Often over recent weeks I have wandered the woods near my home, tending to my various paths and trails, and watching the progress of the bloom. The Old Railroad Grade(s) up on top of Moody Ridge have proved an interesting challenge; I have mapped a few of them, but they have been so often cut by more recent logging roads, that it begins to take a healthy dose of imagination to see them at all. Ah, the old railroad grades.
But atop the ridge: In that crowded umpteenth-growth coniferous forest, often dominated by White Fir and Incense Cedar, there is quite an abundance of Rattlesnake Orchids, not in bloom yet, and not much to write home about when they are in bloom; but their patterned dark-green leaves, veined in cream, are spectacular.
There are some amazing ecotones in this area, dramatic contrasts in microclimate, soils, and therefore, vegetation and all that depends upon vegetation.
For instance, the uplands atop Moody Ridge, mostly a remnant of the once universal andesitic mudflow plateau which preceded incision of our canyons, these uplands receive sixty inches of rain per year, have deep soils, and support heavy coniferous forest.
But so soon as one drops onto the south-facing canyon wall, overlooking Green Valley, the forest becomes a mixture of Kellogg's Black Oak and Ponderosa Pine, with a scattering of Douglas Fir, especially as an understory, and also more riparian species like California Ginseng, White Alder, Maple, Dogwood, etc., around springs and seeps.
For, the volcanic strata capping the ridge are horizontal, some layers being quite permeable, others not, and that sixty inches of rain soaks down to impermeable layers and then slowly finds its way to the sides, emerging as springs, or maybe just wetting a generalized area, so that of a sudden there are many more maples and dogwoods than is usual.
I attribute the change from near-pure coniferous forest, into oak-pine woodland, as a function of fire. Over the long term, fires will burn hotter and more destructively on these steep slopes, than in the uplands. These fires have delicately groomed and managed the forest for thousands of years. If all fires were suppressed, this same mixed oak and pine woodland would become a Douglas Fir forest; which it is trying to do, right now. The Douglas Fir which sprouted after the last fire (ca. 1955) are now thirty to fifty feet tall, and more. They will shade out the oaks and pines, given a few centuries without fire.
The Black Oak-Ponderosa Pine woodland of the uppermost canyon walls ends at a razor-sharp boundary at the roughly horizontal contact between the young volcanics, above, and the ancient bedrock, below. This bedrock is serpentine of the Melones Fault Zone. Many plants cannot tolerate serpentine; Black Oak and Ponderosa Pines are good examples. From miles away one can see this abrupt shift in vegetation. Below, in the serpentine, is all manner of brush, and quite a lot in the way of Canyon Live Oak and Bay Laurel (tho somewhat stunted).
Now I have reached my birds.
It happens that every year, Black-Headed Grosbeaks arrives here in the Black Oak woodland, at the exact time these deciduous oaks break their buds and unfold their new leaves. These grosbeaks sing their hearts out for weeks on end, in a sweet fluty warbling which reminds me strongly of the Robin.
The grosbeaks begin singing at first light, more than an hour before dawn. That is when I usually rise and have my first cup of coffee, now as in 1976, when I first became aware of this species; I camped for months, right here in the oak woods, then.
Ah, the Black-Headed Grosbeak; the grosbeak, and young love!
Love! Love, *and* the Grosbeak, you say?
Oh yes. It is quite a sad story; I rescued a baby Grosbeak, fallen unfledged from its nest, and took it across Moody Ridge to the Sons of Norway camp, to My Beloved--to be saved, to be nurtured, and at last to be given freedom, once its wings were feathered. This one little bird, shivering, alone, would be the Symbol of My Beloved!
Of course, it died. Actually, one of her other boyfriends thought it was ready to fly; and who could have foreseen, that the cat was waiting? Thus may bright dreams fall into confusion, and amid the general chaos, a young bird dies.
Ah well, that was then, this is now.
The Grosbeaks arrive, and fill the forest with song, at first, all day long, and then, after a couple weeks, as they sit their nests, they quiet somewhat, and only the few hours near dawn and sunset are blessed by their incredibly sweet voices.
That is about how it is right now, at 4000 feet elevation, on a south-facing slope, in the northern Sierra.
I rarely see their nests, and assume them to be high in the Black Oaks, and hidden from human sight; later in the summer I will suddenly notice a twiggy nest here or there, and never be quite sure whose it was.
The other day, returning from the Railroad Trail, I was lopping a pesky little Canyon Live Oak beside a monstrous old Ponderosa. The little live oak was encroaching upon my trail. One side branch fell away under my attack, and then I saw the nest, at waist height, in the dense spiny foliage typical of the young Canyon Live Oak.
I was about to call my friend over, but then to my amazement I (finally!) saw that a bird was sitting her eggs, a streaky plump Grosbeak female. I walked quickly away.
This surprised me. These birds seem so closely tied to the Black Oaks, I never considered they might nest elsewhere.
A day later, I found a second Grosbeak nest directly above the same trail, eight feet above the ground, also in Canyon Live Oak, and also admitting a view directly into the nest (from the hillside above).
It begins to look as tho these Grosbeaks often nest near the ground.
This morning, watching a raft of clouds slowly light up from beneath while the sun broke free from yet other clouds to the east, I heard what I took to be an especially bold series of yelps from a Red-Shafted Flicker. From the Flicker's red feathers the Indians of Central California were wont to make headdresses, for their dances, which would trail to the ground itself, the feathers sewn crosswise into long bands.
A dark crow-sized bird alighted on an oak outside my window, and so soon as I saw its red crest I knew I had a Pileated Woodpecker at hand. I grabbed my camera and stepped cautiously to the door, just as the Pileated made a swoop to another larger oak, nearby. One picture, two, three, none good. The bird flew west and out of view and I hurried in that direction, collaring my daughter en route and whispering urgently of strange woodpeckers in the woods.
These big woodpeckers are not all that rare, but it had been ten years since I'd seen one. They chop out huge holes in rotten tree trunks and branches, with loud hammering sounds which can be heard from quite a distance. We scanned a grove of tall Ponderosa and Douglas Fir: a squirrel, but nothing else.
Then the chopping began.
It was so loud, I expected to spot the thing immediately; but it took a minute to locate him, high in a Black Oak, digging deeply into a dead branch. I took ten photographs and not one came out well.
Googling "Pileated Woodpeacker" + "Placer County" I turned up this interesting missive, apparently from the (birding magazine) the Condor, in 1919. It had been badly OCR'd and I took time to correct many errors, but likely missed some. I am not sure whether to count the "large mountain lake" mentioned as one of the Loch Levens, or Fordyce.
THE Northern Pileated Woodpecker, while not rare, is such a wary bird that its nesting habits in California are but little known. In a search through our various publications dealing with such subjects we fail to find a record of the taking of a single set of eggs of this species in the State. It seems probable that there are fewer California taken eggs of this bird in collections than even eggs of the California Condor. Barlow (CONDOR, III, 1901, p. 163) records a nest with young birds at Fyffe on June 13, 1897. Sheldon (CONDOR, XX, 1907, p. 188) records a nest with young near Big Meadows, Plumas County. The date is not given but it is assumed to be early in July. This paper embraces a partial account of our joint studies of this species over a period of five years (1914 to 1918), and the final culmination of our efforts in the taking of two sets of the eggs. The region worked lies near Cisco, Placer County, California, and it seems probable that the same pair of birds was observed during the five-year period. While working among the dead and dying trees at the upper end of a large mountain lake in June of 1914 the loud cackle of this unique bird was frequently heard. The type of country appeared to be suitable for the residence of the bird and it was then determined to pay especial attention to this species when next we should visit the lake, it then being too late in the season for eggs. Some time was spent in watching the birds feed, as they tore and pried off large slabs of dead bark in their search for various grubs and insects.
In 1915 we reached Cisco early in June and at first opportunity searched for our birds. A hard climb took us to the top of the dividing ridge and a swift descent, to the shores of the lake. One of the first birds seen was the Pileated Woodpecker as it flew from a tree standing in deep water to the thick woods across the lake. We passed near this tree and hid in some brush near by to await the appearance of the bird. It shortly returned and made straight for the tree, alighting on the opposite side from that facing us. We watched several minutes and as the bird did not appear we approached nearer the tree and were chagrined to discover a large hole about twenty feet up, in plain view and on the side of the tree which had first been exposed to us. We clapped our hands and immediately the bird appeared at the hole and flew cackling away. The tree stood about fifteen feet from the shore of the lake and in about five feet of water. At its base the diameter was about eighteen inches, at the nest entrance about ten. The tree was a live aspen. The base was exceedingly slippery and altogether the examination of the nest presented difficulties. Floating near the shore was a long dead trunk with a projecting limb which we decided to use as a raft to approach the tree. We each made an attempt to reach the tree but on both trials the raft turned over and we each got an icy bath. Inasmuch as the hills were covered with snow and the temperature on that day was low we were not particularly pleased with the ducking. We decided the tree raft would not serve and accordingly we made a fast trip back to headquarters, covering the distance in less time than that taken in coming out.
We soon returned with some planks and a lot of spikes with which we made a good raft and succeeded in reaching the nest tree. By driving spikes in the trunk Wells reached the nest and drew out a small young fledgling. The appearance of this object, resembling a skinned Chipmunk instead of a large white egg, certainly disappointed us. The nest cavity was eighteen inches deep and six inches in diameter, while the entrance was three inches in width. The entire excavation had been made in live wood although there were plenty of large dead trees near by. After leaving the nest we watched the old birds, both of which came to the tree and were quite tame as they fed the young, which, by the way, were three in number. The old birds reminded us a great deal of a pair of Flickers in their general movements and manner.
Determining to obtain a set of eggs the following spring, a visit was made on May 19, 1916, to the same mountain lake. Conditions were found to be quite similar to those of the previous year, there being much snow on the ground. The arrival at the lake was made enjoyable by a view of the pair of Woodpeckers flying towards the woods from the same tree in which the nest was located the previous year. An examination of the old tree was made in double-quick time and resulted in finding a second hole located three feet higher up and on the opposite side of the tree. Although two weeks earlier this year than the last we were again doomed to disappointment, for the nest contained three newly hatched young and one unhatched egg. The young birds evidently remained in the nest for about thirty days as they were seen climbing about the trees on June 20. The following year (1917) the locality was visited on May 5 we being determined to get ahead of the birds this time. The season was more advanced than on the three previous years and but little snow was on the ground and the lake at this point had less than three feet of water in it. The Pileated Woodpeckers had abandoned the lake and were making their home in a tree located in the channel of a small stream which flowed into the lake and about three hundred yards from their former site. The nest was found to be about half completed. Visits were made to it on several occasions until May 26, but the birds were not seen again. Apparently they had moved out of the basin entirely, as they could not be located.
While spending the winter of 1917-1918 at Summit, Wells determined to make the most of his opportunities to study the Woodpeckers. Through several friends living at Cisco the birds were kept under observation throughout the winter. It was found that the birds seldom strayed as far as two or three miles from their lake and that only the one pair was in evidence. In 1918, the first attempt to locate the nest was made on May 2, by Wells in company with W. O. Flickinger. On nearing the lake several unfinished cavities were noted, so that the date for eggs seemed about right. There was but little snow on the ground and practically no water in the lake. A search was then made through the aspen grove which in former years had stood in its entirety in from two to seven or eight feet of water, with the result that Mr. Flickinger discovered a fresh hole forty feet up in a live aspen growing close to the lake shore. Enough chips lay at the base of the tree to indicate that the cavity must be nearly finished. The birds were not in evidence; so the nest was examined. It was found to be completed, but contained no eggs. Allowing ten days for the birds to lay a complete set, the nest was visited again on May 12, by Wells and Flickinger. We had great confidence that on this trip we would finally get a set of this prince of woodpecker. When we reached the tree a smart rap on the trunk brought the old bird to the entrance with an anxious expression on her face and we knew this time that we would soon have the eggs. She flew a short distance away and was soon joined by her mate. We hid in the brush and waited about thirty minutes, when the female returned and entered the nest. We thus felt positive that the nest contained a full set of eggs, and Wells accordingly strapped on his irons and climbed the tree. His exultant shout proclaimed that the eggs were there--a set of four fresh glossy eggs. The nest cavity was eighteen inches deep by about six in diameter, while the entrance was nearly four inches across. The nest was visited again on June 1 by both of us, and to our surprise we found that the birds had used the same cavity for a second set of eggs, four in number, which were three-quarters incubated. The short time intervening between the two sets shows that the birds did not lose any time after their first set was lost to them. The locality was again visited on June 30 and we found that the birds had finished another cavity about two hundred feet from the first tree and apparently the female was brooding a third set. We did not disturb the bird. and hope that she successfully raised her brood. Inasmuch as the lake contained no water at this point we made a careful search of the upper end of the basin with the result that twenty cavities in all were located in various trees in what is usually the lake or very close to its shores. Most of these cavities were in live aspens. Apparently this pair of birds has nested here for a great many years, for although we have carefully worked the surrounding country for miles in every direction we have never discovered other birds or their cavities. Inasmuch as the food supply is abundant, and hunters rarely visit the region, it is assumed that the species is simply an extremely rare one for this portion of the Sierra Nevada. The two sets of eggs are identical in shape, size, and other characters. They are small for the bird, being but little larger than eggs of the Red-shafted Flicker. In their glossy surface, pyriform shape and hardness of shell they are distinctively eggs of the Picidae. The average measurements of the four eggs are about 1.29x0.99 inches. Oakland, California, February 24, 1919.