The adult cousins wanted to take their kids on a hike in the Sierra Azul open space preserve, so we tagged along to see what there was to see in this very large semi-wild area in the foothills of the outer coast range mountains south of San Jose, CA.
The winged phase of termites were swarming last week in several places we hiked. And the local insectivorous birds were cashing in on some easy meals. One particular termite feast featured more than a dozen Little Bushtits, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, a Hermit Thrush, California Towhees, and a rare Townsend’s Warbler, all flitting about catching termites in the air or just emerging from a ground nest.
But another bird was completely unperturbed by our presence, and amazingly, hopped right in front of us to grab termites off the ground.
Hiking into cool evergreen forests in the outer coast range near San Jose CA, you immediately meet up with the “jays of the forest”, the Steller’s Jay. We hear them before we see them, and they really are stellar to look at with their vivid black and deep blue plumage.
Steller’s Jays are found only in the western North and Central America, typically in montane forests, like the coast range. In the U.S., they are found in coastal montane areas from Alaska through Canada to California and in the Rocky Mountains, where they barely overlap with the range of their closest cousin, the Blue Jay.
It’s orange time in California — not just the orange of fall color, but the production of fruit. Citrus trees are loaded with oranges, like the beautiful navel tree in my mother-in-law’s backyard.
I picked about 50 of these orange beauties and squeezed out their juice to make the “orangiest” orange juice I’ve ever seen.
There are other benefits to the consumption of this colorful fruit whose juice is rich not only in carotenoids, but Vitamin C and various flavonoids that are powerful anti-oxidants that scavenge the many free-radical compounds generated in daily metabolism.
Orange season: another good reason to love this time of year in California, and to be grateful for the work of early Chinese horticulturalists who hybridized their native Asian citrus species to produce the first sweet oranges, as early as 300 B.C. And then thanks also to Moorish traders that brought the sweet orange from the Middle East to Europe during the Middle Ages, causing various royal families to build palace greenhouses to keep orange trees producing during colder months of the year. And finally, thanks to Spanish explorers who brought orange trees with them to Florida, this prodigious fruit tree found the perfect sub-tropical niche in which to flourish in North America.
Of the many things I am thankful for this week of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for my mother-in-law’s orange tree!
It’s always fun to get reacquainted with once familiar bird friends. Growing up in California most of these were common, everyday birds, but now having lived in MN for the past 35 years, they have become more exotic than common.
What I’ve illustrated here are several examples of what happens when animals are isolated geographically, and develop locally slightly differently on the two sides of a barrier. What happened in Towhees, Fox Sparrows, Juncos, White-breasted Nuthatches, and scores of other bird species was the result of an east-west separation for thousands of years during glaciations that split North America down the middle and pushed bird species like these into distinct western and eastern North American populations that slowly diverged over generations from their parental lineage.
It’s rare (for me) to get long looks at raptors, but a pair of White-tailed Kites hunting in a grassy marsh at San Leandro reservoir were very cooperative photography subjects as they “kited” over the marsh looking for mice.
“Kiting” is a good description of what these birds do as they hover/soar 60-80 feet over an area with wings outstretched and catching just the right breeze to enable them to stay in one spot for long periods. Could there be a better subject for flight photography?
White-tailed Kites are mouse specialists, although they might also prey on birds, lizards, or even large insects. They are more common in South America than North America, and their numbers dwindled to near extinction in the1940s due to hunting and egg collection. Even now they are only found in grassy or marshy fields along the coast and some inland Central Valley locations in California and a few areas in Texas and Mexico.
One (positive) thing about restricted travel in the Age of Covid is finding new places to hike/bird watch within a few miles of places you have visited many times before. And so it happened that a new friend took us on a drive to the San Leandro reservoir part of the East Bay watershed, just 20 minutes from my daughter’s house. And now I have a new favorite hunting ground for bird photography!
The landscapes definitely held my interest, but that’s not why we were here either. It was for the birds, of course, and they didn’t disappoint.
Here’s a teaser, and I’ll post more on the bird life of Valle Vista Staging Area next time.
I love being able to go back in time — back in seasons of the year, anyway. Here in California, fall color is just starting, and we have the warm, sunny days and cool nights I associate with fall weather. So a pleasant walk along the Los Alamitos creek in San Jose is the perfect way to spend an afternoon.