An Inch of Rain

September 21, 2021

What a difference an inch of rain makes! Last Saturday as that drizzle turned to a steady rain for a few hours I felt as though a miracle had occurred. The desiccated earth seemed to soak it up and sing in response. The storm system helped change not only my attitude but also the diversity of bird species overnight. Bird migration is affected by, and can depend on, our weather systems in the fall. This rain brought in some new visitors to the region.

When I went out into the middle of Little Lake Valley on Monday morning the smell of damp earth and lack of dust was a pleasant surprise. Perched on a fence post in front of me was a gorgeous large white and brown raptor. This is one of the Pacific Flyway migrants that passes through, with a few staying in our valley for months, a Ferruginous hawk, Buteo regalis. Its species name, regalis, means royal or pertaining to a king while the common name, Ferruginous, means reddish brown or rust colored. Both are appropriate titles for this regal reddish-brown hawk. This is our largest buteo in the United States and comes in two “morphs” or color phases. A light morph and a rarer (3 to 9 %) dark form (see photos). This is a bird of arid grasslands and adjacent farmlands such as is found in the prairies of Kansas and Nebraska. They hunt small mammals such as prairie dogs or ground squirrels and will sit on top of the burrows and wait for them to appear. We don’t have prairie dogs but do have ground squirrels, gophers, meadow voles, and other small rodents that they hunt. Small numbers of these fine birds are found in Little Lake Valley from September to February. Most are migrating south to warmer, dry grasslands such as the San Diego area or Mexico for the winter. The few that stay are quite entertaining to watch as they spend time on the ground hunting or perched on a prominent telephone pole. They can be quite loud and sound gull-like with their vocalizations. Ferruginous Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, and Golden Eagles are the only American raptors that have feathered legs down to their toes.

That was not the only bird migrant I saw, there were also Northern Harriers, Circus hudsonius, with their dimorphism in full display. The males of this species look very different in color from the juveniles and the females. They are a soft and beautiful grey, white and black, reminiscent of the White-tailed Kite but with a specific flight pattern that helps to tell them apart. They usually fly close to the ground hunting with their long wings spread out in a dihedral. This allows the distinctive white rump patch, that both genders have, to be on full display. Both females and juveniles are a mottled brown, while the adult females have cinnamon coloring or streaks. Northern Harriers nest on the coast but not in Little Lake Valley. They arrive in the fall and winter and become part of the landscape for a few months.

The fall equinox is an exciting time because of events like the bird migration and the Tule elk and Black-tailed deer rutting season, as I talked about in the last blog. The bugling reminds me of that each day, along with the other seasonal changes that have begun, as the days shorten and cooler temperatures set in. Having an early significant rain really made a difference for me, connecting the equinox to an end of what seemed like a very long, hot summer.