Cousins out for a hike

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.

Maples were glowing in full color, and the kids were so busy talking or playing a game, they didn’t even notice the long walk uphill (which was just around the corner from here).
Small ranchitos were tucked into the hillsides, and we could see quite a few vineyards.
Although the trail was mostly up, there were several places to stop and gaze at the view across the valley.
On a fairly clear day in San Jose we could see all the way across the valley to the inner coast range of hills. Crossing those takes you to the broad and long Central Valley, California’s agricultural capital.

the termite feast

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.

Winged phase termites emerging for their mating flight might get gobbled up by insectivores perched nearby. They emerge in swarms, but are rather clumsy, slow fliers, so they are easy to pick up.
A Chestnut-backed Chickadee was watching from a tree while Bushtits darted out from the bushes below it.
One of many Common Bushtits foraging on the termites. They flew right up to us, close enough to touch as they grabbed termites flying around us. The white iris means this is a female.
Adult male (or juvenile) on the left and female bushtit posed together briefly before darting out to catch termites flying by. Bushtits are highly gregarious even when foraging, and will line up on a branch sitting right next to each other when they are roosting. They only weigh about 5 grams, less than half of a chickadee’s weight, so their little bodies cool off quickly. Even on a warm day, they puff up their feathers so they look like little puff-balls.
A Hermit Thrush peeked out from the underbrush but wasn’t brave enough to approach the source of the termite emergence near where we were standing.

But another bird was completely unperturbed by our presence, and amazingly, hopped right in front of us to grab termites off the ground.

If it had not been for the termite explosion in the Bay Area the past couple of weeks, I’m not sure we would ever have seen this handsome Townsend’s Warbler, which normally hangs out in the tops of coniferous trees in coastal forests. I don’t think ground feeding is something it does often.
But when you’re hungry and on migration from the northwestern U.S. and western Canada to southern coastal and central Mexico montane forests, you capitalize on easy prey when it is available. This little male moved around on the ground right in front of us, grabbing bites of termites as they emerged from a hole in the ground.
Completely out of its usual habitat of cool coniferous forests, Townsend’s Warbler brief appearance in the scrub vegetation in an urban creek area was a real treat for us.

Jays of the forest

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.

Like its eastern cousin the Blue Jay, Steller’s Jays have a crest, and like Blue Jays and Scrub Jays, they are intensely curious, especially of photographers creeping up on them, This bird played hide and seek with me, dodging behind tree stumps and hiding in thick brush as I tried to get a better angle on it.

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.

The hike along Steven’s Creek park in Cupertino was cool and rather dark with all the evergreen vegetation over the trail. Finding birds in the dense vegetation is challenging, and there isn’t much light to work with.
Steller’s Jays prefer the mixed deciduous and coniferous forests of the coast range of California. In the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains, they are usually found in coniferous forest at low to mid altitudes.
“can you see me now?” Darn bird, hiding in the sticks.
I had never noticed before that Steller’s Jays have turquoise eyebrows running vertically up their crest. They can also flare their crest forward or flatten it down, depending on their mood.
Their curiosity makes them adept at finding new food sources, so Steller’s Jays are quick to find bird feeders, or new eggs or nestlings in another bird’s nest, or a source of acorns they can cache for later. And they seem to have excellent memories for where they have hidden their food treasures.

Now that’s orange!

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.

Bountiful fruit from a tree that subsists on what limited rainfall comes to this Northern California backyard in recent winters.

I picked about 50 of these orange beauties and squeezed out their juice to make the “orangiest” orange juice I’ve ever seen.

Compare the orange-ness (if there is such a term) of the “Simply Orange” store brand juice on the left with the real thing from the backyard on the right! Nothing added to affect its color, honest! It’s sweet-tasting and obviously full of carotenoids, the natural chemicals that contain precursors for Vitamin A, which in turn is required for synthesis of rhodopsin pigment in retinal cells for light sensitivity.

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!

Another beautiful fall day

We should be having rain in California now, but I am grateful for a succession of warm, sunny days and walks along one of the several creeks that run through the city of San Jose.

The trail that runs along the Los Alamitos creek in the Almaden valley is lined with sycamores that glow yellow-orange in the late afternoon light.
Fall color is at its peak in the city, with boulevard trees showing various hues of red, orange, and yellow and riparian vegetation dominated by the yellow-orange hues of the giant sycamores that line the banks of the creek.
The Los Alamitos creek trail runs about 5 miles along this creek, with an asphalt walking/biking path on both sides, and numerous foot/horse trails nearer the creek.

How fortunate local residents are to have this scenic natural area to explore as often as they wish, especially during this delightful fall weather.

More California favorites

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.

Acorn woodpeckers are not only beautiful to look at but fascinating to watch. They are close cousins of our Midwestern Red-headed Woodpecker, and share some of their interesting behaviors, like food caching and “helpers at the nest” in which last year’s offspring help feed the current crop of chicks.
A somewhat exotic bird, even by California standards — the Wrentit, whose closest relatives are the long-tailed Tits of Asia. This is the only American representative of that family. Its call reminds me of that of the Field Sparrow — a bouncing ping pong ball. The white iris is distinctive and unusual in birds.
Bewick’s Wren is a perky little bird that flits about in the brush, never still, unless it has stopped momentarily to scold you for getting too close. Its behavior is very similar to our Midwestern House Wren.
The western version of the Slate-colored Junco is so much prettier then the Midwestern race. On the west coast it is called an Oregon Junco, but it is genetically pretty much the same bird we see in the rest of North America. I’m not sure if this race is migratory or not,
White-crowned Sparrows are found everywhere in brushy habitat on the west coast. Most of them breed at northern latitudes all the way into Alaska or in high montane meadows, but spend the winter in mild California climates. This was the bird that got me interested in field biology research back in my undergraduate days. They look a lot like the eastern White-throated Sparrow, and are in the same genus.
I never realized how common these two species were in grassy California meadows where they can poke around looking for fallen seed. I always thought Golden-crowned Sparrows (left) were rare, while the White-crowned Sparrows were common, but it is just the reverse in the oak-grasslands of the northern bay watersheds (around San Leandro reservoir). The west coast race of the Fox Sparrow (right) is grayer than our (prettier) chestnut version found in the Midwest.
Spotted Towhees occupy western habitats, and the almost identical Eastern Towhee is found all over eastern North America. When I took ornithology, they were the same species, but taxonomists have decided they should be split. However, they do interbreed where their ranges overlap in the Great Plains. In addition to their spots on their wings, Spotted Towhees only sing part of the Eastern Towhee’s song: “drink your teaaaaaaaa” is truncated to just “teaaaaaaa”.

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.

The white-tailed mouse hunter

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?

If the wind is just right, these long-winged raptors barely have to flap to stay in position. They are striking birds, with their white head and body, gray-black shoulder patches, and orange eyes.
Typically, the kites hovered or soared over a spot until they spotted something moving below and then dove down on it, feet extended and wings up.
We didn’t see a successful capture on this particular day, but we did see several attempts, with bird pulling up at the last moment to continue its search.

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.

White-tailed Kites maintain a breeding territory and defend it from other kites or potential predators. They tend to roost or nest in the same spot, and I spotted this pair in the same tree on two successive days, so maybe this was a favorite hang-out for them in their territory.
The kites were clearly upset by a pair of Red-tailed Hawks circling over a grassy hillside nearby and flew over to the hawks to dive-bomb them a couple of times.
My new favorite bird, — the White-tailed Kite.

New favorites

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!

Hillsides of oak savanna and chaparral surround the long arm of the reservoir. The shallow water at one end is a perfect place to find ducks and shorebirds.
Several species of ducks, herons, egrets, Kildeer, and even a couple of Snipe were working the shoreline of the reservoir as we walked past.
A trail winds in and out of contours in the hillside along the reservoir.
A forest of valley oak lead downhill to the water.
At points along the trail, a hiker may be inundated with the wonderful aroma of California Bay trees.

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.

My new favorite bird, the White-tailed Kite!

When I see a new bird, I have to take a couple hundred photos of it, just to make sure I get one that is decent. This particular kite was hovering over a field looking for mice or frogs or something, and stayed in one spot, hovering and riding the wind, making it very easy to get lots of good photos.

Back to fall weather

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.

The trail runs about 5 miles along the burbling and clearwater Los Alamitos creek in southwestern San Jose, CA.
Flitting about in the underbrush were two male Ruby-crowned Kinglets that were more consumed with fighting with each other than with a photographer standing nearby. It’s almost impossible to get this close to these birds in Minnesota.
Gnarled tree roots of the big sycamore trees that line the creek bank make good perches for flycatching birds.
Sure enough, a little Black Phoebe was hunting there, flying out from a perch to grab insects flying by and then settling down on a tree root again.
A beautiful sycamore parkland!