Great and Small on the Preserve
the american white pelican
Sometimes, but not always in a V-formation, a flock of black wings appears overhead in winter. Then suddenly, as they turn, white wings flash through the sunlight.
These wings belong to the American White Pelican, one of the largest birds in North America. These pelicans rarely winter inland, however the Salton Sea* (in Southern California) is an exception. They often travel and forage in large flocks. They soar gracefully on broad, stable, black and white wings, high in the sky between thermals of warm air. (allaboutbirds.org) *The Salton Sea is about 50 miles southeast of the Coachella Valley Preserve.
According to an April 26, 2019 article published online at nbcpalmsprings.com, many bird species, once abundant around the Salton Sea, are rapidly leaving. As the water increasingly evaporates, salinity increases and kills off the fish upon which the seabirds thrive. The most pronounced desertion involves the American White Pelican, whose numbers reached about 20,000 in 2008, but, at the time this article was written, have dwindled dramatically to below 100.
The story of the Salton Sea, could be appropriately titled, “From Paradise to Purgatory”. What’s strange about this accidental tale of how an inland sea became the largest lake in California, is the fact that it is located in the middle of the Colorado Desert, the hottest portion of the Sonoran Desert. In 1905 the Colorado River swelled, breached its levees, and flooded a portion of the desert valley known as the Salton Sink. For 2 years the water continued flowing in, creating a 15 x 35 mile lake dubbed the Salton Sea. Shorebirds flocked here, fish thrived, real estate developers built homes, hotels, yacht clubs… creating a tourist mecca along its shores. By the 1970s, however, what was too good to be true began rapidly falling apart. With no drainage outlet, 5 inches or less of annual rainfall, and runoff flowing in from nearby farms, the Salton Sea became polluted with pesticides and saltier than the Pacific Ocean. Periodic flooding pushed the toxic water further ashore. Depleted oxygen in the Sea killed fish, dragging their rotting bodies onto the beaches once lined with sunbathers, to shrivel in the hot sun. The sand became coated with layers of fragmented fish skeletons. (slate.com)
(Check out my post Seeing is Believing to learn more about our visit to the Salton Sea in 2018.)
But let’s get back to the American White Pelican…
allaboutbirds.org, courtesy of Gordon Dimmig, MacCaulay Library
The American White Pelican dips its pouched bill to scoop up fish, then raises its head to drain out water and swallow its prey, unlike the brown pelican that dives upon its meal from above. These pelicans also forage cooperatively. Groups of birds dip their bills and flap their wings, driving fish toward shore corralling them for synchronized bill-dipping feasts.
Females lay 2 eggs but only 1 chick usually survives. Another strange but true fact of nature reveals that one chick will harass or kill the other, a behavior known as siblicide.
Predators of the American White Pelican include coyotes, ravens, and great-horned owls. (allaboutbirds.org)
Finally, one last fact about this large, graceful bird that majestically soars through the air: During mating season a yellow plate, called a nuptial tubercle, forms on the upper bill of breeding adults. This fibrous plate falls off after the birds have mated and the female lays her eggs. (nhpbs.org)
Ducks have returned to Simone Pond since the restoration project has begun!
The Mallard is the ancestor of nearly all domestic duck breeds. The male has the dark green iridescent head and bright yellow bill. Females and juveniles, however, have orange and brown bills and their body feathers are a mottled brown. (allaboutbirds.org)
These large ducks with rounded heads and wide, flat bills can live in any wetland area, and may even hang out around your pool in the summer.
They are “dabbling ducks”, which means they feed in the water by tipping forward as opposed to diving.
Generally monogamous, mallards pair off in the autumn and court throughout winter. Only the female incubates the eggs, cares for the ducklings, and makes the familiar quacking sound of a duck. The male produces a quiet rasping sound. (allaboutbirds.org)
Another “Cool Fact“ from allaboutbirds.org…
Like other ducks, mallards shed all of their flight feathers during the summer molting season. They are flightless, vulnerable, and secretive during these 3-4 weeks as their body feathers slough into a concealing “eclipse” plumage that can camouflage their appearance.
This spring, 10 ducklings with their Mama paid us a visit at Simone Pond. (A very good sign that the waters are healthier after eradicating the invasive fish.)
courtesy of Ginny Short, CNLM Preserve Biologist/Preserve Manager
courtesy of Mary McKay, Preserve Docent
courtesy of Mary McKay, Preserve Docent
courtesy of Mary McKay, Preserve Docent
Unfortunately this “paddling” of 10 ducklings kept dwindling almost daily, until only 2 survived. Ah, the cycle of life… We suspect our great-horned owls, barn owls, and red-tailed hawks may have scooped them up.
The palm grove around Simone Pond, known as McCallum Grove, is a favorite nesting place for this thick-bodied gray-brown owl with a reddish-brown face and 2 prominent feathered tufts on its head that look like horns, but are not. (allaboutbirds.org)
audubon.org, courtesy of Christopher Schwarz
The Great-Horned Owl is the most perfect embodiment of what I picture when I think of the phrase, “the wise old owl”. Its piercing yellow eyes stare right through me as if this bird can read the story of my soul, my most intimate and raw thoughts.
One of the most common owls of North America, the Great-Horned is equally “at home” in deserts, wetlands, forests, backyards, cities, and almost any other semi-open habitat between the Arctic and the Tropics. (allaboutbirds.org)
On Easter morning, Mary (docent) and Frank (bird hike guide) visited the Pond with our Preserve Manager, Ginny, to assist her in setting crayfish traps. Mary found this “Easter Basket” of 3 Great-Horned fledglings up in the palm tree fronds and sent me these pics…
Last spring 3 owlets or nestlings were born in McCallum Grove and we watched their furry faces peak out of the nest, Mama Owl sitting nearby, of course.
Owls, like other modern birds, do not have teeth for chewing so they eat their prey whole and later regurgitate pellets of undigested material. (nwf.org)
Here’s a close up of one of these owl pellets…
And here’s the palm tree in McCallum Grove under which all these owl pellets were found…
Owls feed mostly on small mammals and other birds, but did you know that they are one of the only animals that will include skunks in their diet? They also have some unique adaptations that earn them their reputation as birds of prey. For example, their sense of hearing is so acute that they can detect a mouse stepping on a twig 75 feet (23 meters) away. And their eyes are so large in proportion to their head that they cannot move their eyes back and forth like humans, having to turn their heads up to 270 degrees (a 3/4 turn) to look in different directions. (nwf.org)
These long and slender owls with tall ear tufts, orange faces, and yellow eyes roost in the palm trees along the boardwalk over the oasis on the Preserve. They appear in winter and are a special treat to look for and observe.
windowtowildlife.com, courtesy of Jim Edlhuber
This past spring our bird gurus spotted a pair of juveniles which was a special thrill.
And from Jeff’s pics…
Below are pictures of these same 2 owlets watching Jeff and me pull and trim rushes along the boardwalk. They just stared at us with their piercing yellow eyes, their heads following us as we moved to and fro. What an incredible experience to be in their presence for such a long time!
Barn owls live all over the lower 48 United States, parts of southern Canada, and in much of the rest of the world… basically in any open habitat with an abundance of small nocturnal mammals to eat. In the desert this includes rats, mice, bats, and rabbits. (Fortunately, the round-tailed ground squirrels and white-tailed antelope squirrels are diurnal mammals and are relatively safe from the clutches of hungry barn owls.) Besides possessing excellent low-light vision, barn owls have an amazing ability to track and locate their prey by sounds alone. (allaboutbirds.org)
My first introduction to the barn owl on the Coachella Valley Preserve was out at Simone Pond. Jeff and I were newly vetted Preserve Hosts in the fall of 2018. We took a personally guided hike with Harlan who shared his vast knowledge of the Colorado desert… it’s flowers and shrubs, birds and reptiles and mammals, and of course the geology of the oasis created by the San Andreas Fault. We hiked the mile to Simone Pond and stopped briefly under the shade of palm trees in an area of the grove known as “The Citadel”, when suddenly large white wings sailed overhead and I felt something hit me lightly and splatter down the front of my t-shirt. Owl poop! A shit show! My baptism to the desert!
Barn owls are not particular in choosing where to place their nests… holes in trees, cliff ledges, cliff crevices, caves, burrows in river banks, and many different human structures, including barn lofts, church steeples, houses, haystacks, and even drive-in movie screens… or even in your own backyard in a homemade nest box. On the Preserve, we see them nesting on the ledges of the palm skirts.
The female prepares the nest by collecting her regurgitated pellets. She shreds them with her feet and molds them into a cup shape. About a month before laying eggs, her monogamous partner begins to bring hunted prey to the nest to both nourish Mama Owl and store for later when the babies hatch. (allaboutbirds.org)
I could not find a suitable picture of a barn owl’s nest in its natural habitat. Apparently the popularity of attracting barn owls on one’s property has led to the abundance of homemade nest boxes. The one below at least gives you an idea of what the contents of the nest look like with the shredded pellets, the Mama, the owlets, and the yummy anticipation of a meal.
freedomok.net, courtesy of arkive.org and Christophe Perelle
Last spring (2019) we discovered 2 baby owls along the boardwalk oasis who had fallen out of their nest. Ginny rescued them and took them to the Coachella Valley Wild Bird Center, another non-profit organization, for the care and rehabilitation of injured, orphaned, or sick birds who will eventually be released back into their habitats. We just say, “Ginny took them to Linda.” … as in Linda York, the Executive Director.
This spring no one fell out of their nest. Here are some photos of the newest juvenile barn owl on the Preserve:
The wind kept blowing the palm leaves in front of the owl, so I just kept clicking pics…