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‘Magic’ oak tree attracts birds to California yard

northern flicker
A Red-shafted Northern Flicker surveys its surroundings. The species is one of at least a dozen bird species that Pete Dunne watched in an oak tree on his in-laws’ property. Photo by vagabond54/Shutterstock

When I first envisioned this column, I saw myself and wife Linda using our retirement to motor around to key birding hotspots, but then came COVID and stay-at-home orders from California Governor Gavin Newsom. California? Yes, while our permanent address is in New Jersey, our winters seem destined to anchor themselves at my in-laws’ home in Central Coast wine country. All in all, not a bad deal.

This is where I came to know the “magic oak,” as I named the 30-foot California oak whose latticework of branches dominates the 3½- x 6-foot window facing east from my upstairs workspace. The oak is a magnet for birds. Almost never are its branches free of feeding or transiting passerines. Prominent this winter are the hordes of Ruby-crowned Kinglets that maneuver through the branches like spit on a skillet, hyperactive, wings flicking over the body. It seems impossible as winter draws to a close that the birds can find any insect eggs or larvae that have not been picked over twice. 

oak tree
Pete Dunne has spotted at least a dozen bird species in this oak tree. The tree is the first in a row of oaks that flank a fallow field on his in-laws’ property. Photo by Linda Dunne

The troupe of Bushtits has largely given up on the tree, although once they swarmed about it like a hungry cloud. Now they use it as a transit hub, and this explains one of the reasons the tree is so heavily used. It is the first in a line of volunteer oaks lining the fence that links the lush gardens south of the two-story ranch to the 4-acre orchard out back. Flanked by house on one side and fallow field on the other, the row of oaks is a narrow bottleneck through which birds pass. Oak Titmice that linger to preen, White-breasted Nuthatches that parry with gravity. Red-shafted Flickers whose looping flight carries them over the neighboring vineyards. Haughty birds with an upright stance and heads elevated, the flickers seem to relish posing for the world to appreciate them. As often as not, one flicker will draw another, which will incite a burst of “whickering” calls before both depart in a flash of reddish underwings. 

When I see flickers, I always recall that it was this species that inspired a young Roger Tory Peterson to devote his life to birds. Of course, it was the Yellow-shafted form of (now) Northern Flicker that drew his exploring finger on that fateful day in the woodlands near his home. As Roger told the tale, the bird was sleeping at the base of a tree and seemed dead, inviting his curiosity. Its rapid transformation into a vibrant, living thing captivated his imagination, so much so that it is Roger’s painting of flickers that graces his headstone in the cemetery in Old Lyme, Connecticut. His widow, Ginny, told me she had to buy the granite engraver a special drill bit to get the detail she wanted. 

Flickers are not the only woodpeckers that favor the magic oak. Acorn Woodpeckers pretty nearly infest the oaks around my in-laws’ place, cavorting like a company of clowns, ferrying acorns they mean to stash. They may account for the location of the magic oak, an acorn dropped in a fortuitous place, near the drip lines, that escaped the lips of foraging mule deer. It seems too far from the grandfather oak to have settled where it did without assistance. But how, then, to account for the row of oaks? I suspect the grandfather oak’s limbs once ranged farther than they do now. Judicious trimming in the name of home maintenance probably truncated the tree’s reach. 

Nuttall’s Woodpeckers are likewise common, and one or two Red-breasted Sapsuckers fuse themselves to the tree’s trunk, where their sunlight-dappled back pattern renders them near invisible. Today, it’s American Robins that enliven the tree, singing the magic incantation that picks winter’s lock. 

Beyond the tree in an adjacent pasture is another oak bearing a Red-tailed Hawk nest. Its occupants mate on the bare branch below the nest when they are not escorting neighboring Red-taileds out of the area. And while I have never seen a Red-tailed in the magic oak, it is a favored hunting perch for the resident Red-shouldered Hawks and the immature female Cooper’s Hawk that sizes up the morning parade of California Quail that edge along the fencerow.

Merlins, kestrels, harriers, Golden Eagle, and White-tailed Kites are fly-bys, as are ravens (honorary raptors). The magic oak is also strategic to the hummingbird feeder, making it an ideal perch for wintering Anna’s Hummingbirds. Rufous Hummingbird? Any day now.

So, it seems this column has grown somewhat sedentary, as I have as I grow long in the tooth.

Getting warmer, now, and this column nears completion. Maybe it’s time for a walk? On the other hand, why bother? With binoculars, I can see the local contingent of Western Bluebirds, Say’s Phoebes, and Western Meadowlarks just fine. And those Yellow-rumped Warblers that infest the garden? They’re brightening up almost hourly. Yes, Audubon’s and Myrtle, both. 

Say, is that a Bewick’s Wren singing? I can barely hear it over the California Thrasher.

I think another cup of coffee is in order and then more perusal of the magic oak, my favorite birding location on the planet today.  

This article was published in the “Birder at Large” column in the May/June 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine. 

Pete Dunne describes his local birding patch

A blooming ‘Winter King’ hawthorn attracts warblers

Five backyards that birds love

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Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne is the author of over a dozen books about birds and birding and the founder of the World Series of Birding. In 2001, in recognition of a lifetime of achievements in promoting the cause of birding, he received the Roger Tory Peterson Award from the American Birding Association. Until 2013, he served as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and vice president for natural history for New Jersey Audubon. He is now New Jersey Audubon’s birding ambassador at-large. His column “Birder at Large” appears in every issue of BirdWatching.

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