September 23, 10 am.
First day of fall and it is perfect out. The clear blue sky with that crispness in the air says fall is here. I am noticing an increase in the sparrows, the crowned sparrows as they are called, with their songs of “oh dear me” and the sweet whistling. Walking under the viaduct of the bypass area I always look up into the flex joint areas, or the “gaps,” to see if our resident Barn owl, Tyto alba, is at home. This time there are two of them and I think they may be juveniles because of their size and the fuzziness that is around their faces. If they are juvenile Barn owls it is the first time we have seen young ones in that spot. It is extraordinary to see them in this gap where the viaduct does its flexing for a couple of reasons; one is that it seems like it would be incredibly noisy to be trying to sleep while the traffic speeds by above you; and two, the heat during the summer must be tremendous. In spite of both of these factors, more times than not, I find at least one owl sleeping in those gaps! It is a protected space from the crows and ravens that will hassle them if they are in a tree, and it seems spacious. It may be that the heat does not get too bad in there because the concrete above insulates it. These owls like open habitats which makes the valley a perfect place for them to live. They prefer to nest in cavities either natural or human-made but will nest on rock ledges and in crevices. They are voracious rodent hunters, helping farmers and ranchers. Some ranchers encourage them by putting up Barn owl boxes in their barns. I often hear them making their long harsh screams and then see their ghostly form flapping silently overhead. The heart-shaped face (or as Cornell university describes it, “a satellite-disk-shaped face”) is not only endearing, it serves the important function of increasing their already excellent hearing.
As I walk further out into the valley, I see a very white bird perched on an ash tree. As I get closer I see it is a White-tailed kite, Elanus leucurus, but not an adult. These juvenile birds are easier to distinguish from the adults because they have a rusty streaked collar which I could see clearly. It was studying the ground intently and did so for at least 10 minutes, never getting off of its perch. Grasslands are a preferred habitat for this bird which eats mostly rodents.
The last juvenile birds I see are a type of waterfowl which are bathing in a small mud pond on the edge of one of the pastures. Besides the ducks there are 3 American Killdeer enjoying the water. These young ducks are Common Mergansers, Mergus merganser. It is such a joy to watch them as they splash in the muddy water, then preen themselves clean and dry. The juvenile mergansers do not have their adult plumage yet, but will in a few months when they reach maturity. The males will get a dark green head and contrasting bright white chests with no real crest while the females will have a red head and neck with a short crest and a grey mottled back. Adults mostly eat fish while the young eat aquatic insects. My favorite fact about these ducks is that they nest in cavities like the Wood duck and only spend maybe a day in the cavity or box, then jump out to join their siblings on the back of their mother in the water! I have not yet been able to capture a photo of this cute phenomenon but I am determined to get one!
Heading back I see many juvenile small birds such as Song sparrows, Dark-eyed juncos, Chipping sparrows, and Common yellow throat warblers. I am filled with a sense of joy that all of these juvenile birds have made it this far, past the egg stage and the nestling stage, where they got fed enough insect larvae, rodents, or fish to be able to fledge. They are now feeding themselves! They have entered the myriad of food chains and ecosystems that exist all around us; and in the spring, if they make it through the fall and winter, will add their songs and beauty to the spring time chorus.