Nature Watch Calendar 2017

2017 Nature Watch Phenology* Calendar (scroll below)

(For northern CA, including Marin County and the San Francisco Bay where I live and work as a Freelance Consulting Biologist (M.S.) & Birding Guide.)

(* = Phenology relates to recurring, seasonal events on land and in the heavens, many of which are often predictable based on astrophysics, weather, climate, temperature, latitude, time, and animal/plant physiology and behavior.)

by Daniel Edelstein

danieledelstein@att.net

warblerwatch.com (features a “Bird Tours” section that describes my 30+ years as an environmental professional,  birding guide,  science writer,  and birding instructor for adult avian classes and workshops in 20 USA states)

http://warblerwatch.blogspot.com

(my nine-year-old blog features wood-warbler articles, photos & quizzes)

http://danielsmerrittclasses.blogspot.com

(my blog highlighting adult bird-related classes I teach periodically at Merritt College in Oakland, California)

(All Sky Watch, Eclipse, and Meteor Shower updates, below, courtesy of Earth Sky’s web site, earthsky.org; Sky and Telescope Magazine’s web site http://www.skyandtelescope.com; and http://www.almanac.com/astronomy/skywatch. Moon and planet times are based on my location in Novato, CA, Pacific Standard Time (PST) ). Note the following amazing web site to monitor celestial, sky events: http://www.seasky.org/astronomy/astronomy-calendar-current.html

The total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017 is highlighted below in the August, 2017 area.

January, 2017

Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times (Pacific Time) 

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):

Body

Dawn

Breaks

Rises

Sets

Dark

Descends

Day

Length

Sun

5:17 A.M.

6:48 A.M.

7:37 P.M.

9:07 P.M.

12:48

Moon

1:22 P.M.

2:55 A.M.

Mercury

7:25 A.M.

9:10 P.M.

Venus

5:43 A.M.

6:23 P.M.

Mars

8:20 A.M.

10:21 P.M.

Jupiter

7:42 P.M.

7:14 A.M.

Saturn

1:20 A.M.

10:57 A.M.

Uranus

7:17 A.M.

8:16 P.M.

Neptune

5:37 A.M.

4:54 P.M.

Pluto

2:49 A.M.

12:33 P.M.

2)  Planet Highlights: (via By  Bob Berman, almanac.com) 

Don’t miss beautiful planet Venus dazzling in the evening sky this month. It’s that bright “star” you see just after sunset—the third-brightest object after the Sun and Moon.

Well, these evenings just after sunset Venus hovers in the west so brilliantly it’s impossible to overlook.  It’s even a major source of UFO reports. Indeed, when Jimmy Carter was governor of Georgia, he reported seeing a UFO that proved to be Venus. So let’s keep an eye on it.

Night after night, the evening star gets a little higher, a little brighter, and shifts its position to the right.  Up until now it has hovered to the upper left of sunset and set in the west-southwest.  But it is moving to position itself directly above the sunset point, and set more perfectly due west.

Whether these changes are fascinating or overlooked depends on how much you love sky gazing.  If you’re really into it, mark the final day of January and then February on your calendar, when Venus will form a triangle with the Moon and Mars.

But don’t wait until March.  That’s when Venus will vanish and not be a high-up, prominent evening star again until 2020. This is a limited-time offer. And the price is right.

Seasons of 2017: (check back in early January for more accurate information)
SPRING EQUINOX March 20, 3:45 P.M. PDT
SUMMER SOLSTICE June 21, 9:38 A.M. PDT
FALL EQUINOX September 23, 1:21 A.M. PDT
WINTER SOLSTICE December 21, 8:48 P.M. PST

2017 Meteror Showers:

(check back in early January for more accurate information)

(See below list, then go to a designated month, below, for more details on each individual meteor shower event.)
Here are the peak dates for 2017 meteor showers:

Jan. 3-4, Quadrantids meteor shower: This better-than-average meteor shower will usher in the new year, producing 40 shooting stars an hour at its peak. The shower, believed to be produced by dust grains left behind by an extinct comet known as 2003 EH1, runs annually from Jan. 1-5. Best viewing times are shortly after midnight. Meteors radiate from the constellation Bootes, but you can see them from anywhere in the sky.

April 22-23, Lyrids meteor shower: Produced by dust particles left behind by comet C/1861 G1 Thrasher, discovered in 1861, the Lyrids is an only an average meteor shower producing about 20 meteors an hour. It originates from the constellation Lyra, but you’ll be able to see them from anywhere in the sky. The crescent moon shouldn’t cause too much of a problem during the shower’s peak. The best viewing times for this shower are after midnight.

May 6-7, Eta Aquarids meteor shower: This shower favors the Southern Hemisphere — about 60 shooting stars an hour will be visible there — but the Northern Hemisphere won’t be entirely left out of action, and the rate could approach 30 an hour. The shower runs annually from April 19-May 28, but peaks on the night of May 6 and morning of May 7. A waxing gibbous moon — that is, a moon that appears high in the east at sunset, and is more than half-lighted, but less than full — could block out the most distant meteors, but patience pays off here. If you wait long enough, you should be able to see the brighter ones. Meteors in this shower radiate from the constellation Aquarius, but you should be able to see them anywhere in the sky.

July 28-29, Delta Aquarids meteor shower: Radiating from the constellation Aquarius but visible anywhere from the sky, this meteor shower produces about 20 meteors an hour at its peak. It runs from July 12-Aug. 13. A crescent moon will have set by midnight, leaving dark skies for the early morning show.

Aug. 12-13, Perseids meteor shower: This is the one you’ve waited for all year. Produced by the comet Swift-Tuttle, It usually produces about 60 meteors per hour. They’re not just any shooting stars, either — the Perseids are known for producing a large number of blazing bright meteors. The shower runs from July 17-Aug. 24, overlapping some with the Delta Aquarids, and is best seen late at night or in the early morning of the peak dates of Aug. 12-13. There’s a waning gibbous moon — it appears less than half full, but more than half lights — and that could block out the fainter meteors, but the Perseids are so bright that you should still plan on catching the show. The meteors radiate from the constellation Perseus, but you’ll be able to see them no matter where you’re looking in the sky.

Oct. 7, Draconids meteor shower: Produced by the dust grains left behind by comet 21P Giacobini-Zinner and, discovered in 1900, the Draconids radiate from the constellation Draco, but are visible anywhere in the sky. This is typically a sleepy show, producing only about 10 meteors an hour — unless Draco the Dragon breathes fire, and then settle in for an amazing show. In rare instances, Draco can fire off hundreds of meteors in a single hour, and you should hope for that, because a nearly full moon will block all but the brightest. Unlike other meteor showers, the best viewing time is in the early evening. The shower runs from Oct. 6-10, but peaks Oct. 7.

Oct. 21-22, Orionids meteor shower: This shower, which runs annually from Oct. 2-Nov. 7 and peaks the night of Oct. 21 and morning of Oct. 22, produces about 20 meteors per hour at its peak. It is produced by dust grains left behind the ancient comet Halley and originates from the constellation Orion, but you’ll be able to see it from anywhere in the sky. A crescent moon will set early in the evening, leaving the dark skies that are ideal for viewing. The best viewing time is after midnight.

Nov. 4-5 Taurids meteor shower: This long-running shooting star show from Sept. 7-Dec. 10, is actually a two-fer — the South Taurids, which peak Nov. 4-5, and the North Taurids, which peak Nov. 11-12. The North Taurids originate from dust grains left behind by the Asteroid 2004 TG10, while the second is the result of debris left behind by behind by Comet EP Encke. A full moon on Nov. 4 will steal the show, but if you’re patient you may be able to see some, but gy Nov. 11-12, viewing conditions will improve. These typically slow-moving meteors radiate from the constellation Taurus, but you’ll be able to see them anywhere in the sky.

Nov. 17-18, Leonids meteor shower: This shower, which runs annually from Nov. 6-30, is both average and unique. It’s average in that it will only produces about 15 meteors an hour at its peak on the night of Nov. 17 and morning of Nov. 18, but every 33 years, it has a cyclonic peak that results in hundreds of meteors an hour. The last time this happened was in 2001, so it will be 2034 before that happens again. Produced by dust grains left behind by comet Tempel-Tuttle, discovered in 1865, the meteors radiate from the constellation Leo, but just look up and you should see some. With a new moon, skies should be dark enough for a good show. The best viewing time is after midnight.

Dec. 13-14, Geminids meteor shower: You’ve been waiting for this one, too, and it will outshine the Perseids. Running annually from Dec. 7-17, it peaks the night of Dec. 13 and morning of Dec. 14, when it could produce up to 120 multicolored meteors per hour. It’s left behind by debris dust from an the 3200 Phaethon asteroid, discovered in 1982. A waning crescent moon won’t give much competition, and you should be in for an excellent show. The best viewing time is after midnight. The shooting stars radiate from the constellation Gemini, but can appear anywhere in the sky.

Dec. 21-22, Ursids meteor shower: Produced by dust grains left behind by the comet Tuttle, first discovered in 1790, this shower runs annually from Dec. 17-25 and will peak in 2017 on the night of Dec. 21 and morning of Dec. 10. It’s a minor shower, producing only about 5-10 shooting stars an hour. The crescent moon will set early in the evening, leaving dark skies. The best viewing time is just after midnight. Meteors radiating from the constellation Ursa Minor are visible anywhere in the sky.

January 4, 2017 Quadrantids 

Although the Quadrantids can produce over 100 meteors per hour, the sharp peak of this shower tends to last only a few hours, and doesn’t always come at an opportune time. In other words, you have to be in the right spot on Earth to view this meteor shower in all its splendor. The radiant point is in the part of the sky that used to be considered the constellation Quadrans Muralis the Mural Quadrant. You’ll find this radiant near the famous Big Dipper asterism (chart here), in the north-northeastern sky after midnight and highest up before dawn. Because the radiant is fairly far to the north on the sky’s dome, meteor numbers will be greater in the Northern Hemisphere. In 2015, watch in the wee hours – after midnight and before dawn – on January 4. Unfortunately, the almost-full waxing gibbous moon is out almost all night long, sitting low in the west in the dark hour before dawn. Click here to find out your moonset time.

2017 Eclipses:  (See below list, then go to a designated month for more details on each individual eclipse event.)

(Please check back soon for accurate 2017 information):

Rare Bird Alert?

Think you found a rare bird? If so, feel free to report it at an appropriate listserv, per www.sialia.com for the Marin County area, the North Bay Birds area is the appropriate listserv to list a significant sighting. As for calling a Birding Hotline for information on the latest rare birds (or to share one you have seen), check out 415-681-7422.

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: 2016 Forbs/Ephemerals

Given our early rains and the warm weather in late 2014, it’s time to enjoy the current and upcoming bloom of 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?

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.

Pop Quiz:

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, 2014).  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 in the final week of January (sometimes as early mid-January) 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.

February, 2017

Sky Watch:

1) Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times (PT)

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):

 

Body Dawn
Breaks
Rises Sets Dark
Descends
Day
Length
Sun 5:43 A.M. 7:13 A.M. 5:34 P.M. 7:04 P.M. 10:20
Moon 10:05 A.M. 10:47 P.M.
Mercury 6:08 A.M. 3:46 P.M.
Venus 9:07 A.M. 9:20 P.M.
Mars 9:29 A.M. 9:41 P.M.
Jupiter 11:09 P.M. 10:28 A.M.
Saturn 4:10 A.M. 1:47 P.M.
Uranus 10:13 A.M. 11:06 P.M.
Neptune 8:35 A.M. 7:47 P.M.
Pluto 5:48 A.M. 3:31 P.M.

All times are Pacific Standard Time at sea level.

“Dawn Breaks” and “Darkness Descends” values are based on astronomical twilight (not civil twilight).

2) Planet Highlights (courtesy http://www.almanac.com):

by Bob Berman, as featured in The 2017 Old Farmer’s Almanac.                                                  (Note: Times listed below are PT.)

  • On the 1st, at nightfall, Venus, Mars, and the crescent Moon stand in a straight line in Pisces.
  • Venus retains its shadow-casting, magnitude –4.8 brilliance and 30 degree elevation throughout this month, with dimmer Mars staying to its upper left. The Moon returns to form a triangle with them on the 28th.
  • Jupiter, now rising by 7:30 p.m. PT, hovers above Virgo’s blue star, Spica; the Moon stands above the pair on the 14th and to their left the next night.
  • In the predawn southeastern sky, the Moon sits above Saturn on the morning of the 20th and to its left on the 21st. By month’s end, the Ringed World rises almost 4 hours ahead of the Sun.

The Joy Of Dark Skies (For Star & Planet Watching)

What is your favorite memory of being in the wilderness? One of them might be seeing dark skies. Pitch black. With stars that dazzle your senses. Make you nearly drop your jaw.

So is it wonderful or what to know your dollars are at work in support of darks skies because the National Park Service (NPS) has a full-time Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative Coordinator? He’s Nate Ament, who is in Moab, UT — a special place on Earth where stellar night skies still retain, unlike the vast majority of other places worldwide.

Ament recently appeared on a January 23, 2016 episode of “Living On Earth” (a weekly National Public Radio syndicated show produced by WBR in Boston) (Go to the iTunes store/App store or Google Play store to subscribe to the “Living On Earth” podcast or to hear this archival episode.). He mentioned one method — the Bortle Scale — by which NPS professionals measure how well people can see stars and planets amid competition from ubiquitous light pollution caused by people.  (For example, in 2007, Natural Bridges National Monument in southeastern Utah was named the world’s first-ever “Dark Sky Park” by the International Dark-Sky Association with a “3” rating whereas New York City’s Central Park was rated “9.”)

(This same program also hosted Paul Bogard, who recently researched and wrote “The End Of Night,” a wonderfully entertaining and interpretive perspective about the essential value of dark skies for preservation of our spirits and health — especially given recent scientific research that shows light pollution is changing circadian rhythms of people experiencing sleep deprivation, weight gain, and other maladies associated with increased intensity and exposure of people to electric light around the clock.)

The aim of Ament’s department? He works with national parks and other land-management agencies, interested communities, groups, businesses and individuals to promote the value of dark skies so park visitors may continue to revel in wilderness experiences that include dark skies. Ament and the NPS also have a short- and long-term mission to IMPROVE dark skies by reducing light pollution from human sources. 

That’s a story for another time, but feel free to contact me — Daniel Edelstein, danieledelstein@att.net, warblerwatch.com — to receive resources by which you can get involved, including the Dark-Sky Association: darksky.org. It works to protect the night skies for present and future generations.

The Great Backyard Bird Count: February 17-20, 2017

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a free, fun, and easy event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations. Participants are asked to count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the four-day event and report their sightings online at birdcount.org. Anyone can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, from beginning bird watchers to experts, and you can participate from your backyard, or anywhere in the world.

Each checklist submitted during the GBBC helps researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society learn more about how birds are doing, and how to protect them and the environment we share. Last year, more than 140,000 participants submitted their bird observations online, creating the largest instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations ever recorded.

As noted above: The 19th annual GBBC will be held Friday, February 12, through Monday, February 15, 2016. Please visit the official website at birdcount.org for more information and be sure to check out the latest educational and promotional resources.

Insects Awakening:

Ladybird Beetles Becoming Active After Winter Slumber (Dormancy)

(Source: http://lancaster.unl.edu/hort/articles/2002/winterbugs.shtml)

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

(Source: http://amphibiaweb.org/cgi-bin/amphib_query?where-genus=Taricha&where-species=torosa)

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.

Mammal Watch

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.

March, 2017

Sky Watch:

For March sky watching, feel free to check out:

http://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/visible-planets-tonight-mars-jupiter-venus-saturn-mercury

1) Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times

The following times apply for the 12th of this month (given it is the initial full day when Day Lights Saving Time begins….and the times below correspond to latitude: 38:03:38 N, Longitude: 122:32:27 W, which is Novato, CA, 20 miles north of San Francisco, CA in Marin County:

Body Dawn
Breaks
Rises Sets Dark
Descends
Day
Length
Sun 6:12 A.M. 7:23 A.M. (3/12/17 only) 7:14 P.M. (3/12/17 only) 7:32 P.M. 11:51
Moon 8:41 A.M. 9:44 P.M.
Mercury 6:40 A.M. 5:38 P.M.
Venus 7:31 A.M. 8:46 P.M.
Mars 8:28 A.M. 9:33 P.M.
Jupiter 9:14 P.M. 8:36 A.M.
Saturn 2:30 A.M. 12:06 P.M.
Uranus 8:26 A.M. 9:21 P.M.
Neptune 6:48 A.M. 6:02 P.M.
Pluto 4:01 A.M. 1:44 P.M.

All times are Pacific Standard Time at sea level.

“Dawn Breaks” and “Darkness Descends” values are based on astronomical twilight (not civil twilight).

March 12, 2017, 2:00 AM: 

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 20, 2017: March Equinox. The March equinox occurs at 04:30 UTC. The Sun will shine directly on the equator and there will be nearly equal amounts of day and night throughout the world. This is also the first day of spring (vernal equinox) in the Northern Hemisphere and the first day of fall (autumnal equinox) in the Southern Hemisphere.

March 20: Total Eclipse of the Sun This eclipse will not be visible from North America but will be visible from Greenland, Iceland, Europe, North Africa, and northwestern Asia.

2) Planet Highlights For March:

  • Via earthsky.org:

As March 2017 opens, the waxing crescent moon joins up with Venus, Mars (and                      Uranus) in the western sky after sunset. Mars remains a rather feeble evening object            for the next few months, but March 2017 presents the grand finale of Venus, the sky’s          brightest planet, as the evening “star.” Day by day, Venus sets sooner in the west after        sunset. On the opposite side of the sky, Jupiter, the second-brightest planet, is rising            sooner each evening. By the month’s end, Venus will have dropped out of the evening          sky totally, and Jupiter will be shining from dusk until dawn! Mercury starts to climb            away from setting sun on March 7, to rendezvous with Venus in the haze of evening              twilight on March 18. Last but hardly least, Saturn is rising in the southeast after                    midnight, and soaring highest up in the sky around daybreak. Follow the links below to        learn more about the planets in March 2017.

Via Bob Berman at The Farmer’s Almanac, almanac.com:

  • The year’s highest and most dramatic Moon for small telescopes is the first-quarter phase from the 4th through the 6th at nightfall, above Orion. It virtually touches the orange star Aldebaran on the 4th.
  • Venus starts the month still brilliant and moderately high but appears much lower each evening and reaches conjunction with the Sun on the 25th, ending its apparition as an evening star.
  • Jupiter now rises before 10:00 p.m.; the planet forms a lovely triangle with the Moon and the star Spica on the 14th.
  • Spring begins with the equinox on the 20th at 6:29 a.m.  See our First Day of Springpage for facts and folklore!
  • Mercury appears low in evening twilight during the end of March, sitting to the right of the thin crescent Moon on the 29th.

Bird Classification Changes (i.e., nomenclature changes)?

The North American Classification Committee (NACC), formally known as the Committee on Classification and Nomenclature of North and Middle American Birds, is charged with keeping abreast of the systematics and distribution of birds in this region, with the purpose of creating a standard classification and nomenclature.
The committee votes “yes” or “no” on proposals and the results are typically listed at the American Ornithologists’ Union web site (aou.org) by July each year.

1. Current avian classification and pending name changes under consideration by American Ornithologists’ Union committee and previous years’ proposal are listed at:

http://www.gizard.org/nacc/proposals/prior_proposals.html
2. The most RECENT proposal decisions that have been adopted are present at:

http://www.gizard.org/nacc/proposals/PDF/2016-A.pdf
3. Please note a proposal is considered for a vote, then it must first be submitted.
This process is explained via: http://www.gizard.org/nacc/proposal_guidelines.html

4. As for potential warbler name changes via current proposals the NACC is considering, none in 2016 are pending decision by this committee, with July, 2017 the date I expect to learn about any nomenclature changes the NACC adopts by upcoming vote.

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

Baby Time

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 northern California in good numbers, including the House Wren, Warbling Vireo, Wilson’s Warbler, Pacific-slope Flycatcher and Cliff  Swallow. (Note: Keep in mind that small numbers of the initial aforementioned three species sometimes remain annually in central/northern California….though, typically, the majority of these three species are neotropical migrants that are not present during the non-breeding season….As for Pacific-slope Flycatcher and Cliff Swallow, the latter species rarely to sometimes has documented records in our area during the non-breeding season, but Pacific-slope Flycatcher is often entirely absent annually.)

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: 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.

April, 2017

Sky Watch:

Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times

Please check back soon for accurate April, 2017 Sky Watch information, below.

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):

Body

Dawn

Breaks

Rises

Sets

Dark

Descends

Day

Length

Sun

5:17 A.M.

6:48 A.M.

7:37 P.M.

9:07 P.M.

12:48

Moon

1:22 P.M.

2:55 A.M.

Mercury

7:25 A.M.

9:10 P.M.

Venus

5:43 A.M.

6:23 P.M.

Mars

8:20 A.M.

10:21 P.M.

Jupiter

7:42 P.M.

7:14 A.M.

Saturn

1:20 A.M.

10:57 A.M.

Uranus

7:17 A.M.

8:16 P.M.

Neptune

5:37 A.M.

4:54 P.M.

Pluto

2:49 A.M.

12:33 P.M.

Planet Highlights: (courtesy of almanac.com, Bob Berman….thank you) 

  • Mercury is low in the western sky from the 1st to the 6th, in Aries.
  • Mars, above it, moves into Taurus and drops lower at nightfall. At only magnitude 1.5, the Red Planet does not command attention.
  • On April 7, giant Jupiter is at its brightest of the year as it comes closest to Earth, reaching distant opposition of its 12-year orbit. The planet shines at magnitude –2.3, floating above the blue star Spica, rising at sunset and out all night.
  • On April 10, Jupiter reaches a tight conjunction with the Moon. Both objects will rise together in the east moments after the sun sets in the west.
  • Saturn rises at 1:00 a.m. in midmonth and dangles below the Moon on the 16th.
  • Venus begins its morning star apparition and sits to the left of the Moon on the 23rd, before becoming its brightest on the 30th.

 

April 20-23: 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 2017, the peak mornings are April 20-23, 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.

The Numbers Are In: Returning Bird Migrants

Bird species returning en masse via migration to nest this month in large numbers in Marin County and central/northern California 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.)

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. Beforepoppies bloomi, 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, whipails 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.

Butterfly Sightings?

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.

Skinks Underfoot

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: Pacific Giant Salamanders

Pacific Giant Salamanders (also called California Giant Salamanders) 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.

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.

May, 2017

Sky Watch:

1) Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times

Please check back soon for accurate May, 2017 Sky Watch information, below.

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):

Body Dawn
Breaks
Rises Sets Dark
Descends
Day
Length
Sun 4:31 A.M. 6:12 A.M. 8:02 P.M. 9:42 P.M. 13:50
Moon 3:01 A.M. 2:23 P.M.
Mercury 6:41 A.M. 9:00 P.M.
Venus 5:53 A.M. 7:10 P.M.
Mars 10:01 P.M. 7:44 A.M.
Jupiter 3:02 P.M. 4:00 A.M.
Saturn 10:31 P.M. 8:21 A.M.
Uranus 5:24 A.M. 6:18 P.M.
Neptune 3:47 A.M. 3:00 P.M.
Pluto 12:53 A.M. 10:38 A.M.

 

2) Planet Highlights:

  • Mercury has its best evening star appearance of 2015 in the first half of the month, in Taurus. It stands left of the Pleiades on the 1st and is brightest for the first few days of the month.
  • Jupiter stands high in the southwest at dusk but sets before midnight. It stands above the waxing Moon on the 23rd.
  • The month belongs to Saturn, brighter than it has appeared in over a decade. It stands at opposition on the night of the 22nd, rising at dusk and remaining out all night long. Its rings are nearly as wide “open” as possible, a glorious sight through any telescope magnification above 30x.

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.

Got Skunks?

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.

June, 2017

Sky Watch:

1) Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times

Please check back soon for accurate June, 2017 Sky Watch information, below.

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):

Body DawnBreaks Rises Sets
Sun 3:55 A.M. 5:48 A.M. 8:27 P.M.
Moon 7:37 P.M. 5:21 A.M.
Mercury 5:52 A.M. 8:00 P.M.
Venus 9:02 A.M. 11:48 P.M.
Mars 6:02 A.M. 8:44 P.M.
Jupiter 10:51 A.M. 12:47 A.M.
Saturn 7:23 P.M. 5:32 A.M.
Uranus 3:19 A.M. 4:07 P.M.
Neptune 1:43 A.M. 12:53 P.M.
Pluto 10:38 P.M. 8:30 A.M.

 

2) Planet Highlights:

    • Saturn, in Ophiuchus, attains opposition on the 3rd. Its icy reflective rings, tilted wide “open,” are stunning through telescopes and give Saturn its brightest appearance in more than a decade.
    • On the 6th, Venus reaches its invisible superior conjunction. Its alignment with the Sun and Earth is so perfect that it is actually occulted by the Sun.
    • Mars, still brilliant, retrogrades into Libra; like Saturn, it remains out all night long.
    • Jupiter beats them both in brightness and doesn’t set until after midnight.
    • The Moon hovers to the left of Jupiter on the 11th and sits above Saturn on the 18th.
    • Summer begins with the solstice on the 20th, at 6:34 P.M.

 June 20, 2016 – June Solstice. The North Pole of the earth will be tilted toward the Sun, which will have reached its northernmost position in the sky and will be directly over the Tropic of Cancer at 23.44 degrees north latitude. This is the first day of summer (summer solstice) in the Northern Hemisphere and the first day of winter (winter solstice) in the Southern Hemisphere.

21st: 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.

Bird Quiz

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.”

Attracting Mammals

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.)

July, 2016

Sky Watch:

1) Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times

Please check back soon for accurate March, 2016 Sky Watch information, below.

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):

 

Body Dawn
Breaks
Rises Sets Dark
Descends
Day
Length
Sun 3:57 A.M. 5:52 A.M. 8:36 P.M. 10:31 P.M. 14:44
Moon 4:25 A.M. 6:55 P.M.
Mercury 5:25 A.M. 8:19 P.M.
Venus 6:24 A.M. 9:07 P.M.
Mars 4:52 P.M. 2:40 A.M.
Jupiter 11:18 A.M. 12:05 A.M.
Saturn 6:08 P.M. 4:01 A.M.
Uranus 1:27 A.M. 2:26 P.M.
Neptune 11:40 P.M. 10:58 A.M.
Pluto 8:41 P.M. 6:29 A.M.

2) Planet Highlights: 

  • Mercury may be glimpsed as an evening star all month, but it’s very low.
  • Saturn, its outermost ring telescopically seen completely around the planet, is below the Moon on the 6th, superbly placed for viewing. See more about Saturn and the Moon.
  • The dwarf planet Pluto is at opposition on the 10th. At magnitude 14.2, it’s over a thousand times fainter than the dimmest naked-eye stars.
  • From the 9th to the13th, Venus hovers above orange Aldebaran in Taurus.
  • The Moon forms a striking triangle with Venus and Aldebaran on the morning of the 20th and then stands closely above Jupiter on the 28th, a dramatic sight.
  • Jupiter is now getting lower at nightfall, as it moves eastward in Virgo back toward Spica.

Late July and early August, 2017, the Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower

Like the Eta Aquarids in May, the Delta Aquarid meteor shower in July favors the Southern Hemisphere and tropical latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. The meteors appear to radiate from near the star Skat or Delta in the constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer. The maximum hourly rate can reach 15-20 meteors in a dark sky. The nominal peak is around July 30, but, unlike many meteor showers, the Delta Aquarids lack a very definite peak. Instead, these medium-speed meteors ramble along fairly steadily throughout late July and early August. An hour or two before dawn usually presents the most favorable view of the Delta Aquarids. At the shower’s peak in late July, 2016, the rather faint Delta Aquarid meteors will have to contend with moonlight. The waxing gibbous moon will be out until the wee hours after midnight. Try watching in late July predawn sky, after moonset.

 

Autumn In July? Yes, If You’re A Shorebird

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.

Hatching Butterflies

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.

August, 2017

Sky Watch:

1) Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times

Please check back soon for accurate August, 2017 Sky Watch information, below.

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):

Body Dawn
Breaks
Rises Sets Dark
Descends
Day
Length
Sun 4:32 A.M. 6:15 A.M. 8:17 P.M. 10:00 P.M. 14:02
Moon 6:07 A.M. 8:12 P.M.
Mercury 8:13 A.M. 9:24 P.M.
Venus 7:31 A.M. 9:08 P.M.
Mars 3:26 P.M. 12:59 A.M.
Jupiter 9:42 A.M. 10:11 P.M.
Saturn 4:01 P.M. 1:54 A.M.
Uranus 11:22 P.M. 12:26 P.M.
Neptune 9:37 P.M. 8:54 A.M.
Pluto 6:37 P.M. 4:24 A.M.

 

2) Planet Highlights:

by Bob Berman, as featured in The Old Farmer’s Almanac
(Note: Times listed below are ET.)

  • On the 2nd, the Moon hovers above Saturn.
  • The 12th brings the Perseid meteors, but a bright Moon will interfere with good viewing. See our guide to the 2017 Perseid Meteor Shower.
  • On the 19th, the Moon is just below Venus, which adequately maintains its elevation in the morning sky, in Gemini.
  • The first total solar eclipse in the United States in 38 years unfolds August 21.  See my 2017 Total Solar Eclipse Guide and Map. Information in the next paragraphs is courtesy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac (almanac.com).
  • The Moon is to the right of ever-lower Jupiter on the 24th, above Jupiter on the 25th, and to the upper left of Saturn on the 30th.

Here’s the almanac.com description of the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse and information about seeing the total solar eclipse and where to see the total solar eclipse:

INTRODUCTION TO THE 2017 SOLAR ECLIPSE:

The perfect lineup of these two disks (Sun and Moon) to form a total solar eclipse does not happen often—just once every 360 years, on average, for any one point on Earth. (This is one reason why relatively few people have ever seen one.) The U.S. mainland is currently experiencing its longest totality drought in history. The last total solar eclipse occurred on February 26, 1979, over northwestern states and south central Canada.

This cycle of paucity finally ends with this year’s total solar eclipse, taking place on August 21, 2017.

WHAT IS A SOLAR ECLIPSE?

To the naked eye, the sky is an inverted bowl hosting thousands of glowing points and two disks. The points—stars and planets—exhibit no size because of their immense distance from Earth. The two disks are the Sun and Moon. By amazing coincidence, these disks appear exactly the same size. Why?

The Sun is 400 times larger than the Moon but also 400 times farther from Earth than the Moon. These facts allow the Moon to fit perfectly over the Sun’s face to create a total eclipse. Yet, it’s not so big that it blocks out the Sun’s dramatic hot-pink corona or atmosphere and not so small that it leaves the Sun’s blinding gas surface (photosphere) uncovered. This bizarre alignment does not hold for any other planet and will not last forever: The Moon is spiraling away from Earth like a skyrocket and gradually increasing its separation.

WHAT HAPPENS DURING A TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE?

For sheer visceral impact, a total solar eclipse is not even remotely comparable to a lunar eclipse, a partial solar eclipse, or even major auroral displays. A solar totality stands alone. If you are in the right place, it creates darkness in daytime along a 140-mile-wide ribbon of Earth. The brightest stars come out in midday but not as you might presume: During totality, they appear in seasonal reverse. In summer, the winter constellations emerge; during a winter solar totality, summer’s stars appear.

And that’s not all.

An uncommon mind-set takes over people when the Sun, Moon, and your spot on Earth form a perfectly straight line in space. Many observers shout and babble. Some weep. Afterward, everyone proclaims it to be the greatest spectacle they have ever beheld. Beyond that, many are speechless. (Animals also exhibit odd behavior, such as falling strangely silent.)

The experience surpasses all expectations and imaginings:

  • The eye sees the transition of the Moon over the Sun differently from photographs; because of under- or overexposure, a camera lens can not capture the same range of brightness as human vision.
  • The delicate tendrils of the Sun’s corona splay into the surrounding sky in a manner wholly different from the way they appear in photos.
  • During the 10 minutes before and after totality, when the Sun is more than 80 percent eclipsed and its light arrives only from its edge, or limb, earthly colors turn richer and more saturated, while shadows become stark and oddly crisp—as if a different type of star is illuminating Earth.
  • As the Moon slides over the Sun, not only is light blocked in the ribbon of space, but solar heat is, too. The steady drop in temperature usually results in a haunting eclipse wind.
  • At 1 minute before and after totality, all white and light-color ground surfaces underfoot (sidewalks, sand, the like) suddenly exhibit shimmering shadow bands everywhere. (Think of black lines on the bottom of a swimming pool that appear to wiggle.) This eerie phenomenon can make your hair stand on end, yet it can not be captured on film. (Try it!) Recent research suggests that shadow bands are the edges of atmospheric temperature cells (air pockets) made visible by the remaining tiny point of Sun. Their motion catches the eye despite their extremely low contrast.

To witness these extraordinary phenomena, you need to be in totality’s path (see map, below). This year, you can drive into it and watch from a roadside! Totality lasts longest—over 2 minutes—within the centerline of the ribbon. A partial eclipse will be visible outside of that ribbon, but the phenomena described above will not occur there.

Learn more about what makes this total solar eclipse so special: Planning for the Total Solar Eclipse 2017

THE SOLAR ECLIPSE’S PATH

To see if your town falls within the 2017 eclipse’s path, check out NASA’s Interactive Total Solar Eclipse Map, as well as the simplified version, below.

Map of the 2017 total solar eclipse by NASA.

Click here for an enlarged view of the above map.

  • The eclipse’s path starts over the Pacific Ocean and first touches land in Oregon.
  • The Moon’s shadow then traverses southern portions of Idaho; passes directly over both Jackson and Casper, Wyoming; and continues eastward over Nebraska in late morning.
  • The path continues east and south, eventually passing over St. Joseph, Missouri, before continuing on to Carbondale, Illinois, where it reaches its maximum duration of totality and where the Sun will be highest in the sky. (Each location has a different clock time for totality. It happens during the morning over the Pacific Northwest, midday over southern Illinois, and afternoon over the southeastern states.)
  • The eclipse shadow continues east and south in the midafternoon and concludes its track over Nashville, Tennessee; Columbia, South Carolina; and a lot of smaller communities.

On the day of the eclipse, NASA will be holding a number of eclipse-themed events across the country. Click here for a map of official events and viewing locations.

If possible, travel to where the forecast predicts clear weather.

For viewers outside of the ribbon of darkness (virtually the entire continent), this will be a partial eclipse, a fairly frequent sight (which does require eye protection) that is interesting, yes—but nothing like solar totality.

ECLIPSE EQUIPMENT

The cost to watch this wondrous event is affordable for most people. For about $5, purchase “eclipse glasses” online or buy welding goggles at the nearest welding supply store. Choose shade number 12 or 14 filters. Number 12 makes the solar image a bit brighter, but since the Sun will be high for this eclipse, 14 is probably ideal—but either will work. Do not use any other number.

Use the filtered shades during the hourlong partial phase before totality and then again afterward for an hour. Once totality begins, you can watch the event for the duration of totality (between 2 and 2-1⁄2 minutes) with naked eyes or through binoculars. The moment the first speck of sunlight returns at the edge of the Moon, look away and use the filter again.

WHEN IS THE NEXT TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE?

Total solar eclipses can be addictive. Fortunately, fanatics—and anyone who misses this year’s event—won’t need to wait 38 more years for the next U.S. and Canadian one—only 7. On April 8, 2024, solar totality will unfold over the continent in a path that curves north from Texas; passes over Cleveland, Ohio, and Buffalo and Rochester, New York; sweeps over Burlington, Vermont; and then continues across central Maine and eastern Canada.

The Perseid Meteor Shower: The absence of the Moon on the night of the 11th makes for ideal viewing conditions of the great Perseid meteor shower, which peaks after midnight. Expect a shooting star every minute.

On the 15th, Venus slides behind the Sun in an inferior conjunction, ending its evening star apparition. The gibbous Moon floats to the upper left of Saturn on the 22nd.

August 11-12, 2016 before dawn, the Perseids Meteor Shower: 
In 2016, astronomers expect an outburst of Perseid meteors. The prediction is for 200 meteors per hour seen on the peak night, August 11-12 (evening of August 11, morning of August 12). That’s about double the usual rate. From southerly latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, you’ll enjoy the shower, too, with about a third as many meteors expected. In 2016, the waxing gibbous moon sets before the predawn hours. So if the outburst occurs before dawn for you, the moon won’t be in the way. Will you see the outburst? Maybe. The peak rates are predicted to last about half a day, from late August 11 to mid-August 12. (Information courtesy of earthsky.org)

Woodpecker Residents

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 where they are sporadic nesters in selected moist, dense Redwood groves and in some northwestern portions of Sonoma County.

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 check-lists.

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.

September, 2017

Sky Watch:

1) Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times

Please check back soon for accurate September, 2017 Sky Watch information, below.

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):

Body DawnBreaks Rises Sets
Sun 5:08 A.M. 6:40 A.M. 7:39 P.M.
Moon 9:45 P.M. 10:05 A.M.
Mercury 8:57 A.M. 8:35 P.M.
Venus 4:57 A.M. 5:59 P.M.
Mars 4:41 A.M. 6:39 P.M.
Jupiter 6:19 A.M. 7:31 P.M.
Saturn 1:13 P.M. 11:18 P.M.
Uranus 9:15 P.M. 10:08 A.M.
Neptune 7:34 P.M. 6:44 A.M.
Pluto 4:30 P.M. 2:19 A.M.

 

2) Planet Highlights:

by Bob Berman, as featured in The Old Farmer’s Almanac
(Note: Times listed below are PT/CA Time)

  • Neptune comes closest to Earth on the 1st, with an opposition on the 2nd in Aquarius. A small telescope reveals its blue disk and its strange, backward-orbiting satellite, Triton.
  • The Moon is to the upper left of Venus on the 3rd, above Saturn on the 8th, and to the upper left of Mars on the 9th, before passing to the left of Neptune on the 15th.
  • Mars, still bright at magnitude –0.2, is increasing its eastward speed passing through Ophiuchus.
  • The 22nd brings the equinox and autumn at 7:21 A.M.
  • Look for Mercury’s best morning star appearance from the 24th to the 30th.
  • On the 29th, Mercury hovers above the crescent Moon.

September 13:

Partial Eclipse of the Sun. This partial eclipse will not be visible from North America but will be visible from parts of southern Africa, the southern half of Madagascar, the southern Indian Ocean, and the eastern part of Antarctica.

September 22, 2016September Equinox. The September equinox occurs at 14:21 UTC. The Sun will shine directly on the equator and there will be nearly equal amounts of day and night throughout the world. This is also the first day of fall (autumnal equinox) in the Northern Hemisphere and the first day of spring (vernal equinox) in the Southern Hemisphere.

September 27:

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 swallow and nighthawk species migrate during the day — as do Lesser, Lawrence’s, and American Goldfinch, in addition to 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 remain in California throughout the years as residents. During many years, this species begins courtship in December (before Winter begins!) in some parts of its range. I’ve even seen (and heard) male courtship ritual elements as early as October, especially in rural areas when I’m guiding a birding outing in Marin County.

Other species? 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 hummingbird species appearing during the winter in the eastern and southeastern USA (beyond the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which, until recent years, was typically thought to be the only commonly-seen hummingbird species east of the Mississippi River area in the Lower 48 USA states). Rufous Hummingbird is the most common “newly-discovered” hummingbird species seen in the southeast, though 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 eastern/southeastern (and, even, recently in WI) because it has gradually expanded its migration/dispersal behavior. Or, the explanation for the now-annual spotting of Rufous in the eastern USA may be even more simple: More birders, equals more banders and monitoring in the field, so more individual Rufous sightings east of the Mississippi River continue to be reported. Check out birdingonthe.net to see the latest rare reports of birds in eastern/Mid-Atlantic/southeastern states where Rufous shows up during the non-breeding season.

October, 2017

Sky Watch:

1) Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times

Please check back soon for accurate October, 2017 Sky Watch information, below.

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):

Body DawnBreaks Rises Sets
Sun 5:39 A.M. 7:06 A.M. 6:52 P.M.
Moon 9:51 P.M. 11:10 A.M.
Mercury 7:00 A.M. 6:36 P.M.
Venus 3:37 A.M. 4:49 P.M.
Mars 4:17 A.M. 5:34 P.M.
Jupiter 4:52 A.M. 5:49 P.M.
Saturn 11:25 A.M. 9:27 P.M.
Uranus 7:15 P.M. 8:05 A.M.
Neptune 5:34 P.M. 4:42 A.M.
Pluto 2:32 P.M. 12:20 A.M.

 

2) Planet Highlights:

by Bob Berman, as featured in The Old Farmer’s Almanac

    • The Moon passes above Venus on the 3rd, to the right of Saturn on the 5th, and above Mars on the 7th and 8th.
    • Mars hits magnitude zero and races into Sagittarius.
    • Mercury remains visible low in the predawn sky for the first 2 weeks of October. It forms a tight conjunction with returning Jupiter on the 11th.
    • The pair of Mercury at magnitude –1 and Jupiter at –1.7 is gorgeous, although very low 40 minutes before sunrise.
    • Uranus reaches opposition in Pisces on the 15th; seeing the Green Planet usually requires binoculars.
    • After midnight early on the 19th, bright Aldebaran is occulted by the Moon, an event visible in the southern and eastern United States.

October 9, 2016, the Draconids

The radiant point for the Draconid meteor shower almost coincides with the head of the constellation Draco the Dragon in the northern sky. That’s why the Draconids are best viewed from the Northern Hemisphere. The Draconid shower is a real oddity, in that the radiant point stands highest in the sky as darkness falls. That means that, unlike many meteor showers, more Draconids are likely to fly in the evening hours than in the morning hours after midnight. This shower is usually a sleeper, producing only a handful of languid meteors per hour in most years. But watch out if the Dragon awakes! In rare instances, fiery Draco has been known to spew forth many hundreds of meteors in a single hour.  Try watching at nightfall and early evening on October 9 and 10.

The Draconid meteor shower, also sometimes known as the Giacobinids, is one of the two meteor showers to annually grace the skies in October. The Draconids owe their name to the constellation Draco the Dragon, and are created when the Earth passes through the dust debris left by comet 21 P/ Giacobini-Zinner. The comet takes about 6.6 years to make a single revolution around the Sun.

October 22-23, 2016 before dawn, the Orionids

On a dark, moonless night, the Orionids exhibit a maximum of about 10 to 20 meteors per hour. The waxing gibbous moon will be out the during the evening hours, but it’ll set before the prime time viewing hours, providing deliciously dark skies for this year’s Orionid shower. More meteors tend to fly after midnight, and the Orionids are typically at their best in the wee hours before dawn. These fast-moving meteors occasionally leave persistent trains. They sometimes produce bright fireballs, so watch for them to flame in the sky. If you trace these meteors backward, they seem to come from the Club of the famous constellation Orion the Hunter. You might know Orion’s bright, ruddy star Betelgeuse. The radiant is north of Betelgeuse. The Orionids have a broad and irregular peak that isn’t easy to predict.

In 2016, the Orionid meteor shower will be visible from October 2 to November 7. The shower is expected to peak on the night of October 20 and early morning of October 21.The best viewing for the Orionids in 2016 will probably be before dawn on October 22. Try the days before and after that, too, sticking to the midnight-to-dawn hours.

Rare Bird Sightings

One of the best West Coast places to spot vagrant songbirds is in western Marin Co. within the lighthouse region of Point Reyes National Seashore (or as the birding community in California calls it: “the Outer Point.”) In the “Outer Point” near the lighthouse, amid groves of Monterey Cypress trees growing as the only islands of green amid dairy farms, diverse species of wayward eastern wood-warblers are best spotted from August-October annually. If you go, best bets include wood-warbler species such as Blackburnian, Black-throated Blue, Chestnut-sided, and Prairie — with Tennessee and Magnolia also possible. Note: American Redstart, Blackpoll, Palm, and Black-and-White are not mentioned above because many theorists/ornithologists do NOT consider these three species to be “vagrant” species in California by because the state either appears in the migration pathway (e.g., Palm and Blackpoll) of some breeding populations (that nest farther north) and/or the state irregularly to regularly hosts nesting individuals (e.g., American Redstart and Black-and-white). Other songbirds that may make cameo appearances here include Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Baltimore Oriole. (If you wish: GOOGLE search “Outer Point” to see vagrant bird species reports, if you wish, and/or see the archives at sialia.com, especially for August-September, annually. My favorite recent report is from mid-October, 2015 where birders report the presence of Cerulean Warbler, one of the rarest vagrant wood-warbler species in California.)

Waterfowl Invasion

The San Francisco Bay and northern California bodies of water host an amazingly large population of diverse duck species that spend the non-breeding season in the San Francisco Bay area. For example, 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 begin spotting 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, and Gadwall,  Mallard (beyond residents), 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,

See: http://www.ggro.org

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.

November, 2017

Sky Watch:

Please check back soon for accurate November, 2017 Sky Watch information, below.

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):

Body DawnBreaks Rises Sets
Sun 5:07 A.M. 6:36 A.M. 5:10 P.M.
Moon 11:16 P.M. 11:44 A.M.
Mercury 5:45 A.M. 4:50 P.M.
Venus 2:47 A.M. 3:15 P.M.
Mars 2:50 A.M. 3:20 P.M.
Jupiter 2:19 A.M. 3:02 P.M.
Saturn 8:38 A.M. 7:36 P.M.
Uranus 5:10 P.M. 4:57 A.M.
Neptune 2:31 P.M. 1:38 A.M.
Pluto 11:31 A.M. 10:16 P.M.

 

2) Planet Highlights:

  • The Moon floats above Saturn and Venus on the 2nd, 45 minutes after sunset.
  • Returning Venus moves higher this month and will be widely noticed; it is no longer a challenge.
  • The Moon stands high above Mars on the 6th, due south at nightfall.
  • An extraordinary “Supermoon” occurs on the 14th as the Moon comes its nearest to Earth since January 26, 1948. For most people, this is the largest and brightest full Moon of their lives. The effect on the tides, especially on the 15th, will be dramatic.
  • A bright waning gibbous Moon will spoil the medium-strength Leonid meteor shower on the 18th.
  • On the 25th, the Moon dangles below returning Jupiter in its new home of Virgo. Jupiter rises at around 4:00 A.M.

6th: Daylight Savings Time ends at 2:00 A.M. (Clocks are turned backward one hour)

Late night November 9, 2016, the South Taurids

Fortunately, the full moon will wash away all but the brightest South Taurid meteors. The meteoroid streams that feed the South (and North) Taurids are very spread out and diffuse. That means the Taurids are extremely long-lasting (September 25 to November 25) but usually don’t offer more than about 7 meteors per hour. That is true even on the South Taurids’ expected peak night. The Taurids are, however, well known for having a high percentage of fireballs, or exceptionally bright meteors. Plus, the other Taurid shower – the North Taurids – always adds a few more meteors to the mix during the South Taurids’ peak night. In 2015, the slim waning crescent moon coming up before dawn will not seriously obtrude on this year’s South Taurid meteor shower. The South Taurids should produce their greatest number of meteors in the wee hours – between midnight and dawn – on November 5. Remember, it’ll be possible to catch a fireball or two!

Late night November 12 until dawn November 13, 2015, the North Taurids

Like the South Taurids, the North Taurids meteor shower is long-lasting (October 12 – December 2) but modest, and the peak number is forecast at about 7 meteors per hour. The North and South Taurids combine, however, to provide a nice sprinkling of meteors throughout October and November. Typically, you see the maximum numbers at around midnight, when Taurus the Bull is highest in the sky. Taurid meteors tend to be slow-moving, but sometimes very bright. In 2015, the new moon comes only one day before the predicted peak, providing a dark sky for the 2015 North Taurid shower.

Late night November 17 until dawn November 18, 2015, the Leonids

Radiating from the constellation Leo the Lion, the famous Leonid meteor shower has produced some of the greatest meteor storms in history – at least one in living memory, 1966 – with rates as high as thousands of meteors per minute during a span of 15 minutes on the morning of November 17, 1966. Indeed, on that beautiful night in 1966, the meteors did, briefly, fall like rain. Some who witnessed the 1966 Leonid meteor storm said they felt as if they needed to grip the ground, so strong was the impression of Earth plowing along through space, fording the meteoroid stream. The meteors, after all, were all streaming from a single point in the sky – the radiant point – in this case in the constellation Leo the Lion. Leonid meteor storms sometimes recur in cycles of 33 to 34 years, but the Leonids around the turn of the century – while wonderful for many observers – did not match the shower of 1966. And, in most years, the Lion whimpers rather than roars, producing a maximum of perhaps 10-15 meteors per hour on a dark night. Like many meteor showers, the Leonids ordinarily pick up steam after midnight and display the greatest meteor numbers just before dawn.

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.

(* = See: www.aou.org/committees/nacc/proposals/2010-A.pdf)

For current AOU proposals related to bird taxonomy, see:

http://www.aou.org/committees/nacc/proposals/pending.php

December, 2017

Sky Watch:

1) Moon & Planet Rise & Set Times

Please check back soon for accurate December, 2017 Sky Watch information, below.

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):

Body DawnBreaks Rises Sets
Sun 5:34 A.M. 7:08 A.M. 4:50 P.M.
Moon 10:55 P.M. 11:40 A.M.
Mercury 7:52 A.M. 5:13 P.M.
Venus 3:31 A.M. 2:46 P.M.
Mars 2:20 A.M. 2:05 P.M.
Jupiter 12:42 A.M. 1:15 P.M.
Saturn 6:57 A.M. 4:50 P.M.
Uranus 2:10 P.M. 2:55 A.M.
Neptune 12:33 P.M. 11:36 P.M.
Pluto 9:37 A.M. 7:21 P.M.

2) Planet Highlights:

by Bob Berman, as featured in The Old Farmer’s Almanac
(Note: Times listed below are PT.)

What’s up in December? Here are the highlights:

  • It’s still a post-midnight party for all of the bright planets. Dawn now finds Jupiter at its highest, in the southeast, with Venus lowest, floating left of Virgo’s blue main star Spica. Still faint but brightening Mars hovers in between.
  • The Moon passes just below Jupiter on the 4th and eye-catchingly close to Venus during the wee hours of the 7th, for a major don’t-miss conjunction.
  • This year brings a rare second fabulous meteor shower under ideal moonless skies, when the Geminids blaze on the 13th starting at around twilight (5:00 p.m). These “shooting stars” are strangely slow, at half the speed of summer’s Perseids.
  • Winter begins with the solstice on the 21st, at 8:48 p.m.

For other planet information relating to planet rising times, go to:

http://in-the-sky.org/risesetcharts.php (courtesy of In-The-Sky.org)

December, 2017, mid-evening until dawn, Geminids

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 the 2015 Geminid shower. The meteors are 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. In 2015, the slender waxing crescent moon will set soon after the sun, providing a wonderful cover of darkness for the Geminid meteor shower. Your best bet is to watch on December 12-13 and 13-14, from mid-evening (9 to 10 p.m.) until dawn.

December 21, 2016December Solstice. The December solstice occurs at 10:44 UTC. The South Pole of the earth will be tilted toward the Sun, which will have reached its southernmost position in the sky and will be directly over the Tropic of Capricorn at 23.44 degrees south latitude. This is the first day of winter (winter solstice) in the Northern Hemisphere and the first day of summer (summer solstice) in the Southern Hemisphere.

Snake Look-Alike: Pacific Slender Salamanders

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 Owls

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.