More About Interspecies Feeding Among Birds

Pacific Coast Flycatcher

Dear Friends:

In order to do justice to Ann Allen’s lovely painting of her birdbaths in Where The Birds Are, I eliminated two photos which helped tell the story.

Interspecies bird feeding is unusual but not rare. The behavior is fueled by the powerful hormones which respond to the lengthening days in the spring.

Birds (male or female) may become a “helper” if their own nest is destroyed or if a bird is unable to find a mate. If nestlings have lost their parents and their calls are loud and persistent enough, a neighboring bird of another species may fill in as a parent.

Nestlings and fledglings learn their songs and calls from the feeding parents. Results can sometimes be disastrous as in the case where the helper, a gull of one species feeds gull of another species and the recipients no longer know when to migrate, I’m assuming our four juncos grew up to be proper adult juncos and didn’t leave for Mexico in the fall.

Where The Birds Are

“Birdbaths” by Ann Allen

In December each year, many in the country participate in the annual Audubon Christmas bird count. For the last ten years Samarkand has mustered up a dozen willing souls to walk Samarkand’s 16 acres to record the birds seen or heard. Half of their time was spent in Ann and Bob Allen’s Oak Crest garden, over the fence at the far end of the Native Plant Garden, where many species of birds come to visit their bird baths.

In the spring, local birds build their nests on the beams supporting the roof that overhangs part of their patio. Several years ago, when a pair of Dark-eyed Juncos were feeding their nestlings there, a stranger showed up with food in its beak. The Juncos chased off the intruder and then realized that a helper had shown up. The three birds fed the nestlings until they were old enough to leave the nest.

The stranger was a different species, a Pacific Slope Flycatcher with an upright posture and a slender beak for catching insects – a migrant who spent its winter in Southern Mexico. When the fledglings left the nest, the Flycatcher was out of a job. It called repeatedly for its lost family.

Come celebrate early summer at the Native Plant Garden, where you can enjoy orange poppies, blue and purple verbena, iris and fragrant sage. Stop at the sandstone fountain for wildflowers, birds and grand views.

A Garden at Each End

Eastview is a bit of a loner, located at the far southeast corner of the Samarkand property. The live oak trees from Oak Park climb up the slope to provide a protective background around our Native Plant Garden. L-shaped Eastview with its porches and patios complete the sheltering of the garden within its two wings.

On their porch, Joyce and Allan Anderson have assembled a whimsical collection of pots and mostly succulent plants. Even the walls and doors showcase unusual art pieces, but what is so special is its location under the jacaranda trees with their lacy leaves which filter the western sun. A table and chairs provide a beguiling and private spot for taking meals and entertaining friends. And once a year the jacarandas produce trumpet-shaped flowers which retain their purple color even when they fall to the ground. Joyce also provides flowers and seasonal decorations for the Eastview mailbox area.

My own garden is at the opposite end of the building where the light from the north is limited and the sun withdraws completely in the winter. My solution is to hang red ivy geraniums over the railing and to put large pots of lushly green sword ferns on the floor. At the end of the porch, facing a mountain view I have a chaise for napping, reading or doing nothing. A fountain against the east wall provides pleasing music.

What have you created on your patio, balcony or garden area? Contact me if you’d like to share!

Once Upon A Time

I take pleasure in thinking about the Santa Barbara of 500 years ago, before the arrival of the first traders and the mission builders. From the breakwater, I look to the city and the mountains, mentally removing buildings, roads, railroads, and all other signs of human habitation except for a scattering of thatched huts of the original Chumash tribes. As hunters and gatherers, they lived lightly on the land.

Now I will take away all the non-native vegetation. Yes, that includes the palms, which are native only to Palm Springs oases; the eucalyptus, olive and pepper trees; the purple-flowered jacarandas; and all of the other non-native species which later found Santa Barbara to be a suitable home.

I now can see the bones of the landscape, the boulders and rock outcroppings. And the many creeks, most originating in mountain springs and fueled by winter rain. The creeks flow rapidly downhill and when reaching the flood plain, meander to the ocean.

The gentle sloping plain and surrounding hills are an oak savanna covered with grasses and scattered coastal live oak – a perfect habitat for grazing deer, elk and antelope who are stalked by wolves, mountain lions and grizzly bears, the most massive mammal of all.

In today’s Santa Barbara, the distant howl of a coyote or a rare sighting of a mountain lion reminds us of the wild past of our unique locale.

Montecito Peak – My Volcano

I have a fine view of Montecito Peak from my east-facing windows. Perched at the south end of the Santa Ynez mountains, Montecito Peak is shaped like a cone, while the rest of the range, with its sheer cliffs and rock outcroppings, has an undulating profile against the sky.

Put a fragment of cloud on the top of the peak and it’s easy to believe that an eruption is imminent. Magma, which heats the Montecito Hot Springs, is nearby, but a geologist friend assures me that the range, including Montecito Peak, is composed mostly of sandstone that is full of marine fossils from the time when the land was covered by a warm sea.

Montecito Peak with its 3,214-foot summit is definitely worth the climb as you have an uninterrupted view of the coastline from Oxnard to Refugio once you reach the top. Though not a climber, I depend on whether Montecito Peak is visible or not to tell me what kind of a day to expect.

Karin Shelton is a Santa Barbara painter and this image is from one of her note cards. Some of her paintings are on display in the Life Center at the Samarkand.

Looking South to the Ocean

I lived most of my life in the Berkeley Hills where I looked west through the Golden Gate knowing that it is the only sea level break along the coastal mountains. At night, two lighthouse beacons told me where I was – one flashing light on Alcatraz Island just inside the Gate and the other 25 miles offshore on the Farallon Islands.

When I first came to Santa Barbara, I looked for what might be special. I admired the mountains at the edge of town which are twice as high as the Berkeley Hills. Then l remembered that in Santa Barbara you looked due south to the ocean because 30 miles west at Point Conception, the coastline turns abruptly 90 degrees east. Near Ventura the coastline straightens up again and resumes its roughly north/south trend of the rest of the California coastline.

On clear days I can see the profiles of Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands which are part of the five Northern Channel Island group, giving Santa Barbara another distinction in a state with few offshore islands.

And how about another fact: it is the motion of the San Andreas fault over time that has twisted the coastal mountains in the region to also run east/west, which is why on the maps they are referred to as the Transverse Ranges.

But aside from all the interesting geology, what I truly love about the mountains behind Santa Barbara is the way they reflect back the low winter sun to help give us the mild winter climate.

Celebrating California Oaks

Californians love to brag about their trees. We will tell you that we have the tallest, most massive and the oldest trees in the world – the coast redwood, the Sequoia redwood growing in the midSierra and the bristlecone pine which is found in a small area of the White Mountains east of the Sierra.

In my view, we should save our bragging rights for our native oaks – the 20 species (40 if you count the hybrids). some of which only grow in our state. I give my vote to our coastal live oak. This evergreen oak is only found along the coast from Mendocino County to Baja California. The nutritious acorn was the staple food for the Chumash. The women ground the acorns in their stone mortars and rinsed out the bitter tannins in running water. (Now that I’ve found a source of acorn flour, I’m going to try my hand at baking acorn bread).

The coast live oak is the commonest tree species on our campus with three individuals distinguished by their size. One tree, 50 feet wide, spreads across the Life Center courtyard with a luxuriant canopy of small leaves; a second is located in the large lawn below Westview and Northview; and the third, the largest, is next to the Rose Garden with an 80-foot-wide canopy and a stout trunk measuring ten and half feet in circumference. Most often, the oaks are sprouted from an acorn buried by a scrub jay and then forgotten about.

Thank you, Jesus and Pedro for measuring the circumference of the three largest oaks!

All The Work They Do

Last week several of us walked the campus doing a rough count of the trees. We counted 353 individual trees representing 38 species. One member of our group researched the carbon dioxide capture (“sequester”) for many of the species we identified. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed varies with the type of tree, but overall, the trees at Samarkand capture at least 8 tons of carbon dioxide each year while releasing over 6 tons of oxygen.

Through photosynthesis, leaves do some of the work by pulling in carbon dioxide and water, using the energy of the sun to produce the sugars that build trunks, branches and roots. Oxygen is released as a by-product. One large tree can provide a day’s supply of oxygen for three or four people.

The carbon dioxide that trees capture helps clean the air by removing this heat-building greenhouse gas with its negative effect on our environment. Some of the carbon dioxide is released over time when discarded leaves decompose or when a tree dies and decays.

At the risk of being called a “tree hugger,” hug your favorite tree anyway and thank it for all the work it does for you. And take a deep breath, pulling in some of that life-giving oxygen.

The Trees Of Samarkand

How many of us chose to spend our final days at Samarkand because of its natural beauty? The 16-acre campus occupies a knoll above Oak Park with splendid views of the Santa Ynez mountains.

Canary Island Pines

With the manicured gardens of sub-tropical plants and its native plant garden, it is the trees that command your attention. Along with the California native Live Oaks, there are some 25 different species of trees on campus, and according to John Campbell, 100 individual palm trees. Joyce and Allan Anderson came up with the excellent idea of labeling the trees along the walkways with raised signs and lettering large enough to easily read. We hope to produce a pamphlet with more information about the trees that would be interesting to those taking a walk.

In the meantime I’m spending time with individual trees, listening to how the wind gives them a voice. Under the Canary Island Pines, it is a sweet humming. Listening to the Fan Palm can sound like rain falling on a metal roof. I invite you to listen, too!

For more about trees, go to

September 22, 2022

 This is one of the noteworthy days of the year, the fall equinox and the first day of fall. Like the spring equinox six months from now, day and night are roughly equal in length.  The Bewick’s Wren is singing a more joyous song and the Oak Titmouse sings a combination of their spring halleluiahs with their raspy call notes.  Nothing will come of it, of course, and the days will continue to grow shorter by two minutes a day until we are jolted by darkness falling by 7 PM.

In Santa Barbara on the south coast, a 100 miles west northwest of Los Angeles, fall doesn’t really show up until October, when the California grapevine turns red on the fence and the winter birds show up in the coastal gardens.

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Over the last few days, Bay Area birders are plucking my heart strings by reporting the first Golden-crowned Sparrows of the season. I remember those chilly mornings in the Berkeley Hills when I would walk up the street towards the pasture whistling their song. If they had arrived in the early morning hours after a long night’s flight, they answered me with one or two minor key notes.  I would yelp with joy and dance a quick jig.  When I returned home, I made an entry in my notebook, circling the date in red.

 It would be a few more days before the little flocks worked their way into the neighborhood to settle into their winter territories. I wondered if these birds were the ones that had come last year and maybe several years before.  The good news was that they remained until mid or late April, developing the bright yellow crown, before departing for the far north.  During the winter you could count on them singing just before it started to rain.

As far as I know there are no golden crowns in this neighborhood or even in Oak Park.  They are most often reported in weedy fields in open areas like the upper Elings Park.

A single mature male has spent the summer feeding with several Song Sparrows in a clearing near Los Carneros Lake.  Apparently, it declined to join the others of its kind for the migration north in April. Was he damaged in some way or simply lacked the normal instinct, the irresistible urge to migrate?

Hearing the Western Tanagers on the move, I will start listening for our winter birds, though I know it’s probably too early.  I arrived at Samarkand as a reluctant migrant from Northern California at this time nine years ago.  It was during the lull between the seasons. I was disconsolate. I looked for one familiar bird. Finally, there it was — a California Towhee scratching in the leaves alongside the pathway.

Satellite image of Hurricane Kay

Something did arrive early this year, a substantial rain but with hardly a sprinkle here.  Elsewhere, it was enough to signal the annual nuptial flight of the termites when some of these subterranean creatures grow a pair of gossamer wings for a day’s fling above ground in the bright air. The queen ascends high in the sky pursued by ardent males eager to mate with her.  Then as quickly as it began, it was all over and the termites resumed their lives in the dark with a pregnant queen, leaving behind a shimmering carpet of discarded wings. 

Credit: Sylvia Casberg

I had assumed this early storm was like the ones to follow, moving down the coast from the north.  But the cause was Hurricane Kay, an extensive, well-organized storm which had originated off the coast of Baja California, slowly weakening as it moved north to bring varying amounts of rain.

Nature sent us a consolation prize though — a double rainbow which felt more like a gateway to grander things.