HERBERT WETLAND PRAIRIE PRESERVE
Photos for this article by: Scott Artis, John Greening, Bobby Kamansky, Gary Lindquist, Laurie Schwaller, Linda Wentz, Nikki Woodard; and courtesy of Flickr.com.
Videos for this article by: Scott Artis and Rob Hansen
NOTE THESE LINKS:
1. Checklist of Birds at the Herbert
2. Annotated Herbert Bird Checklist- Introduction
3. Annotated Herbert Bird Checklist Graph
4. Herbert Checklist of Birds Doubled
Some Birds of the Herbert Preserve
by Rob Hansen
The 725-acre Herbert Wetland Prairie Preserve protects the largest remaining piece of natural prairie on the floor of Tulare County. It provides food and shelter for dozens of different kinds of birds, which in turn provides wonderful opportunities for even beginning birdwatchers to enjoy the sights and sounds of avians flying, feeding, courting, hunting, and sometimes even vanishing underground.
Chances of seeing lots of birds are especially good in wet winters and springs, when the preserve's seasonal vernal pools produce exceptionally abundant food for residents and migrators alike.
The migrating birds, including ducks and sandpipers, can easily see the little vernal pools even from a great distance as they fly over the Valley, because the pools reflect sunlight at all different times of the day. They form the most productive wetland food ecosystem for birds in the Central Valley, more so even than a freshwater marsh, because there are no fish in these vernal pools to take any of this food away.
If good rains keep the pools wet long enough, a pair of ducks can lay eggs in a nest near a vernal pool, raise a brood of young, maybe ten or twelve ducklings, and then they can do it again, raising two broods in one season. That would be really unusual in a freshwater marsh, but a vernal pool is so productive that it creates exceptionally valuable wetlands.
Not all the birds that visit and reside at the Herbert are there every day, but visitors can almost always find watchable birds at the preserve, from delightful burrowing owls, to powerful raptors, to wetland species like egrets, herons, and sandpipers. Migrators pass through the area in spring and fall, winter species spend the wet months there, and summer birds come to nest.
Burrowing owls are there year round, and are seen most easily and in the greatest numbers during drier years. Also called "ground owls," these small owls live in the earth, but they don't dig their own burrows; they just take over old squirrel holes.
When my grandfather was a young man in the Valley, folks called burrowing owls "howdy owls," because when a flying burrowing owl lands near you, on its long legs, it will quickly bob its head up and down to triangulate on you and figure out how close you are.
In our best year so far, we had seven pairs of burrowing owls on the Herbert, and each pair can raise five to eight young. To be able to see twenty to thirty small owls on a single piece of property on a single day is truly remarkable.
The preserve is large enough to attract several kinds of birds of prey. We've seen as many as three golden eagles at once foraging over the prairie for ground squirrels. Those squirrels end up as food for red-tailed hawks, as well. The white-tailed kites eat mostly a small brown meadow mouse that is related to the voles and lemmings of the Arctic.
Harriers, including a small falcon called a merlin, also hunt on the Herbert. Merlins are in California only during the winter months; they don't nest in our state at all. But the Herbert's open prairie is their perfect hunting ground. They go after small birds like horned larks, sparrows, and other birds that flock in fields, like blackbirds. To see a merlin hunt is a most memorable wildlife experience. Selecting its target, the merlin accelerates with blinding speed, closes unbelievably quickly on its prey, catches it in mid-air, and then brings it swiftly to the ground to feed on it.
Just walking along the edge of the preserve in a good wet season, you can look over the mounds and see flocks of mallards and widgeons and green-winged teal, sometimes even Canada geese. Over fifteen different kinds of sandpipers and plovers and phalaropes have visited the pools and the slough.
So far, more than 150 different avian species have been counted at the Herbert. Bring your binoculars and a field guide and see what flies in on your day at this fascinating wetland prairie preserve.
NOTE: Now read Rob Hansen's THE MYSTERIOUS LIFE OF VERNAL POOLS