Weeding the Newbies
Saturday December 16 was another Native Plant Stewardship Day in the park, the eleventh such outing of the year. Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Coordinator Bob Huttar led a team of experienced volunteers in tending to the botanical newbies that we put in the ground on November 4, as well as older plantings where needed. Jutta Burger, Helen Canin, Carlene Chang, Clyde Crosswhite, Carol Denney, and Marty Nicolaus were among the hands-on caretakers. The main task was removing the encroaching weeds. The ground being wet from recent rains, the weeds were easier to pull or chop out. We then spread wood chips as mulch in a ring around the new plants to discourage the weeds from coming back. “The plants look good. We had a successful day,” summed up Bob.
Rains Let Up for Winter Solstice
It rained all week but the sun came back on Thursday Dec. 21 in time for the Winter Solstice gathering in the park. The sun and clouds combined to perform one of the memorable sunsets of the year:
The retired and the current heads of the Planetarium at the Lawrence Hall of Science, Alan Gould and Bryan Mendez, shared presentation duties. Alan handed out copies of Sky Challenger, a paper device that showed what constellations were visible at what location in the sky at any given date and time. Bryan talked about Stonehenge and other ancient monuments with astronomical significance, and described the Greek and Roman winter celebrations that preceded Christmas. Both answered questions from the audience, which numbered about three dozen at peak. The weather was good for medium jackets and the wind was still.
Geese Gone But Not Too Far
By convention, geese fly in a V formation. These hadn’t got the memo and chose to fly in a U. They headed northeast over the Bay and disappeared from view in the gray skies. They were too high and too far for me to get a closeup for a positive ID. They were probably Canada geese but I couldn’t be sure.
They were not likely headed for the far north at this time of year. They probably had in mind a spot in the nearby delta like Staten Island Road where flooded grain fields after harvest offer forage and shelter.
Method in Mismatch
This pair of American Wigeon kept company with a small flock of Scaup that hung around off the northeast corner of the park. There may have been method to this mismatch. Wigeons feed on submerged vegetation, but they are dabblers, not divers. Where the vegetation is in deeper water, they can’t get to it. But Scaup can. Scaup are expert divers. Wigeons are notorious thieves. They’ll be best friends with diving ducks and, as those emerge from a dive with greenery in their bill, the Wigeons are on them and steal it right out of their beak. The Scaup are either very generous or not too bright to put up with this larceny.
I thought that it took bright sunshine to bring out the neon magenta flare on the head and neck of the male Anna’s Hummingbird. On a day with heavy overcast this week, I learned differently.
This Anna’s perched on a bare tree in the south apron of the Native Plant Area, a spot where I’ve seen the bird many times. As I filmed it, I noticed that the bird’s normally black hood often flared out in bright pink spots, and on a couple of occasions its whole head and gorge lit up, as shown in the photo, left. Not a single photon from the sun hit the bird directly; it was all filtered through layers of clouds.
A few days later when the sun came out, I saw the same bird in the same spot and filmed it again, with high expectations. Nope. Not even a tiny hint of pink. With direct sunshine, the angle of illumination is very critical and narrow. With diffuse lighting on an overcast day, photons are bouncing around and coming from many angles, upping the odds of tipping a magenta flareup. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.
Some Other Birds Seen In the Park This Week
Put cursor or finger over image to see identifying caption.
Not Seen in the Park This Week
The latest date on record that a Burrowing Owl has arrived in the park is December 20. That date is past now and no Burrowing Owl has come to spend the season here. The only owl sighting was a matter of a few minutes in dense fog on December 4, reported here.
No one can safely predict what individual birds will do, and it’s still remotely possible that an owl will come and settle here for what’s left of the winter season. Fingers crossed. But the odds are now very small, and it’s time to face that we are in a repeat of the zero-owl winter of 2017-2018.
The Parks staff, on the advice of an outside organization, clearcut the perimeter of the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary this past September. All of the tall Fennel bushes that had provided cover and some shade for a resident owl were slashed to the ground. This radical devastation of the owls’ familiar winter habitat is, in my opinion, the main reason why no owl chose to settle here. The owl we have seen here for the past three years probably came in October, took a look at the wrecked habitat, and decided to settle in Pt. Isabel instead. If we want to see owls here next winter, the habitat needs to grow back. And the substandard ornamental fence needs to be replaced by an effective boundary. If we do not do these things, we do not deserve to play host to Burrowing Owls.
One positive note: After the winter of 2017-18, the owls came back. Stronger than ever. See the movie on YouTube, “The Owls Came Back.”