Photo of the Week – Dueling Hawks

A Northern Harrier dives at a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk perched by Arcata Marsh’s brackish pond.

During the winter, the wetlands of Humboldt Bay and their surrounding fields come alive with raptor activity. Drawn by the plentiful shorebirds, waterfowl and voles, hawks and falcons frequently patrol the landscape for their next meal. White-tailed Kites and Northern Harriers hunt within fairly limited ranges, returning to the same areas predictably during the peak activity of their prey. Flying lower and more slowly than most raptors, harriers search for birds and rodents using both their keen eyes and their owl-like hearing mechanisms.

Red-shouldered Hawks are less predictable, often hunting and roosting in different spots from day to day. Although they usually choose favorite perches by their different hunting grounds, these hawks typically will not aggressively defend a territory unless provoked.

A crow comes in for a close look at a Red-shouldered Hawk over Arcata Marsh’s log pond

Northern Harriers, on the other hand, won’t hesitate to chase off a perceived competitor if they think they have an advantage. A harrier can’t match the speed or maneuverability of an adult Red-shoulder Hawk, but the juvenile pictured above appears as both a nuisance and an easy target to the marsh’s resident raptor.

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Photo of the Week – Black Phoebe

A Black Phoebe yawns on its perch while waiting for insects to emerge over the Arcata Salt Marsh.

These small songbirds feed almost exclusively on insects and spiders, making short flights from a favored perch to grab prey off the ground, the water’s surface or out of the air. Native to the western coasts of temperate and tropical North and South America, they are usually spotted perched low over water. Here, one makes quick work of a passing damselfly in the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary:

When it comes time to nest, a male Black Phoebe will approach a female and display by hovering near her and chasing her if she moves away. If the female accepts, the male will scout out potential nesting locations and show them off to his mate by fanning his tail and zig-zagging or spiraling upward next to a cliff face or the eves of a building. The female makes the final decision about where the nest will be built; after a male’s display, she will accept or reject the location, and they will move on to the next potential site if necessary. When a nesting site is chosen, the pair will construct mud shell lined with vegetation, similar to that of a Cliff Swallow, where they will tend up to six eggs.

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Photo of the Week – Black Oystercatcher

A Black Oystercatcher enjoys the contents of a mussel on the rocky shores of César Chávez Park on the edge of San Francisco Bay.

These shore-dwelling birds occupy rocky portions of North America’s Pacific coast, ranging from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to Baja California. Their entire population is estimated to be only 8,900-11,000 individuals due to their limited feeding grounds. Although they are not considered a threatened species, they are monitored as an indicator of habitat health. Feeding primarily on mussels and limpets, they can be identified by their dark plumage (which is entirely black on the northern end of their range and a mixture of black and brown toward the southern end), their long, thick, red beak and their yellow eyes.

Black Oystercatchers sporting brown feathers below the neck at Monterrey Bay

Black Oystercatchers are one of only a few birds that feature eye flecks: pigmented portions of the iris adjacent to the pupil. While it’s unclear whether they provide any functional benefits for the eye, they seem to be a display of sexual dimorphism. Female oystercatchers tend to have larger and more clearly defined eye flecks than their male counterparts.

A likely female Black Oystercatcher with a large eye fleck

They can be located by their piercing, persistent calls as they browse mussel beds during low tide.

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Photo of the Week – A Well-fed Tree Frog

After a large meal on the forest floor, a Pacific tree frog struggles to right itself while climbing back into the forest undergrowth.

Normally heard more often than seen while taking cover in foliage, leaf litter or under fallen logs, these small frogs are now venturing into the open in Humboldt County to take advantage of a seasonal food source. The normally reclusive wood boring beetles are out in large numbers looking for mates, and they make an irresistible meal for a frog.

Wood boring beetles mating on the forest floor in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

The Pacific tree frog is capable of eating prey nearly as large as itself, which these wood-boring beetles are. The frog’s body will expand to accommodate larger meals, as pictured above, which will be digested over the course of several days. With their appetite for insects and relatively plentiful numbers in the western states, Pacific tree frogs act as a keystone species in much of their range, stabilizing populations of their prey and providing food for snakes, birds and predatory mammals.

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Photo of the Week – Snowy Egrets Quarreling

As the tide recedes, millions of gallons of water flow out of the mouth of McDaniel Slough, leaving behind expanses of mudflats covered in salty channels and pools. The few conduits of deep water remaining ripple with schools of smelt and draw in several predator species. Snowy Egrets start to arrive in small groups, and soon form a large flock. They’re not after the smelt, though; they stake out territory in the shallower waters, sometimes bickering over the choicest spots.

In addition to their quick reflexes, the Snowy Egrets have a unique hunting technique at their disposal. Patrolling the shallow channels, they shuffle their legs back and forth, jabbing their bright yellow feet into the mud to scare out fish. Any fish that leave the protection of the mud quickly fall prey to the egrets, with their escape routes limited by the low tide.

Out of the many fish and marine invertebrates that inhabit Humboldt Bay’s tidal wetlands, this flock of egrets overwhelmingly prefers the three-spined stickleback. Each bird can gobble up as many as five of these small fish per minute.

A Snowy Egret holds a freshly-caught stickleback in its beak

As many as two dozen Snowy Egrets will show up to fish on the calm waters of the McDaniel Slough tidal wetlands, usually staying in groups so that they can nab fish stirred up by their neighbors as well as the ones they have rooted out themselves. Their fish-scaring dances, lighting-fast strikes, occasional squabbles and bright white feathers reflecting off the surface can make for quite a spectacle.

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