It may still actually be winter, but spring has sprung this January! After the recent rains, there is water in our creeks and lots of greenery in our open spaces, and this brings unique opportunities for enjoying nature. Meanwhile, there are winter birds at Lake Los Carneros, sheep at the San Marcos Foothills Preserve, a huge flock of crows gathering in Eastside parking lots, and new owl boxes installed at several city parks.
The Creeks are Flowing!
Many of the creeks in Santa Barbara are intermittent or ephemeral streams, meaning that they only flow at certain times. This is one of those certain times! Check out the photos below of some of our local creeks after the rain, or better yet, go visit one in person. A healthy, natural creek helps filter the runoff from the watershed as it flows towards the ocean, and also allows some of it to percolate into the ground and recharge the groundwater table. Creeks and riparian ecosystems also provide habitat for birds, fish, and other wildlife. Some of our local creeks even have the potential to support endangered steelhead trout, which need a clear path to migrate between the ocean and the upstream environment. For more information about local creeks and how to protect them, check out the website of the Santa Barbara Urban Creeks Council.
The Hills are Alive...
...with greenery after the rain! Look alongside the 101 or go to a local open space for the sight of springtime come early. The lush vegetation will likely attract many birds and pollinators.
In addition to making the grass grow, the rain has also left many trails muddy. Wear suitable shoes while visiting open spaces, and stay on established trails as the wet ground is more prone to damage from off-trail activity. (Elings Park undeveloped side is currently closed for this reason). And look around puddles and muddy areas for animal tracks! The wet ground preserves the prints well, making it easier to identify what animals have been around. On popular trails, dog prints may dominate, but look closely in less-traveled areas and you may find the tracks of raccoons, crows, and other wildlife. A field guide or the iNaturalist app can help you identify animal tracks.
Winter Birdwatching at Lake Los Carneros
Lake Los Carneros is a great spot for birdwatching any time of year, but winter is an especially good time to go because of the greater variety in species. Along with the usual coots, mallards, and other year-round residents, you may see migratory waterbirds like the northern shoveler, cinnamon teal, green winged teal, and ring-necked duck. See the Lake Los Carneros iNaturalist page for a list of the species that have been observed there.
A note about feeding birds: While it may be tempting to feed the birds at the lake, it can actually harm them by altering their diet and also by making them more likely to get into conflict with humans in the future. Be patient and use a pair of binoculars or a long camera lens if you have one, and you will be able to observe the birds engaging in their natural foraging behavior without being artificially attracted with food. And if you must feed the birds, use birdseed or scratch, not bread or any other food made for people, because processed food is especially unhealthy for wildlife.
Sheep at the San Marcos Foothills Preserve
Starting this past week, a flock of sheep has been grazing the San Marcos Foothills Preserve as part of a "prescribed grazing" program to combat invasive grasses. The disturbance caused by the sheep allows native grasses a chance to grow instead of being overtaken by the invasive varieties, and the goal is to help restore the grassland to a state that will support birds that need the native grass to nest in. The prescribed grazing program is a collaboration between Channel Islands Restoration, a local organization that restores native ecosystems, and Cuyama Lamb, which humanely raises sheep for wool and meat in conjunction with restoring grasslands. (See more information about the program here.) The preserve is still open (except for the fenced area where the sheep are), so this is a great time to check out the sheep, the greenery, and all the birds and other wildlife that call the preserve home.
Catching Up with the Eastside Crows
If you're looking to observe crows, go to the Eastside! Presumably because of the large ficus trees that provide roosting spots and the availability of food, crows seem to love the area around Milpas Street. If you live in the neighborhood or if you're on a late afternoon shopping trip to one of the Eastside grocery stores, take notice of the crows gathering in a large flock (aka a "murder") and flying between phone lines and trees as the sun sets. They appear to be finding a place to settle in for the night, where they can roost until they descend into the empty parking lots before dawn. You will get a good experience of the crows if you observe them from the parking lot of Trader Joe's or Sprouts, or if you drive down Alisos in the late afternoon. As with Lake Los Carneros and other places to observe birds, do not feed the crows but instead observe them quietly as they live their daily lives.
Barn Owls Welcome at Local Parks!
In hopes of attracting barn owls, the City of Santa Barbara has placed owl boxes in several of their parks: La Mesa Park, Mackenzie Park, and Mission Historical Park. The boxes were installed in November, and owls will likely start looking for nesting spots this month. Barn owls are known to live in the Santa Barbara area already, but are more elusive and less frequently spotted than great horned owls. Hopefully by the springtime, some will take up residence in the boxes! (I will report back on that on this website!) In the meantime, La Mesa Park is still an excellent place to observe great horned owls as it gets dark.
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 email@example.com. 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.