January 14, 2019

Photo Essay: An Outdoor Museum of Citrus Trees and the Birds Who Live Among Them

Citrus first arrived in California in the late 18th century (thanks to Spanish missionaries), but it took another 100 years for us to truly strike citrus gold — with a type of seedless orange tree from Brazil (by way of Washington DC).

And so was born the “Washington navel,” and legend has it that nearly all of the orange trees of this type that you’ll find in California are descendants of two “parent” trees.

Right up until the late 1930s, citrus was the second largest industry in California—just behind oil.

But by World War II, what was once the “citrus belt” of Southern California was plowed and paved, leaving only a few scattered exceptions.

circa 2017

When the rest of the country (and even higher elevations in SoCal) are under frost and frigid conditions, our last remaining citrus groves—like the one at California Citrus State Historic Park in Riverside, California—are peaking.

I'd been to the park in the middle of summer and in the fall, but I returned this winter to actually see some fruit on the trees and spot some migrating birds. With the help of a ranger and a naturalist, we saw a few Northern flickers (though they could've been gilded flickers), a type of woodpecker—but nothing spectacular.

Birding, however, is like fishing. You have to be patient and wait, and you have to be quiet. It turns out that I needed to ditch my group if I was going to make any interesting bird observations (more on that in a second).

The park is a historic orange grove, though the trees are irrigated and fertilized to nudge them along.

circa 2017

And no public picking is allowed.

circa 2017

But in many ways, it is a working citrus grove...

circa 2017

...with smudge pots that protect the crops from frost...

...and a bounty of fruits (at least, in the winter).

Among the types of oranges that are picked by park staff and sold and served in the visitors center are fisher navels (an early-season crop)...

circa 2017 well as other citrus, like star ruby grapefruit, chandler pummelos...

circa 2017

...and an oddity known as Buddha's finger...

circa 2017

...which they'll even let you taste...

circa 2017

...along with pink lemons, fingerlimes, and more.

During this last visit to the citrus park, I'd heard lots of birds but saw very few of them, even with a guide to help point them out. So, instead of going straight back to my car when we were done, I stood in the parking lot and looked up to see acorn woodpeckers foraging in several of the ornamental palms at the park entrance.

In what I think was a silk floss (or "floss-silk") tree, amidst the giant hanging seed pods and wilted pink flowers, was a flycatcher, fluffy in gray and yellow, alluding to its taxonomy as a Dusky flycatcher but too shy to give me a closer look.

That same tree helped me bear witness to a number of hummingbirds perched on its bare branches, including one startlingly loud one who, by its call and plumage, I identified as a Black-chinned hummingbird.

Maybe my bird IDs are wrong. They're be more accurate with the expertise of fellow (and better) birders.

But there'd be far fewer birds to identify if I hadn't struck out on my own.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Harvesting Oranges in Heritage Park
Photo Essay: The Ranch That Built An Empire of Oranges
Photo Essay: A California Country Home In a Long-Lost Orange Grove
Where to Find the Bygone Citrus Groves of Southern California (via KCET)

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