Speaking of Nature: For the birds

  • Here is the interesting little leucistic chickadee that appeared on Bill Danielson’s porch railing at the beginning of last year. There was no sign of it after spring arrived. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Along with adult birds, there were several juvenilie Allen’s hummingbirds in the gardens at the Griffith Park visitor center. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Bill Danielson

For The Recorder
Sunday, December 31, 2017

Happy New Year!
After enjoying the first white Christmas in many years, and enduring a parting gift of temperatures well below zero, I think we’re all looking forward to a new year.  

However, as is tradition, I thought I would look back at 2017 and review some of the highlights. So grab a warm cup of coffee, find a comfy spot in the sun near a window, and let’s look back at 2017.

January started with an odd note. I often record the first bird species that I see on Jan. 1, and for 2017 that was a herring gull. I was at my brother-in-law’s house for New Year’s Day and the change in location really did present me with a different start to the year. It wasn’t until I got back to my house that I recorded a chickadee as the first bird of the year — on my turf.

Chickadees turned out to be rather significant birds in January, because it was on Jan. 7 that I noticed a leucistic black-capped chickadee at my feeders. It was a Saturday, I was at the kitchen window looking for something new and interesting among the regular and interesting, and I got it. This particular chickadee would be seen again and again during the winter months, but come spring, it would disappear and would not be seen again; proof of the amazingly complex social lives of the resident and wandering chickadees that inhabit our back yards.

February was a rather mild month. The Patriots won the Superbowl in stunning fashion, and I managed to set a new February species count of 35. This was aided by the appearance of a swamp sparrow on my porch railing and the astounding arrival of a snow bunting in the top of the cottonwood tree that grows next to my house. Given that February is the shortest month and that 35 species is an awfully large number, I think that particular record will stand for quite some time. I’ll need an irruptive year of all the winter finches to break that number.

The month of March started off with a day of ridiculously high temperature of 70 degrees. This was part of a warm trend that saw one day in February hit 74 degrees, and it extended through March with temperatures rarely dipping below freezing. Species of interest at my feeders included a northern shrike, the swamp sparrow, the leucistic chickadee and, out on the road in front of my house, a killdeer, of all things.  Rich as the March list was it was only enough to tie the record of 33 species that was set in 2016.  

April was a big month. We had snow for April Fool’s Day, and four days later the spring peepers were singing. Saturday, April 8, was a cloudy, raw day with temperatures in the high 40s. Sunday, April 9, was a suddenly gorgeous day with a high of 67 degrees on my home thermometer. I was also able to definitively say that Sunday was the day that the phoebes and tree swallows arrived. There was no sign of them Saturday, but they were all over the place on Sunday.  Along with those two wonderful species, there were yellow-bellied sapsuckers and turkey vultures.

On April 11, the temperature hit 85 degrees and spring had officially sprung. The avalanche of birds that followed was truly wondrous to observe, and the pages of my red journal were filled with entries during my April vacation from school. By the time the month was over, I had set an amazing new record of 51 species; crushing the old record of 45 from 2015.

The month of May started on a very promising note. The phoebes that had arrived on April 9 had already spruced up the nest by my front door and had one egg in there by May 3. By May 7, the female had 4 eggs, and before the month was over, the eggs hatched and a healthy brood of phoebe chicks was being cared for. This was especially great news considering the fact that there was a complete failure of phoebes at my house in 2016, caused by a younger, inexperienced female and an abundance of brown-headed cowbirds. May was also extremely rainy, and I fell far short of the species record as a result of fewer days in the field.

June was a month of rain and heat. The phoebes fledged, the humidity rose, the fireflies started to appear in the field and the last week of June, which coincided with my first week of summer vacation, was absolute bliss. The surge of migrant birds had already passed, but day after day of exultation in the outdoors did allow me to set another new record of 54 species, edging out the old record of 53 that was set in 2016.  

July started off on a rather beautiful note, and I captured a really interesting photo of a mockingbird holding a huge spider in its beak. Then, it started raining and July ended up being a very wet month. The Thinking Chair saw a lot of use, and page after page in my red journal was filled to the limit with observations. Still, the rain kept me inside for quite a lot of time, and the pages of my black journals did not fill as quickly. A species count record was out of the question, but July was wonderful nonetheless.

August was a major month in my photographic endeavors, because I purchased a new telephoto lens. I was out and about with this new tool, and I managed to get some amazing photos of belted kingfishers and snapping turtles that were fighting. Then, my bubble of comfortable normalcy burst when my desktop computer died. It took me quite some time to recover from that loss, and there are still a few files that are out of my reach, but time may present me with a solution to this problem yet.

A wonderful distraction to this upset was a triumphant return to Los Angeles, Calif., Every morning was an opportunity for a new foray out into the unfamiliar landscape, and I took advantage of them all. Mornings on the beaches of Malibu might have represented a chance to go surfing to the locals, but I was looking for birds. Other mornings spent in the hills of Griffith Park were chances for me to see some inland species, and I think the jewel of that collection was the Allen’s hummingbird that I found near the visitors’ center.

The last real excitement of the year came in the form of monarch butterfly caterpillars that were seen on the milkweed plants in my yard for the first time in several years. In fact, I’d seen monarch butterflies throughout the summer, which was a great relief after seeing so few in previous summers.

Another real treat was the detection of an eastern screech owl on Sept. 22. For the first time that I can remember, I heard three species of owls within the same 30 minutes. Sadly, there were no photos to commemorate the event.

September was also the last month that saw a new record set with 37 species, which was one species better than the 36 species detected in 2016.  

October was very warm, and the fall foliage was particularly unremarkable.  November seemed to slip by unnoticed, and December passed by even quicker with everything normal and quiet.

Now we start 2018, and I can’t wait to see what adventures it will bring. Let me know if there are any topics you would like to see discussed in the coming months, and I’ll do my best to answer whatever questions you may have. See you again next week.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years.  He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics.  Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.