River Views

by Malcolm Macdonald, March 21, 2012

March is a month of change. Winter often goes out holding a thunderous grudge. Sometimes the wild weather brings in exotic birds, blown dramatically off migratory course by El Nino-like storms. The “Big Year” record for most birds sighted in North America (745) occurred in 1998 during El Nino conditions. Earlier this month a snowy owl perched just a hundred feet from where this column is written. The snowy owl is the official bird of Quebec. Its summer home is above sixty degrees north latitude. Sightings in California are rare; however, young snowy owls can prove particularly nomadic in search of prey.

The appearance of a snowy owl is thought, by some, to be a harbinger of prolonged wintry weather conditions. This particular snowy owl was most likely a young male, splatters of brown-black speckled its wings and a white bib extended well into the chest area. Snowy owls allegedly remain silent south of their breeding grounds. This fellow emitted not a sound while perched on a redwood branch for more than an hour.

This snowy owl may have been a lone winter visitor or he may have been part of one of the periodic snowy owl “invasions” noted as far back as the 1830s in the lower 48. During the winter of 1896-97 flocks of snowy owls were reported here in California. Snowy owls are not overly wary of humans. During the invasion cycles (some studies put these cycles dozens of years apart, others say irruptions happen as frequently as every four years) snowy owls have swiped at fur hats, captured a squirrel’s tail flying from an automobile’s radio aerial, and been found in steel traps set for wildcats. The last example may provide the key to why snowy owls periodically fly so far south. They are driven by a desperate search for food, exacerbated by the lengthy flights. In their Arctic breeding grounds snowy owls feed primarily on lemmings, mice, and other small rodents, but so do Arctic foxes. The best guess for snowy owl invasions to the south involves the cyclic drop in lemming and mice populations combined with a population rise amongst the competition, Arctic foxes.

The snowy owl seen at the Macdonald Ranch may have been scouting and hopefully devouring some of the mice that have grown so populous that last fall Kevin Young’s Auto Repair had to list “removed one mouse nest” on an otherwise routine maintenance check. No charge for the mouse nest removal.

Another bird that locals might spot far more readily is the Eurasian Collared Dove. It is not a lost migratory hunter, but a dispersive invader. As the name implies these doves have a black band, or collar, that runs around the back of their necks. They were unknown in the United States before the 1980s, but in three decades have spread from the east coast to the west in massive numbers. Their effect on other birds and the surrounding environment has yet to be determined.

As yet to be determined are the long term effects that will be felt as a result of the short noticed eviction of the Bay View restaurant from its Main Street location in Mendocino after 25 years of business. A two eggs, potatoes and toast breakfast cost $4.95 when the restaurant opened and has only risen to $6.95 currently. Meanwhile rent for the second-story property has run as high as $7,000 dollars per month. Total rent for the last quarter century approaches $2 million. Last breakfast: March 25th.

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