What’s New?

Recent Posts ~ February 2018

In recent weeks, we’ve added profiles of some of our favorite spots for winter waterbird viewing: the Hamilton Wetlands and Las Gallinas Ponds joining our earlier entries on Rush Creek and the Bahia Lagoon to round out our closest watery hotspots while the duck viewing’s good. Away from the water, we described the pleasures of a winter visit to the woods at Indian Tree, premier varied thrush spot of Novato. Jack also logged the first progress report on his new undertaking of a “Thoreauvian Big Year,” an attempt to see as many birds as possible within a ten mile’s journey from home, sans car, and got ready for spring with an introduction to the songs of ten of our most notable backyard songbirds

Meanwhile on the tree front, things are now starting to leaf out or flower, including two of my favorite new-leafers: the black oak and the California buckeye

This Month in Nature: February

January is the prologue to California spring: greening hills, a few flowering plants, and the precocious outliers of the bird world like owls and hummingbirds beginning their nesting activity. But February is when things really start cooking.
Milkmaids at Old Lucas Valley Road
Hound’s Tongue – David A. Hofmann
Shooting Stars – Lars Rosengreen
New black oak leaves and flowers

A whole bunch of different trees flower or leaf out in February, from the big valley oaks on the round green hills, to buckeyes unclenching their leaf bud fists into those fresh and quirky five-fingered leaves, to the alders along the creeks festooned with green-golden catkins. Meanwhile, a variety of early season wildflowers will bloom this month; now is the time to visit the store for a local flower guide. Some flowering can be triggered in December or January by rain or warm weather, but it is February’s surest of signs – lengthening days, with more available sunlight – that steps both plants and animals irrevocably into the changes of spring. Insects emerge to feed on fresh plant growth and nectar-bearing flowers, and both that plant material and the insects themselves contribute to the food available for birds. This growing bounty of increasingly abundant food will be one of the main prerequisites to successful nesting, a stressful endeavor at the best of times as a pair of small songbirds attempts to feed not only themselves, but also their 4–7 offspring over the course of the several week voyage from egg to independence.

How does the nesting season begin? With song.

Perhaps your ears have become too inured to our myriad mechanical and recorded noises and the yearly explosion of birdsong has never yet really registered on your awareness. In that case, you have something wonderful to look forward to this month! Just step outside your house early in the morning, or better yet step out into a nice diverse woodland area with lots of different trees and plants.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

– Emily Dickinson

We don’t have bobolinks here (a grassland blackbird family bird – kind of like meadowlarks), but the sentiment is equally applicable: birdsong can strike our first and perfectly valid level of perception simply as a radiant outpouring of life and vitality that seems to embody heavenly divinity much more directly than the tedious intermediaries of long-winded clergymen or verbose bloggers. So feel free to turn off the computer, step out under the trees, and listen if the present sermon starts to drag.

Singing junco – Kaaren Perry

Of course, birds are not merely singing for our pleasure. The basic evolutionary reason for birdsong is as a means of demonstrating one’s health and fitness to potential mates and for declaring one’s preparedness to defend a territory. The diversity of our reactions to the musical content of different birds’ songs should be a warning against applying our exact sentiments to the singers: in the abstract, many people think of birdsong as joyful, but the minor-key melodies of say golden-crowned sparrows and hermit thrushes are apt to strike the average human as more melancholy in tone. In short, the birds are not simply “singing with joy” (or with plaintive depression). But neither are they actually thinking of the biological “purpose” they are executing. Instead, they have a strong instinctive and on some level emotional drive to sing without knowing exactly why – a feeling which we cannot fully understand, but which we can plausibly connect with feelings of health, vigor, and in some birds a more or less monogamous attraction to their mate.

A great many of our backyard birds are now singing: house finches, goldfinches, titmice, juncos, Bewick’s wrens, and more. If you want to start learning birdsong, the best way is to go outside with your binoculars and find the bird. Try to describe the song in a way that makes sense to you, whether with a mnemonic like “oh-dear-me” or with a description like “three clear high whistles descending in pitch” for the song of the golden-crowned sparrow, for instance.

A good field guide will have descriptions of birdsongs as well. Once you’ve recognized a singer in your yard, read your field guide’s description and try to relate it to what you’ve heard to help put it in verbal terms our brains can remember. Another useful tool is Cornell’s All About Birds website, which has recordings for all the birds you will encounter singing in your yard. Easiest of all, you can started with an overview of ten of our common backyard bird songs in our new post

For most birds, the next steps – actual nest construction and egg-laying – will wait until the upcoming months. But there are a few backyard songbirds who can actually begin nesting in February. Many of this early-nesting group share a few characteristics: they nest in tree cavities or birdhouses (where the nests will be more protected from late winter storms than open nests) and they are year-round residents rather than migratory birds (who are only just starting to arrive here). The main potential yard birds in this category are oak titmice, chestnut-backed chickadees, Bewick’s wrens, and western bluebirds. All of these birds can be attracted to an appropriately sized and placed nesting box – visit us at Wild Birds Unlimited in Novato for help with selecting one. 

Allen’s Hummingbird – Theresa Fisher

Meanwhile, the earliest northbound migratory birds are now appearing: Allen’s hummingbirds. These guys are smaller than our year-round Anna’s hummingbirds and can be identified by their rusty-orange flanks. You may also see them performing their own distinctive courtship dive. While Anna’s simply climb to a great height and then come plummeting down with a loud chirp at the bottom, Allen’s hummingbirds precede each climb-and-dive with some back and forth shuttling flights, generally accompanied by some audible wing noise as they make their turns.

As for departures, there aren’t many yet! February is a fun month where you get to enjoy both the great diversity of winter birds along with the incipient nesting behavior of our year-round residents. In the backyard, the abundant winter sparrows will remain generally common through March, after which they will gradually thin out. Woodland songbirds like Townsend’s warblers, yellow-rumped warblers, and ruby-crowned kinglets will be with us a while yet. Beyond the yard though, February marks the last month of really strong waterfowl abundance, as many duck species begin to move north this month, a process which will continue in March. The peak time to visit local bodies of water and see the maximum abundance and diversity of ducks is now drawing to a close: head out soon to Hamilton, Rush Creek, and the Bahia Lagoon in Novato and Las Gallinas Ponds in San Rafael.