A male hooded oriole enjoys grape jelly at Manfred Kusch's bird oasis along Putah Creek. Jean Jackman/Courtesy photo

A male hooded oriole enjoys grape jelly at Manfred Kusch's bird oasis along Putah Creek. Jean Jackman/Courtesy photo

Agriculture + Environment

At the Pond: Habitat is everything

By May 20, 2011

Folk singer Bill Oliver sings, “Habitat, habitat, have to have a habitat. You have to have a habitat to carry on.”

What’s the habitat in your yard and whom does it serve?

Last week I went on Yolo Audubon’s 7:30 a.m. tour to Manfred Kusch’s habitat/property on Putah Creek east of the Stevenson Bridge Road. Imagine living on a place with 40 to 50 species nesting and more than 100 nests in your two-acre garden.

There are the constant sounds of bird calls and songs, and bees buzzing; the fragrance of native flowers; and the visual delights of winding paths and varied textures and colors of vegetation punctuated with bird movement.

More than 20 years ago, the land was a row-crop field. It is now a palm garden, orchard and native grassland filled with birds. It’s an oasis in the midst of agricultural fields.

We pull into the parking lot area. There are approximately 20 robin’s nests in close proximity and 30 to 50 house finch nests. Kusch gently pulls back berry bushes to show us the tiny white-feathered house finches newly hatched. Barn swallows swoop around his house where there are 10 or 12 nests. Tree swallows reside in the nest boxes.

Black-headed grosbeaks have just started nesting. Two years ago, he had 12 nests. Perhaps it is different this year because of the cold, rainy weather and late spring.

We wind along a path and come to hummingbird feeders. There is a black-chinned hummingbird on the feeder. Kusch relates that it takes two weeks to reach the stage where the young leave the nest, and the bill grows visibly each day like Pinocchio’s nose. The chicks come in stages. The female starts incubating while laying the next egg.

Wood ducks nest along his stretch of Putah Creek. They lay one egg a day, with 15 to 18 total, even up to 25. One duck had 18 hatch. When the clutch is complete, the female pulls down out of her chest and covers the egg. Incubation period is about 30 days. All eggs hatch within a few hours.

The hen flies out after a few hours and the ducklings jump straight out of the high nest and march single-file down to the creek. Maybe two or three arrive to adulthood. A squirrel used the nest box in the winter.

A wood duck moved in come spring. Manfred has watched as many as many as 30 to 40 wood ducks gather at a massive old valley oak and gorge on acorns in the fall.

The number of migrants is very low this year. There are fewer birds than usual. Kusch wonders if they are late in coming, held up by a cold spring? Or, maybe they shot straight up to the north and the mountains to breed. There are so many unknowns regarding bird migration.

He points out a dead limb. For three years, downy woodpeckers have nested in one tree limb, each year choosing a different part of the dead branch. We see a squirrel nest, now used by a red-tailed hawk. Two white-headed chicks peer down at us.

Kusch’s property with its rich bird diversity has become a popular bird research site. We observed so many species and numerous nest forms.

We hear a Swainson’s thrush. Po po tu tu tu tureel tureel tiree tree tree. Then an ash-throated flycatcher is calling: ki-brrrk-brr.

He shows us a great horned owl sitting on a nest, an old squirrel nest. The parents partner and start calling to one another in late afternoon. Last year, they nested right next to a red-tailed hawk. There were no problems.

I car-pooled with Ed and Sally Larkin and asked all riders in the car for their high point of the tour. Ed Larkin chose the warbling vireo and the Swainson’s hawk as his thrills of the morning. Sally Larkin loved seeing the baby red-tailed hawks. Ralph Hunter was thrilled with the hooded orioles and the black-chinned hummingbirds. Diane Naydan’s high points were the hooded orioles and the Swainson’s thrush. For me, it was the beauty and the richness of the whole densely populated bird oasis, all created in about 20 years in what was an ornithological desert.

Hunter said he was on the tour because he read about it in this column in 2008. Hopefully, more of you will take the opportunity to enjoy future tours on this land not usually accessible to the public.

Most of us can’t have 21 acres with a two-acre garden such as Kusch does, but it is amazing how a few new plants in our small yards, a couple of feeders and a bird bath can enhance our yards. Anything but lawn — which has no habitat value. And to keep lawn looking nice, we are tempted to use fertilizers, valuable water, pesticides and polluting power equipment. Then there is the noise of the equipment. Plus, lawns just aren’t fun.

In the past few years, we have removed virtually all of the lawn in our yard and planted drought-tolerant natives, Mediterranean plants and bird- and bee-friendly plants. It is such a pleasure to look out the living room window and see hummingbirds sipping from the sage, going from flower to flower. It is a delight to watch and smell the various flowers and see Spanish lavender, salvia, cranesbill, yarrow, coral bells and many more come into bloom at different times.

The Arboretum plant sales are over for the year, but the website still offers advice about Arboretum All Stars, plants that grow well in Davis, and local nurseries will advise you what you can still plant.

Barbara King, from Davis, had a bird at her feeder she had never seen anywhere. It was a black-headed grosbeak. It featured a colorful buffy orange breast with bold white markings on black wings and a sturdy bill. They are here, but are uncommon. Alison Kent and others have recently reported seeing evening grosbeaks along Old Davis Road by the Wildlife Center. They are not even listed in the “Checklist of the Birds of Yolo County.”

Enjoy the rest of spring migration.

— Jean Jackman is a Davis resident; her column appears monthly. Got a story, correction or comment? Contact her at [email protected]

Jean Jackman

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