Toad in the Hole

May 28, 2005

There Goes the Neighborhood

Late-morning low-tide trip down to Hayward Regional Shoreline to not see the black terns that are reputed to be hanging out with the Forster'seses there.

The Forsters' were taking turns doing noisy, V-winged display flights and making casual rude remarks at us. There were a few ducks -- gadwalls, mallards, and late-staying canvasbacks. Willets, godwits, curlews, avocets, stilts mucking around in the muck all around, but the peep and such seem to have moved on. Two marsh wrens hidden and singing in some unpromising veg near the pond where a lot of big shorebirds (and do I remember the black skimmers there a few years ago?) used to nest; I think it's too overgrown for those now, but there were ducks sitting here and there.

A few egrets, including one snowy doing the stir-up mud shuffle and grabbing little things that surfaced, mostly invisible. I did see a half-inch fish-shaped fish in its bill, and some gloopy worm thing it grabbed from the bank. A couple of Canada goose families, with 11 goslings of different ages: all had their black heads and necks and white chinstraps, but were otherwise in various states of fuzziness. Barn and cliff swallows, song sparrows overhead and underfoot.

No hawks, come to think of it, or even vultures, which is odd. We did see a jackrabbit and a vole, a few ground squirrels.

The painted ladies have hatched, the generation planted here by that great migration we saw starting out in Death Valley in March. They were flying around us in ones, twos, threes, fours, the occasional half-dozen, mostly looking very fresh though there was one that looked seriously pale, battered and frayed. One that we got a fix on was a West Coast lady; the rest looked like painteds or like orange blurs. We also had a bunch of large marbles... OK, Large Marbles. Take a second look at those apparent cabbage whites and wow, different! They have very handsome greenish-yellow markings on the under hindwings, and subtle marblings dorsally. They obliged us by sitting down to nectar on straggly wild mustard flowers by the path.

Returning on that path, trying in vain to Walk Briskly for the exercise, I noticed an odd blackbird on a bit of cyclone fence. In fact, it was a great-tailed grackle, the first one either of us has seen in Alameda County or even near it. It got chased off the fence, disappeared over the bank near the visitor center. When we caught up to it, we saw there were three males and uh-oh, a female in the pickleweed.

The female flew up off the weed, and was immediately attacked and chased over the building and for some yards beyond by noisy, indignant barnswallows. Lots of them, and boy were they yelling. One of the male grackles went with her. She came back a few minutes later and was chased again, in a different direction.

Grackles are nest predators. Swallows chase crows, too, as we saw. Interesting generalization, or maybe bitter experience.

The remaining two males kept poking around in the pickleweed. As we walked toward the car, we noticed a stilt sitting on what looked like a nest near them, and adding bits of vegetation to it as she sat. She piped at us of course.Stilts are kind of high-strung. A male stilt nearby piped too. (Ever been yelled at by multiple stilts? They're pretty impressive en masse.) We moved along, so as not to make her more nervous, and the male walked over toward the two grackles and scolded them roundly.

Great-tailed grackles seem to be extending their range toward us. A few years ago we ran into one in the parking lot of the In 'n' Out by the Kettleman City exit on I-5, which is considerably south of here. I'm a bit apprehensive about this.

When I first met the species, in Texas in 1980, it gave me a turn. We were poking around in some wildlife refuge, along a long row of tall shrubs with a gravel road on the other side, and maybe some sort of water-regulating equipment in a cinderblock hut. This noise was emanating from the bushes. It sounded like something eating a large-model Xerox machine while the latter was running. I was sure we'd stumbled across the Real Machinery that ran the place, that the whole state of Texas was a sort of Disney animatronics ride. I'm still not sure I was wrong about that.

When we tracked it, it turned out to be a great-talied grackle doing some Texas-style display. (Add a sound like running your thumb over a deck of cards, to what you hear there in the soundfile. Besides hollering, he was riffing his feathers, to great effect.)

We saw a male cowbird at the shoreline too today, and there are lots of crows, ravens, jays, and other nest predators around already. Arguably at least the cowbirds don't belong here -- they followed our cattle herds and general disturbances, and many of the local birds are still defenseless against them. And now the Dread Texas Steam Grackle. Where did I put those earplugs?

Posted at May 28, 2005 05:26 AM

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