Western toad painting by Carl Dennis Buell

Birding and other pleasures and aggravations, in Berkeley and beyond, by Ron Sullivan.

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Li’l Beggars

One interesting bit about this time of year is that lots of birds have fledged at least the first batch of chicks. The adolescents of altricial species, in various stages of development but all on the wing, make it easy to find the birds. They generally have only the barest clue about how to get food, including food that’s directly in front of them. They seem not to have the neurological wiring connected, quite, to respond to hunger by picking up food, never mind actually catching it. Hunger still cues the holler-for-food-and-open-beak reflex.

They follow their parents around, begging loudly, and you can generalize a bit even between species about what the begging call sounds like. It’s almost always irritating, shrill, constant, and whiny. “Daaaaad! DAAA-aaaad! DEYAAAD! Daaaaad! Hey Daaaaad!” You can hear the subtext: “Gimme the CAAAAARRRRR keys, huh Dad, huh Dad?? PLEEEEEEEze?” The kids look frazzled because they’re barely fledged and often still have that broad nestling gape; the parents look frazzled because they are.

One interesting exception we saw in Sibley park a few weeks ago was a couple of wrentits with one chick, in the bare lower stems of a coyotebush by the path. Wrentits can be quite easy to see if you’re lucky, and impossible otherwise. They’re cryptic and skulky, but like rails they seem to assume that you can’t see them if they act normally. Most of the time they’re right, and when you can see them they’re in the middle of some impenetrable brush anyway.

This chick was clearly begging—following persistently, doing the stereotype bird beg: wings down and fluttering, tail cocked—but in complete silence. Never a peep out of anybody. Now there’s a complete and hardwired strategy of inconspicuousness.

The golden eagle pair was still there, by the way, hanging out on the antenna tower. So was the maze someone lined out in the quarry digging where we got married. Also rufous-crowned sparrows (with begging young, too) and lazuli buntings and a flock of white pelicans gliding over, catching a thermal, sailing off to the South Bay.

dingbatPosted by Ron Sullivan | Comments are closed

Short one

Phrase of the week, from gawker.com:

“After a week of dead Reagan (“Ronnui”)...”

dingbatPosted by Ron Sullivan | Comments are closed

Mount Diablo

Last Friday we took a quick jaunt to Mount Diablo, hoping for bitterroot. That was long gone, but there were still both yellow and white calochortus blooming in an otherwise dry-grass meadow, and of course monkeyflower, and penstemon, columbine, golden eardrops, a red larkspur, and Clarkia concinna. I bent to sniff one of those and, oddly, got nothing, but a few steps farther got hit with a blast of that nice scent, a little like carnation, from a patch in the sun. There was also a senecio that belongs there, Senecio aronicoides, which I figured was a senecio mostly because of the leaf shape. And an odd little tubular thing Joe keyed out as Collinsia tinctoria, so called because its leaves can stain your hands red. Not much danger of that, as it barely had leaves at all.

We did see a couple of whiptail lizards—one foraging in the brush, one following us. That was odd; I looked back on the path—we were on the Fire Interpretive Trail just below the summit—and saw this figure running after us as if we’d forgotten a hat or change or something it urgently needed to give us. RunrunrunStop. Look around. RunrunrunStop. Repeat. It finally veered off the path about ten-fifteen feet from where we stood, into the brush, never actually appearing startled.

“It” because not necessarily “she”—this was a California whiptail, Cnemidophorus tigris mundus, one of the whiptail species that have two sexes. We’ve seen them before on Diablo.

There were blue-gray gnatcatchers at a couple of spots: near the Muir Picnic Area and on a trail we took by mistake below the summit. We also heard thrashers a couple of times, and saw one singing in a treetop just below Muir: score a bit like a half-hearted mockingbird, voice a little more baritone, and liquid. We kept hearing swifts but not seeing them, which I suppose means they were flying sunward of us—it was a bright and blinding day. Redtails and turkey vultures, cliff and violet-green swallows, Anna’s hummers, the usual suspects. I joked about ordering up a prairie falcon after the gnatcatchers and thrasher—and on the way home, on a big fat expressway running through/past San Ramon, there was a big pale-ish falcon with black wingpits fighting the wind over the median plantings. OK, well, I’ll settle for one of those wherever it chooses to turn up.

The bugs were good too—besides the flowers I mentioned, the chaparral shrubs were blooming, mostly the yerba santa. (The clematis had gone to glossy mopheads.) The posies were alive with bee and fly traffic, and multiple butterfly species: blues, skippers, hairstreaks (maybe hedgerow hairstreak?), California sisters, whites. Also multiple bees, which I won’t attempt to ID yet other than that some looked like bumblebees. At the summit, just at the foot of the lookout tower, there’s a patch of ground with sparse vegetation. A multispecies mob of butterflies zipped and fluttered around—pale, western tiger, and anise swallowtails, skippers, and something that looked a lot like a checkerspot but Joe ID’d as a callipe fritillary. The swallowtails and fritillary were doing this odd maneuver in various combinations: a pair would spiral each other up 20 feet or so, bat at each others’ wings, swoop down singly to near ground in a dramatic, hawk-style stoop. Pretty damned stylish, actually.

From the lookout, we could dimly see the bit of the Delta where the levee break was flooding Bacon Island.

dingbatPosted by Ron Sullivan | Comments are closed

Yard Bird

Late yesterday afternoon, at the back door, looking out at the row of little trees by the fence, I see a goldfinch… No, it’s an oriole. An adult female hooded oriole, in fact. John, a birder who lives a few blocks north of us, had mentioned seeing them in his yard. They’re supposed to be a lot rarer here than northern/Bullock’s orioles, but every now and then we see one. It must have been 15 years ago that we found a nest, not in a thatch palm where they’re s’posed to be found, but in a curbside sycamore that got cut down the next year for a school expansion. Last year or the year before, we had a trio of juvie males come through, scoping out the hummingbird feeder maybe.

Like them, this one came and went—spoke not a word but flew over the house and disappeared. Early for the kids to be all fledged; I wonder if there’s a nest somewhere close. However, we haven’t heard any orioles singing here this Spring. Maybe they nest earlier than the Bullock’s orioles out on Mines Road.

Once upon a time, hooded orioles were rare enough to show up on the Rare Bird Alert—we took buses over to some palm in San Francisco years ago and were excited when our patience gave us first looks at the bird, a bit out of normal range but nesting. Now I wonder if they’re slipping in, adapting to cities, getting local.

dingbatPosted by Ron Sullivan | Comments are closed


The contents of the Little Rock storage locker arrived Tuesday. By a miracle of muscle and puzzle-working, the two Bekins guys (Freddy, Armadillo Trucking of Amarillo, Texas and his local helper Jose) fit everything into a 10x20 storage space. There was a liberal seasoning of imported Arkansas dust over most of it—still, after being loaded and unloaded at least twice.

Joe’s mother—maybe his father, too; I don’t know who was in charge of this—evidently never threw away anything. Five years ago, when we packed this stuff into the LR space and moved his mother here, we found a big trashbag fill of pillbottles. Empty, and too recent to be “collectibles”—just carefully collected. We gave away lots of small appliances, bed and bath linens (there’d been a tornado a few months before and people were still recovering), some furniture, books, bedsprings (disposed of the mattresses), empty bottles and such, houseplants, clothing… Stuff. We shipped more clothing and a roomful of furniture and necessaries, including books and tchotchkes, out here; Joe’s mother lived in assisted living, then a skilled-nursing home, where she had more space than most such places offer for her personal stuff.

We stored stuff we couldn’t get rid of and stuff we didn’t have the heart to get rid of while she watched and stuff we wanted to think about before giving away. I think there were a few things we should’ve saved, like Joe’s toys from very early childhood; some of them are probably worth money to collectors. Goodwill in Little Rock, or its customers, made a killing on that.

Now it’s here. There was no point trying to go through it thoroughly there; we just had the whole thing moved. Bekins tags and numbers every piece… including the set of empty new plastic storage shoeboxes, nested carefully. We’d ended the move-out spree by throwing some stuff into the storage unit in desperation and panic; we had a plane to catch.

So the It that’s here includes a couple of recliners, several hassocks (one round and pea-green) and a really ugly Hide-A-Bed sofa, also green, the late 50s-early 60s style with pointy legs. Between this and the other storage unit, we now own six rocking chairs.

(We don’t exactly have a cat, but there’s one who’s trying to move in. I think I’ve found a deterrent—a roomful of rocking chairs. Now we just need a room.)

In that other storage unit are the furniture that wouldn’t fit in the skilled-nursing joint, plus a chair, some baskets, superannuated bookcases and such, and lots of our own books and periodicals.

We now own a 1940s ventriloquist’s dummy, one oar (OK, to be fair, I guess it’s a canoe paddle) and two boxes of fishing lures, several side tables handmade by Joe’s grandfather at least a hundred years ago, several chairs that don’t rock (except one that would rock once and fall over because a leg got broken in transit), a sewing machine and its cabinet, an Army uniform and two footlockers of V-mail, a globe from, oh, late 50s-early 60s (I wonder what extinct nations are on it), some odd bookcases, three beds, three chests of drawers, a gateleg table I can’t account for, one secretary desk (made by grandfather, I think, now painted an unfortunate but changeable shade of green), some great big lamps with flowers painted on them, many pictures but I’ve forgotten of what, at least two sets of dishes (one of which I know to be broken in the first move), a shell collection and a trophy largemouth bass, a barometer, five or six trunks with contents we don’t know or have forgotten, and somewhere in there… somewhere... an autographed sketch of Pogo.

The next six months are going to be like Christmas, but with more dust.

We live in a smallish flat, the upstairs half of a duplex. We’re already cramped, partly because we have lots of books, most of which we actually use. That gateleg table’s too small for a dining table, which is the one piece of furniture I’d replace cheerfully. And I don’t want to get rid of this stuff either, except for the green sofa and a hassock or two. (We’ll keep the needlepoint footstool.)

Thanks to a friend, I also now own a pair of Belgian linen and lace toast cozies. Toast, not toaster. Friend asked an antiques dealer what they were, having inherited them. Oh, said the dealer, those are to put over a slice of toast in the rack, one each. I am in awe that such a thing exists, and told her so, and when we got back from Arkansas there they were in the stack of mail.

I have no least inclination to get rid of them either—they’re pretty, and I like lace, and it pleases me obscurely to own a pair of toast cozies.

So now I’m worrying. Is the thing that made Joe’s mother keep those pill bottles contagious? Or am I acquiring some weird gravity that draws stuff like toast cozies and vintage ventriloquist’s dummies to me, and gets them stuck? Does it, in some way, serve me right?

dingbatPosted by Ron Sullivan | Comments are closed

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