Birding Field Notes – Tulocay Cemetery 12/28

Lesser goldfinches surround a finch sock, thoughtfully placed near a headstone by someone’s mourning relative.

It’s been raining for days, and this morning was projected to be the coldest recorded temperatures of the year, plus I had a low-grade fever yesterday, but the birds were calling to me. When I left the house, it was 39F, but with no wind and no rain, it looked to be a nice morning for birding.

At the cemetery, I always start at the back fence by the Cayatano Natural Burial Ground. The more natural landscaping of deciduous oak attracts all kinds of year-round species like oak titmice, Bewick’s wrens, and Anna’s hummingbirds. From the metallic, grating song echoing out from the mile-high eucalyptus trees across the fence line, a twinkle of hummingbirds must be nearby. Multiple individuals were flitting around the treetops, chasing each other like miniscule torpedoes on a mission. Hard to keep count when they’re moving that fast! 8…9…11? At the bottom of the incline, a black phoebe was perched on a tuft of grass. Delicate for a mid-sized flycatcher, it swooped from tuft to tuft as though practicing for a Blue Angels display.

A red-shouldered hawk perches warily atop an evergreen tree.

I lost track of how many crows I saw, but at one point there was a murder of at least 90 swarming a red-shouldered hawk. The hawk had taken up watch atop a conifer and just wanted to be left alone. I’m sure it’s used to the harassment by now, though. For the last couple of years, a pair of red-shoulders has claimed the cemetery as their territory, but that hasn’t stopped the hordes of crows, who also claim the land, from fighting back.

Yellow-rumped warbler posing for the camera

The best part of winter, in my opinion, are the warblers and sparrows that overwinter in the moderate climates of the Napa Valley. Although this winter has proven chillier than usual, plenty of the expected visitors arrived in the fall. Oodles of yellow-rumped warblers popped back and forth between olive and oak trees, while oodles more picked about on the ground with chittering dark-eyed juncos. The Oregonian sub-species of juncos with their dark heads, brown backs, and buff-colored sides blend in with the deciduous tree detritus, while the warblers, with their bright yellow behinds and flanks and striking white eye rings stick out above the leaves and grass. No pine siskins to be found among these “snowbirds.” Usually by December, the siskins have well established themselves in the neighborhood. I saw one flock three days ago, the first, and possibly last, of the season.

Townsend’s warbler in an oak tree

Hiding among a flock of lesser goldfinches foraging in an oak tree, I found a Townsend’s Warbler. These masked bug bandits are nearly year-round in Napa. Sightings range from early August to late May, but I’ve only ever personally seen them during fall and winter. I found a second little “Townie” in another oak tree across the cemetery campus.

A second Townsend’s warbler in a different oak tree

Ruby-crowned kinglets buzzed around every tree. One was even bold enough to forage on the ground with a group of golden-crowned sparrows and California towhees. It seemed so small and out of place compared to the chunky sparrows that I thought at first it was a goldfinch looking for sowthistle seeds. Among the buzzing, I heard a high, two-note whistle, indicating that a brown creeper was near. As I scanned the tree trunks, I saw not one, but two creepers scaling the bark. They camouflaged perfectly. Their vaguely rusty tails and white bellies were the only giveaway. Well, that and the fact that trees don’t usually shimmy.

Brown creeper perfectly camouflaged

I had seen several mourning doves throughout my walk, including a large flock that I inadvertently kept flushing out of every tree they landed in. They just happened to be heading in the same direction I was going! At the end of the loop, there were two doves perched peacefully next to a headstone, as if remembering someone. It was an old, gray headstone from the early 1900s, for a couple and their son. Perhaps these birds were somehow spiritually connected to that family, a sweet reminder that the gone are never quite gone.

Two mourning doves mourning

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