Showdown at San Crainte Creek

It’s early, 5:00 am. Earlier than the sounds of cars whooshing down the street outside my window. Earlier than the voices of neighborhood mothers lassoing their children in from the street, the voices of commuters greeting each other, the soft thud of their car doors. About the only sound I hear is birdsong, This morning, the song is hardly a song and the lead singer isn’t a songbird, but a Cooper’s hawk — keh! keh! keh! keh! keh! And again, keh! keh! keh!. Then sounded the faint yet piercing begging call of the juvenile, something like the squeal of a rusty hinge.

Both the adult female hawk and a female juvenile were in my yard yesterday morning. First was the juvenile perched classically on top of the arbor, posed as if by design, regal and calm, watching the cautious finches. I say cautious because they weren’t altogether gone, out of the area, just subdued, warily watching the young hawk. She didn’t seem in a rush to find breakfast, just as the finches weren’t in a frenzy to decamp. But they stayed aloof in the birch fronds, not venturing to the feeder.

Then, suddenly, the hawk was alert, attention riveted on a movement on the deck just outside the back window. The deck is bordered by 3-foot high latticed wood panels, and behind the diagonal slats of the panel, a California grey ground squirrel had ventured onto the deck and was moving stealthily among the forest of container plants. The hawk was in the air and in one swift glide was within inches of the squirrel—but on the other side of the lattice. The young hawk dropped to the flowerbed just as the adult hawk appeared, gliding to the rim of a weathered wine barrel flower pot near the younger hawk. The older hawk watched as the young Coopie made several unsuccessful attempts to reach the squirrel through the slats. If the older hawk had any correctives to make to the young hawk’s hunting trials, she wasn’t revealing them.

Meanwhile, a red fox squirrel descended the trunk of the birch tree and foraged seeds underneath the feeder as if it hadn’t a care in the world, even thought the adult hawk was scarcely ten feet away. Apparently, a tree squirrel is too large a prey for a Cooper’s hawk, which is a medium sized raptor usually preying on small birds, mice, and lizards. A centuries-old detente has no doubt developed between the fox squirrel and the Cooper’s. But then, as if to put the lie to my assumption, the squirrel shot like a bottle rocket across the yard, making a beeline for the ash tree in back. The hawk as quickly gave pursuit and was only a split second behind the fleeing squirrel until I lost sight of them in the profusion of ivy at the far end of the yard. The squirrel emerged unscathed moments later, scaling the trunk of the ash as if it were just another day at the office. And then, the mother hawk was gone into the valley oaks above the creek.

The young hawk, during all the excitement, had taken up her mother’s perch on the rim of the old wine barrel and was preening herself. She then settled into a quiet stance, calmly watching the finches who were now chancing darting visits to grab a seed and dash away. They weren’t deterred but neither did they dawdle for long on the perch as they normally would. The hawk watched with a studied insouciance, as if she couldn’t be bothered to exert herself for her breakfast. But then she was up and the game with the ground squirrel was on again. After a few exhausting attempts, she returned to the wine barrel perch to meditate. The squirrel ventured out into the open on the deck and stood on its haunches, ramrod straight, taking in the mood of the hawk from relative safety behind the slats.

Finally, after a few minutes, the squirrel scampered over to a cloth mat in the center of the deck, in full view of the hawk. The squirrel lazily stretched and yawned as if it were a morning at the beach and it was time to get up for a quick swim. It’s called “pandiculation,” a full-body stretch, what a cat does dozens of times in the course of a day, forelegs thrust forward and flat against the ground, rump in the air, a yawn, a shudder, and then a stretch forward and done. It keeps a cat limber, but I’d never seen a squirrel enact it. Was he readying himself for a mad dash? I never found out. The squirrel slowly advanced to the first stoop of the deck and turned to face the hawk, now only a few feet away. The hawk turned and there was a brief stare down. Then she raised her wings, was aloft, and made an easy glide to the arm of a dark green lawn chair on the far side of the yard.

The entire scene seemed to me to have been nothing more than play. No serious intent on the part of the hawk to catch a meal and no real concern on the part of the squirrel to avoid becoming such. And yet, there was an encounter, an interaction, a bemused awareness on the part of both. Each saw and acknowledged the other, but the narrative ended there. I’ve seen many attempts on the part of the Cooper’s hawks in our neighborhood over the past few years, but no direct kills. I’ve seen the remains of kills beneath the feeder and around the yard. And once, as I lay in bed early one morning, the back window of our two-story house in Oakland framing the giant live oaks in the backyard, I watched as a slow downy snow of feathers floated down past the window. A Coopie eating a woodpecker on the branch just above the window.

Which all leads me to believe that most attempts at a kill fall short. But the theatre of predator and prey is about more than the kill. “For my sake,” the hawk seems to say in a tongue unfathomable to us, “be quick, be wary. Keep me forever the beautiful essence of hawk. Help me preserve my magnificence with your own.”

Ascent After Rain

After the first November rain, sun. Vapor rises from warmed wet wood. Amid the slow whirls of vapor, slender black insects are also beckoned upward by the sun. Their white wings light up like paper lanterns. The angle and direction of their ascent is precise, slow, and uniform, miniature drifting squadrons headed to some distant island. Steady and determined, they enact their slow rapture. Most don’t reach heaven. My field guide indicates that they are winged termites, but they seem as harmless as angels. Fragile as white ash, in fact, and as impermanent.

When the sun hides, the insects descend, as if they run out of power. They mill around their hole in the Earth like terriers after prey. Each time they rise, yellow-rumped warblers appear out of nowhere. Butter-butts, birders call them. Their flight is acrobatic, swift, deadly. They snatch the slowly-rising insects, often several in one pass. Slender fluttering forms pass through warbler maws into the starless night of gullets. Imagine the birds after sundown, the inner candle of digestion warming them on hidden branches. Their eyes shine with the whirr of tiny lanterns within.

Warblers on night roosts

Dark eyes shining from the flame

Of a good day’s hunt.

Moods of a Mountain

This week the first heavy rains came to the Bay Area. This causes a stir of anticipation in me as I think about our local mountain. When the rains bring back the grasses, Mount Diablo begins to don a rich green shawl. The dormancy of summer ends this time of year and the transformation happens almost imperceptibly, a slow emerald spread across the flanks of the mountain. At its peak, in the clear, cool light of winter sunshine, the flare of green simmering on the mountain is magnificent.

When I first saw Mount Diablo in 1988, this fine green shawl was thrown over her shoulders. My landing area in California was in the East Bay hills near Mt. Diablo in Orinda Village. I lived in a former monastery. Outside the window of my room loomed a hillside made verdant by recent rains. It was evocative of the rolling hills of my native Midwest in spring. Except that, here in California, the rains come in winter.

Across San Francisco Bay is Mt. Diablo’s sister mountain, Mount Tampalpais. The two mountains are a study in contrasts. Mt. Diablo is drier, lighter, more open, and hot in summer. The habitat is primarily oak scrubland interspersed with coyote bush and the remnants of grazing land. Mt. Tam is dark, moist, cool, often fogbound, and shrouded with pine and redwoods. They could not be more different in temperament and personality.

I’ve been getting to know the temperament of both mountains over the past twenty-odd years after hours spent on their trails. But the changing moods of Mt. Diablo hold a special place in my heart. My sensitivity to those moods became more pronounced for me during the several years I commuted on the BART train between Oakland and Walnut Creek. When I stepped onto the platform at the beginning and end of each day, I was greeted by a clear view of the mountain. What I began to notice was that each day brought a unique hue, a changed aspect to the mountain. I began to realize that as stationary and permanent as mountains seem in contrast to our rushed and harried lives, they are anything but static and unchanging. They shape-shift in an un-ending dance of light, rock, plants, clouds, rain, and wind.

The color green reflects just one of Mt. Diablo’s many moods. The range seems to span the spectrum of a painter’s palette, from melancholy indigo to jubilant gold; from angry thunderhead grey to glowing amber; from sullen fog-bound to the washed ochre of summer; and everything in between. The green on Mt. Diablo is also the most ephemeral and brief of colors; its mood doesn’t last. But it wasn’t always so. Before cattle ranching overran the mountain, the green endured for much of the year. The native peoples, the Miwok and Ohlone, who believed the mountain to be the origin of creation, would have experienced a very different mountain, one that stayed green throughout much of the year. This is because the native grasses that populated Diablo’s flanks in pre-European times were well-adapted to the semi-arid climate. They had roots that grew far into the soil and so they retained their verdancy into the hot, dry summer. The grasses introduced by cattle ranchers grew fast and abundantly but had shallow root systems. Largely dominant on the mountain today, these invasive plants quickly dry up and go dormant in the summer heat.

Now, I’m perched high up on Sugarloaf, one of two ridges cradling my home on San Crainte Creek. I look at the ground at my feet and see that the rain is already summoning forth the first tender blades from their summer sleep. To the east, Mt. Diablo seems to simmer in anticipation, reflecting my own mood. Faint necklaces of emerald are beginning to glimmer on her flank. The season, however short, is imminent, and I’ll be here to witness its passage. Summer dormancy is an odd thing for a native midwesterner like myself. Winter is the dormant season in the Midwest, not summer. The dead grasses of summer in California lie down on the hills like the cover of snow in an Iowa winter. Plants go dormant here in order to endure the searing heat and dry air, instead of waiting out the bone-biting cold of a Midwest winter. In winter here, the rains coax the grasses from their slumber. In the Midwest, the rains do their conjuring in spring. To get some semblance of a Midwest winter, you have to go to the higher altitudes in California. The body knows what it knows and adjusts accordingly. Eventually. But not without some longing for what its known.

Return of the Condor

california-condor-flying-7 Gliding high above the Salinas Valley, they range as far as 100 miles in one day, venturing as far north as Livermore and as far south as Big Sur, where they join their sister flock. In the afternoon, they return to their home spires at Pinnacles National Park. If you sit quietly on the high trails, you can watch them loom in from the distant ocean, and the chill you feel comes not from the wind on the High Peaks trail, but from what their reappearance symbolizes—the tenuous return of a charismatic species from the clutches of oblivion. Few people are aware of their presence as they make their daily trip to Big Sur on the ocean. Most are unaware that if they looked up at the right time they might take in the sight of a dark-winged being that almost slipped away forever, joining the hosts of species already sent to extinction by human encroachment and greed. They would see a shape that passed its shadow over the wooly mammoths, dire wolves, sloths, and saber-toothed tigers of the Pleistocene epoch. They would be witnessing the unlikely presence of the last remaining giant from that time.

Condors soar not only in the rocky crags they call home, but in the far corners of our most primitive imagination. Not exactly the darlings of the Audubon crowd, they are nonetheless charismatic, and every bit as well-loved as the oriole for his orange cape and the hummingbird for her dazzling flight. This is in part because of their stunning size and ancient demeanor. Today, their rarity and their vulnerability account for the balance of their appeal.

We had spent the late morning and early afternoon scrambling up the Pinnacles’ west flank with the hope of sighting condors. We arrived at the height of wildflower display. We took in the blues and purples of lupine, hounds tongue, larkspur, baby blue eyes, and the yellows and oranges of buttercup, monkey flower, wallflower, and poppy. Well over 30 species of early spring wildflower teemed around us. Several sightings of turkey vultures drew momentary hopes of a condor. By mid-afternoon we had decided it would be a day memorable for wildflower profusion, but that we would be condor-less.

Of course, not two minutes after that concession, two condors suddenly appeared, soaring high above and distant, but unmistakable in their size and their under-wing markings. We waited, hoping for a return salvo, but had to be content with a single brief sighting. Then, as we rounded a towering group of rock spires, we saw two more perched on the tip of a spire, then four, and then they were in the air, banking past rock faces and catapulting off and away over the valley and back again. Finally, there were six, then seven condors, joined by several of their smaller cousins, the turkey vultures. It was our time to be transfixed, to rest and watch as they took pass after pass, demonstrating the effortlessness of practiced flight.

The condor’s return is not ensured, but tenuous. As of 2016, their numbers have increased to over 400 from a brush with extinction, but they still face challenges to their survival. Not the least of these challenges is the continued use of lead shot in ammunition. Lead moves through the food chain and into the condor via a number of pathways. The following is adapted from the National Park Service website:

Numerous scientific studies have reached a consensus: lead poisoning is the biggest threat facing the successful recovery of the California condor. Semi-annual test results show that the majority of free-flying condors at Pinnacles National Park have blood lead levels exceeding the threshold used by the Center for Disease Control as an initial warning sign that a human child is at risk. By the time condors at Pinnacles reach breeding age of seven years, almost all of them have received emergency, life-saving chelation treatment at least once. Numerous condors in the flock now require multiple chelation cycles. Because condors feed on dead animals and are group feeders, even small amounts of lead can sicken or kill many condors. Since their meals come from dead animals, condors are more vulnerable to lead bullet hazards than most other wildlife. However, the condor is not the only species vulnerable to lead poisoning through ingestion of spent lead bullets and shell shot. Other wildlife species at risk include bald eagles, golden eagles, hawks, ravens, turkey vultures, and grizzly bears. More than 500 scientific studies published since 1898 have documented that worldwide, 134 species of wildlife are negatively affected by lead ammunition.
There are alternatives to lead shot, including steel, copper, and bismuth that are comparable in cost and ballistic properties. In October of 2013, a bill (AB711) banning lead ammunition for hunting statewide by 2019 passed the State Legislature, and was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown. The governor did the right thing. California is the first state to ban lead ammunition. Other states should follow suit to protect both wildlife and human health.   Continue reading