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Birding at Heritage Oak Winery

Saturday and Sunday, Feb 20-21, 2010

The weather in the Central Valley from the middle of February to the middle of March is often this amazing blend of winter/spring. Our bird life also reflects this, and these two days at Heritage Oak Winery were a testament to it. Fellow bird watchers joined me on both mornings as we explored various types of habitats along the Mokelumne River. A very strong showing of wintering birds were complimented by spring arrivals and year-round residents already into nesting activity.

Birds of prey were perhaps the highlights. A female Merlin that was first observed in early November has spent the winter around Heritage Oak. True to their namesake she is rarely observed on a days outing, and when she is noticed she will usually do a quick disappearing act. The Merlin is a small cousin of the Peregrine Falcon and is all as proud and royal as one. Never common anywhere in California, they come here to winter after spending their summers mostly in Canada (see photo). Hardly ever cooperative, especially with groups of people, on Feb 20 this lady Merlin decided sit in a tall Valley Oak for hours while we watched here up close to our hearts delight. With the lighting perfect, it was Merlin-magical. Her days at Heritage Oak will be limited as spring approaches and northern latitudes call. After March our chances of seeing her again will be very slim.

On both days a gorgeous pair of Red-tailed Hawks was observed around a newly constructed nest site. While Red-tailed Hawks are THE common bird of prey during our winter, most of these are young birds that come from more northerly latitudes. Those that stay to nest are much fewer, and given their large nesting territories, finding an active nest site is always a treat (see photo). Hopefully this pair will eventually use this nest site (not always a guarantee despite the nest appearing completely built) as the view from one of the levees is just picture-perfect. It will be a real treat to observe this pair tend to their nest and raise their family in months to come, all from a very safe distance.

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Birding at Heritage Oak

Feb 3, 2010

 

Today was the warmest day of the year so far; it reached about 65 degrees!  And bird activity was equally warm.  I saw my first Tree Swallows of the year, at least two individuals circling high above areas they will eventually stake out as nesting territories in the weeks to come (see photo).  Tree Swallows are usually our first nesting species from the neo-tropics (south of the US border) to arrive.  It’s not uncommon to see them as early as mid-January!  I also had a pair of Common Ravens harassing a Red-tailed Hawk.  This appears to be the first time this species has been reported from Heritage Oaks.  Not to be confused with their very common cousins the American Crow, the Common Raven is all a big as a Red-tailed Hawk and gives a deep hoarse croak call that differs greatly from the caw-caw of crows.  Ravens are typically birds of our neighboring foothills, often nesting on high cliff edges.  However, in recent years they have begin to successfully utilized the very high metal power-line towers that run along the Central Valley floor as nesting sites, and sightings even around urban areas are becoming more frequent (see photo).

 

However, the highlight was definitely the pair of Western Bluebirds that were checking out a nest box right next to the winery parking lot.  The lighting was perfect, allowing their blue feathers to shimmer with iridescence.  It’s doubtful this pair will start true nesting activities this soon, but on nice days like today “playing house” helps to strengthen the pair bond.  In talking to Tom Hoffman, nesting by Western Bluebirds at Heritage Oaks starts in earnest towards the end of March.  During this time the bluebirds, as well as other cavity nesting species like the above mentioned Tree Swallow, will actively start utilizing the many nesting boxes that have been put up by Tom.  It will be so exciting to keep an eye on these nest boxes in the upcoming weeks. 

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Birding at Heritage Oak
Feb 2, 2010

 

After many successive days of rain and cloud-filled skies, it was a beautiful sunny morning. While most of the nation is still in the heavy grips of winter, “spring” comes early to the Central Valley of California.  Flying high above the already lush-green landscape was a pair of Yellow-billed Magpies with big twigs in their bills, obviously in serious nest-building mode.  Our local magpies get an early jump on the nesting season, and often during the month of February a pair will have built their large nests high in a tree (with a strong preference for the Valley Oak) and be on eggs. 

California Audubon awarded the Yellow-billed Magpie as its 2009 Bird of the Year (www.ca.audubon.org/birds/magpie.php), a richly deserved recognition for the bird that truly should have been the California State Bird (not to take anything away from our beloved California Quail which was also seen this day).  It has been estimated that up to 50% of the bird’s population was decimated during the initial outbreak of West Nile Virus 2004-2006, but recent surveys over the last two years reveal this striking bird is making a comeback. 

Yellow-billed Magpies build very large nests that include a huge “dome” of sticks over the top.  Unlike other species of magpies, they will build an entrance through the side of this dome allowing them to have an enclosed nesting home.  In weeks to come I look forward to finding a nest so I can watch the parents busily going in and out of their home while feeding their babies.

To correspond with David Yee, email him at davidyee@lycnet.com