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San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

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Sea & Sage Audubon
  In Celebration of TEN Years at the SJWS
updated April.1, 2002

part 6: Ten Breeding Birds of the SJWS
by Trude Hurd

. . . . . Visitors to the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary quickly realize that our quiet sanctuary may not be so quiet in springtime. Myriad songs resonate over the ponds as many resident birds attempt to breed.  "Choose me, pick me," the males proclaim in their loudest and most cheerful voice, trying to catch the attention of female birds.  Birds absent from view since last spring are now perched atop the bulrush with heads thrown back, beaks wide open, and singing their hearts out.  Our naturalists and school children enjoy these easy views of the usually elusive Marsh Wren, Song Sparrow, and Common Yellowthroat.
. . . . . Each spring, the marsh is an even busier place for birds that are already occupied with the ever-constant task of survival.  In addition to finding food and water, avoiding predators, and competing for space, birds interested in reproducing more of their kind must now engage in a whole list of energy-depleting activities.  They must pair up, investigate and select a nest site, collect appropriate nest material, build the nest, lay eggs and incubate them until they hatch, and care for the chicks until they fledge or fly away.  At each step lies the risk of failure: a mate is not found, the nest falls apart, predators eat the eggs, or the young die of starvation, disease or predation.
. . . . . Close to forty bird species have successfully nested at the wildlife sanctuary in the last ten years.  Whether you are a new or long-time Audubon member, we invite you to come visit the sanctuary this spring and see (and hear!) for yourself how exciting this time of year is for the birds.  IN CELEBRATION OF OUR TEN YEARS AT THE SAN JOAQUIN WILDLIFE SANCTUARY, here is a look at ten breeding birds.

Pied-billed Grebe.  This common diving bird builds a floating raft of plant material, and you might see it carrying long strands of bulrush many times its own length across the ponds.  The tiny chicks have zebra-striped heads and ride on their parents backs.  In summer 1993, volunteer Grace McElhiney and I crouched silently amongst the cattails along Pond B to photograph their nest; she still teases me about what crazy tasks I ask volunteers to do!

Great Blue Heron.  Because herons breed in colonies, a single heron nest was a surprise in 1994.  The adult made elaborate flight circles over the nest that was located high in a eucalyptus tree between the creek and Pond 1.  Unfortunately, the two chicks did not survive.
 Least Bittern.  Few birders have seen this species because it is so secretive.  So when a pair raised a brood in Pond A in 1999, scores of birders arrived with spotting scopes to watch.  What a delight to see the chicks scrambling to hang on to the bulrush and growing each day.  We hope they return and breed again!

Mallard.  This successful waterfowl is a great delight to our visiting school children who happily count the number of chicks seen following a female.  Little do they know that the ten counted during one week become only 6 or even 3 in successive weeks. Mallards have large broods for a reason; those ducklings are tasty morsels for many avian and mammalian predators.

Killdeer.  In 1994, a killdeer propelled us onto the local news channel and newspapers when "one has made the mistake of nesting in a busy parking lot. But she couldn’t have chosen a better one.  It’s at the Sea & Sage Audubon headquarters in Irvine."  We put safety cones around the nest and redirected cars and school buses, while visitors watched from our front porch using a spotting scope.  Despite these precautions, the nest failed due to an opportunistic raven.  Killdeers nest here every year on dirt, short grass, and yes, even gravel.

Anna's Hummingbird.  Hummingbirds nest around the Duck Club as early as December and  January.  The female does all the work, from building the small cup nest on top of a branch to incubating and feeding the 2 chicks.  Chicks need protein to grow, so mom flits about catching small bugs.  Look for this behavior on your next visit, and you just might find a nest nearby!
Black Phoebe.  If you think only Cliff Swallows make mud nests, think again.  Phoebes are common along creeks and ponds where water ensures the availability of mud for nests.  According to Sylvia Gallagher, “nests are frequently placed under the eves of park restrooms.”  So, guess where our phoebe nested!

Tree Swallow.  Due to a shortage of nest sites (dead trees),we installed 105 artificial nest boxes since 1997.  We all love to watch the swallows’ aerobatics as they dash in and out of these boxes.  To volunteer to help monitor these Tree Swallow nest boxes, contact biologist Christine Mukai at cmukai@chambersgroupincom.

Cliff Swallow.  They require a vertical surface with an overhang (cliff, bridge or building) and a nearby supply of mud.  Our beginning bird camp youngsters have walked to the Campus Drive bridge to witness the phenomenal colony of mud nests.  Imagine how many trips and beaks full of mud were needed to make just one nest, let alone hundreds!

House Finch.  Every year, House Finches attempt to nest on the front porch eaves of Audubon House, and our volunteers sweep up the litter of twigs from their unsuccessful efforts.  Finches have better luck on the light fixtures of the Duck Club where they are easily seen by our school children.

Want to learn more?  I recommend Sylvia Gallagher’s Atlas of Breeding Birds-Orange County, Kenn Kaufmann’s Lives of North American Birds, or for more serious students, the Birds of North America series.

Sea & Sage Audubon Society
PO Box 5447 • Irvine, CA 92616 • 949-261-7963