Growing by the Bay

Category: birds

Oak Titmouse

Oak Titmouse in Iochroma Bush

The Oak Titmouse is a common resident of Northern California Oak woodlands. Typically monogamous throughout its short (about five-year) life, it nests in comfy moss-lined cavities. It is vocal, and its songs and calls are often heard when one is walking in our woods. Birds of Northern California describes its call as a nasal tsick-a-dee-dee, but as you can hear at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, its sounds are more varied than that suggests. A bit high-strung, it can often be seen hopping about in search of insects, nuts, berries, and seeds (it also frequents feeders). Though not brightly colored or patterned, it boasts a jaunty head tuft (hard to see here), and all in all is quite the charmer.

Chestnut-backed chickadee (P3301477)
Chestnut-backed chickadee (Poecile rufescens).

House finch (Carpodocus mexicanus)

house-finch (P5132028)

Originally native to the arid southwest of North America, the resourceful house finch (Carpodocus mexicanus), is now found in every U.S. state. After nesting, the finches gather into sizable flocks — ours are particularly fond of hanging out in the Pineapple guava (Feijoa). They are attractive little birds with a pleasing sort of bebop jazzy song (performed by the male). You can listen to it at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Scrub Jay on persimmon tree.

Scrub Jay on persimmon tree.

White-Crowned Sparrows.

White-Crowned Sparrows

White-Crowned Sparrows.

White-Crowned Sparrows.

White-Crowned Sparrow.

White-Crowned Sparrow.

White-Crowned Sparrow.

This little guy — a White-Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii), if I’m not mistaken — appears to think he’s tough. All the birds love the iochroma.

Actually, his alert expression is a characteristic of these birds, at least during their migratory season. Researchers — here’s one link — hope to figure how they have been able to stay alert with reduced sleep, hoping the findings might have human applications.

White-Crowned Sparrow.

White-Crowned Sparrow.


White Pelicans

white pelicans

The white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) are back at Lafayette Reservoir. Unfortunately, I only had my cell phone, and I’ll need to go back with a better camera. (I’ll update this post then.)

The white pelicans are large birds, with wingspans of as much as nine feet. From a distance they look like swans, until you see their beaks. They are social and, unlike the more common brown pelicans, they are surface feeders, not divers.

Where do these birds go in the summer?

Many ducks.

The morning commute


This brings back memories of my commute to San Francisco’s Civic Center, right down to the honking and passing along the shoulder. The traffic here is just moving a bit faster.

At this South African vineyard, a thousand Indian Runner Ducks keep the vines free of snails. The ducks are probably more enthusiastic workers than most of my fellow commuters. But then, they get paid in snails.

I guess all our garden needs now is a few hundred ducks.

Brown-headed cowbird.

Brown-Headed Cowbird

Brown-Headed Cowbird.

Brown-Headed Cowbird.

This dark-eyed little beauty appears to be a Brown-Headed Cowbird. Despite the finch-like bill, she is a kind of blackbird, the smallest in North America. The males are darker, with a metallic tint.

Like most blackbirds, cowbirds are social. But they have been chided for their seemingly Bohemian lifestyle. First, they are fully promiscuous, not pairing up like many birds. In the spring the female attracts a number of suitors, who hang out on treetops and whistle at her. It’s the avian version of bro culture. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, these dudes are “noisy, making a multitude of clicks, whistles and chatter-like calls in addition to a flowing, gurgling song.”

The female will soon need a nest, and she looks around for a nice one, figuring why construct one when there are ready-mades around for the taking. Finding a suitable nest, she removes one of the existing eggs and replaces it with her own. Then she goes on her merry way, leaving the young to be raised by foster parents. Typically larger than the host, the young cowbird will crowd out and starve the other chicks. Meanwhile, the female keeps running around. She may lay three dozen eggs in a season, in as many nests.

I don’t think cowbirds are native to my coastal area. They have expanded from inland grasslands. According to the Audubon guide, “Centuries ago this bird probably followed bison herds on the Great Plains, feeding on insects flushed from the grass by the grazers…. Heavy parasitism by cowbirds has pushed some species to the status of ‘endangered’ and has probably hurt populations of some others.”

Plain Titmouse.

Plain Titmouse

Plain Titmouse.

Plain Titmouse.

Continuing with our bird theme, we see here a Plain Titmouse, occupying the same iochroma bush that yesterday’s Chestnut-Backed Chickadee was perched on. This poor guy is saddled with the “Plain” moniker because, despite being “the sole titmouse in most of the West,” according to Peterson’s field guide, he is “the only one without distinctive markings.”

Okay, so he’s not all pimped up like some tropical show-off. He’s still a handsome little guy, with his perky head crest. He’s sharp in a range of always fashionable gray tones, set off with just a touch of white highlighting. Plus he’s got personality! Here he is wrestling with a pretty big seed, and you know it’s going to crack, no problem.

He gets along pretty well with the chickadees, but when push comes to shove, he’s the boss of that particular bush. He gets first dibs on the choicest morsels, when he cares to exercise his authority. Maybe that’s because he is, relatively speaking, a bruiser, busting the tape at a little better than five inches in length, maybe a quarter of an inch bigger than the chickadees. Why, he could probably hold his own with a sparrow if he had to! But he’s not pushy about it. I guess there’s plenty for everyone.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee.

Chestnut-Backed Chickadee

Chestnut-backed Chickadee.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee.

A chickadee couple has joined the titmouse outside the study window. This one is on one of the iochromas. Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds says that “the cap, bib, and white cheeks identify it as a chickadee,” while the chestnut back identifies the particular species of chickadee. Both the Peterson and the Audubon guides say it prefers moist habitats, such as Northwest rain forests. As it has rained here most days in January and February this year, I guess the chickadees have determined our drought is over.

Mystery hummingbird

Hummingird in iochroma

Hummingird in iochroma.

The iochroma is flowering, and that means the hummingbirds are back. I like to photograph them, in part because this particular iochroma is right outside my study window, and it makes a nice diversion from my literary work, and also because it’s challenging to freeze the speedy little hummers in photos.

But what kind of hummingbird is this? I’m not the bird identifier that Charles Hood and Jonathan Franzen (my companions on a Catamaran catamaran a while back) are. I get frustrated because bird books tend to feature adult males. I suspect this one might be immature, or maybe even a female. In any case, try as I might, I cannot find a reference to California hummingbird that has a yellow patch on its head.

Any birders out there?

Hummingbird and Iochroma

hummingbird in iochromaThis hummingbird loves the iochroma. Iochroma is a Central or South American plant unrelated to fuschia but similar in appearance. The flowers can be blue, purple, red, yellow, or white. It does quite well in our region.

The iochromas I have are Iochroma coccinea, which I bought as seedlings at Annie’s Annuals in Richmond. Annie’s says it comes from Peru and is “totally tropical,” but the American Horticultural Society says it is from Central America (if anyone can shed light on this please provide info in the comments). Annie’s also says it blooms spring through fall but this year mine stopped blooming sometime in July, possibly as a result of our terrible drought. I thought they might be done for the year, but as this picture taken August 19 (date of this update) shows, they are back now with another blooming season:

Iochroma coccinea

Iochroma coccinea and norfolk pine

Annie’s charges about $10 for a seedling in a four-inch container. But the plant can be propagated from greenwood cuttings in late spring or from semi-ripe cuttings in summer. It should be top-dressed in spring. Pinching young plants will enourage bushiness.

This one is in a container, so it requires water once or twice a week in the dry season. I have another in the ground, which is larger — at least nine feet tall — and requires no maintenance at all.

All parts of the plant are poisonous. But not to hummingbirds.

Fratricide by the bay

There was a time when San Francisco’s Mitchell brothers were considered by many to be hip, heroes of the counterculture. Today, as a result of the direction their lives took, they are more likely to be perceived as examples of the degradations of porn.

But I’ve seen worse. Just the past weekend. In my own backyard.

I mean, the Mitchells weren’t cannibals, as far as I know. Apparently the same can’t be said for Cooper’s hawks. Four of the birds have been inhabiting my backyard this summer. They must have hatched from the same nest this spring. They got big fast, and our squirrels and finches have been looking nervous, keeping a wary lookout. These fierce birds squeeze their prey to death with their sharp viselike talons.

So this weekend I went out back and found that now we have three Cooper’s hawks — one of them was feasting on another. After I took the picture above it picked up the dead bird and flew away with it, as if it were but a single feather.

Not exactly a bambi moment.

Great Blue Heron at Lafayette Reservoir

The Lafayette Reservoir is a pretty little lake of 115 acres. It’s a tame spot, much used by joggers, families, and dog walkers. An easy 4.7-mile trail loops around the lake from the parking area. The reservoir itself is not drained seasonally as many are, so it retains a natural-looking, reedy shoreline.

There is a book launch on the lake, but it’s restricted to boats that can be hand launched, and gas motors aren’t allowed. All-day parking is $6 and there is a $4 boat use fee. There are many picnic tables — 135, according to park literature — some of which can be accessed by boat. Last Friday we canoed over to this float and had a little picnic. The float was also accessible by trail, but most of the joggers and dog walkers are so focused on their circuit of the lake they rarely come down to the water.

floating picnic area, lafayette reservoir

It’s quiet on the water, and by boat you have access to things the joggers don’t see, like the great blue heron in the upper right of this photo.

canoe and heron on lafayette reservoir

Because canoes are the most maneuverable and quietest of water craft, it is possible for canoeists to get very close to wildlife.

great blue heron at lafayette reservoir

Lafayette Reservoir at Bay Area Hiker

Oil spills, volunteers, and the San Francisco Bay Area

volunteer canyon, marin county

Today beaches near the Golden Gate are closed as a noxious oil spill is washing up against the shore. A large South Korean-based Hanjin container ship struck one of the supports of the Bay Bridge and released oil into the bay from a damaged tank. According to Caltrans engineers the bridge got the better of the collision and suffered no significant damage. The cause of the crash is a mystery, since the bridge is pretty easy to spot by eye or radar, even in heavy fog. The ship even had a local pilot aboard. We are still waiting to learn the extent of the environmental damage.

The most famous oil spill on the bay occurred on January 19, 197. On that date, two oil tankers, the Arizona Standard and a sister ship, the Oregon Standard, collided in the bay. Winds and currents drove the resulting spill north toward Bolinas Lagoon in Marin County. As the Point Reyes Light recalls, “The collision ripped open six of the Oregon’s 26 fuel oil compartments, dumping 840,000 gallons of oil into the bay — more than half of which ended up on beaches around the Bay Area. The spill killed roughly 20,000 birds and some seven million marine organisms, according to Bay Area researchers.”

What was most remarkable about the event was the rallying of community support for the embattled beaches. The community of Bolinas quickly rallied. Sculptor Tom D’Onofrio shared his recollections with the Light:

Drawing on his days at a logging camp in the Adirondacks, D’Onofrio felt that stringing a boom — a row of logs — across the lagoon’s narrow mouth might provide a decent barrier, and that hay could be used to soak up oil.

“It was a crude plan, but this was instantaneous thinking,” the sculptor said.

He approached neighbor John Armstrong, a boatbuilder with many logs on his property, and persuaded him to help with the boom’s construction.

D’Onofrio then drove down to Scowley’s, the local cafe and hangout (now site of the Kaleidoscope women’s craft collective) to enlist manpower.

“I went into Scowley’s and jumped on a counter and yelled, ‘This is what’s happened: there’s oil offshore and it’s coming this way,'” D’Onofrio recalled. “‘We need every able-bodied man, woman, and big child. Can we count on you?’ And everyone there yelled, ‘Yeah, we’ll do it!'” By the time the band of volunteers reached the beach, hundreds of residents had converged at the end of Wharf Road to help.

While many birds were lost a large number were also saved, and the actions of the volunteers were inspiring. A nearby canyon was renamed Volunteer Canyon in commemoration of their efforts. It is home now to an Audubon center, and is the nesting place for egrets and blue herons. The image shows a group of birders enjoying the canyon, whose preservation is due in part to the sense of community that resulted from the mobilization of the volunteers.

On their own: In Bolinas, residents struggle to keep fragile lagoon safe.
The residents were angry that such important work was left to amateurs while an international cleanup effort is under way only a few miles away.”



This pair decided a while back to hang out on a telephone pole outside my door. The big guy liked to hold a pose for long intervals with his wings outstretched. What does that behavior signify?

The large birds are pretty graceful, but I have to say it’s a weird sensation to look out the bathroom window and see that wingspread, not to mention the bare necks and beedy eyes.

On a related note, every day lately on the way into the city we pass a very large hawk sitting on the concrete lip of the appropriately named flyway that carpools use near the bridge approach.

Green flight

According to recent reports, many of the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill are moving to the suburbs — relocating to Brisbane.

Pelican Redux

santa cruz pelicanBy popular request, here’s another (clickable) view of our grave feathered friend.

Pelican at Santa Cruz Boardwalk

pelicanOkay, I’ll admit it, I’ve been a little lazy about posting here the past few days. I’ll have more to say about the Santa Cruz boardwalk later on. For now I’ll just let this image speak for itself (I think it might be saying “Hey, buddy, where’s the fish?”). Click the photo for a larger view.

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