Park Sentries: Canada Geese

Cover photo: © Don DeBold, 2017, some rights reserved.

Learn about the Canada goose, a common visitor to California’s parks and fields.

Cover photo: © Don DeBold, 2017, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

The Canada goose has the most widely-distributed range of any goose in North America.

They are found year-round in parts of the northern United States. Birds that breed closer to the Arctic will migrate south to the United States for the winter. In some parts of California, there are areas where geese are found year-round. For more information on their range, check out this map by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Their migratory v-formations headed north in the spring and south in the fall are widely recognized as symbols of the changing seasons.

Canada geese tend to forage in moist fields and manicured lawns.

There, Canada geese graze on grasses and grains from cultivated plants. Manicured lawns are particularly attractive to Canada geese, as the short vegetation allows them an unobstructed view of the landscape to look out for potential predators.

Canada geese are also known to eat aquatic plants.

Canada geese build their nests near water.

Females select the location, and do most of the work to construct a cup-shaped nest. They lay 2 – 8 eggs, which hatch after around a month of incubation. The hatchlings are covered in yellow down. As precocial hatchlings, they are able to walk, swim, and dive as soon as they leave the nest. The young will stay with their parents for a year, traveling as a family group.

Breeding pairs are monogamous, and have low rates of “divorce” – or splitting up. They form pairs usually during their second year of life.

When birdwatching, it pays to look closely at flocks of Canada geese.

I’ve been delighted during some birding walks to find another species mixed in with flocks of Canada geese. While at Shoreline Regional Park, I was lucky enough to find some greater white-fronted geese foraging with the Canada goose flock I was watching. Greater white-fronted geese are a rarer species in the Bay Area, so it was a treat to be able to watch them.

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Greater white-fronted geese foraging alongside Canada geese at Shoreline Regional Park in Mountain View, Ca.

Cool facts about Canada Geese:

  • Contrary to popular belief, the term “Canadian Goose” is incorrect. The common name of this species is “Canada Goose”.
  • Canada goose populations in urban areas have been increasing since the 1950’s.

Resources to learn more:

Lantern Flowers: Crimson (Western) Columbine

Learn about this outstanding Californian wildflower – from its evolutionary history to the best time to see it bloom.

Crimson columbine is native to California.

Its full native range extends up north to Alaska’s coast, and east into Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. It is also found in areas of the Southwest. They are absent in California’s Central Valley.

Columbines are hypothesized to have arrived to North America 10,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Scientists hypothesize that the columbine ancestor made its way from Central Asia to Alaska thousands of years ago by the the Bering land bridge that connected Asia to North America. Evidence of the columbine’s travels have been supported by DNA analyses of columbine species from around the world.

After its arrival in Alaska, the columbine ancestor begin to radiate out to other parts of North America. The evolution of North American species is hypothesized to be driven by pollinator specialization. For example, multiple species of red columbines have adapted red flowers (distinct from blue and yellow-flowered columbines found in other parts of the U.S.) and higher sugar contents in their nectar – an adaptation thought to meet the demands of their hummingbird pollinators.

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Crimson columbine at Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve.

The best time to see crimson columbine bloom is March – May.

The plant can be found in forest and meadow habitats where the soil is moist.

The outer, red parts of the flower are actually sepals. The “true” petals are the yellow parts on the inside of the flower. Overall, the entire flower is about 2 inches long.

Crimson columbine attracts pollinators, including hummingbirds.

These flowers are also relatively deer-proof, making them a great option to include in a California native plant garden. For more tips on how to cultivate crimson columbines in your garden, check out these tips from the Las Pilitas Nursery.

Cool facts about crimson columbine:

  • Its genus name, Aquilegia, is derived from the latin word aquila, meaning “eagle”. This name is thought to refer to its upright red sepals, which look like an eagle’s talons.
  • The flower’s common name, columbine, is derived from the latin word columba, meaning dove-like.
  • Crimson columbine is a perennial plant.

Resources to learn more:

Backyard Buzzers: Anna’s Hummingbirds

Cover photo: © jacksnipe1990, 2017, some rights reserved.

Sound produced by tail feathers? Nests made of spiderwebs? Learn about these facts and more in our post about the Bay Area’s winter hummingbird.

Cover photo: © jacksnipe1990, 2017, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Anna’s hummingbirds are permanent residents in the Bay Area.

While some species of hummingbird migrate during the winter, the Anna’s hummingbird stays in the Bay Area year-round.

Their range has greatly expanded beyond its initial restriction to California and Baja California. Today, Anna’s hummingbirds can be found in parts of the southwestern United States, as well as up in British Columbia, Canada. Their expansion is thought to be related to their adaptability to feeding on exotic flowers and their use of artificial food sources (hummingbird feeders).

Anna’s hummingbirds are the most common hummingbirds on the west coast.

They can be found in a variety of habitats, ranging from urban gardens to open oak woodlands. Individuals can be located easily by listening for their buzzy song, which is often sung from atop a perch.

Anna’s hummingbirds eat nectar and insects.

Anna’s hummingbirds feed of nectar from native and non-native plant species, as well as artificial nectar provided at hummingbird feeders. It’s estimated that 90% of a hummingbird’s diet is composed of nectar, whereas the remaining 10% is composed of small insects.

Anna’s hummingbirds are a bright and feisty visitor at my own hummingbird feeders. They can be quite territorial, as exemplified by some individuals perching near the feeders and chasing away any unwelcome visitors that wander over in search of food.

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Source: © Mick Thompson, 2017, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Anna’s hummingbird males generate a non-vocal “squeak” during their breeding displays.

During the breeding season, male Anna’s hummingbirds display for females. During their display, males sing energetically, then rise up to 130 feet into the air. They follow this flight with a sudden and quick dive. As they dive, a “squeak”-like sound is produced by air moving through modified outer tail feathers.

Females are responsible for all nesting responsibilities.

Anna’s hummingbirds have a breeding system in which females are solely responsible for parental care. Female Anna’s hummingbirds construct nests of soft plant fiber and spiderwebs that are 1.5 inches in diameter and 1 inch high. She lays 2 eggs, which take 16 days to hatch. Once hatched, the female will feed and care for the young until they are old enough to fly out of the nest at 23 days old.

Cool facts about Anna’s hummingbirds:

  • In the Bay Area, an Anna’s hummingbird nest once delayed construction at the Richmond-San Rafael bridge. The nest, protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, was discovered in a grove of trees designated to be cut down for the expansion. The crew halted removing the trees until after the nest and birds were gone.
  • Anna’s hummingbirds are capable of torpor. When temperatures drop outside at night, Anna’s hummingbirds will also drop their own body temperatures. They simultaneously slow their heart rates and breathing to enter a hibernation-like state. Once temperatures rise again, they resume normal bodily functions.
  • All hummingbirds are only found in North and South America.

Resources to learn more:

Ocean Gliders: California Brown Pelicans

Cover Photo: © Frank Schulenburg, 2016, some rights reserved.

Brown pelicans have made a dramatic return from their critically low numbers in the 1970’s due to the effects of DDT. However, the fight for the brown pelican is far from over: today, they face threats from food scarcity as Pacific sardine and anchovy numbers have shown declines.

Cover Photo: © Frank Schulenburg, 2016, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Places to See California Brown Pelicans

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Natural Bridges State Beach

California brown pelicans faced critically low numbers in the 1970’s from the effects of DDT and endrin.

From the 1950’s to 1970’s, the brown pelican almost disappeared from North America due to the effects of pesticides, namely endrin and DDT. DDT weakened the strength of breeding birds’ eggshells, resulting in failed breeding attempts as parents crushed eggs while trying to incubate.

The plummeting populations resulted in the species being federally listed as endangered. The ban of DDT in 1972, as well as the decrease in use of endrin, allowed pelican numbers to recuperate. By 2009, the species had recovered enough for its endangered listing to be lifted.

On the west coast, pelican populations face declines from lack of food availability.

Today, all brown pelicans still face threats from oil spills, entanglement in fishing gear, and disruption during their breeding season.

On the west coast in particular, however, pelican populations face starvation due to a decrease in the availability of Pacific sardines and anchovies. Overfishing and unusually warm waters have caused declines in the two fish populations, which has in turn negatively impacted brown pelican populations. In 2010, emaciated pelicans were reported at California wildlife centers. Younger pelican individuals were even recorded going after murre colonies in Oregon, grabbing chicks and shaking them until they regurgitated fish for the pelicans to eat.

In response to low fish numbers, the commercial fishing of sardines was banned from April 2015 through June 2016. To help monitor the populations of brown pelicans along the west coast, citizen scientists and biologists conduct surveys to assess pelican numbers from Mexico up north to Washington.

Moss Landing Brown Pelicans
Source: © Don DeBold, 2015, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Juvenile California brown pelicans appear brown overall, whereas adults sport more rich coloration.

Non-breeding adult pelicans have yellowish faces and white necks. The rest of their bodies are brownish gray.

During the breeding season, the necks of adult brown pelicans turn reddish-brown in color. On the west coast, breeding adults also develop a red throat. Birds in breeding plumage can be seen from December through August.

Juvenile brown pelicans are brown above and whitish below, with grayish bills.

California brown pelicans can be found resting along California’s coast.

Brown pelicans can be found foraging in shallow waters. When they’re not searching for food or breeding, they can be found resting in areas near the coast.

While in flight, birds will typically form lines. Their flight is extremely graceful, as they glide and flap in unison.

California brown pelicans feed by diving in the water.

They feed primarily on fish, diving head-first into the water from 20 – 40 feet in the air to capture their prey. Before swallowing the captured fish, pelicans empty their pouches of water. The California brown pelican and the Peruvian pelican are the only two pelican species that plunge dives for food.

Gulls, particularly Heermann’s gulls, are known to steal fish from the pouches of brown pelicans that have just returned from a dive.

California brown pelicans nest colonially on the ground.

Brown pelicans breed on the Channel Islands in Southern California from March to early August.

To breed, brown pelicans form colonies, meaning that they nest in large groups with members of the same species. Their nests are usually constructed of sticks.

They lay 3 eggs on average, which hatch after 4 weeks of incubation. Once the eggs hatch, the young are cared for by both parents.

Cool facts about California brown pelicans:

  • The largest roosting site for brown pelicans in the Bay Area is in Alameda on Breakwater Island. Breakwater Island is an L-shaped island in Alameda, built from rocks to help reduce wave action in the area.
  • Brown pelican pouches can hold up to 2.6 gallons of water.
  • Brown pelicans can live to be up to 30 years old.
  • Brown pelicans are incredibly large, with wingspans of 6.5 to 7.5 feet.
  • Brown pelicans weight 8 to 10 pounds.

Resources to learn more:

5 Ways Birdwatching Has Changed My Life

There are very few hobbies that I can say have changed my life for the better, and birding is at the top of that list. Here are just a few ways that birding has influenced me.

I have many hobbies that have enriched my life: reading, cooking, and dancing hula all come to mind as interests that make me feel happy and fulfilled. That said, there are very few hobbies that I can say have changed my life for the better. Here are just a few ways birding has influenced me.

1. Birdwatching taught me how to pay attention.

Birding has completely transformed my day-to-day activities by teaching me how to pay attention. While birding has allowed me to further develop my attention span, it has also taught me how to integrate nature into my day-to-day activities by simply paying attention.

Take walking from your parked car to a building as an example. Before I learned the sights and sounds of individual bird species, a walk from my car was just another task. Learning how to watch birds has flipped an irreversible switch in my mind, turning every moment outside into an opportunity to see or hear new things.

Today, even when doing something as simple as watering my plants outdoors, I passively pay attention to who’s around. Dark-eyed junco hopping underneath my gardening shelves, looking for spilled seed. House finch singing from a perch on the ornamental tree across the street. It’s an incredible gift that I’m grateful to have learned.

2. Watching birds got me to spend more time outside.

I’ve always loved the outdoors, but birding has presented me with the incentive to explore as many new habitats as possible, in hopes of observing more bird diversity.

Since I’ve begun birding, I’ve travelled to habitats ranging from rocky seashores to the edges of lush agricultural fields in search of a particular species. I’ve gotten to know a diversity of places, thanks to the journeys that birdwatching has brought me on.

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Birding on the rocky shores of the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire.

3. Birds were a gateway to learning about other incredible wildlife.

Birds, like all other life, interact with a myriad of other species in their day-to-day activities.

As an avid birdwatcher, you sometimes can’t help but wonder who else is in the picture as you’re watching a particular bird. What kind of shrub is that California towhee scuttling under? What kind of plant is that song sparrow using as its singing perch? What kind of mammal did that red-tailed hawk just snatch up? 

These are common questions running through my mind as I watch birds, and are all musings that prompt me to jump on my computer once I’m back home to do some research. This cycle has led me to discover the names and life histories of many non-bird species, thus allowing me to become a more well-rounded nature lover.

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Shorebirds gather at the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve.

4. Birdwatching has brought me to an amazing, tight-knit birding community.

Joy loves company, as proven time and time again in the friends that I’ve made through birding. Whether I’m living in the San Francisco Bay Area, upstate New York, or in the suburbs of Australia, there isn’t a single place that I haven’t found a tight-knit and supportive group of birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts. By joining local birding email listservs, local Audubon chapters, or even visiting a local nature center, I’ve met many new, welcoming faces.

5. Watching birds has allowed me to deepen my knowledge and involvement in local conservation issues.

Being a part of the birding community also meant joining forces with incredible advocates and leaders in environmental grassroots movements. Because of my involvement in the birding community, I’ve been able to learn more about important local conservation issues and projects that impact the habitats of native species.

In the Bay Area alone, I’ve been exposed to the wonders of wetlands restoration for native species, the declines of raptors such as American kestrels and burrowing owls, and the impacts that even a single crumb left behind at a campsite can have on the dynamic between Steller’s jays and marbled murrelets. While I would have likely read about these issues before becoming a birder, being an avid birdwatcher brings you that much closer to the battlefront of local conservation concerns.

(Bonus) 6. The excitement doesn’t stop at watching birds.

Birding has brought me happiness beyond just watching birds – it has allowed me to find other outlets for my passions, whether it be science education and outreach, science writing, photography, or travel.

Letting birds into my life has given me an incredible sense of purpose and belonging, and I can only hope that it will do the same in yours. Cheers to your next (or first!) birding adventure.

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Me doing a bird banding demonstration with an American goldfinch to a group of young girls at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Migration Celebration.

For more information on local bird species in the Bay Area, check out our wildlife resources on birds.

Sticky and Vibrant: Monkeyflower

True to their name, sticky monkeyflowers have a sticky resin on their leaves. Their flowers are thought to resemble a smiling monkey. Can you see it?

Sticky monkeyflower plants have dark green leaves and bright flowers.

Their leaves are 2 – 3 inches in length, and the plant itself grows to be 3 feet wide and 3 feet tall. Their flowers are orange, and they can be seen in bloom from April through October.

These beauties have also become popular to gardeners, resulting in many different color combinations ranging from deep red to peach.

Sticky monkeyflowers are actually sticky.

True to their name, their leaves have a sticky residue. The resin is thought to help protect from desiccation, or drying out, of the plant during particularly hot days.

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Close-up of sticky monkeyflowers at Devil’s Slide in Pacifica.

Sticky monkeyflowers are wonderful garden plants.

Sticky monkeyflowers are drought-tolerant perennials, making them a water-wise plant that will return year after year. Their flowers also attract hummingbirds, bringing awesome wildlife to your garden.

If deer are a consideration in your area, monkeyflowers are also quite deer-resistant.

For more information on the species that you can plant in your own garden, check out this helpful page by the Las Pilitas Nursery.

Cool facts about sticky monkeyflowers:

  • Their genus, Mimulus, is related to the latin word mimus, meaning a mime or comic. This is thought to be because of the shape of their flower, which resembles a comic or mime.
  • Checkerspot butterflies will lay their eggs on sticky monkeyflowers.
  • The “monkeyflower” part of their name is derived from the shape of their flowers, which are thought to resemble smiling monkeys. I often have trouble seeing it, but try it yourself when you encounter them!
  • Sticky monkeyflowers were used by Native Americans as treatments for various ailments and as decorative pieces. For more information, check out this page by the National Park Service.

Resources to learn more:

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Sticky monkeyflowers blooming off the coast at Devil’s Slide Trail.