(# = for coastal area of northern CA/SF Bay Region, including Marin County)
(* = Phenology relates to recurring, seasonal events on land and in the heavens, many of which are often predictable based on weather, climate, temperature, latitude, time, and animal/plant physiology.)
by Daniel Edelstein
WarblerWatch.com (Features a “Birding Tours” section that describes my 25+ years as a Birding Guide, with my guided bird watching trips for individuals and groups pursuing common and rare bird species throughout California — the majority of which occur in central and northern California (where I live in the eight-county San Francisco Bay Area.)
(My 15-year-old wood-warbler blog that features articles and photo quizzes.)
(my blog highlighting adult bird-related classes I teach periodically at Merritt College in Oakland, California)
Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times (Pacific Time)
(courtesy of https://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/night/)
For The 3rd of this month at latitude of San Francisco, CA:
|Planetrise/Planetset, Sun, Jan 3, 2021|
|Mercury||Sat 8:06 am||Sat 5:33 pm||Sat 12:50 pm||Difficult to see|
|Venus||Sun 6:01 am||Sun 3:36 pm||Sun 10:48 am||Fairly good visibility|
|Mars||Sat 12:22 pm||Sun 1:41 am||Sat 7:01 pm||Perfect visibility|
|Jupiter||Sat 8:43 am||Sat 6:38 pm||Sat 1:41 pm||Average visibility|
|Saturn||Sat 8:39 am||Sat 6:31 pm||Sat 1:35 pm||Difficult to see|
|Uranus||Sat 12:51 pm||Sun 2:20 am||Sat 7:36 pm||Average visibility|
|Neptune||Sat 10:52 am||Sat 10:22 pm||Sat 4:37 pm||Very difficult to see|
2) Planet Highlights: (courtesy of almanac.com)
Highlights this month include Jupiter and Saturn still bright in the night sky—and there’s a chance to spot planet Mercury. Other features of this month’s sky:
JANUARY 1: BRIGHT SIRIUS
Begin January by finding bright Sirius, the Dog Star, in the night sky! Sirius is the brightest star above, so it’s easy to find. If you’re not sure, find the belt of the constellation Orion and follow it downward. Orion’s Belt always points to Sirius. Learn more about Sirius.
JANUARY 2: PERIHELION
January 2 brings an unusually early “perihelion”—when Earth reaches its closest point to the Sun in 2021. The word “perihelion” comes from the Greek roots peri meaning near and helios meaning Sun. Read about perihelion.
JANUARY 2-3: THE QUADRANTID METEORS
This year, the Quadrantid meteors are expected to peak on the night of the 2nd and morning of the 3rd; in dark skies, about 25 meteors per hour can be seen. Unfortunately, the Quadrantids will be a bit harder to spot than usual this year, since the waning gibbous Moon will be bright enough to outshine most of them. But if you are patient, you should still be able to catch a few good ones. Best viewing will be from a dark location after midnight. Meteors can appear anywhere in the sky. See the Meteor Shower Guide.
BRIGHT PLANETS OF JANUARY:
JUPITER AND SATURN REMAIN PAIRED
Late December brought the historic Jupiter-Saturn Great Conjunction. The two giant worlds still appear in the evening dusk in early January, though they are low in the sky and set about 1-½ hours after the Sun sets.
- While Jupiter is bright enough to appear easily in evening twilight, much dimmer and lower Saturn may be hard to spot.
- By mid-month, the two planets set about ½ hour after the Sun.
MERCURY MEETS UP WITH PLANETS AND MOON
Mercury now ranks as the second-brightest “star” of the night sky, after Sirius, the Dog Star. Usually, the innermost planet is lost in the Sun’s glare and it’s only observable near its greatest elongation or separation from the Sun (which falls on January 24 this year).
Look for a bright “star” near the western horizon about 45 to 60 minutes after sunset.
- On January 10, watch for bright Mercury to join Jupiter and Saturn. However, this planet triangle is just 6 degrees high 40 minutes after sunset and challengingly low in the sky. Jupiter is the brightest of the bunch, followed by Mercury and then Saturn.
- On January 14, look again in the direction of sunset. As dusk ebbs into darkness, see the new and very slender crescent Moon hover above Mercury very low on the horizon.
JANUARY 24, MERCURY AT GREATEST EASTERN ELONGATION
- On January 24, Mercury reaches its greatest eastern elongation of 18.6 degrees from the Sun. This is the best time to view Mercury, since it will be at its highest point above the horizon in the evening sky. Look for the planet low in the western sky just after sunset.
VENUS IS THE MORNING “STAR”
In the predawn eastern sky, Venus is low but easy to spot, especially on the 11th, when it’s joined by the thin crescent Moon for a striking display.
LATE JANUARY MOON
Seasons of 2021
|SPRING||Saturday, March 20, 2:37 A.M. PDT||Monday, March 1|
|SUMMER||Sunday, June 20, 8:32 P.M. PDT||Tuesday, June 1|
|FALL||Wednesday, September 22, 12:21 P.M. PDT||Wednesday, September 1|
|WINTER||Tuesday, December 21, 7:59 A.M. PST||Wednesday, December 1|
2021 Meteror Showers: (courtesy of almanac.com)
Is there a meteor shower tonight? When is the next meteor shower?
Principal Meteor Showers IN 2021
POINT OF ORIGIN
DATE OF MAXIMUM*
NO. PER HOUR**
|Eta Aquarid||Predawn||SE||May 4||10||Halley|
|Delta Aquarid||Predawn||S||July 30||10||—|
|Draconid||Late evening||NW||Oct. 7–9||6||Giacobini-Zinner|
|Taurid||Late evening||S||Nov. 9||3||Encke|
|Andromedid||Late evening||S||Nov. 25–27||5||Biela|
|Geminid||All night||NE||Dec. 13–14||75||—|
|*May vary by one or two days **Moonless, rural sky Bold = most prominent|
January 3-5, 2020: The year’s first major meteor shower is the Quadrantids, peaking on the night of Friday, January 3 into the predawn hours of Saturday, January 4.
After the Geminid and Perseid meteor showers, the Quadrantid meteor shower is the third-most-active display of the year, with approximately 25 meteors visible per hour during the shower’s peak. Unlike other major showers, whose periods of peak activity often span multiple nights, the Quadrantids’ peak lasts only a few hours—don’t miss it!
And here’s some good news: There’s no Moon in the predawn hours (2 a.m. till dawn) this year! The Moon, which will be full on January 10, will have set well before dawn, allowing for maximum darkness and optimal viewing conditions.
(courtesy of timeanddate.com)
Because your location is key to knowing where, when, and how to best view an eclipse, I suggest visiting the following web site and typing in your location to access lunar and solar eclipse information for 2021:
Gray Whale Migration: Frequent Flyer Journeys
Giant mammals are now gliding past our coast on their journey south from feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to calving grounds near Baja California. Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) migrate more than 12,000 miles each year. Given they migrate close to shore, you may be able to see them from land along the Sonoma coast, at Pt. Reyes, and in Big Sur. Watch for the low, puffy (some call them heart-shaped) spouts produced when the whales exhale — with Point Reyes National Seashore’s lighthouse one of the best venues to view this phenomenon.
By Sea & Shore: Elephant Seals Are Currently “Must See” Viewing
Northern Elephant Seals (Mirounga angustirostris) spend most of their life in the open ocean, diving up to 5,000 feet to feed on pelagic fish and squid. They come ashore only to mate, give birth, and molt their old skin and hair. By January, female Northern Elephant Seals have returned to breeding beaches to give birth. The one 75-pound pup she produces each year gains 10 pounds a day as it nurses on her extra-rich (50% fat!) milk. Pups typically nurse for 28 days. After the pups are weaned, females mate with one or more of the dominant males before leaving the beaches. By mid-March all the adults are gone, leaving the pups to fend for themselves. In the ultimate Survivor test, the pups (now called weaners) must learn to swim and catch fish on their own. Once they’ve mastered these basic skills, the pups take to the sea, heading north to feed off the coast of Washington and British Columbia. They won’t return to land until the fall. In the Bay Area, you can see elephant seals pups at Chimney Rock in Pt. Reyes, or on a naturalist-led tour (reservations required) at Año Nuevo State Reserve.
Stinky Blooms Delight Senses
While its name sounds like an unpleasant affliction, Fetid Adder’s Tongue (Scoliopus bigelovii) is actually a lovely wildflower. January is a good time to start searching for this diminutive lily relative along trails in redwood forests. Three small, cream and maroon-striped sepals surround three delicate upturned petals and three stamens. The odorous blooms fade quickly but the dramatic mottled leaves persist for several months.
After tiny fungus gnats pollinate the flowers, the seed capsules’ weight pulls the stems to the ground, giving the plant its other common name, “Slink Pod.” Slugs and ants may help spread seeds. In Marin County, look for Fetid Adder’s Tongue in Muir Woods National Monument, Mount Tamalpais (Blithedale Canyon, Cataract Gulch, Fish Grade), Bolinas Ridge, San Geronimo Ridge, and San Rafael Hills. On the Peninsula, it may be found in early January along Crystal Springs Trail in Huddart County Park (Woodside) and later in the month along the Hazelnut Trail in San Pedro County Park (Pacifica).
Early Wildflower Bloom: 2021 Forbs/Ephemerals
Given our early rains and the warm weather in late 2019 it’s time to enjoy (or soon enjoy) blooming wildflowers. Where are excellent spots to enjoy their beauty and dozens of other colorful wildflowers? Check out:
Annadel State Park, Santa Rosa, CA, Sonoma County
Chimney Rock (near the Lighthouse, Outer Point, Point Reyes National Seashore), Inverness, CA, Marin Co.
Edgewood County Park (south of SF), off I-280 and adjacent to it, San Mateo County
Black Diamond Mines Regional Park (ebparks.org), near Antioch and, especially, on Somersville Road (that exits off of Highway 4), East Bay of SF Bay
Are Herring Here Yet?
Please note…..For herring infusion updates into the SF Bay, see: https://cdfwherring.wordpress.com/
Watch for frenetic collections of gulls, scoters, cormorants, and sea lions within shallow spots of the Bay. Their presence is an indication that Pacific Herring have made their annual arrival. As early as November, yet sometimes waiting until this time of year, adult males and females seek spawning locations in shallow intertidal and subtidal waters. A single female may lay as many as 20,000 eggs in one spawn following ventral contact with submerged substrates such as eel grass. Why spawning begins is not understood, but some researchers believe the male initiates the process by release of milt (the seminal fluid of herring) that contains a pheromone that stimulates a female to begin egg laying. Egg laying appears to be collective so that an entire school may spawn in the period of a few hours, producing an egg density of up to 6,000,000 eggs per square meter.
Which bird species is probably the earliest breeder in Marin County?
Answer: Early nesting Anna’s hummingbirds may lay eggs this month or, in some cases, last month (December, 2020). More information about hummingbirds in California appears in the next account.
Note that some Anna’s Hummingbirds exhibit nesting/courtship behavior by October. I noticed this phenomenon in my backyard’s forested/open woods area this past autumn. The loud “pop” of diving males was heard regularly in our autumn landscape.
Of course, a second (and third brood) of Anna’s may result from the most prolific breeders of this species. Not that any male Anna’s would know about their brethren. That’s because the male Anna’s never bonds with his female partners. All males merely provide the “seed” by which newcomers develop in females, but they are left to fend for themselves on the nest. Males opt for quickly exiting Stage Left after impregnating their suitors. For this reason, you might say Anna’s males take “Speed Dating” to a new avian level and meaning.
Hummingbirds In California: Early Breeders
Anna’s Hummingbirds, year-round residents in northern California (and throughout much of the state), may already be laying eggs — perhaps initiating courtship and/or nesting as early as December (!). Some early-nesting females will play hostess to two broods during the breeding season, with second clutches hatching as late as mid-August. Peak breeding and greatest nest abundance occurs in May. Amazing but true, this year’s initial breeding cycle began in October in Marin County where I live. That’s when I began seeing courtship dances by male Anna’s on my land. Whether the females were receptive then is another question that remains unproven.
Research studies have indicated this hummer species memorizes and learns a song in its first year of life, similar to the behavior of most songbirds. Allen’s Hummingbirds, which breeds from s. California to s. Oregon, begin to migrate through the Bay Area as early as mid-January (and perhaps, in late December, 2020 for the upcoming 2021 breeding season) after spending the winter in Baja California and Chihuahua in Mexico. Their preferred habitat is canyon woodlands, brush and highland meadows. This species breeds in the Bay Area, but by the end of July many have dispersed and/or left the Bay Area, and in mid- to late-August most of the species’ population has migrated south.
Rufous Hummingbirds are seen only during migration in California, except for the extreme northern part of the state where their breeding area begins (and stretches north throughout much of Oregon, all of Washington, and into parts of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, as well as into British Columbia, Alberta and southeast Alaska). In Marin County, expect to begin seeing this transient species as early as mid-February, with a peak presence from mid-March through mid-April. By the end of May, Rufous are typically absent in Marin Co. The autumn migration spectrum is from mid-June through September in Marin Co., especially outside the County amid the Inner Coast Ranges, but sometimes along the coast, too.
Other hummingbirds occur in California, of course, but the aforementioned three species are usually the most common ones to see in the Bay Area/Marin County. Calliope, and Costa’s Hummingbird, and Black-Chinned Hummingbird are sometimes observed in the Bay Area, though the initial two of these three species is considered a “casual visitor” to Marin County (and Black-Chinned the most rare, yet still considered a “casual visitor”) — with all three occasional to common casual visitors in more eastward Bay Area counties.
See above for more information about the breeding dynamics of Anna’s Hummingbird in N. CA/the Bay Area.
Swallows During Winter In Northern California?
They are never a common sight, but it’s possible to see the following swallow species in Marin County (and the Bay Area) during the winter in the following order, from most common to rare: Tree (now annual during the non-breeding season in Marin County), Barn (not always annual, but typically seen during most “winters” in the Bay Area), and Violet-green (likewise, not always annual during the non-breeding season, yet often reported from November-February before migrants return to breed in the Bay Area). Our other northern California summer residents — Northern Rough-Winged, Cliff, and Bank — are considered rare to absent in January, though they may return on migration by no later than the end February during some to most years.
Purple Martin are also typically absent from our area in January and February. As for swift species, White-Throated are by far the most typical one to see, if any, from January-March, and they are considered year-round residents in the SF Bay Area. Vaux’s return on migration in April, while the more uncommon to “casual visitor” swift species — Chimney and Black — are usually spotted (if at all) from May through mid-October in northern California.
Checklists specific to a Bay Area region sometimes miss indicating the aforementioned swallows are potential winter sightings. I’ve noticed, for example, more reports by excellent birders in recent years of over-wintering Tree and Barn in the Bay Area. To wit, in the past, many of the same birders in the Bay Area used to believe that Tree Swallow completely left the Bay Area as an autumn migrant. Now, that dynamic has changed. Instead, Tree Swallow (and, increasingly, Barn Swallow) are considered a regular non-breeding season inhabitant (in small numbers) throughout the Bay Area (e.g., Las Gallinas Wildlife Ponds, San Rafael, Marin Co.).
Hibernating Birds in Our Area?
Not exactly. But our Common Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii californicus) (also called the Dusky Common Poorwill as the nominate race among five subspecies in the species) does exhibit winter torpor. According to Wikipedia, the Common Poorwill is the only bird known to go into torpor for extended periods (weeks to months). Such an extended period of torpor is close to a state of hibernation, a condition not known among most other birds. It was described definitively by Dr. Edmund Jaeger in 1948 based on a Poorwill he discovered hibernating in the Chuckwalla Mountains of California in 1946.
By the way, don’t let this bird’s name fool you. It’s never “common” where we live in northern California. In Marin County, one of the best spots to see Common Poorwill is along open areas, hillsides and talus slopes on Mount Tamalpais. More typical, I hear this bird’s vocalizations only and, if I’m lucky, then find it. Tilden Park in Berkeley periodically hosts this species, too. My BEST success for finding this species is in Lake County’s higher altitude spots as they flee from perches on the road at dawn while I’m riding on backroads.
1) Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times
Then type in your location to see planet highlights for each day of the month.
Or see below at the beginning of February when I have updated this month’s Sky Watch.
All times are Pacific Standard Time at sea level.
2) Planet Highlights (courtesy http://www.almanac.com):
- Early this month, Saturn materializes as a low morning star just before sunrise, joining higher-up Jupiter and Mars, all in Sagittarius. These three superior planets bunch closer together as the month progresses. It’s probably easiest to spot bright Jupiter; then look for Mars above and Saturn below.
- Venus: After sunset, Venus pops out at you as the brightest thing in the western sky. This shining beacon will continue to dazzle through the entire month as dusk falls. In the second half of the month, Venus is really the only bright object that appears in the west after sunset. It’s impossible to miss.
- Mercury: Look far to the lower right of Venus. Any “star” you see down there is Mercury! Look near the sunset point on the horizon shortly after sunset. During this month’s first 12 days, Mercury has its best showing of 2020 at a very bright magnitude 0, far below the more dazzling Venus, which stands 10 degrees high 40 minutes after local sunset. You no longer need telescope or binocoluars to find Mercury (though binoculars will help).
February Moon and Planet Pairings
- On February 18, the waning crescent Moon offers a strikingly close conjunction with Mars before dawn. Then on the 19th, the Moon passes to the right of Jupiter to be just below Saturn on the 20th, providing easy identification of these two gas giants that will astonish the world in December.
- On February 27 and 28, the waxing crescent moon pairs with bright Venus.
February 14-17, 2020:
Backyard Birdwatchers Unite As Citizen Scientists — The Annual Great Backyard Birds Count
Each February, backyard birdwatchers help scientists and bird enthusiasts learn more about bird populations across the United States by participating in The Great Backyard Bird Count, a joint project of the Cornell Lab or Ornithology and the Audubon Society. So, if you want to count your backyard birds and report your observations online, go learn more at: http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc/
Bird Classification Changes For 2020?
Current avian classification and name changes for N. & Middle America are pending within the American Ornithological Society committee that will soon vote about various proposals that are listed as three proposals (part 1, 2, and 3) at:
Ladybird Beetles Becoming Active After Winter Slumber (Dormancy)
Did you know that insects migrate? In May and June, one of our most familiar six-legged residents, the Convergent Ladybird Beetle (Hippodamia convergens), moves from the hot, dry valleys to the cooler climes of the High Sierra and Coast Ranges. Once in the mountains, the adult beetles bulk up in preparation for hibernation by eating pollen and nectar. When temperatures dip in the fall, the beetles follow river valleys to lower elevations (2,000-5,000 ft.), where they gather in huge numbers and take shelter for the winter under leaf litter, inside tree hollows, and in any other protected location. When the weather begins to warm up in late February and early March, tens of thousands of ladybird beetles emerge from hibernation and head back to the valleys.
Why so much movement? Aphids are the answer. Larval ladybirds are voracious carnivores, gobbling up to 50 aphids a day. Before home gardeners and farmers started artificially introducing water to the landscape, aphids were only present during the rainy season. So ladybird beetles evolved to exploit this seasonal abundance, timing their arrival in the valley and subsequent egg-laying to coincide with the early spring’s aphid population explosion.
Each ladybird beetle lives for only one year. After mating and laying eggs (usually by May), the adults die, making way for the next generation.
Heads Down: Looking for Newts On The Loose
In the San Francisco Bay Area, mature California Newt (Taricha torosa) individuals begin their annual migration to breeding ponds and streams in December and continue migrating until the end of this month. Look for these intrepid amphibians on land during wet weather near deep, slow pools. The East Bay’s Tilden Park and Sunol Regional Wilderness are two local Hot Spots.
In fact, Tilden’s South Park Drive is such a superhighway of amphibian traffic (as they cross the road while oblivious to the approaching death march of vehicle tires) that park officials close it from November-March in order to protect newts.
The California newt embraces its amphibian activity in a fast-forward lifestyle. Seeing them amble about the landscape now is rare because for the vast majority of the year, they’re underground or in burrows/logs/leaf litter, etc. Peak viewing times correspond to rainy nights, as they seek mates and lay their eggs in ponds or streams (such as Tilden’s habitats).
Mission accomplished above ground, adults retreat from the water quickly after breeding, and spend the dry summer months hunkered down while aestivating (“hibernating”) away from our view. Likewise, young (larval) newts develop in water. As water supplies dwindle, larvae begin to change into adults (metamorphosis). Young newts leave the water in later summer or fall, spend the next few years on land, and return to the water to breed after reaching maturity.,
When do young mature and become adults? We don’ know. Researchers who study newts in the field have not identified the age of sexual maturity: datasets vary from three to eight years.
California Newts can live for more than 20 years. This longevity is no doubt aided by their extreme toxicity. Adults, embryos and eggs contain tetrodotoxin (TTX), a strong and potentially deadly neurotoxin. Larvae, however, do not posses TTX, making them an important food source for animals such as garter snakes. To be on the safe side, say hello to these colorful newts if you find them crossing the road, but don’t give them a kiss for good luck.
Wildflowers Rising To The Occasion
Watch now for more than a dozen early wildflowers opening their blossoms in a variety of habitats. Within coast live oak/California bay forests, you’re likely to see ground iris, Douglas iris, milkmaids, hounds tongue, mission bells, and California buttercup.
An excellent Web site to track the bloom of spring wildflowers is compiled and maintained by writer/photographer Carol Leigh. To see reports of the latest sightings or to announce your own discoveries, visit:
http://calphoto.com/wflower.htm or see the Marin Native Plant Society’s home page where wildflower enthusiasts post their “first of season” sightings.
Loud Waterfalls Announce The Season
Prime time viewing of the Bay Area’s and northern California’s ample waterfalls are a delight to the senses. What could be more invigorating and awe-inspiring than to feel the powerful force of liquid Earth bombarding the placid landscape? Looking up at the roaring display of frenetic molecules in motion within a waterfall, it’s easy to lose track of time. You’re simply “there,” and life is good. Your hypnotized gaze is proof that the best things in life are free. Some of the best locations for viewing waterfalls in our area appear in a Web site: http://www.norcalhostels.org//news/springtime-hikes-waterfalls-marin-county
A different angle is to think how loud, rushing water along your trail walk may challenge your ability to successfully converse with a trailside partner. After a few switchbacks of dialogue that include “what” and “sorry,” you decide there’s a better solution than yelling and screaming. You decide to surrender. A hike with the mute button “on” is not all bad. You let the anarchic accompaniment of water be your solace, a step-by-step meditation.
Loud Waterfalls, Cacophonous Creeks, And Bird Song
As an extension from the previous entry above, consider the following ecologic mystery while you’re walking beside a creek that emits an incessant refrain of rushing water: Does the loud sound affect singing birds and their ability to hear each other while establishing territories and attempting to attract mates along bottomland areas? The answer is only partially understood. In early winter, the question is invalid when no singing bird species in our area have yet begun to use their voices to attract mates or defend territories.
But conditions soon change when February arrives. In particular, now’s the time to ponder whether Orange-Crowned Warbler males (that may begin arriving in late February in our area) are negatively impacted by the cacophonous presence of water? Does the noisy environs affect their ability to successfully complete their appointed season’s life cycle? And what about Oak Titmouse, Bewick’s Wren, and Hutton’s Vireo — all of which are often singing in February and beyond within or nearby in upland areas within earshot of noisy bottomlands? Do all of these bird species have to wait until March and April and beyond to attract a mate that can finally better hear them? Or do they simply abandon a percussive bottomland area for more quiet nesting areas elsewhere that offer similar habitat conditions? The answer is a qualified “yes.” At least one streamside study has shown birds upland and more removed from loud streams have an easier time hearing the companion birds with which they share the same habitat. The article suggests upland birds more successfully find mates and complete their breeding cycle with newborns fledgling from nests.
Sea Urchins: Low Tide Lookout
This month and next, watch for red sea urchins (a four-inch echinoderm) during low tides along rocky stretches of the northern California coast. Spawning occurs now through March, and their populations appear to be flourishing due in part to the increasing absence of predators (such as sea otters) in parts of the ranges where both these critters live.
Returning Migrants: Premiering Now
Early returning birds that you may now begin seeing include several swallow species (beyond populations that did not leave the Marin County area/Bay Area for the winter and are periodically spotted during the non-breeding season), such as Tree Swallow, followed by Violet-Green (mid-February), Cliff (mid-February), and Barn and Northern Rough-Winged (late February). Purple Martin will also arrive by April and nest in the area. Bank Swallow is rare to locally extinct in much of the Bay Area.
Ruby-crowned Kinglets: Small Is Beautiful
One of the most common birds you can see in the winter landscape now is the diminutive and frenetic Ruby-Crowned Kinglet. Enjoy them while they’re here. They’ll soon be gone. By the end of April, most have left for breeding grounds in the foothills/Sierras and latitudes farther north, and all vacate the Bay Area during the breeding season.
Meanwhile, populations of the look-alike Golden-Crowned Kinglet are also present in the Bay Area during this time, but it only breeds in the western portion of Marin County. One major telltale field mark clue is the absence of feather coloring in the crown of most Ruby-Crowneds, while all Golden-Crowned, both male and female, exhibit yellow in the crown (with the male also wearing a golden central median stripe on the crown).
Their feeding behavior is also often an easy way to tell them apart from a distance. One study suggests Ruby-Crowneds forage within the upper thirds of trees more frequently and that individuals typically hover while they feed in a tree’s interior portions. On the other hand, Golden-Crowned populations often use a gleaning behavior to find food resources at the tips of branches (Kathleen E. Franzreb, Foraging Habits of Ruby-Crowned and Golden-Crowned Kinglets in an Arizona Montane Forest,
Kathleen E. Franzreb. 139-145, 1984; A. Keast and S. Saunders, Ecomorphology of the North American Ruby-crowned (Regulus calendula) and Golden-crowned (R. satrapa) Kinglets. Auk 108: 880–888, 1991)
Owl All Around
Seeing an owl during the day in open country? If so, you may be observing the Short-Eared Owl, which wears a dark facial disk that emphasizes its yellow eyes. Short-eard Owl is rarely seen in Marin County, but individuals are sometimes spotted in isolated portions along Tomales Bay or in distant trails and raised embankments accessible from the Las Gallinas Ponds in San Rafael.
Other day-flying, or diurnal, owl species to look for include the Burrowing, Long-Eared and Barn Owl. Which is the most common owl species in our area? The answer is the Great Horned Owl, a species that is more common in urban-suburban areas than people realize. Even the slightest sliver of natural surroundings may attract this species that has evidently adapted well to living within and near developed areas.
The Burrowing Owl is rare and usually only seen in open areas during the non-breeding season. Long-Eared are also rare and perhaps best found in dense growths of vegetation such as riparian corridors. Barn Owl nests throughout the area, both in human structures or in trees such as oaks. More common, though heard more often than seen, is the diminutive Western Screech-owl, a forest dweller. Nest boxes often attract them, including one in both my front and backyard woodland.
Winter-active mammals you can spot at higher altitudes this time of year include pikas, deer mice, pocket gophers and tree squirrels. Other active foraging mammals to search for are meadow mice, mountain beaver (or Aplodontia), shrew, and porcupine.
(* = Enchanting views of my night sky in Novato, CA location enhanced thanks to optic devices from Out of This World Optics, a Mendocino, CA binocular and spotting scope storefront and mail order company you may enjoying discovering at OutofThisWorldOptics.com)
1) Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times
For The 1st of This Month (at Latitude: 38:03:38 N, Longitude: 122:32:27 W, which is Novato, CA, 20 miles north of San Francisco, CA in Marin County):
|Planetrise/Planetset, Sun, Mar 1, 2020|
|Mercury||Mon 5:57 am||Mon 5:09 pm||Mon 11:33 am||Extremely difficult to see|
|Venus||Sun 8:27 am||Sun 9:44 pm||Sun 3:05 pm||Good visibility|
|Mars||Mon 3:27 am||Mon 12:56 pm||Mon 8:11 am||Average visibility|
|Jupiter||Mon 4:02 am||Mon 1:41 pm||Mon 8:51 am||Fairly good visibility|
|Saturn||Mon 4:32 am||Mon 2:22 pm||Mon 9:27 am||Average visibility|
|Uranus||Sun 8:54 am||Sun 10:16 pm||Sun 3:35 pm||Difficult to see|
|Neptune||Sun 7:02 am||Sun 6:31 pm||Sun 12:47 pm||Extremely difficult to see|
2) Planet Highlights: (courtesy of almanac.com)
During March, Venus is the only bright planet lighting up the night sky. It’s impossible to miss. Look high in the southwestern sky after sunset.
In the morning sky, before sunrise, you’ll see Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. They shine bright above the southeastern horizon.
- Early in the month, Mars rises 3 hours before the Sun; Jupiter rises about 2-½ hours before the Sun; Saturn rises about 2 hours before the Sun. They are a string of planets with Mars at the top and Jupiter in the middle.
- Watch the arrangements change over the month. After the spring equinox (March 19), Mars will catch up to Jupiter and Saturn, passing them by month’s end.
THE FULL WORM MOON
The full Worm Moon rises on March 19 and brings the first supermoon of the year. Here’s all you need to know about the full Worm Moon—including Moon phase dates and folklore.
During March evenings, we’ll have Moon-free windows during the latter half of March. Fortunately, this is when we’ll have the best planetary sightings!
MARCH 17–19: 4 BRIGHT PLANETS IN A LINE
Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn bunch together in a line starting on March 17, 2020. The waning crescent Moon joins this party on the 18th, just below the planets, with dim orange Mars on the right, brilliant Jupiter in the middle, and medium-bright Saturn farther left. This is a don’t-miss conjunction, with the four celestial bodies standing 17 degrees high 40 minutes before local sunrise, easily seen with the naked eye.
Watch the Moon sweeps by all four morning planets from the 17th through the 21st.
March 8, 2021, 2:00 AM PDT:
Daylight Savings Time starts. Set clocks ahead one hour. (SPRING FORWARD)
For future year “time changes,” see: http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/clockchange.html?n=263
March 19: Spring Equinox (Spring begins at 8:59 PM PDT)
Premiere Showing: Harbor Seal Pups Spotted On Shore
In California, March marks the beginning of pupping season for Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina). Females gather on shore in rookeries and give birth to a single 30-pound pup, which can swim shortly after birth.
Mothers may leave their pups alone on the rocks for briefly while they hunt for fish, squid and other seafood. Each year, well-intentioned, but misinformed people pick up or otherwise interfere with an “orphaned” seal. In turn, the pup (that waits patiently while its mother forages for their food before she returns) gets separated, then unknowingly absconded by an oblivious person.
Look for Harbor Seal rookeries in Bolinas Lagoon (Marin Co.) and Fitzgerald Marine Reserve (San Mateo Co.). Don’t approach too closely to the seals (especially if you are walking a dog) as you may disrupt their nursing or resting schedules.
Native Bees Prowling for Pollen (And Nectar)
Quick: what do you picture when you hear the word “Bee”? You probably think of Apis mellifera, the European Honeybee. But California has more than 1,500 species of its own native bees. Their sizes and colors are as varied as the plants on which they feed.
Native bees have evolved to hatch or come out of hibernation when their preferred food source is available. In spring, metallic green or blue bees in the genus Osmia and black bees of the genus Adrena appear in time to exploit early blooming flowers such as the California Poppy. Native bumblebees (genus Bombus) also make their debut early in the season — and you see them now as the largest bumblebees hovering close to the ground.
As the seasons change, so do the bee species and their preferred pollen and nectar plants. Wish to help native bees thrive? One way is to plant a variety of their favored flowering plants in your garden.
Professor Gordon Frankie and his students at the University of California –Berkeley have created a wonderful website filled with information about urban bee gardens: nature.berkeley.edu/urbanbeegardens/index.html
Seasonal Vernal Pools Shelter Vulnerable Species
Weeks and weeks of rain. Then months and months of dry, sunny weather. That’s California’s Mediterranean climate.
More exact, during the rainy season (typically November through March), where rain collects in grassland depressions (where impermeable layers of hardpan, claypan, or volcanic basalt occur) vernal pools form (i.e., temporary ponds). They may dry up and refill several times each rainy season.
Turns out the borders of these vernal pools host impressive colorful expressions of diverse wildflowers. In so doing, you’ll see rainbow-like concentric circles of vernal pool endemic wildflowers grow on the outer edges of pools. In turn, as water slowly evaporates as spring progresses, other flower species bloom as spring proceeds in relation to slowly-waning soil moisture.
Vernal pool wildflowers have descriptive names — Meadow Foam. Wooly Marbles, Button Celery, Butter and Eggs, to name just five. Joining them, invertebrates in impressive numbers occur in vernal pools. They provide food for birds, lizards, and other animals. These fragile habitats provide home to vulnerable, threatened, and endangered animals including the California Tiger Salamander, the Western Spadefoot Toad, and several species of fairy shrimp.
Habitat loss is one of the biggest threats to native species, and vernal pools are themselves threatened by development. Today, only 13% of California’s vernal pools remain. Most of the best-preserved pools are privately owned by conservation organizations or land trusts.
In Northern California, both Jepson Prairie Preserve in Solano County and Mather Field in Sacramento County offer guided tours of their vernal pools in spring. For more information, visit http://www.vernalpools.org
Which animals give birth this month? A large variety. Watch for baby Western Tree Squirrels, Opossum, and Raccoons. We don’t usually get lucky enough to see newborn mammals because the mother or both parents typically hide their young from any potential predators. But you can sometimes see Western Tree Squirrel mothers transferring their babies from one tree “nest” to another or spot a family of Raccoons at night in your backyard (perhaps easiest accomplished while using an infrared light bulb to cast a glow that Raccoons ignore, but is bright enough for your own viewing pleasure).
For another notable exception, see the entry above about Harbor Seals.
Western Tree Squirrel: Newborns All Around
Even urban areas with sparse tree growth may host Western Tree Squirrel populations. Now’s an ideal time to see males competing for the attention of females. Two to five young are born this month where females have retreated to tree cavities. By June, the newborns are active (though not yet full grown, so you can tell them apart from adults).
They’re Back: Returning Migrants
During most breeding seasons, you can expect this month to feature a variety of migrating birds returning to coastal northern California in good numbers, including the House Wren, Warbling Vireo, Wilson’s Warbler, Pacific-Slope Flycatcher and Cliff Swallow.
Rare Bird Alert Hotline
Do you wish to see rare, accidental or early bird migrants in northern California? Call the “Bird Box” to find out at 415/681-7422. You may also record your own bird sighting reports at the same phone number.
Fluttering By: Butterflies and Moths
Now’s the time to watch for the appearance of various butterflies and moths. One of the most appealing is the Silkmoth (Saturnia mendocino), which wears a striking black-rimmed eyespot on each wing. Look for them most commonly in coastal and mountain chaparral.
Mountain Lookout: Birds Up High
Going to the California mountains this time of year? Be on the lookout for several species of birds: Williamson’s Sapsucker (a woodpecker that feeds on the sap of lodgepole pine during the summer but eats more insects in the winter), Black-backed Woodpecker, Mountain Chickadee (that eats larvae of the lodgepole needleminer during the winter), Pine Grosbeak (less common in winter up high), Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Red Crossbill (also less common). The latter two species are year-round residents in Marin County, but they are never common to see, and are often detected initially by a birder’s ear tuned to the landscape.
Bon Voyage: Winter Resident Migration
Some winter resident birds in the Bay Area and northern California begin to leave now for breeding areas elsewhere, including species such as American Pipit and Cedar Waxwing.
Wake Up Call: Awakening From Hibernation
Which true hibernating mammals are getting closer to “waking up” from their long winter’s sleep? In foothill and mountainous areas of northern California, yellowbelly marmot, least chipmunk, California ground squirrel, and western jumping mice all hibernate. Some of these species may spend seven to eight months in a torpid state, though not all ground squirrel populations hibernate and many individuals in our area remain above ground or are active by January.
The Numbers Are In: Returning Bird Migrants
Migrating birds whose return to northern California typically occurs in higher numbers now (and into the first two weeks of April) include MacGillivray’s Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, Yellow Warbler, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Lazuli Bunting, and Swainson’s Thrush. Excellent guides to birding in our area include “Birder’s Guide to Northern California” (Lolo and Jim Westrich, Gulf Publishing Co., 1991) and “Birding Northern Calfornia,” John Kemper, A Falcon Guide, Globe Pequot Press, 2001). You may also wish to find guided birding walks that are pre-scheduled on local Audubon chapter web sites that are accessed through http://www.audubon.org
(Click on the home page’s button titled “states and chapters” to access any local California Audubon chapter among the dozens listed.)
(* = Enchanting views of my night sky in Novato, CA location enhanced thanks to optic devices from Out of This World Optics, a Mendocino, CA binocular and spotting scope storefront and mail order company you may enjoying discovering at OutofThisWorldOptics.com)
Venus is that unbelievably dazzling evening “star” you’ve probably already noticed. You don’t need a star chart. It’s the brightest object in the night sky except for the Moon. Just look toward the western skies at nightfall.
- On Friday night, April 3, Venus parades in front of the Pleiades (aka Seven Sisters) star cluster. Look west after sunset. Venus is the brightest object in the sky and impossible to miss. It’s so dazzling that it’s bright enough to cast faint shadows. See more on my post on The Best Evening Star of Your Life.
- The year’s closest Moon is on April 7, 2020. It’s in the full phase, so the media will call it a “supermoon,” even if the super size may not be apparent to observers. See the Almanac’s Guide to the April Full Pink Moon.
The other planets—Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn—all rise before the Sun. Mercury rises near the sunrise point on the horizon in the predawn sky.
- Saturn and Mars, very close together on the 1st, have crossed into Capricornus, with brilliant Jupiter lingering to their right in Sagittarius. Mars then speeds away to the left, leaving the three planets in a line during most of the month.
- On April 15, the Moon hovers below the three bright planets—Mars, Jupiter and Saturn—in the morning sky. This striking conjunction rises by 4:00 a.m. and is well seen in the southeast as dawn begins.
- On April 25 and 26, look towards the Moon after sunset to find Venus. In Taurus, the dazzling evening star reaches her brightest and highest at a shadow-casting magnitude –4.7. Venus stands above the Moon on the 25th, and to the Moon’s right on the 26th.
Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times
For The 9th Day of This Month (at Latitude: 38:03:38 N, Longitude: 122:32:27 W, which is Novato, CA, 20 miles north of San Francisco, CA in Marin County):
|Mercury||Thu 5:58 am||Thu 5:45 pm||Thu 11:51 am||Difficult to see|
|Venus||Wed 8:38 am||Wed 11:34 pm||Wed 4:06 pm||Great visibility|
|Mars||Thu 3:35 am||Thu 1:33 pm||Thu 8:34 am||Average visibility|
|Jupiter||Thu 2:53 am||Thu 12:38 pm||Thu 7:45 am||Fairly good visibility|
|Saturn||Thu 3:13 am||Thu 1:06 pm||Thu 8:09 am||Average visibility|
|Uranus||Wed 7:30 am||Wed 8:56 pm||Wed 2:13 pm||Extremely difficult to see|
|Neptune||Thu 5:32 am||Thu 5:05 pm||Thu 11:19 am||Extremely difficult to see|
Total Eclipse of the Moon. This eclipse will be visible from North America. The eclipse will be best observed from the western states and provinces. The Moon will set during the eclipse for observers in the eastern regions. It will enter the penumbra at 2:00 a.m. PDT and the umbra at 3:15 a.m. The Moon will leave the umbra at 6:45 a.m. and the penumbra at 8:01 a.m.
April 22: The Lyrids Meteor Shower
The Lyrid meteor shower – April’s shooting stars – lasts from about April 16 to 25. Lyrid meteors tend to be bright and often leave trails. About 10-20 meteors per hour can be expected at their peak. Plus, the Lyrids are known for uncommon surges that can sometimes bring the rate up to 100 per hour. Those rare outbursts are not easy to predict, but they’re one of the reasons the tantalizing Lyrids are worth checking out around their peak morning. The radiant for this shower is near the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra (chart here), which rises in the northeast at about 10 p.m. on April evenings. In 2015, the peak morning is April 22, but you might also see meteors before and after that date. The waxing crescent moon will set in the evening, leaving a dark for watching this year’s Lyrid shower.
Bay Area Bunny (and Hare) Trails
How do you tell a brush rabbit from a Califonia hare (also called California jackrabbit)? Easy. Our common Bay Area rabbit has a powderpuff-like white bunny tail. The hare is much larger and has large, long ears.
You tend to see brush rabbits in dense undergrowth.
Their brown pelage and small size provide camouflage as they rest
under brush and scrub during the day. At dawn and dusk they emerge to
feed on green plants. When threatened, brush rabbits thump their hind
legs against the ground to produce a warning sound. If pursued by a
predator, a rabbit will race away in a zig-zag pattern.
Unlike a brush rabbit, hares can jump up to 20 feet in a single bound, and it can run up to 35 mph when eluding a predator. Baby hares, called
leverets, are born with their eyes open and are ready to run shortly
after birth. In the Bay Area, look for brush rabbits at Sunol Regional Wilderness or in many other spots. Hares are commonly spotted along the Albany waterfront and at Mission Peak, among many other Bay Area locations.
The Sniffling Season
Green hills, golden poppies, and sneezing neighbors are three sure
signs that Spring has arrived in Northern California. While blooming
flowers are obvious visual harbingers that violate our noses, your allergies may be the result of other, more hidden enemies. Before poppies bloom, trees such as alder, ash, oak and juniper initially produce pollen.
On a windy day you can see clouds of golden dust billowing
from these mature trees. Just as trees wind down, a potpourri of grasses and flowers cast their sniffle-inducing spell. Fortunately, for seasonal allergy sufferers, April showers bring temporary relief from suffering, as rain washes pollen out of the air.
Lizards Arising: Western Whiptails
Throughout the state this month, watch for the emergence of reptiles, including Western Whiptails that become active after winter dormancy. At first sighting, don’t mistake the whiptail for a snake, despite their long, 13-inch body that slithers more like a miniature alligator.
As the only common whiptail in the state, you won’t find them easily along the Coast and instead need to explore inland, arid habitats. Here, the juveniles are the initial populations to become active, followed by adult males. The latter compete for females by establishing mating dominance among males that congregate together. Unlike many reptiles that become more difficult to spot as temperatures rise throughout the spring, whiptails remain active throughout much of the day.
Does a whiptail drop its tail as an escape strategy from a predator? Yes, but only in rare cases, and only if it cannot evade the grasp of its pursuer. Growing its tail again takes lots of energy and time, so a whiptail will typically instead bolt from a predator in the blink of an eye to prevent capture.
If you’ve recently seen a butterfly species and wish to know if other people have witnessed the same kind or others, then visit a Web site link that is devoted to tracking the appearance of butterfly species throughout North America: http://www.naba.org/sightings/sightings.html
Mountain Beavers: A Family Of One
Have you ever seen a Mountain Beaver? Not many people have been lucky enough to observe these solitary rodents that are in a different family than the more common American Beaver that lives throughout North America. To find a Mountain Beaver, you have to search in moist habitats along the Pacific coast from northern California through Washington and into southern British Columbia, Canada. Little is known about mountain beaver behavior during the breeding season. Breeding activity occurs mainly from January to March with gestation lasting about 30 days. Young are born blind and hairless, weighing about 3/4 ounce (20 g). They develop incisors at about 30 days and are weaned at about 8 weeks. Young animals are often active in May. Females apparently do not bear young until they are two years of age.
As the only member of its family (Aplodontidae) and genus (Aplodontia) in North America, a Mountain Beaver leaves evidence of its presence in the form of packed ground that forms a trail next to its burrow within a forest canopy and/or thick understory. Mountain Beavers are active year-round, but a rare sight, perhaps primarily because their habitat is usually inaccessible and off-trail from where most hikers prefer to explore.
Look under a flat board or log now for the Western Skink, a common, yet secretive reptile that lives throughout northern California from sea level to 7,000 feet. Males wear a distinctive blue belly and join females in a variety of habitats, most commonly in open areas or places undergoing early regrowth of vegetation after logging. Mating occurs in spring soon after emerging from winter slumber.
Big Time: CA Giant Salamanders
CA Giant Salamander individuals are entering their peak breeding time in northern California. At lengths ranging from six inches to, rarely, 10-12 inches, this salamander is the largest in our area. They are year-round residents of north-central California (from southern Santa Cruz County to extreme southern Mendocino and Lake counties) that live up to 6,500 feet, primarily in humid coastal forests, and especially in Douglas-fir, redwood, red fir, and montane and valley-foothill riparian habitats. Look for aquatic adults and larvae in cool, rocky streams and occasionally in lakes and ponds.
Where do I go in Marin County, CA where I live to see this majestic, air-craft carrier-sized salamander? Bear Valley Creek in Pt. Reyes National Seashore is a fine spot to peruse for California Giant Salamander presence. Cascade Canyon in Fairfax is another place for seeing California Giant Salamander.
Roadside Mammal Sightings
Roadside mammal sightings now may seem more common for a good reason: Mothers are giving birth to babies, including those born to opossums. As the only pouched mammal (marsupial) in the USA, opossums often give birth to 14 embryos that have large hands to quickly crawl and attach to their mother’s 13 teats. Of course, in a tongue-and-cheek kind of way, this means the oversupply of babies for available teats makes opossums players of “musical chairs,” a game they have been playing for millions of years prior to the first appearance of evolved primates such as humans.
Everywhere and Omnipresent: Western Fence Lizards
Probably the most common reptile in California, the Western Fence Lizard is now more easily seen. This abundant, plainly-marked species begins courtship as early as March (and more commonly April), with copulations also occurring in May and June. Egg-laying after copulation typically occurs in two to four weeks (May through mid-July is the peak of egg-laying), and the incubation period is around 60 days. Found throughout California except in deserts (where it is confined to riparian areas), Western Fence Lizards live from sea level to 10,000 feet. Of course, like any common animal, populations of Western Fence Lizard may be locally rare if suitable habitat is removed as a consequence of development.
Aerial Acrobats: Swifts in Northern California
Although you can now see two species of swifts (Vaux’s and White-throated) that nest in northern California (including Marin County), the White-throated is more common until it begins to disperse and migrate by the end of July and early August, after which they become a more rare sight throughout autumn and into winter. According to studies, all species of swifts obtain their food exclusively while aloft. Copulation also occurs in the air. Such aerial feats make sense, as seeing a swift perched is an uncommon sight, given their underdeveloped feet and leg muscles that are weak in comparison to those designed for perching birds such as songbirds.
Wakeup Call: Emerging Marmots
Detecting obvious signs of global warming’s presence is indicated by changing hibernation dynamics in some mammal species. Consider that yellowbelly marmots (close relatives of woodchucks), which usually hibernate for eight months during the long winter at high altitudes, are emerging from hibernation earlier (38 days earlier over the past 23 years) and may risk starvation as they wait longer for snow to melt before they can feed.
1) Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times
Please copy and paste the following web site, then type in your location to learn moon and planet rise & set times:
For Novato, CA where I live, here’s the moon & planet rise & set times for 5/4/20:
|Planetrise/Planetset, Mon, May 4, 2020|
|Mercury||Tue 6:12 am||Tue 8:11 pm||Tue 1:11 pm||Very close to Sun, not visible|
|Venus||Mon 7:54 am||Mon 11:15 pm||Mon 3:34 pm||Great visibility|
|Mars||Tue 2:50 am||Tue 1:20 pm||Tue 8:05 am||Average visibility|
|Jupiter||Tue 1:18 am||Tue 11:04 am||Tue 6:11 am||Perfect visibility|
|Saturn||Tue 1:34 am||Tue 11:28 am||Tue 6:31 am||Perfect visibility|
|Uranus||Tue 5:48 am||Tue 7:18 pm||Tue 12:33 pm||Extremely difficult to see|
|Neptune||Tue 3:53 am||Tue 3:27 pm||Tue 9:40 am||Very difficult to see|
2) Planet Highlights: (courtesy of almanac.com)
Venus and Mercury are the two nighttime “stars” and meet for a conjuntion, too!
Venus is a dazzlingly gorgeous evening star in the northwest on the 1st, but each night she steadily sinks lower into the dusk until she is gone by month’s end.
Mercury, standing 12 degrees high in fading twilight 40 minutes after sunset in the second half of the month, offers a fine evening apparition
Venus and Mercury Conjunction
Look for Venus and Mercury to form a fine, close conjunction on May 21, only 10 degrees high in fading twilight, a very worthy target. First, locate Venus. As the evening darkens, spot Mercur next to Venus.
These inferior planets create a striking dinnertime triangle with the thin crescent Moon on the 23rd.
After their conjunction, Mercury will climb upward day by day while Venus will descend downward. As long as you can catch Venus after sunset, seek for Mercury above Venus.
The three morning planets this month are Jupiter, Saturn and Mars – which are easy to spot from the waning Moon from May 12 to 14, 2020.
On May 12, at about 4.00 a.m., look for the Moon in the sky, then find both Jupiter and Saturn just above the Moon. Jupiter is by far the brightest of the two. Nearby is the ringed planet Saturn.
Watch the Moon move towards Mars on the 13th, ending below and slightly to the right of steadily brightening Mars on the 14th.
May 6: The Eta Aquarids
This meteor shower has a relatively broad maximum – meaning you can watch it for several days around the predicted peak. However, in 2015, the bright waning gibbous moon is sure to diminish the numbers. The radiant is near the star Eta in the constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer (click here for chart). The radiant comes over the eastern horizon at about 4 a.m. local time; that is the time at all locations across the globe. For that reason, the hour or two before dawn tends to offer the most Eta Aquarid meteors, no matter where you are on Earth. At northerly latitudes – like those in the northern U.S. and Canada, or northern Europe, for example – the meteor numbers are typically lower for this shower. In the southern half of the U.S., 10 to 20 meteors per hour might be visible in a dark sky. Farther south – for example, at latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere – the meteor numbers may increase dramatically, with perhaps two to three times more Eta Aquarid meteors streaking the southern skies. For the most part, the Eta Aquarids is a predawn shower. In 2015, the bright waning gibbous moon will obscure thias year’s production. The most meteors will probably rain down on May 6, in the dark hours before dawn. But watch on May 5 and 7 as well! The broad peak to this shower means that some meteors may fly in the dark hour before dawn for a few days before and after the predicted optimal date.
Communal Housing: Heron and Egret Nest Choices
Why do Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, and Great Egret nest so close to their neighbors? Predator evasion may be one reason: many eyes are more likely to spot marauding hawks, crows, and other threats. Another possibility is that herons and egrets prefer to next close to their food source and nearby sturdy, tall trees may be in short supply. After birds find a choice piece of real estate, they remain loyal owners, as some colonies have been in use for more than 70 years!
Large nesting colonies (called rookeries) are sure to be host newborns this month. Some late arriving pairs of egrets and herons may still be courting.Their elaborate displays include flashing long, plume-like feathers that once were harvested for women’s hats — a practice that is now banned. Other egrets in the same rookerie tree may be incubating eggs. By the end of the month, some will be caring for newly-hatched chicks. In Bolinas (Marin County), Audubon Canyon Ranch is a great place to see dozens of Great and Snowy Egrets nest together, with the occasional Great Blue Heron also sometimes present.
Newborn & Nearby Elk Calves
From most spots in the Bay Area, did you know that you’re only an hour or two from seeing Tule Elk newborns? A visit to Point Reyes National Seashore is a great place to seem them. Within the park, take Pierce Point Road (instead of remaining on Sir Francis Drake Road that goes to the lighthouse) to its end. At the parking lot, follow the main trail where dozens of Tule Elk are soon often present.
When you see the spotted, spindly-legged newborn calves this time of the year, they weigh only 20-25 pounds at birth. Growing quickly, they run within a few weeks of birth, but still nurse for four months. In the fall, adult males weighing up to 700 pounds shed their antlers. Females are about three-quarters that size.
The Point Reyes population is introduced after unting and habitat loss once pushed California’s native elk to the brink of extinction. The Point Reyes populations and a few others throughout the state remain stable, thanks to land management and the establishment of wildlife preserves.
Return of the Terns
How many species of terns nest in the Bay Area? Two. Forster’s nest in the South Bay. Least, North America’s smallest tern, nests on Alameda Island in the Bay Area and in a few other Bay Area locations.
Annually, they migrate from California to Southern Mexico and back. By late April, adults arrive at their nesting sites. They prefer open, vegetation-free areas, above the tide line where their eggs will remain dry. But predators, such as raccoons and foxes, find some of the eggs. Habitat loss of prime nesting beach sites is another problem that has resulted in large population drops statewide. In fact, only 25-30 nesting sites remain in California.
The Least Terns you see now may have traveled as far as 2,000 miles. Males and females bond during a 2-3 week courtship. In California, the first eggs appear around May 15 and are incubated for 19-25 days. Chicks leave the nest when they are only two days old, but they aren’t fully independent for several months. By mid-July, the Bay Area’s Least Terns begin to depart for Mexico.
Migrating Swainson’s Thrushes
Northern California’s greatest abundance of Swainson’s Thrush arrive this month on their breeding grounds, joining April’s initial vanguard that returns from non-breeding areas in Mexico, Central America, and, even, perhaps, from as far south as mid-South America. Northern California’s populations have been studied less rigorously than eastern populations that complete a 3,000 mile from Panama to Canada. In an amazing effort spanning 34 years of tracking migrating thrushes in spring, W.W. Cochran’s discoveries inspired Martin Wikelski, a biologist at Princeton University in 1999, to measure how much energy thrushes expended in migratory flight.
Wikelski’s results were counter-intuitive to what common sense would suggest: the thrushes traveling north in spring spent less energy in flight than they did while resting and foraging during daytime layover episodes. In total, Wikelski and his collaborators found a typical thrush completed its long migration journey over 42 nights while averaging 4.6 hours per night flight of approximately 158 miles. Losing 0.3 calories per mile on average, each thrush’s heart beat about 840 times per minute while flying — a hyper-aerobic workout that failed to be as caloric intensive as the seemingly more loitering, casual effort required when merely perched or foraging.
Watching Radar To Follow Migrating Birds
Anyone with an Internet connection to the World Wide Web can use radar images to see whether migrant birds are aloft and how large their flocks are in abundance while heading your way. Visit the fascinating and well-respected Clemson University Radar Ornithology Laboratory Web site at http://virtual.clemson.edu/groups/birdrad. These radar images are forecasts for East Coast viewers wishing to track spring migrants, but, nonetheless, it’s probably also fascinating for West Coast Web surfers to interpret how an evening’s weather pattern influences the movement of migrating birds.
An equally interesting source of migration information available through radar maps is operated by the College of DuPage in Illinois. The ideal time to look at its radar maps is two to four hours after sunset at http://weather.cod.edu/analysis/analysis.radar.html. At this time, you’ll be able to interpret the magnitude of migration and the direction and speed traveled by birds en masse by the different concentrations of colors appearing on each radar map.
Born Free: Northern Alligator Lizards
Northern Alligator Lizards are commonly seen now in a variety of forested habitats and montane chaparral from northwestern California, in the Coast Ranges south to San Luis Obispo Co. and in the Sierra Nevada Mountains south to the Kern River in southern California. Although mating probably occurs as early as mid-April, live alligator lizard young (in litters of 3-8) are typically born in August and September. As long as temperatures remain above freezing into November, these reptiles will roam free and usually disperse no more than five to seven miles from an original birthing area.
Rare Find: California Red-Legged Frogs
The federally threatened California Red-legged Frog breeds from March to July in northern parts of California and from January to July (peak in February) in the southern part of the state. It inhabits quiet pools of streams, marshes, and occasionally ponds where emergent vegetation provides hiding places. Look for this species west of the Sierra-Cascade crest and along the Coast Ranges the entire length of the state usually below 4,000 feet.
Wash First: Newborn Raccoons
Newborn raccoons born this time of year may number 2-7 in a litter. Do they and their parents truly wash their food? Sometimes, but dipping their meal is merely thought to be a tactic that helps them tell edible objects from non-edible items. There is no evidence from field observations to suggest raccoons attempt to clean off their prey by washing them with water before feasting. An excellent tactic to see raccoons closeup is to attract them to your backyard with a bowl of dogfood or graham crackers while shining the glare of an infrared bulb from above on the food attractant. Then, retreating to your residence and watching from a distance of at least 50 feet, wait patiently to see if raccoons arrive to take your bait.
Water Magnets: Attracting Birds To Your Yard
What’s one technique that may attract more birds to your yard? Try installing a backyard in-ground pond or above-ground water source. A perpetual spray or fountain that recycles water can attract birds drawn in by the sound of running water, especially passerines such as American Robin, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Oak Titmouse, House Finch, American Goldfinch and many others.
Better Late Than Never: Western Wood-Pewees Arrive
Western Wood-Pewees, one of our latest returning neotropical migrants, are now settling into breeding habitats such as woodlands, pine-oak forests, and river groves.
What is the strange scent in the air along roadsides? Perhaps you’re smelling night-active skunks whose home range may extend beyond 10 acres, within which a portion is used more often, including sheltering areas such as abandoned burrows of other animals. Skunks sometimes also dig their own burrow or use protected cavities underneath buildings. Some naturalists suggest mothballs work to repel skunks from habitually entering a shelter under, for example, a house or patio.
Care Package: Feeding Thirsty Hummingbirds Correctly
Changing sweet mixtures regularly every 2-3 days in hummingbird feeders becomes important as days grow warmer. Washing the feeder in hot water is also an important preventive measure to care for the health of hummers. A four to five parts water to one part sugar combination usually works best, though you may experiment (fun!) to judge which mixture is most often visited by hummingbirds. Bee and ant guards are a good idea to prevent potential problems. If you’re hanging more than one feeder, the best strategy (if possible) is to space them apart by at least 30-40 feet. This action may help prevent the guarding of two feeders by an overaggressive male hummer that defends the territory in between both feeders.
1) Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times
For the latitude of San Francisco, CA, see:
2) Planet Highlights:
Venus is no longer visible in the evening sky, lost in the Sun’s glare. Venus and the Sun reach conjunction on June 3, after which Venus will return to being a “morning star.”
As we begin the month, look for very bright Jupiter, King of Planets, and also the yellow glow of ringed Saturn, rising around midnight and shining until dawn.
FULL MOON FOR JUNE
In June, 2020, the Full Strawberry Moon falls on the 5th. Since the full Moon crests during the daylight hours this year (12:12 p.m. PDT), it should appear full on both June 4 and June 5, shining from dusk until dawn. On the 5th, folks who live in the Eastern Hemisphere will witness a penumbral eclipse of the Moon (a slight, subtlely shaded eclipse) but it won’t be visible for North America.
JUNE BRIGHT PLANETS
- Change prevails, as Venus crosses over to be a morning star in Taurus. We should be able to get a good view of Venus in the morning sky starting in mid-June.
- There will be a very low but spectacularly close Moon–Venus conjunction in bright twilight on June 19. Without binoculars, however, this pairing will be difficult to observe in the setting Sun’s glow.
- In the first half of June, Mercury is the evening star in Gemini; now in the dimmer half of its orbit, it was easier to see last month.
- Jupiter (magnitude – 2.5) shines brightly in the southeast to south from midnight until dawn. The Moon passes near Jupiter on the morning of June 8.
- If you have even a small telescope, you should be able to spot the two dark bands, the famous Great Red Spot, and Jupiter’s four largest moons.
- About 4° to Jupiter’s left is Saturn (+0.4), also rising around midnight and one-third of the way up the southern sky before dawn. The waning Moon can be seen near Saturn on the morning of June 9.
- Mars rises by 2:00 A.M. in the south to southeast at midmonth, far to the left of Saturn in dim Aquarius. The waning Moon passes near Mars on the mornings of June 12/13.
- For those with telescopes: Jupiter and Pluto meet up on June 30, 2020 for a conjunction, which will be visible in our night sky (as opposed to being lost in the sun’s glare). Pluto requires a telescope to be seen as it’s very faint near bright Jupiter but use the Giant Planet to find the dwarf planet!
- The same calendar vagaries that gave us our extraordinarily early spring now bring an early summer, with the June solstice on the 20th at 2:44 P.M. PDT.
The only naked-eye asteroid, Vesta, attains a rare brilliancy. At magnitude 5.3, it is faint but easily seen (away from city lights) to the upper right of Saturn during the moonless period from the 5th to the 15th.
20th: Summer begins at 2:44 p.m. PDT
20th: St. John’s Eve tonight used to be celebrated more so in the past in England when bonfires would be set to glow throughout the long and late-striking twilight hours and into the night.
Pop bird quiz: How many species of warblers nest in northern California along and near the coast (e.g., Marin County)? During most breeding seasons, at least eight species breed annually in suitable habitat (Orange-Crowned, Yellow, Yellow-Rumped, Black-throated-gray, Hermit, MacGillivray’s, Common Yellowthroat, and Wilson’s). Irregular to rare annual breeders in n. CA may include Northern Parula, American Redstart (annual in far n.w. CA along the coast) and Yellow-breasted Chat. All eight in the initial list, above, may be seen during the non-breeding season, with the Common Yellowthroat and Yellow-rumped considered resident in Marin County.
Note, however, that some Yellow-Rumped populations may arrive from the north during the non-breeding season to displace Marin County’s higher altitude breeding populations of the same species. These individuals likely migrate south and don’t remain during the non-breeding season.
In our area, Orange-crowned is uncommon, yet not rare to see during the non-breeding season, while Hermit is often also seen, especially during the County’s annual Christmas Bird Count surveys conducted by volunteers. The least common species to see during the non-breeding season (December through March) from the list above (in descending order of abundance) are Yellow, Black-throated gray, Wilson’s, and MacGillivray’s). Nashville Warbler is sometimes seen as a transient migrant through the Bay Area, including occasional sightings during the West Marin Christmas Bird Count (West Marin CBC).
Final Avian Arrivals
In northern California, it’s a good bet that Western Wood Peewee and Common Nighthawk are the latest arriving avian migrants among species that do not overwinter in the state. According to the Point Reyes Bird Observatory Biologist Dave Shuford’s chart (Marin County Breeding Bird Atlas, Dave Shuford, Bushtit Books, Bolinas, CA 1993) that highlights the arrival of avian migrants in northern California (see http://www.warblerwatch.com and click on the “Bird Arrival Times” button), Western Wood Peewee may arrive in May and as late as early June during some years. Common Nighthawk is usually a June arrival, probably because their primary food resource — aerial insects of various species — do not bloom in abundance until this time.
What’s That Sound? Could It Be A Chipmunk?
Unlike the Sierra mountains where many species of chipmunks may be seen, the Sonoma Chipmunks is the only species of chipmunk you’ll see in coastal areas of northern California, including the San Francisco Bay area. Breeding from February through July, one litter is born per year consisting of three to seven young. Gestation occurs for 30 days in a pregnant chipmunk and individuals mature at around one year. Not surprisingly, people often mistake the soft chirping of the Sonoma chipmunk for a bird.
Blinded By The Light
On warm nights now and the rest of the summer, it’s wonderful to linger outdoors and gaze at the stars. There’s only one problem. It’s increasingly more difficult to see the stars through the glare discarded by people and their surroundings. Do you care about the increasing problem of light pollution that makes it more difficult to clearly spot celestial objects? If so, you might consider joining the International Dark-Sky Association. Call 520/293-3198 for more information or look at its Web site: http://www.darksky.org
Spotting Spotted Deer?
Will you still see young deer this late in the spring? Yes, it seems the normal range of births for deer extends into late June and beyond. I’ve seen white-spotted fawns well into July and, even, occasionally as late as August and September in our area, the burgeoning population due in part to the plentiful forage and ideal habitat that continues to expand as more suburban landscapes and their associated gardens displace forests, forest borders, and meadows.
Gray Fox: Dog Family Member All Around Us
On trails near urban areas throughout the Bay Area, you can often find the scat or tracks of gray foxes. (Many people may automatically assume these signs are from domestic dogs. Telltale signs of gray fox include the presence of hair and a sharp, tapered point at least one end of the scat.) More common than ever in our region, these solitary mammals may be active both day and night. Unlike other dog family members, the gray fox is able to climb trees where they may hang out during the day.
Coastal Nester: Western Gull
Which gull in California is the only species nesting along the coast (e.g., Marin County)? The Western Gull, which nests from southern Baja to Washington. Distinguishing this species from other gull species is not too difficult. Three field marks often give away their identity: pink legs, large bill, extremely dark gray backside/mantle. Note the lower portion of the bill has a small crook or angle near its end, a field mark that is called the “gonydeal angle.”
Do you want to attract mammals into view in your backyard? One fun technique for doing so is to place a Q-tip (that has been dipped into musk oil or other animal-attracting oil potion) into the ground. Place a small circle of sand under the Q-tip so that you can see the tracks of the animals you attract. (You can order a large variety of animal attractant oil and vocal call devices from M & M Fur Co., 1-800-658-5554.)
1) Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times: (courtesy of almanac.com)
For The 1st of This Month (at Latitude: 38:03:38 N, Longitude: 122:32:27 W, which is Novato, CA, 20 miles north of San Francisco, CA in Marin County):
All times are Pacific Daylight Time at sea level.
2) July Planet & Star Information: (courtesy of almanac.com)
The warm nights of summer make for glorious stargazing. This month, four of the visible planets grace us in the night skies! Venus is easy to spot after sunset; Saturn and Jupiter emerge mid-evening and nearly at their brightest for the year. Bob Berman highlights two great times to see these planets at their best!Autumn In July? Yes, If You’re A Shorebird
Earth arrives at its annual far point from the Sun—aphelion—on the 5th of July. When overhead, the Sun appears 7 percent dimmer than it looked in January.
BRIGHT PLANETS OF JULY
As darkness descends on July days, look up! Both of our neighboring planets—bright Venus and red Mars—will appear low on the western horizon. Venus is easy to see at a -3.9 magnitude. Mars is dimmer at +1.8 magnitude just above Venus.
JULY 11–12: VENUS AND MARS CONJUNCTION
- On the 11th, Venus and Mars meet in a conjunction with both just to the left of the crescent Moon. Look in the western sky after sunset. Use the Moon to help guide your eye to Venus and Mars. These three nearest bodies to Earth stand about 10 degrees high during mid-twilight.
- On the 12th and 13th, the Moon moves on, but the two planets come very close together. Again, look in the evening skies after sunset to see glowing Venus; Mars’s dimness at magnitude 1.84 means that binoculars should be used for the very best view.
Each evening, Venus will rise higher in the night sky and Mars will sink lower to the setting Sun. By the end of July, Mars disappears from view into the horizon but Venus continues to shine bright in the West.
JULY 24–25: SATURN, JUPITER, AND MOON
Jupiter and Saturn shine bright from mid-evening until dawn! Saturn emerges around 10 P.M. ET in the southeast skies, and Jupiter follows about an hour later towards the east. The Giant Planet is easily visible at -2.7 magnitude; in comparison, Saturn will be harder to see at zero-magnitude. See Saturn and Jupiter’s rise and set times for your location.
The two planets are headed towards their opposition from the Sun in August (when they are their brightest for the year) so July is one of the better times to view them both. If you rise before day breaks, you’ll see the duo shining higher up in the sky above the southwest horizon.
- On July 24, the night after the Full Buck Moon, the Moon forms a nice triangle with Saturn on the right and Jupiter on the left. Saturn now rises around 9 p.m. in the southeast, and Jupiter an hour later.
- On the 25th, the Moon is above Jupiter—halfway between the Giant Planet and Saturn.
Image: Summer Triangle. Credit: NASA
STARGAZING FOR JULY
- July’s highlight is the Summer Triangle, shining bright and high in the evening sky! See our free star chart and have fun spotting the Summer triangle this month!
- The Delta Aquariid meteors peak July 28 to 29. Their hourly rate at peak is 10 meteors per hour and it’s a little near the date of the Full Buck Moon for dark skies, but if you’re patient and look towards the darkest part of the sky, you should see a shooting star. See tips for viewing meteor showers.
Visit San Francisco Bay shorelines this month to note the arrival of Arctic and Alaskan populations of Western and Least Sandpiper, northern California’s initial returning migrants that will spend the non-breeding season here or at points farther south. An interesting fact relates to how some tardy northward migrating Western and Least Sandpiper populations in June may actually pass early southward migrating male individuals belonging to the same species. Imagine this phenomenon happening infrequently, but when it does, it’s likely to happen in Washington or British Columbia coastal areas — and not as typical in the San Francisco Bay Area where the initial returning shorebirds/peeps usually return as early as the last week of June and in greater numbers during the initial two weeks of July.
Trailside Nest? It’s Probably A Wood Rat
The Dusky-Footed Wood Rat is a common small mammal that is often overlooked when people walk in woodlands. Active only at night, its presence is easily noticed by its often elaborate and conspicuous conical nest of twigs and branches that can grow two to three feet tall (as more twigs accumulate each year). The wood rat occupying a nest is solitary except for during the breeding season.
Hopping Around: Brush Rabbits
By now, you may see first-year brush rabbits on the landscape. Born from January through August in our area (with greater activity from March through June), young rabbits remain in their nest for two weeks. Females produce 2-4 litters per year, of 1-6 young (average 3-4).
Beating The Heat: California Ground Squirrel
Another common northern California mammal, the California ground squirrel (or Beecheyi’s ground squirrel), is more difficult to spot now because the dry, warm weather reduces vegetation as a food source and therefore induces estivation (“summer slumber”) in some individuals during this time of the year. From now through mid-winter, these 9-11 inch mammals may retire to a burrow until more green growth appears with the first rains and in mid-winter. At higher elevations, these squirrels hibernate from late October through May.
Wood-Warblers Leaving Already?
Do some warblers actually begin dispersing from their breeding areas already? Yes, and this movement includes populations of California-nesting Orange-Crowned Warblers that first disperse to higher altitudes in the foothill and the Sierra Madre Mountains (to the east and northeast of Marin County) where they feed and molt for a period before eventually migrating south in late summer and early autumn.
More Babies? Western Tree Squirrel
Tree squirrels may be having their second “hatch” of babies by now. Using tree cavities as birthing sites, the adults occasionally move the babies from one locale to another in the canopy.
Autumnal Exit: Migrating Birds
Be on the lookout for south migrating shorebirds and sandpipers as they begin their early treks back to wintering grounds from northern breeding areas. Likely first candidates to spot along ocean beaches and in esteros include Western and Least Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs (less common than Greater), Willet, Marbled Godwit, Black Turnstone, and, by the end of September, Dunlin. Curiously, it’s actually possible to see both north and southbound migrating birds this month. Go to Limantour Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore, for example, and it would be plausible to see late-migrating northbound Least Sandpipers passing by the first southbound migrating birds of the same species that have already bred to the north.
The hatching times of butterflies vary throughout the spring and summer. One excellent online resource for the butterfly breeding biology in the McLaughlin Reserve (in Napa and Lake Counties, northwest of Davis by two hours) is accessed at http://nrs.ucop.edu/reserves/mclaughlin/species/butterflypheno.htm. An excellent butterfly field guide that reveals hatching range times is “Butterflies Through Binoculars: A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Western North America,” by Jeffrey Glassberg.
1) Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times
To learn your location’s moon & planet rise & set times, go to:
Type in your location to see corresponding information for your area.
For The 3rd of this month (i.e., Adjust for the rest of the month by going to the above web site and changing the date as needed):
|Planetrise/Planetset, Mon, Aug 3, 2020 For Novato, CA (SF Bay Area)|
|Mercury||Mon 5:02 am||Mon 7:32 pm||Mon 12:17 pm||Slightly difficult to see|
|Venus||Mon 2:56 am||Mon 5:12 pm||Mon 10:04 am||Great visibility|
|Mars||Sun 11:22 pm||Mon 11:52 am||Mon 5:37 am||Perfect visibility|
|Jupiter||Sun 7:00 pm||Mon 4:34 am||Sun 11:47 pm||Perfect visibility|
|Saturn||Sun 7:27 pm||Mon 5:12 am||Mon 12:20 am||Perfect visibility|
|Uranus||Mon 12:04 am||Mon 1:42 pm||Mon 6:53 am||Average visibility|
|Neptune||Sun 10:00 pm||Mon 9:34 am||Mon 3:47 am||Difficult to see|
2) Planet Highlights:
Jupiter and Saturn continue to be visible all night long, just as they were in July. The two bright planets stand one-third of the way up the southern sky at midnight, and hover near each other for most of August. The viewing may be even better this month, because Jupiter and Saturn are higher up in the sky, well above any buildings or trees, and they can be seen earlier in the evening so need to stay up too late if you’re not a night owl.
Mars also rises in the evening between 10 and 11 P.M. in early August. The red planet shines in Pisces through dawn. The good news is that our neighboring planet has grown brighter this month, now shining as bright as a 1st-magnitude star (one of the sky’s brightest stars).
Meanwhile, before dawn, Venus dazzles extremely bright in Gemini—and not too low. Mercury shines much lower but at a very bright and easy magnitude –1 in the month’s first week.
Perseid Meteor Shower:
When is the Perseid Meteor shower?
The Perseid meteor shower occurs every year from about July 23 to August 22, reaching its peak from late midnight August 11 to dawn August 13. The shower’s “maximum”—when the greatest number of meteors per hour fall—is typically in the pre-dawn hours (when it’s still dark) of August 11, 12, or 13.
In 2020, the Perseids will be competing with the last quarter Moon (appearing on August 11). Although not as bright as the full Moon (August 3), the last quarter Moon will still cast enough light to wash out the meteors to some extent, making them more difficult to see than usual. Luckily, the Perseids fall at a rate of about 50 meteors per hour during their peak nights, so your chances of seeing at least a few meteors are still good!
The Moon rises around midnight during the Perseids’ peak, so the best time to look for them will be before midnight on the nights of the 11th, 12th, and 13th.
How many resident species of woodpeckers can you typically see in northern California? Five commons ones (Acorn, Nuttall’s, Downy, Hairy, Northern Flicker) are year-round residents, while the Pileated is a less common resident. Red-breasted Sapsuckers arrive in greater numbers during the fall and winter, but they are still never a common sight in Marin County and in most of the Bay Area except for the northwestern portion of Sonoma County where they nest.
Where Can You Find Black-tailed Jackrabbit?
One of the best places to see Black-tailed Jackrabbits (hares) (Lepus californicus) is along San Francisco Bay area recreational lands where trails wind through grasses, forbs and shrubs. April and May are the most common months for Bay Area hares to give birth, with four litters per year consisting of three to four hares the typical reproduction rate for one female. Hares are also common throughout the state, except at the highest elevations.
Long Distance Frequent Flyer: Blackpoll Warbler Migration
Most long-distance avian songbird migrants fly at night. Feeding during the day replenishes their energy. Traveling for long distances over unsuitable habitats and water is not uncommon. Perhaps the most Herculean southerly migration flight is performed by the Blackpoll Warbler whose eastern populations, in part, are known to travel nonstop some 2,200 miles over the Atlantic ocean from New England and eastern Canada to their non-breeding grounds in northern South America. This trip may take the warblers 72-90 hours in flight time, during which they burn .08 grams per hour. If one portion of a Blackpoll’s autumn migration takes 36 hours before they arrive to temporarily rest on the island of Bermuda, then researchers have calculated it would log some 720,000 miles to the gallon if it burned gasoline instead of its own fat (Timothy and Janet Williams, “An Oceanic Mass Migration of Land Birds.” Scientific American (239) (1978): 166-76.)
Birders Guide To Northern California
Vacationers in California occasionally ask me about places that are good for birding. One excellent resource is the book “Birder’s Guide to Northern California,” by LoLo and Jim Westich (Gulf Publishing, 1991). It lists and describes hundreds of birding spots throughout seven regions in northern California and also provides addresses for obtaining more than 25 regional and local bird checklists.
Feathered Jewels: Hummingbirds In The Bay Area
Which species of hummingbirds are you most likely to see in northern California along the coast (e.g., Marin County)? Six species have been observed in Marin County just north of San Francisco: Anna’s are year-round residents, while Allen’s are present as breeders from mid-March through mid-July. Rufous Hummingbirds may also be seen during spring and autumn migration times, while less frequently observed are Black-chinned, Costa’s and Calliope Hummingbirds.
Sky Watch: (courtesy of almanac.com)
1) Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times
For your area’s moon & planet rise & set times, go to: https://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/night/
Type in your location’s city and state. Then note the results (below in the table) similar to the ones for my location at latitude: 38:03:38 N, longitude: 122:32:27 W, which is Novato, CA, 20 miles north of San Francisco, CA in Marin County.
Planet rise/Planet set, Mon, Sep 2, 2019 For San Francisco:
|Mercury||Tue 7:46 am||Tue 8:14 pm||Tue 2:01 pm||Slightly difficult to see|
|Venus||Wed 3:05 am||Wed 5:17 pm||Wed 10:11 am||Good visibility|
|Mars||Tue 9:47 pm||Wed 10:33 am||Wed 4:10 am||Perfect visibility|
|Jupiter||Tue 4:52 pm||Wed 2:25 am||Tue 9:38 pm||Perfect visibility|
|Saturn||Tue 5:22 pm||Wed 3:06 am||Tue 10:14 pm||Perfect visibility|
|Uranus||Tue 10:06 pm||Wed 11:42 am||Wed 4:54 am||Average visibility|
|Neptune||Tue 7:59 pm||Wed 7:32 am||Wed 1:46 am||Slightly difficult to see|
2) Planet & Sky Highlights:
FULL CORN MOON
This year, start looking for September’s full Corn Moon just after sunset on Tuesday, September 1. It reaches peak illumination at 1:23 A.M. Eastern Time on Wednesday, September 2.
Expecting the Harvest Moon this month? You’re not alone! The full Moon that happens nearest to the autumnal equinox always takes on the name “Harvest Moon.” In 2020, the Harvest Moon falls in October (which has two full Moons this year).
Autumn arrives with the equinox on the 22nd at 9:31 a.m. EDT. See the Autumnal Equinox page for all the facts.
JUPITER AND SATURN GROW NEARER
Bright Jupiter finishes retrograding and resumes direct motion toward Saturn in the evening sky. (Keep your eye on this duo as their gap narrows in preparation for their amazing and historic “Great Conjunction” in 3 months!)
Jupiter is the brightest object in the night sky (besides our Moon), at its highest in the night sky around nightfall/dusk during September which makes it an easy sight. Just look South.
Then look for Saturn immediately to the east. Saturn will follow Jupiter westward across the sky from nightfall until well after midnight.
22nd: Fall Equinox (Fall begins at 6:31 A.M. PDT)
Total Eclipse of the Moon. This eclipse will be visible from North America. The eclipse will be best viewed from the eastern half of North America. The Moon will be rising during the eclipse for western regions. The Moon will enter the penumbra at 8:10 p.m. EDT and the umbra at 9:07 p.m. on September 27th; totality begins at 10:11 p.m. The Moon will leave the umbra at 11:24 p.m.and the penumbra at 1:24 a.m. on September 28th.
. . .And The First Hibernating Mammal Is?:
You were correct if you said Yellowbelly Marmot (Marmota flaviventris), an inhabitant of high altitudes that turn cool early in southeastern, eastern, and northeastern California. Some individuals of this species may begin hibernation in August, prior to which they begin estivation as early as June (!). A mammal that begins hibernation in September is the Western Jumping Mouse (Zapus princeps), which has a breeding range that extends from New Mexico north to Alaska and the Northwest Territories. The northernmost populations probably enter hibernation prior to southern individuals, with northern California populations possibly entering their winter “sleep” phase in mid- to late-October.
Given this mammal’s breeding range does not include Marin County, it’s likely that our only hibernating mammals could be the Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus) and some localized populations of California Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus beecheyi). Least Chipmunks (Eutamias minimus) in far eastern and northeastern California also hibernate, as do some Whitetail Antelope Squirrel (Ammospermophilus leucurus) populations in northeastern California.
Secret Code: Fireflies In California? Elsewhere?
Does California host fireflies like much of the rest of the USA? Yes, but our species do not have the ability to create bioluminescent light patterns. Elsewhere in the USA (especially in the Midwest/East), watch for the pulsing light show of fireflies in meadows, fields and forest borders. The aerial flights of flashing light are made by male fireflies only. Females may respond in kind from their perches on the ground. Males checkout the light pattern emitted from females by flying closer, then mating if the flashing pattern is acceptable. If you see a different pattern of flashing light from a firefly, it may be another species. You can attempt to distinguish species from one another by noticing the number, duration and time lapse between flashes.
Bats: Lucky 13 In The Bay Area
How many species of different bats can be found in California? Twenty-one, according to a checklist compiled by Daniel F. Williams (Dept. of Biological Sciences, California State University, Stanislaus, Turlock, CA 95382; see http://arnica.csustan.edu/esrpp/calilist.htm). Approximately 13 of these species can be seen in the San Francisco Bay Area. At least 40 species of bats occur in N. America, some of which are threatened or endangered.
Migrating Butterflies I Have Known
Besides monarchs, who are the other migrating butterflies? Two of them are the painted lady and red admiral. High ridges are especially good vantage points to spot monarchs moving south. Butterfly watchers in the East and Midwest will see monarchs on their trips south to where they will remain throughout the winter in the Transvolcanic Mountain range of central Mexico. Western populations of migrating monarchs often congregate together in huge colonies along the central California coast (e.g., Pacific Grove near Monterey, CA).
We’re Outta Here: En Masse Exit
Now is the time to notice “staging” behavior of some birds. Swallows and nighthawks, for example, congregate in large groups on telephone lines and in trees before migrating south together en masse. Unlike most passerine birds, many swallows and nighthawks migrate during the day — as do Lesser, Lawrence’s, and American Goldfinch, in addition American Robin and Northern Flicker.
Introducing The Names Of Introduced Mammals
Thirteen species of mammals living in California are introduced non-natives, including the Virginia opossum, eastern gray tree squirrel, fox squirrel, wild burro, wild horse, axis deer, fallow deer, nutria (probable), feral goat, and Himalayan tahr (a kind of bovid).
Are Hummingbirds Around During Winter?
Where do hummingbirds go for the winter? Most species depart from the United States, though some populations of the Anna’s hummingbirds appear to remain in California throughout the winter. During many years, this species may begin courtship in December (before Winter begins!) in some parts of its range. Ruby-throated hummingbirds east of the Mississippi River begin migrating south around now through October. Many spend the winter in southern Mexico, though a few live on Florida Key islands and in Cuba (95 miles from Key West).
A curious phenomenon in recent years is the increasing diversity of hummingbirds appearing during the winter in the eastern USA. Rufous Hummingbirds appear to be the most common “newly-discovered” hummingbird species seen in the southeast, while two Calliope Hummingbirds spent much of the 2001-2002 winter at feeders near New York City. Some researchers and bird banders believe the Rufous may either be more commonly noticed in the East because it has recently changed its migration/dispersal behavior (due to global warming?) and/or it is more accurately observed now because of recently-increased banding and monitoring.
Rare Bird Sightings
One of the best West Coast places to spot vagrant songbirds is in western Marin Co. in Point Reyes National Seashore. At the point near the lighthouse and amidst nearby groves of Monterey Cypress trees, diverse species of wayward eastern wood-warblers are best spotted in September and October. If you go, don’t be surprised to see American
Redstart, Blackpolls, Blackburnian, Black-and-White, and Prairie Warblers. Note: American Redstart and Black-and-White are not considered vagrant species in California by some theorists because the state sometimes hosts nesting individuals annually or irregularly. Other songbirds that may make cameo appearances here include Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Baltimore Oriole.
1) Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times
For The 1st of This Month (at Latitude: 38:03:38 N, Longitude: 122:32:27 W, which is Novato, CA, 20 miles north of San Francisco, CA in Marin County):
2) Planet Highlights:
THE MONTH OF MARS
What is that brightening red star in the East? It’s not Jupiter or Saturn which are in the South. It’s not Venus which is now a “morning star.” Why, it’s our neighbor, Mars!
On October 2, look for Mars very very close to the full Moon. Mars appears just above the Moon, shining all night—from dusk until dawn
MARS OPPOSITION 2020
The reason that Mars appears so big and bright is that is nearing its closest approach to Earth, or, opposition, which occurs on October 13. Mars will reach an atypically brilliant magnitude—2.6—outshining even Jupiter! In other words, Mars is the brightest object in the night sky after the Moon.
This is the best and brightest our neighboring planet gets until 2035, so enjoy it all now!
Image: Hubble Space Telescope photo of Mars taken when the planet was 50 million miles from Earth on May 12, 2016. Credits: NASA, ESA.
JUPITER AND SATURN PAIRED AT NIGHT
Meanwhile, Jupiter and Saturn, pulling nearer together at nightfall, are due south in Sagittarius. From October 21 to 23, the Moon passes between the pair of gas giants. Look South to southwest at nightfall.
Both the Ringed Planet and the Giant Planet travel westward across the sky—Saturn following Jupiter—until they set in late evening.
See the Almanac Planet Rise and Set Calculator for your zip code.
VENUS, URANUS, MERCURY
- Venus, the “morning star,” will continue to shine at dawn through the rest of the year. Before dawn on the 13th and 14th, Venus meets the crescent Moon in Leo.
- Uranus comes into opposition on Halloween, an easy green binocular target in eastern Pisces, far to the left of Mars. At magnitude 5.7, it can be faintly glimpsed with the naked eye in rural locations.
- Mercury is not visible this month, being too close to the Sun’s glare.
The San Francisco Bay and northern California bodies of water host an amazingly large population of ducks that spend the non-breeding season in our area. Survey results indicate half the entire population of Northern Shoveler spend the non-breeding season in northern California, as do an almost equally massive percentage of both Lesser and Greater Scaup populations. By now, you may also spot other returning winter resident waterfowl in open waters, including Canvasback, Redhead (less common), American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Northern Pintail, Red-breasted Merganser, Gadwall, Mallard, Common Merganser, Northern Pintail, and Ruddy Duck — with the latter five species as residents in Marin County that are joined by newly-arriving populations from the north.
Feeder Philosophy With Hummingbirds
When should you stop feeding hummingbirds sugar water nectar? In northern California/Bay Area, you can serve nectar year-round because the Anna’s Hummingbird is a resident. In the Midwest and the East, the answer is less clear. One group of birders believe feeders left stocked in the autumn may imperil hummingbirds because this food source allows foraging to occur later than would be accommodated with a normal bloom of wildflowers. Awakening to an early freeze may be difficult for remaining hummingbirds to survive, argue these experts. Others believe it is okay for nectar feeders to remain well into autumn. Hummingbirds are uninfluenced by food source availability and migrate when prompted by an “inner clock,” according to these people. This viewpoint is in concert with researchers who have studied migration. These experts point out that many species of migrating birds are undistracted by food sources that would normally attract their interest.
Night Aversion: Arctic Tern
It’s well known that the arctic tern makes the longest migration (22,000-25,000 miles roundtrip) of any bird along with the Bristled Curlew that migrates in autumn from the Arctic to the South Pacific. In northern California, you won’t often see them along the coast, while your chances of observation during their migration improve if you take a pelagic boat trip onto the open ocean.
Less publicized is how far our familiar barn swallow travels. Look for them now moving south in groups during the day as they proceed on the southern portion of their roundtrip migration that may amount to as high as 7,000 miles. Some researchers speculate that Arctic Tern populations never see darkness, given their range encompasses living in northern and southern latitudes where 20 or more hours of daylight are normal during summer before the birds again migrate toward an opposite pole as days become shorter in one of the two hemispheres they inhabit.
Prime Time Viewing: Migrating Raptors
Although hawks and eagles begin migration through Mid-Atlantic states before this week, now is an ideal period to see them if you visit a prominent ridge or mountain top to view. Two of the best vistas on separate coasts are both called Hawk Hill. At the West Coast’s Hawk Hill (operated by the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory; for directions,
This raptor monitoring area (for which directions are provided at the above web site) is near Sausalito, California just north of San Francisco overlooking San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean), as many as 19 species of raptors are seen each autumn. Hawk Hill Mountain in central Pennsylvania is another popular vista to observe more than a dozen migrating raptors, the most common raptorial passersby being American kestrels, red-tailed, sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks.
Autumn and Winter Residents
Typical winter resident woodland birds you can now (or soon) see in the Bay Area include Golden-crowned Sparrow, Varied Thrush and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. The Golden-crowns are interesting simply because many sing throughout much of the winter even though they do not breed here. More typically, winter residents merely emit simpler call notes, and only begin singing when on breeding grounds. (i.e., The answer as to why this species sings in the winter is not totally clear, but one reason may allude to first-year Golden-crowns practicing their songs before they become truly defined and articulate (crystallization) singers at the age of 11 to 12 months.). At least one subspecies of the White-Crowned Sparrow also visits the Bay Area before migrating north in the spring.
Common Croaker: Sierran Tree Frog
Often unidentifiable and puzzling to listeners, the muffled call of the Sierran tree frog (Pseudacris sierra) (formerly called the Pacific Tree Frog) is more common to hear than many people might believe. Hike through a variety of northern California upland habitats and the quick, low, gruff note of this frog is often present beyond the breeding season. After leaving their watery breeding sites, these frogs seek cover in moist niches in buildings, wells, rotting logs or burrows. Breeding occurs between January and July throughout much of California. In even small bodies of water that are only temporary during these times, look for egg clusters that are deposited on submerged or emergent vegetation.
There Goes The Neighborhood: Coyotes Are Coming
More common in urban and suburban areas than ever, be on the lookout for coyotes in the Bay Area. They are now a permanent resident throughout California, living in almost all habitats and successional stages. Coyotes frequent open brush, scrub, shrub, and herbaceous habitats, and may be associated opportunistically with croplands. They’re also found in younger stands of deciduous and conifer forest and woodland with low to intermediate canopy, and shrub and grass understory. Complaints from people regarding the increased presence of the adaptable coyote are plausible. Then again, many of the complainers have invaded previously natural habitat that was the domain of wild animals for eons before people arrived.
Arboreal Fantasia: Autumn’s Flaming Colors
The intensity of the tree’s fall colors are in part affected by the amount of moisture that fell during the past summer. A dry summer with below normal rainfall tends to mute the golden and red colors so that the leaves on many trees are more uniformly brown. In the West, few deciduous trees exhibit a stunning array of fall colors, though the Big-leaf Maple and the Quaking Aspen wear stunning golden sheens. Elsewhere, my own experience while living in the mid-Atlantic suggests the Black Gum (Nyssa silvatica) is the prettiest in displaying bright rainbow colors, as are Sugar Maples that grow in more northerly and higher elevations locales.
1) Planet Highlights: (courtesy of almanac.com
….Please check back for details at the start of this month in 2020.
Wild Turkeys: Band On The Run
If you’re like most drivers in northern California, you’ve hit the brake to avoid bands of Wild Turkeys crossing the street. Why are they so common? Like many non-natives in northern California, Wild Turkey populations have an easy time in suburban and semi-rural areas where successful predation by Gray Fox, Bobcat, and Mountain Lion remains below this gallinaceous bird’s prodigious breeding rate that usually consists of 10-12 eggs per brood (and multiple broods for some females each breeding season).
In addition, Wild Turkey benefit from joining together in bands of six or more this time of year so that at least one individual is likely to sense any imminent predation attempt and, subsequently, alert other turkeys in a group that quickly flees from harm’s way. Plentiful harvests of acorns are another major factor in supporting large Wild Turkey populations, with native oak species (including Coast Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia) providing ample supplies of these birds’ favorite food. In years when the crop of acorns is low from Coast Live Oak, other native oak species (Black Oak, Quercus kelloggii and Blue Oak, Quercus douglasi) may make up the difference by yielding high acorn numbers. A final reason relates to how mild winter temperatures in our area limit mortality of populations whose odds of perishing increase in more frigid locales within this bird’s range that includes portions of New England and the upper Midwest.
Autumn Chores: Western Gray Tree Squirrel
What are western gray tree squirrels doing now? Many are preparing for winter when they’ll make brood nests in tree and snag cavities, often enlarging an abandoned woodpecker cavity. They are also known to construct nests on branches of oak, fir, or pine trees. If you see a nest, look for it to contain shredded bark, grass, moss, and lichen.
Aquatic Insects Are (Almost) Everywhere
Seeing an abundance of aquatic insects might seem odd at this time of year when the days are getting progressively colder, correct? Not entirely. Many kinds of aquatic insects are actually abundant in many freshwater streams throughout the late autumn and into winter, with some (such as stoneflies) even changing into terrestrial adults and flying into autumn and winter’s landscape. Finding aquatic insects may be easier than you think. Pick up small rocks within shallow creeks and look on their backsides. You may see the diverse homes of caddisfly larva, with a variety materials used by each species in a shelter bound together from a caddisfly’s own secretions.
A Chorus of Crickets?
Are you still hearing crickets? — even though the first frost may have invaded your area. Crickets survive well into autumn because their body fluids contain an “anti-freeze” agent called glycogen. Its composition as an animal starch includes glucose molecules that retard the inevitable freezing of a cricket’s body fluids until more severe and consecutive nights of frigid weather arrive.
Snakes In Winter
Where do snakes hang out now and during the winter? Many retreat to underground dens where they coil en masse together to remain warm. In northern areas, rattlesnakes are particularly known for congregating into large groups (of up to 250 or more). Most live in dens on slopes protected from northern winds that have orientations toward the low winter sun in the south. Sometimes you can see rattlesnakes lie near their den entrances on the last warm days of autumn or on the initial warm days of spring.
Coaxing Deer Into Your View
Coax deer into view throughout the upcoming winter by placing a salt lick block at the edge of woods. However, you may wish to deter deer from eating your property’s plants with a variety of strategies that are too numerous to mention here (See literature distributed free by Sloat Garden Store in the Bay Area.) To limit deer accidents with windows/patio doors, prudent property owners place decals at a deer’s eye level so it will recognize an approaching barrier.
Winter Resident Wood-Warblers
Some brave warblers survive hang out throughout the winter in regions you might not expect. Unlike warblers that have vacated North America for points farther south, Yellow-Rumped Warbler (four subspecies constitute the entire species, including Aububon’s, Myrtle, Guatemalan Goldman’s, and Northwest Mexican Black-fronted*) are able to survive inclement winter weather while living in mid-Atlantic states (Myrtle subspecies) because they are able to digest wax myrtle, juniper and, even, poison ivy berries. These same areas may also host small populations of Pine and Palm warblers throughout the winter in the mid-Atlantic, in addition to occasional yellow-breasted chats and common yellowthroat warblers.
On the West Coast during winter, both Audubon and Myrtle Yellow-Rumped Warbler subspecies may be seen in northern California, with the former more common. In total, we see two of the four subspecies for the Yellow-Rumped Warbler species.
The above link allows you to access current and past AOS proposals related to potential bird taxonomy changes.
Sky Watch: (courtesy of almanac.com)
1) Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times
……..For your location’s moon & planet rise & set times, see: https://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/night/usa/tehachapi
or type in at:
Then type in your city and/or zip code location to review the results for your rising times.
For example, my location’s information for the 1st of this month (at Latitude: 38:03:38 N, Longitude: 122:32:27 W, which is Novato, CA, 94949 20 miles north of San Francisco, CA in Marin County):
2) Great Solstice Conjunction: Saturn & Jupiter Meet Each Other 12/21/20……In Tango: May I Have This Dance?
…….How to see Jupiter and Saturn in a “great conjunction” or “super conjunction…(and Be Happy, Don’t Worry: you can still view this conjunction on 12/22/20 and beyond for a good spell…..and be mesmerized into 2021 via:)
The above graphic and the following information is courtesy of Forbes Magazine as written by Jamie Carter.
We welcome winter with the “Great Conjunction,” which unfolds every two decades and has been celebrated since ancient times. This historic, once-in-20-years conjunction falls on the winter solstice, December 21, 2020.
- The Moon is near the two giant worlds of Jupiter and Saturn on the 16th and 17th.
- Then Jupiter passes extremely close to Saturn from the 20th to the 22nd, coming closest on the 21st—the solstice.
So close are the two planets that they merge almost into a single “star,” near enough to fit together in the same telescope field of view and very much visible with the naked eye. At their closest, they’ll be only 0.1 degrees apart. That’s just ⅕ of a full moon diameter.
Planets occasionally pass each other in the night sky, but rarely this close. Faster-moving Jupiter laps Saturn every 20 years, but not since 1623 has there been a “great conjunction” or “appulse” this close. Even more impressively, not since 1226 has such a sight been easily observable and in a post-sunset sky—almost 800 years ago.
On 12/21/20: Look for them 45 minutes after local sunset, low in fading evening twilight, roughly 14 degrees above the southwestern horizon. Often too close to the Sun to be observable (as in 2000), this conjunction is truly great and not to be missed!
What do we call this romantic meeting of two planet spirits in the night sky? The answer is a phenomenon that hasn’t happened for almost 800 years—an easily visible super-close conjunction or appulse of the Solar System’s two giant planets Jupiter and Saturn.
That is to say: Planets occasionally pass each other in the night sky, but rarely this close. Faster-moving Jupiter laps Saturn every 20 years, but not since 1623 has there been a “great conjunction” or “appulse” this close. Even more impressively, not since 1226 has such a sight been easily observable and in a post-sunset sky—almost 800 years ago.
3) Geminids Meteor Shower: December 13-14, 2020, mid-evening until dawn
Radiating from near the bright stars Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini the Twins, the Geminid meteor shower is one of the finest meteors showers visible in either the Northern or the Southern Hemisphere. Best yet, there is no moon to obscure this Geminid shower. The meteors could potentially be plentiful, rivaling the August Perseids, with perhaps 50 to 100 meteors per hour visible at the peak. Plus Geminid meteors are often bright. These meteors are often about as good in the evening as in the hours between midnight and dawn. Your best bet is to watch the peak of this often spectacular meteor shower? Try December 13-14, from mid-evening (9 to 10 p.m.) until dawn. On a dark night, free of moonlight, you can easily spot 50 or more meteors per hour. On an optimum night for the Geminids, it may even be possible to see up 100 meteors per hour.
21st: Winter Solstice (Winter begins at 2:02 A.M. PST)
Snake Look-Alike: Pacific Slender Salamanders (common in urban, suburban, and rural areas) Present in a Neighborhood Near You
Pacific slender salamanders are active underground from April or May until November or December when California’s initial “winter” season rains sometimes begin. After the first rains occur, when moisture and temperature conditions are favorable, they increase surface activities. Normally, they are active at night, and return to cover during daylight. If exposed to periods of extended rainfall, they may remain on the surface during the day to feed. Surface activity is limited by extremes of temperature and unfavorable moisture conditions.
Feeding Winter Birds
In some potentially inclement northern California locations (especially inland), now’s the time to make sure you have a waterproof, shock-proof heater to place in a backyard water pan or birdbath so that when overnight temperatures dip below freezing the birds still have a water source for drinking and bathing. Look for them at Wild Bird Center outlets (a national chain of stores).
Basking Garter Snakes
On warm days, look for the common and widespread Western Terrestrial Garter Snake. Sometimes you’ll see them basking in the sun at the entrances of hibernacula where snakes gather together during the winter to preserve and conserve their body temperatures as temperatures plummet. Likely places to see them extend from the Oregon border south throughout northern California and south to southern Santa Barbara Co., in addition to various locales in the Sierra Nevada mountains south to southern Tulare County. Courtship begins in spring soon after their emergence. Seven to 30 young are born in July and August.
Four Thrush Species Occur Here in Winter?
Which thrush family members are you likely to see during the winter in northern California? In the Bay Area, for example, look for Hermit Thrush, Varied Thrush, American Robin, and Western Bluebird. The initial two on the list are especially breathtaking to view, as their abrupt entrance onto the landscape is punctuated with their subtle hues of rust and orange. The eerie, shrill, one-note song of the Varied Thrush adds additional intrigue to the damp forests they inhabit while only temporarily visiting our area during the winter.
Strangely, though the Hermit Thrush is seen throughout the year in Marin County, it’s probable that the individuals we see during the non-breeding season arrived here from where they breed farther to the north as far as Alaska. During the summer (after migration), Hermit Thrush in Marin County are uncommon and found only at higher altitudes where they breed sporadically throughout the county.
How Many Salamanders Can You Find?
From now through late winter, look for seven species of salamanders that live in the San Francisco Bay area. Perhaps the most common to see is the California slender salamander, which looks like a large worm with tiny legs. Look for them in damp places, especially under logs and in leaf litter. The six other species to find are the arboreal, yellow-eyed, Pacific giant salamander and three newts: California, rough-skinned and red-bellied. The California newt is the most common one to see nearby and within Marin County riparian/creekside areas (while rough-skinned is the next most common species that I see; red-bellied is much less common and is restricted to portions of the coastal areas of Marin County.)
Backyard Feeder Advice
Simplifying the best and most efficient ways to feed backyard birds throughout the winter is not easy. However, if you were forced to choose two of the best foods to feed birds, the best choices are black sunflower seeds and niger thistle. Both have been proven over the years to attract a more diverse group of winter avian visitors than other food options, such as millet, cracked corn and striped sunflower seeds. Suet (either chicken or beef) feeders are also usually successful in attracting chickadees, nuthatches and various woodpeckers.
Irruptive Birds Erupt On The Landscape
Non-seasonal movements of birds, or “irruptions,” may begin occurring around now through the rest of winter, depending on the supply of food in a bird’s normal range. Without adequate mast crops of spruce and pine cones, some finch family members (Red and White-winged Crossbills, Pine Grosbeaks, Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls, Hoary Redpolls) may appear farther south in the East, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic than in years when normal tree seed harvests are present. “Short-stopping” is another term applied to these bird species that roam farther south during some winter seasons in search of resources, “(short) stopping” when they find food, often at backyard feeders that remain a loitering spot for extended periods. Evening Grosbeak fits the bill (bada bum; sorry! ) as a “short-stop” species, with occasional to frequent localized sightings of it in the Midwest and West in 2010-11 illustrative of their nomadic tendency during the non-breeding season.
Detecting these “irruptive” movements to the south is sometimes easier if your feeders are filled with niger thistle seed, a favorite substitute feed source for many of these wayward winter species. As a word, “irruptive,” is appropriate because it means “bursting in” or “surprise,” in the way these irruptive species catch us off guard when they make their cameo appearances. In Marin County where I live, irruptions are not necessarily the appropriate term to apply to the red crossbill and pine siskins appearing on the landscape, given these birds nest in the state. Detecting them remains rare to occasional only because they are nomadic in their behavior while searching vast areas for abundant food resources.
Offering niger thistle as a backyard feeder food in the Bay Area is an excellent way to see pine siskin during the winter. I’ve never seen Red Crossbill at my feeders nor heard of other folks attracting them to California feeders.
Courting Great Horned owls soon begin laying their eggs, with babies hatching by January (or February) throughout much of this bird’s vast North American range. Be careful while attempting to hear their vocalizations by mimicking their calls. All birds, including owls, are known to feel stress when provoked to investigate an incoming airwave encounter they did not expect. In addition, using a recording of a Northern Pygmy or Western Screech Owl, for example, may also create similar anxiety among owls. As a result, owl calling should be limited to rare occasions and only for a few minutes at an area you visit.