My backyard fountain and the birds that come to it

I’ve been asked quite a lot about my fountain and pond (in Davis, California) and why it is so successful in attracting birds. Here are some, I think, key elements:

  • The first is the sound of falling water. Birds hear this and come to investigate. The pond is rather simple. It all begins with an amoeba-shaped pre-fabbed pond liner, about 18″ deep. A small electric pump and hose carries the water about 3 feet up, where I feed the hose through a knot-hole in a piece of wood. From there, it falls into a plastic garbage can lid, and then pours thru a small cut into another garbage can lid, and finally into the pond itself. Each fall creates more trickling sound. I’ve put a flexible pond liner under the “waterfall” so that any water that wicks under the garbage can lids still ends up in the pond. The two lid pools are 1-2″ deep for bathing. Finally, all this stuff is covered up with rocks and driftwood.
  • Second, it’s all about context. The pond is essentially in a green grotto with lots of vertical structure above it, meaning that birds can come into a high tree, descend to a medium tree, and descend again to a shrub near the fountain, and then finally into one of the pools.  They do serious recon about where they drink and bathe; an individual often takes several minutes to come in. I think the horizontal structure — what’s 15′ away from the pond, matters less than what’s above it; they come down from above.

  • At the same time, they need some visibility and escape corridors in case a cat or Cooper’s Hawk comes. I’ve trimmed all the bushes around it 18″ off the ground so any stalking cat will be clearly visible. A Cooper’s Hawk is largely thwarted by all the vegetation.

With all this cover, the pond is mostly in the shade. That’s good for controlling algae growth, but bad for taking photos. But in my experience a birdbath out in the open sun attracts only a few species. I have installed a couple iPhone holders so I can do some live video feeds (e.g. Facebook Live) of the birds coming in. I’ve also situated the pond so I get a clear view from my kitchen table, from right here as I type this on my laptop. My binoculars and camera are beside me in case anything interesting comes in.

Finally, there is the issue of my house, which has windows that birds can fly into. See this post about how to prevent birds from flying into your windows. 

I’ve recorded over 40 species using the pond. Here are some of them.

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Wilson’s Warblers

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Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warblers

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Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warbler

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Nashville Warbler with a Western Tanager

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MacGillivray’s Warbler

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Black-throated Gray Warbler

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Yellow Warbler

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Orange-crowned Warbler

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Tennessee Warbler– this bird appeared while I was working from home on a conference call. Needless to say, I managed a photo.

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Western Tanager

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Black-headed Grosbeak with Wilson’s Warbler

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Varied Thrush

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An unusual strawberry blond Purple Finch in front of a regular one

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Hooded Oriole

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A White-crowned Sparrow defends a bathing spot from a Western Tanager

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Hermit Thrush, typically the last visitor of any winter evening

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Swainson’s Thrush

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American Robin and Cedar Waxwing

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intergrade Northern Flicker

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Spotted Towhee

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Slate-colored Junco

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Sooty Fox Sparrow in front of a Yellow-rumped Warbler

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One more Western Tanager

Not shown: Anna’s Hummingbird, Wild Turkey, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, California Scrub-Jay, Warbling Vireo, Northern Mockingbird, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Bushtit, Townsend’s Warbler, Hermit Warbler, House Finch, Cassin’s Finch, American Goldfinch, Lesser Goldfinch, California Towhee, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Song Sparrow, House Sparrow… and probably some others.

 

Two of the nation’s top birding spots threatened by the wall

Of the top 20 birding sites in the entire United States, based on the number of species reported on eBird, six of them are in south Texas. Two of them, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, are threatened by Trump’s proposed wall.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

RG border map

The map above, taken from an excellent article illustrating all of the natural resources at risk from California to Texas, includes the bird totals for the eBird hotspots associated with the at-risk parks and wildlife refuges. The wall is often constructed hundreds of yards north of the actual border (the Rio Grande River). It typically includes a swath of cleared land on each side of it.  At Bentsen and Santa Ana, the wall threatens to destroy critical remaining habitat and strand the parks in “no-man’s land”, preventing public access. Dozens of articles have been written regarding the impacts to everything from butterflies to ocelots.

Sabal Palm is unique, in that the natural area is south of the wall. Visitors pass thru the wall in order to visit the park. However, there is no guarantee this arrangement will be made at other sites. Should public access be denied at Bentsen, the park could revert back to the Bentsen family per a historical agreement. The national wildlife refuges are especially at risk. As they are already federal properties, the Administration doesn’t have to deal with acquiring private property. Thus, they are the easiest places to build.

 

 

Fall Migration in the Central Valley

warblers fall 2018In 2010, after ten years of collecting data on morning “warbler walks” in my local patch, the Central Valley Bird Club Bulletin published my results. You can read the whole paper here:

Hampton, S. 2010. Passerine migration patterns in Davis, Yolo County—2000-2010. Central Valley Bird Club Bulletin 13(3): 45-61.

Mac

Bay Area birders are surprised when I tell them Willow Flycatchers and MacGillivray’s Warblers (above) are daily in fall migration in Davis.

It begins with this:
“Although passerine migration may conjure images of Point Reyes for many local birders, the Central Valley, with its north-south orientation, is believed to be the primary migration corridor through California for most species, surpassing the coastline in this regard (Humple and Geupel 2002).”

 

Here, I’ve re-visualized my results for fall migration in two simple graphs, one for more common species (peaking at 2 to 13 birds per survey), and another for less common migrants (around 1 or less per survey).

CLICK TO ENLARGE.

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A few caveats:

  • A “survey” here is basically a morning walk lasting about 35 minutes.
    This was for my little route in north Davis. For other locations in the Central Valley, even nearby ones, I would expect the numbers and relative abundance to vary a little. For example, I see a lot more flycatchers at Babel Slough and Grasslands Park than are reflected here.
  • Putah Creek near Pedrick Rd, a current favorite of birders, generally has more birds than is shown here because it’s a larger area, birders spend more than 35 minutes when they visit, and the habitat is slightly different. It seems better at holding fall migrants for more days, making their detection more likely.
  • On these new graphs, I’ve left out the rarer birds, species that occur at a rate of less than 0.2 birds/survey (less than 1 out of every 5 surveys).
  • A large portion of the birds in my data are “heard only”.
  • For spring migration and additional details, see the full article linked above.

This last graph provides a cumulative view of all the migrants at once. Peak diversity is in late August. After that, the Yellow Warblers take over. After that, not shown here, the Yellow-rumped Warblers, both Audubon’s and Myrtle, arrive, signalling the end of fall migration.

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It would be interesting to compare these relative abundances and timing with more recent eBird data, both in north Davis (where the eBird hotspot for this survey area is “North Davis Farms Subdivision”) as well as other locations in the Central Valley. Have at it. I’m happy to provide my Excel spreadsheets of this data to anyone interested.