Posted by: atowhee | January 26, 2018


Watching and Listening

In past decades I have spent thousands of hours looking at wild birds. I have spent additional hundreds of hours reading others’ descriptions and explanations of birds and their societies. Most observations are similar to what I’ve seen or heard previously.  Often the behavior you can see among wild birds will be the usual.  Sparrows will generally feed on the ground.  A Black Phoebe will find a perch a few above the ground and fly-catch from that perch.  A harrier will course a few feet over low vegetation while hunting. Sandhill Cranes will calmly drift away from your viewpoint if you get out of your vehicle and look at them. American Pipits will feed along roadsides and in other open places.  Rough-legged Hawks wintering in the Klamath Basin will often stand on the ground; they are not big admirers of trees or utility poles.  When the wind is raging in from the Pacific, gulls will face into the wind as they huddle on the beach or offshore rocks.

Yet, any bird at any moment is capable of showing you something new, teaching you something you never previously imagined. Yesterday I watched a first year Bald Eagle pursuing another bird.  Eagles often chase potential prey like ducks or geese.  In fact I had seen one mature eagle try to grab a white-fronted goose off the water.  The more agile, quicker goose escaped each attack until the eagle was exhausted and landed in the shallow water to catch its breath. That is a familiar pattern for both birds. Eagles are known to pester Osprey until they can steal the Osprey’s fish. They will often bully smaller raptors like red-tails or harriers and steal their prey.  Eagles are, in fact, the perfect symbol for a country where money and profit are paramount.  But this eagle was chasing…a raven.  What had the raven done to infuriate the kid eagle?  The raven was not carrying any visible prey and was smarter and more maneuverable in the air than the big eagle.  Each sortie ended with the eagle empty-taloned, and finally exhausted, so it gave up the chase. I often see ravens harassing, but rarely bothered by a larger predator with little chance of catching the crafty corvid.  Crows, jays and blackbirds go after ravens to keep them from nests or food, but I have never seen a big raptor chase one unless the raven threatens an active nest or some obvious food source like a carcass.  Perhaps this was just a young eagle learning a tough life lesson: you may be strong and big but you aren’t the lone bully on the playground.

Here in the Sacramento River Valley I learn that Rock Wrens frequent parking lots.  I have previously known this species as a denizen of rocky slopes, rock dams, landslides, volcanic out-croppings.  Are these birds down from the Sierra where they breed in the expected habitat but here must settle for a man-made imitation of rocky terrain?  The Sacramento River Valley is largely free of surface rocks and boulders except for river-side gravel bars or man-made rock deposits, so maybe…   Yesterday I saw a Rock Wren at Delevan NWR, miles from the nearest boulder, perched on a large piece of metal earth-moving equipment in a small gravel parking lot.  Is this the wren version of adapting to human landscapes?  Like the Cliff and Barn Swallows moving to nest on buildings or bridges rather than cliffs or caves?  Like the Robin moving down from the Sierra forests to begin nesting in San Francisco after man had planted enough shrubs and lawns to please a robin’s preferences?  Like the Hooded Orioles moving northward from desert oases to nest in town and city as landscapers planted the bird’s beloved fan palms the length of California?

More anon…



  1. I welcome more good observations like these, thanks. m a

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