A Bright Splash of Color In Winter

There have been clear skies this entire month and the sun has been shining all week. It has been wonderful to walk out in Little Lake Valley and appreciate the quiet, mid-winter days. The grass in the fields has grown tall and lush while the White alders are full of male catkins that have begun to disperse their pollen. Watch them on a windy day and you will see the soft clouds of yellow pollen.  It is still and calm today with few birds singing and no raptors in sight.

I then hear the sweet low whistles, pew pew pew, of the Western Bluebird, Sialia Mexicana. A few land on the fence line in front of me and I am instantly dazzled by the bright blue and orange displays of these small birds. The Western Bluebird is a year-round resident of Mendocino County and the mitigation lands. They are found in open wooded habitat with grassland areas to hunt insects. Bluebirds nest in habitat that contains older trees with cavities, and then as the season changes, spend their time in places where their winter survival food, mistletoe, is found.

Many people are surprised to hear how important the plant, Phoradendron leucarpum tomentosum, Oak mistletoe, is for wildlife and many species of birds. It is an essential component of the Oak woodland community and has evolved with oak species over thousands and even millions of years. Kate Marionchild, in her book, Secrets of the Oak Woodland, states that this plant is a keystone player in the oak woodlands – a species that is disproportionately important to other species relative to its abundance. When mistletoe is removed from ecosystems, one-third of the animals that rely on it, including birds, mammals, and insects, disappear. Upon reading this, it changed the way I look at this hemi-parasitic plant! In the wintertime, mistletoe is noticeable as the only green in the deciduous oaks around us. Kate recommends looking closely at the clumps to find bluebirds or to see if any mammal like a raccoon is sleeping in them. This is because, besides the fact that the mistletoe berries are rich in fat and protein, the mistletoe clumps are good places to stay warm and protected from predators.

The blazing blue color of Western Bluebirds is a delight to see in our wintertime landscape. The lack of leaves on the trees helps them stand out even more than they do at other times of the year. Watching these large family groups communicating with each other, flying up and around the mistletoe in the trees, I remember that they can be very territorial about their clumps of winter sustenance. I am glad there seems to be enough for all the wildlife.