Common Valley Owls

Learn 100 Common Valley Birds is a photo blog series highlighting the 100 most common California Central Valley bird species.

By Jim Gain

Post #3 in the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series.

Today’s post is another three-fer offering that includes the three owls that most Central Valley Visitors are likely to encounter in an urban setting; Great Horned Owl, Barn Owl and Western Screech-Owl. There are other possible owl species that one might come across in the grasslands and foothill woodlands away from town. One of those, the Burrowing Owl, will have its own future post and the others are considerably less likely to be observed.

GREAT HORNED OWL

Introduction

The Great Horned Owl is a Common Year-Round Resident in the valley. A large, powerful nocturnal predator, it is equally at home in any valley habitat taking a wide variety of prey.

Great Horned Owl, Male | Photo by Jim Gain

Appearance

The Great Horned Owl is characterized by its ear tufts, white throat and barred brown tan and white body. Their hooting can be heard throughout the year mostly at night, but in the breeding season, may continue through the morning.

Great Horned Owl, Female | Photo by Jim Gain

Distribution

A nighttime expedition to the riparian woodlands of any of the parks along the creeks and rivers that run through the Central Valley will likely result in an encounter with this nocturnal hunter. Careful springtime explorers may encounter a Great Horned Owl’s nest with the curious owlets peering out.

Great Horned Owlet | Photo by Jim Gain

BARN OWL

Barn Owl | Photo by Jim Gain

Introduction

The Barn Owl (Tyto Alba) is a Common Year-Round Resident in the valley and is a bit smaller than the Great Horned Owl. It is the most widely distributed species of owl in the world and one of the most cosmopolitan (widespread) of all species of birds.

Appearance

Barn Owl | Photo by Jim Gain

Lanky, with a whitish face, chest, and belly, and buffy upperparts, this owl roosts in hidden, quiet places during the day.

Distribution

By night, they hunt on buoyant wingbeats in open fields and meadows. You can find them by listening for their eerie, raspy calls, quite unlike the hoots of other owls. Due to the large number of rodents they eat, farmers welcome the Barn Owl and often install nest boxes on their properties.

Barn Owl | Photo by Jim Gain

Cool Fact:

The Barn Owl has excellent low-light vision, and can easily find prey at night by sight. But its ability to locate prey by sound alone is the best of any animal that has ever been tested. It can catch mice in complete darkness in the lab, or hidden by vegetation or snow out in the real world.

WESTERN SCREECH-OWL

Introduction

The Western Screech-Owl (Megascops kennicottii) is a small owl native to North and Central America and is a Fairly Common Year-Round Resident in the Central Valley. It may be encountered in urban parks with mature trees or in riparian woodlands.

Western Screech-Owl | Photo by Jim Gain

Western Screech-Owls nest in the cavities of large trees and typically lay three to five eggs in late March.

Western Screech-Owlets | Photo by Jim Gain

Appearance

The Western Screech-Owl is a pint-sized, cryptically patterned gray owl with fine streaks of black and white and short ear tufts.

Western Screech-Owl | Photo by Jim Gain

Distribution

Found in a variety of wooded habitats, but favors riparian and deciduous areas. Can be found in urban areas and parks. Feeds mostly on small mammals, birds, and insects. Nests in cavities. Listen for its voice at night: a series of short whistled notes that accelerates at the end.

Previous posts from the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series,

Common Valley Hummingbirds

By Jim Gain

Learn 100 Common Valley Birds is a photo blog series highlighting the 100 most common Valley bird species.

Post #2 in the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series.

This is a three-fer post featuring the three most common hummingbirds, Anna’s, Black-chinned and Rufous that are likely coming to your feeders right now (summer). When viewed in direct sunlight with their resplendent gorgets in full glory, few birds elicit a reaction quite like hummingbirds do. The hummingbird represents an ancient symbol of joy and happiness. Its colorful appearance brings good luck and positive energy to our lives.

Let’s start with the most common one, Anna’s Hummingbird.

ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD

Anna’s Hummingbird – Male

STATUS

Anna’s Hummingbirds are Common Year-round Residents of the Central Valley and are frequently found at backyard feeders. Like many hummingbird species, these three are sexually dimorphic with the males having the boldest and easiest to identify markings. At 3.9 inches in size, Anna’s Hummingbirds are the largest of the three hummers in this post.

IDENTIFICATION FIELDMARKS

Adult male Anna’s Hummingbirds feature a bold pinkish-ruby gorget (throat patch) that is subtended (bordered along the bottom) by a grayish-white breast. The pinkish-ruby feathers also appear on the top of their head.

Anna’s Hummingbird – Male

Females and first-year male Anna’s Hummingbirds are more challenging as they lack the pinkish-red gorget and head feathers.

Anna’s Hummingbird – Female

BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRD

STATUS

The Black-chinned Hummingbird is a Fairly Common Summer Visitor, arriving in mid-April and hanging around the Central Valley until mid-September. At 3.5 inches, the Black-chinned Hummingbird is slightly smaller than the Anna’s Hummingbird. The Black-chinned Hummingbird is the second-most likely hummingbird that residents will encounter of the 6 hummingbird species that have visited the Central Valley.

Throughout the Central Valley, this species is widespread in many habitats at low elevations, often coming into backyard gardens and nesting. Other hummingbirds may stay through the winter, at least in small numbers, but the Black-chinned Hummingbird is almost entirely absent from the valley in winter.

IDENTIFICATION FIELDMARKS

Black-chinned Hummingbird – Male

The Black-chinned has a thinner, longer and straighter bill than both the Anna’s and Rufous hummingbirds. It is metallic green above and dull grayish-white below. They are best identified by their smallish gorget that is bordered by a pure white throat. Their gorget tends to look solid black unless viewed straight-on in good light when the lower edge takes on a glowing purple hue.

Black-chinned Hummingbird – Male

As with the other hummingbirds featured in this post, females and first-year males lack the colored gorget and make identification a challenge that is best left for the experts.

Female, Creative Commons Image by VJAnderson

RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD

STATUS

The Rufous Hummingbird is a Fairly Common Spring & Fall Migrant as it travels between its wintering grounds in Mexico to its nesting territory in Canada. It can be seen visiting feeders in March to April and again on its return journey from mid-July to mid-September. At 3.3 inches, the Rufous Hummingbird is the smallest of the three hummingbirds featured in this post.

The Rufous Hummingbird is North America’s “extremist” hummingbird, venturing far from the equatorial tropics, it reaches the northernmost latitude of any hummingbird (61° N). (From Birds of the World)

IDENTIFICATION FIELDMARKS

Rufous Hummingbird – Male

The Rufous Hummingbird stands out from Anna’s and Black-chinned by the bold rufous coloration on its belly, back and tail feathers. It has a white throat and adult males have a brownish-red gorget.

Rufous Hummingbird – 1st Year Male

First year males tend to have greenish instead of rufous feathers on its back.

Previous posts from the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series,

California Scrub-Jay

By Jim Gain

Learn 100 Common Valley Birds is a photo blog series highlighting the 100 most common Valley bird species.

Post #1 in the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds

In California’s Central Valley, almost anyone can learn 100 local bird species. Especially since on a daily basis Valley Residents come in contact with at least a dozen species that most recognize, but may not know the name of. Few things on earth fill us with as much delight as birds, and knowing them by name only adds to our pleasure. The intent of this blog is for followers to learn about and be able to identify 100 common valley birds.

Eazy Peazy First Bird

(You probably already know this bird.)

From James Whitcomb Riley’s poem, The Jaybird
The Jaybird he’s my _favorite_
Of all the birds they is!
I think he’s quite a stylish sight
In that blue suit of his:

And from George Parsons Lathrop’s Poem, O jay
O jay —
Blue-jay! —
What are you trying to say?
I remember, in the spring
You pretended you could sing;

Just remember one thing, it’s a Scrub-Jay, NOT a Blue Jay. Blue Jays have a crest and live back east. Our beautiful jay is a California Scrub-Jay.

All About This Bird

California Scrub-Jays are medium-sized members of the Corvid Family sharing similar characteristics with their other family members, the crows, magpies and ravens.

California Scrub-Jays are easily identified by their blue upperparts, dusty-white belly with a grayish-blue back. They have a medium-sized straight bill with a hooked tip and sport a white supercilium (eyebrow line). Depending on the light, their blue feathers may range from pale blue to almost iridescent bold blue. Unlike their Blue Jay cousins back east, they do NOT have a crest.

California Scrub-Jay

California Scrub-Jays can be found just about anywhere in the Central Valley. They are what ornithologists (bird scientists) call a year-round common resident and your backyard may even be a favorite spot for one. They are omnivorous and will eat bugs, lizards, berries and even other smaller birds (ouch!). Males and females are monomorphic, meaning they pretty much look the same. The opposite of monomorphic, where the males and females look totally different, is called sexual dimorphism. (Think of male vs female Mallards.) 

California Scrub-Jay

California Scrub-Jays have strong bills which they use to break open and eat acorns. Acorns are held by the toes of both feet and are hammered with their bill until they break open and can dig out the meat.

California Scrub-Jay

After completing this first post in the series, you are now on your way to Learn 100 Birds! These ubiquitous birds may be found in our backyards, on power lines or flying overhead on a regular basis.

Other posts from the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series,

Black Phoebe – Sayornis nigricans

A medium-sized flycatcher with a sooty-black back and head with a white belly. Typically seen singly or in pairs, usually sitting conspicuously on a low perch often near water. The Black Phoebe can frequently be seen pumping its tail up and down.

Black Phoebe at Merced NWR 11/18/2021

View from the Valley 

The Black Phoebe is a common year round valley resident that may turn up in your backyard. They are quite vocal giving a Tsip call throughout the year and in several different contexts (e.g., during flight, foraging, interaction with potential nest predator). They can be found in almost any habitat that includes water, i.e., streams, wetlands, ponds and backyard pools. The Black Phoebe is insectivorous and can usually be seen flying out from a low perch to catch flying insects and other arthropods.

Black Phoebe at CSU Stanislaus 12/16/2018

Global Conservation Status

This species has an extremely large range, appears to be increasing and the population size is extremely large (>5,000,000), and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable. For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern. “BirdLife International (2022) Species factsheet: Sayornis nigricans. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 05/01/2022.”

Black Phoebe at Basalt Campground, Merced County 4/16/2016

Fun Facts

Black Phoebes are monogamous and frequently raise 2 broods of young during a breeding season. Their adherent nests are composed of a mud shell lined with plant fibers, typically placed over water and plastered to a vertical wall within a few centimeters of a protective ceiling. Nest construction or refurbishment usually begins in March or April and takes from 1 to 3 weeks. (Wolf, B. O. (2020). Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.blkpho.01 on 05/01/2022.) 

Black Phoebe at the San Joaquin River NWR 9/25/2016