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Archive for August, 2014

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Tower Bridge at sunrise (photo by Aaron N.K. Haiman)

This morning I birded River Walk Park along the West Sacramento side of the Sacramento River. This was my first visit to River Walk Park, so I was not sure what I would find. I decided to start at the Yolo County Park near 4th and B St. and head south as far as the Tower Bridge. I parked at 6:15am and started off. The first thing that struck me was how many feral cats were hanging around. There must have been at least 15 cats just around the boat launch area! Not good news for the birds.

But, cats not withstanding, I did have a very nice morning with a bunch of great birds (see below for a complete list)! Some of the highlights were my first Townsend’s and Black-throated Gray Warblers of the fall. The Black-throated Gray was a really pretty adult female that gave me a really good look as she foraged in the top of a sycamore tree. Another fun bird was hatch-year Black-headed Grosbeak that was flying among the little tree right in front of the Ziggurat Building. Another particularly fun moment for me was as I stood under a small group of oak trees. I was trying to see a small bird that was flitting around in the foliage high above me. I finally got a good look at it and found that it was a Wilson’s Warbler. While not rare, these bright droplets of sun-gold feathers are always nice to see. As i watched it flew into a different group of oaks, and then another golden droplet followed, and then another, and another. In total, the group was comprised of six Wilson’s Warblers, probably a family group. I don’t get to see that many of these birds together like that very often, so this was a real treat.

The area that I walked through began in a very unkempt riparian habitat that obviously had a lot of human use which includes people spending the night in the thickets and probably a lot of other not-quite-legal activities. It is very obvious that this stretch of land gets little or no care. Overall, this part of my walk was more wild with rocky and uneven dirt paths, lots of undergrowth, and lots of trash as well. The more southern part of my walk today took me into a part of the park that is the exact opposite. Perfectly manicured green lawns, with nice paved walkways with landscaped plants, and no trash at all. The boarder between these two areas was the I street Bridge which is where a set of train tracks crosses the Sacramento River. If you stand below the tracks and look one way and then the other you see these two very different worlds, just look at the two photos below.

Looking south from the I Street Bridge (Photo by Aaron N.K. Haiman)

Looking south from the I Street Bridge (Photo by Aaron N.K. Haiman)

Looking north from the I Street bridge (Phtot by Aaron N.K. Haiman)

Looking north from the I Street bridge (Photo by Aaron N.K. Haiman)

It seems like some effort should go into cleaning up the northern part of this area. It would make the place much more inviting. When I see areas like this one, it makes me want to organize a clean up day. Even if I don’t organize a clean up day for others, I will start bringing trash home on my own when I visit in the future. The birding was definitely worth returning in the near future!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is the species list, with numbers of individuals in parentheses ().

Brandt’s Cormorant (1)

Great Blue Heron (1)

Mallard (12)

Spotted Sandpiper (1)

Western Gull (5)

Rock Pigeon (20)

Anna’s Hummingbird (4)

Nuttall’s Woodpecker (1)

Black Phoebe (3)

Western Scrub Jay (12)

Yellow-billed Magpie (7)

American Crow (25)

Barn Swallow (16)

Oak Titmouse (6)

Bushtit (35)

House Wren (2)

Northern Mockingbird (1)

European Starling (9)

Black-throated Gray Warbler (1)

Townsend’s Warbler (1)

Wilson’s Warbler (9)

Spotted Towhee (2)

California Towhee (1)

Black-headed Grosbeak (1)

Brewer’s Blackbird (1)

Lesser Goldfinch (1)

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When I am out walking just about anywhere in central California, one of the plants that I see growing all around me is Mallow. From back yards in Berkeley to sidewalk edges in Sacramento to fields in the Sierra foothills, mallow, with its deep green leaves and small flowers, is all around us. But, these common weeds are often overlooked, and I think this is a real shame because they are such a delicious food!

The name mallow refers to plants of the family Malvaceae, which contains close to 2,300 species worldwide. They are found throughout the temperate and subtropical regions of Europe, Asia and Africa, and have also been introduced to North America where they are doing quite well, indeed. This family contains numerous important crops plants such as Cotton, Hibiscus, and Okra. Other species of mallow are planted as decorative garden flowers or considered agricultural pests. They grow pretty much everywhere including lawns, along edges of fields and roads, and often in our own gardens.

As a food plant, mallow has one of the longest recorded histories on record. The ancient Greek poet, Horace (65 BCE to 8 BCE), was said to enjoy a simple diet of “olives, endives, and mallows.” Greens can be eaten raw in salads or cooked as either a saute green or in soups. The seeds have many medicinal properties as well, and the flowers and buds are also edible. One aspect of mallow that I find makes it particularly satisfying as an edible is that it grows so abundantly. Large plants can be found that will supply several meals of easy-to-gather leaves, and will re-seed themselves to allow for future foraging.

Additionally, mallow plants are very easy to identify. They have round leaves that range from 2 to 5 inches across, and that grow on alternating sides of the stems. The stems and undersides of the leaves are covered with small hairs. These hairs can be somewhat bristly, especially on larger leaves, so only the smaller leaves should be used in salads. The hairs soften when exposed to heat and so do not add any unpleasant textures to a cooked dish; therefore larger leaves are fine to eat as long as you are planning on cooking them. Plants can grow in several forms from low-lying herbaceous plants only a few inches off the ground, to large bushes that can be 6 feet tall, or more. Their small, five-petal flowers (0.25 to 2 inches across) range from white to pink to purple.

Two interesting side notes on the members of the mallow family. One is that they display a characteristic called protandry which means that young plants are all males and they change to being female later in life. The other is that it is thought that the color mauve got its name from the French word for the mallow plant.

So watch for mallow when you are out and about, and enjoy!

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You are walking down a trail in a city park right here in the city of Berkeley. As it winds its way between huge boulders and beneath overhanging bushes, your attention is drawn up into a nearby tree by the sound of scratching. There, a squirrel is scrabbling up the trunk of a tree. As it ascends you notice a thick mat of sticks higher in the tree, way up near the tree’s crown. Is it the squirrel’s nest? The squirrel climbs higher, and then moves beneath the lower edge of the stick platform and then up around the side. As the squirrel begins to get on top of the mass of sticks, it is met with the oncoming rush of the beak and talons of a female Cooper’s Hawk. The mass of sticks is not squirrel’s home, it is the Hawk’s. The squirrel is in full retreat now, and the Cooper’s Hawk in full pursuit. The squirrel begins racing in the direction in which it can go the fastest, strait down the tree trunk. The Cooper’s Hawk immediately drops after it, skimming strait down along the bark of the tree. As the hawk gains, the squirrel jumps, letting go of the tree completely and free-falling into the bushes below. It is only then that the hawk gives up the chase and returns to her nest.

What you just witnessed was the defense of one of about a dozen Cooper’s Hawk nests in Berkeley and Albany. Cooper’s Hawks in Berkeley? That’s right. These roughly crow-sized predatory birds get along quite well with humans and the cities humans live in. They eat birds and small mammals which they often capture by ambushing their prey in dense vegetation and then chasing it down in a burst of speed. They are superbly adapted to this style of hunting with short rounded wings which give the speed while not getting hung up on foliage and a long tail which acts and a rudder allowing them to turn and twist through thick undergrowth and not lose their prey.

The ability to live well with humans is unusual for a predator. Most birds of prey are too sensitive to disturbance to live in such close contact with humans or need larger areas of open spaces in which to hunt than are available within such a human-dominated landscape as downtown Berkeley, but Cooper’s Hawks find a way. They are so tolerant in fact, that in Berkeley and Albany, more Cooper’s Hawk nests can be found per square mile than in any other recorded area in North America. They nest in mature trees in almost any kind of habitat from quiet city parks to busy city intersections. And Berkeley in not alone in being an urban area that has nesting Cooper’s Hawks. In California, most urban areas have populations. Outside of the state, populations that have been studied in some detail include urban areas of Arizona, Illinois, and Vancouver, Canada.

Beginning about 15 years ago, a group of dedicated volunteers have been keeping tabs each year on the levels of Cooper’s Hawk activity in Berkeley. The group, the Cooper’s Hawk Intensive Nest Survey (CHINS), has divided the 10.4 square miles of Berkeley into smaller units. Each volunteer takes responsibility for one of these units, and searches it to locate and track the presents of Cooper’s Hawks. Searching begins in late January when the hawks first arrive in the area back from their wintering grounds, and continue all through the breeding season until the adults and a new generation of young Cooper’s Hawks depart to return south in August. In between, many observations are made and recorded such as when the hawks arrive, when nest building begins and ends, how many young hatch and when, how many young fledge and when, what they are eating and how much, and finally when the adults and young disperse.

Some the information that CHINS has found is that while Cooper’s Hawks nest in greater density in Berkeley than elsewhere.Also, they are eating a lower number of species then in more rural areas, and of these fewer species a large portion (~33%) are Rock Pigeon, European Starling, and other species that are not native to California. On this limited diet, the hawks are able to breed just fine with most nests fledging 3-4 young each year.

The CHINS project is a branch of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, and both are examples of scientific studies made possible by volunteers from the community working to monitor and record raptor populations. Cooper’s Hawks, and birds of prey as a whole, can function as indicators of ecosystem health and stability. This makes them especially important and useful to study, and the fact that individuals from the community are able and willing act as citizen scientists and devote their time and energies to such an endeavor show both that such work can be done and that there is interest and support that such work be done.

To find out more about the CHINS Contact Allen Fish at (415) 331-0730 and find out how you can help protect your raptorial neighbors.

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