cool weather. I haven't seen a chickadee at the feeder or anywhere else since that day.

For more about Chickadees visit All About Birds.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ground squirrels at the shore

Howarth Park in the winter is usually quiet and, if you stay off the main trails, not at all crowded. In the summer it's another story. Cyclists careen along the trails as though they were at the racetrack while teenage couples find a bit of privacy in the woods. Families stroll about, enjoying nature while the sound of Camp WaTam counselors leading young campers in rousing cheers and familiar camp songs as they hike about the park.

If I'm able to get myself going early, its still quiet enough to see some deer or a jackrabbit and to hear birds singing. Today, though, I was a bit pokey getting out the door and once I'd found a parking spot, Chloe and I had to navigate around the new group of campers milling about the edge of the parking lot before we could even enter the park. We skirted along the edge of Lake Ralphine and were surprised and delighted to find a California ground squirrel catching the early morning sun on a big rock overlooking the lake. She moved a few times, but always returned, giving me several chances to sketch her in her relaxed state.

I finally dragged myself away and about 12 feet farther along, a very young ground squirrel was busy stuffing grass seeds into his mouth just as fast as he could. He was 3 feet from the trail and both Chloe and I stood transfixed by the brazenly fearless youngster. At one point, a squirrel that looked very parental appeared at a safer distance to keep an eye on things and then disappeared again. I'm constantly amazed to see the traits that we call human so evident in very non-human species. By next time this year, if he survives, this young squirrel will have acquired the same caution that his parents exhibit. For now, I'm delighted by and fearful for the youngsters I see all over the park and in my neighborhood, fearlessly discovering the world.