The Skunk Corner
April 2023- Spring has sprung!
It's officially spring, and with the greenery and wildflowers out from the recent rainfall and the return of sunny weather, it certainly feels like it as well! This is a great time of year to get out to the local parks, trails, and open spaces to observe the flora and fauna of Santa Barbara.
March Showers Bring April Flowers...
It may be earlier in the year than the popular saying would imply, but we already have plenty of greenery and flowers to enjoy as a result of the recent rains. You don't have to go far to enjoy it- the pictures above were taken at Hidden Valley Open Space, Arroyo Burro Open Space, Carpinteria Bluffs, and Lake Cachuma, but there's likely evidence of spring in your own neighborhood as well! (If you're looking to go further afield than SB itself, the Carrizo Plain and the Santa Ynez Valley are great places to be this time of year). Be(e) on the lookout for pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds visiting the wildflowers, and when they begin to dry out later in the season, look for birds harvesting the seeds. You can use iNaturalist, Seek, or a field guide to identify the flowers and their visitors if you're interested.
Seal Watching in Carpinteria
Every year from approximately early January to late May, harbor seals use the beach below the Carpinteria Bluffs to raise their pups. Both the adults and pups can be observed laying on the sand, a behavior called "hauling out" that helps them regulate their body temperature (as opposed to staying in the water all day, which would cause them to become too cold). There are still some pups to be seen, so make a visit to the bluffs before the end of the season! There is a small observation area near the edge of the bluffs where volunteers from Carpinteria Seal Watch are available to answer questions and help point out what the seals are doing. These volunteers also maintain a count of adults and pups at the rookery, and the numbers are publicly available here. Just make sure to be quiet while visiting the bluffs so as to not disturb the seals below, and stay off of that section of beach until the seals leave for the season.
'Tis (always) the season for owling- but watch out for falling trees!
You can find great horned owls around SB any time of year, but spring is an especially good time to observe them if you want to see their whole family, as this is the time when juvenile owls are learning to be independent of their parents. However, with all the recent rainfall soaking the ground, there have been a lot of eucalyptus trees falling (such as the one above in La Mesa Park), so please be careful when visiting a eucalyptus grove to look for owls. Don't go during high winds, and stay away from any trees that seem unstable or are making a creaking noise.
With that warning aside, La Mesa Park is one place where you're likely to see owls if you go at the right time- lately it's about 7:15-7:30pm but it changes as the days get longer. The author has not seen any juvenile owls there yet this year, but there were two around this time in 2020, so keep on the lookout. Recent iNaturalist reports also show owl sightings, including young, in several neighborhoods of Goleta.
Bird Flu and You
You've likely heard reports about Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, also known as HPAI or bird flu, being detected in California and in this specific county recently. What does that mean for people who enjoy birdwatching and attracting birds to their yard?
You can still watch birds! There hasn't been enough avian influenza around here to have any obvious, visible impact to wild bird populations. And watching wild birds from a distance, as you always should to keep them wild, will not expose you to the virus.
Take precautions in areas frequented by large flocks of birds, such as wearing specific shoes to these locations and thoroughly cleaning them before wearing them anywhere else, since the virus can be spread via droppings. This is most important if you have backyard chickens or other domestic birds that are susceptible, and/or if you are spending time around waterbirds, which are more likely than other birds to carry the virus. For example, don't hang out with the ducks at the shore of Lake Los Carneros and then wear the same shoes into your chicken coop.
Take down your birdfeeders and birdbaths. As we know from Covid, close contact helps viruses spread, and birdfeeders and birdbaths encourage a lot of birds to be in close contact with each other. It won't be a great harm to the birds to remove these features from your yard for now. It's spring and the landscape is full of natural food and water sources. If you'd like to attract birds to your yard specifically, look into putting in some native plants that provide berries, seeds, or other food sources. The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is a great place to explore and purchase these plants.
If you find an injured or sick bird, call the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network at 805-681-1080 for assistance, and avoid touching the bird yourself. If you find a dead bird, report it to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The Buzz About Bee Swarms
The spring and summer months are bee swarm season in Santa Barbara. Swarms are how beehives essentially "reproduce" and form new colonies. When a bee colony outgrows its hive and has enough bees and resources to divide, a new queen will hatch and take some of the worker bees with her to find a new hive. Swarms can also happen when the entire colony decides to move, which is called absconding.
When a swarm initially leaves the hive and flies to a new location, you may see what looks like a cloud of bees in the air. The cloud will then settle into a cluster of bees attached to a bush, a fencerail, or another object, with the queen in the middle protected by the worker bees. Eventually, worker bees will identify a new hive (either an empty manmade beehive or some other suitable crevice) and communicate that to the queen, and they will leave their temporary cluster and set up shop in the new hive. The photo above is a cluster of bees in a newly found hive, beginning to build comb.
People unfamiliar with bee swarms are often alarmed when they see a cloud or cluster of bees, especially if it's in their yard. However, these bees are generally harmless and not inclined to sting. Bees in general avoid stinging unless it's a last resort, because they die after they do, and when they do sting, it's generally to protect the resources in their hive. Swarms have no resources to protect, so they're especially unlikely to sting.
If you find a swarm (a cluster of bees out in the open) or a hive (an established colony of bees living in a crevice and making honey) in an unwanted location, you can reach out to local beekeepers to see if anyone wants to rescue it for their apiary. The Beekeepers Guild of Santa Barbara has an online form here for this purpose.
If you're interested in keeping bees yourself, this is a great season to start! Both the Beekeepers Guild and the Santa Barbara Beekeepers Association have classes and other resources for beginning beekeepers.
Enjoy getting out and experiencing nature this season, and if you know of other good wildlife observation opportunities and would like to suggest them to myself and others, please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to get an email whenever I post a new monthly/seasonal update, there is a sign-up link at the bottom of the home page.