Dodging dive-bombing Swallows and Hawk Poop – Field Notes 6/4/2022

Years ago, the City of Napa launched a Riparian restoration project to bring back some of the crucial habitats destroyed by development along the Napa River. This led to the creation of two parks along the edge of town, Trancas Crossing and the Oxbow Preserve. Both feature a grassy middle, a 1-mile long paved trail about 20 feet from the river, and protected, natural environments along the river’s edge. I’ve gone often to Trancas Crossing, where you have a better chance of getting a peek at the local otter family and wood ducks, but I still prefer the quiet refuge of the Oxbow Preserve.

The path here at the Oxbow is shaded by old oaks, and there is a sandy spit along one bend in the river that usually hosts all sorts of waterfowl and shorebirds. Just last week, there was a family of Canada geese with six, week-old goslings running in and out of the water, and a pair of common mergansers loafing about on a log just offshore. A gully in the middle of the park hosts a thicket of vegetation that is home to several species of woodpecker and the elusive spotted towhee.

On this day, it was overcast. We were expecting rain later in the evening, so I got up early to check out the local bird activity. I had hoped to see at least one of the three pairs of downy woodpeckers, that I had spotted previously, and planned to check up on an in-progress Anna’s hummingbird nest that should have been in incubation mode by now.

My first stop after arriving to the roundabout parking lot was a pair of ancient oaks that typically host small songbirds, jays, and acorn woodpeckers. It was quiet, and not much activity was to be found in these old trees, save for a single California towhee chip-chipping along. I spotted movement high in a eucalyptus along the edge of the park. A raven kept watch while some young starlings chittered and chased each other. They were still in their dull brown baby plumage with dark beaks, easily mistaken for other new-world blackbird species. In the same tree, there were three hooded orioles. The male and I ended up on a similar path, and it felt for a moment like I had a new friend. Although I got a good look at him, he wouldn’t sit still long enough for a photo.

Next stop was the hummingbird nest. The nest was fully built, a round cup of moss and spiderwebbing barely about half the size of a tennis ball. There was a second nest just inches from the first. Unfortunately, Mama didn’t seem to be around and, from where I could view them, both nests looked empty. Here’s a what it looked like last week when Mama was still in construction mode:

On the other side of the gully is woodpecker territory, but the woodpeckers were not nearly as active as I’d hoped. The Downies were hiding (or more likely incubating), but a Nuttall’s woodpecker showed off for me, rattling and flying from tree to tree. There were at least 20 finches in this area also, plus a spotted towhee and a family of fledgling scrub jays. Those feisty, blue babies’ begging calls sound like hungry velociraptors!

On this excursion, I finally found the red-shouldered hawk nest, although it was too far away for photos. The mated pair have two favorite perches inside the Oxbow preserve:

The nest is across the river from the more secluded perch, towards the top of a mature eucalyptus tree. It’s far enough to be outside of the preferred hunting ground, but still within sightlines, and is surprising close to human habitation. The tree is next to a complex of high-end apartments. Those lucky people on the second floor get to see the miracle of nature every day! The second parent was in the nest with a single chick, who looked about half the size of the adult. This pair has lived here for years, and I was so excited to finally find the nest.

Too fast for my slow photography skills to capture, three species of swallows dove across the field and the river. The majority were violet-green swallows, which I believe have nests in the preserve, although I haven’t found any. There were also a handful of cliff swallows coming over from their colony underneath the 1st Street bridge. But the real surprise were the northern rough-winged swallows. They are short-term visitors, sticking around only April-July. I later discovered rough-wing fledglings across the river at the cliff swallow colony and concluded that there must be a few burrows in the muddy banks of the river.

I’ll be going back soon to check on the hawk chick! Very few red-shoulder nests are reported in Northern California via NestWatch, so the data doesn’t necessarily show how prolific these birds are to the area. They’re everywhere! Although, it’s quite possible that they get misidentified as red-tailed hawks by casual observers.

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