On a Field Trip for my Certified Naturalist Class

On Saturday, I was up at six and out the door by 7:00 am to go to the Cosumnes River Preserve for a naturalist class field trip. We all met in the parking lot in front of the nature center. I and one of my classmates were the first ones there and while we waited for the others to arrive we got to see a large Monarch Butterfly come in and land on one of the willows trees in front of us.

After everyone showed up, we went into the nature center and stood through a lecture by one of their volunteer docents, Bruce Miller. He talked about the preserve; how all of the sloughs and wetland ponds are managed by man (not by the river) – they’re flooded or allowed to dry out according to whatever the yearly – as are the vernal pools on the property; about the different kinds of animals you can see there, etc. The preserve is over 50,000 acres, but it’s not all “contiguous”; some of the properties are outlying; and some are conservation easements (like the one on Howard Ranch – the ancestral home of Seabiscuit – where the vernal pools are. It was all interesting, but the room was too hot and there was no place to sit down, so I eventually had to step outside and breathe some fresh air. I was afraid I was going to pass out. As soon as I stepped out, several other people did, too… I guess they were just waiting for someone else to open the door first…

When he finished his talk, Bruce came out and asked what our group was training for. I let him know that we were seeking our naturalist certificates and he suggested that I attend the volunteer docent training at the preserve (June 6th and June 20th) and/or volunteer there. They do bird counts, bat studies, habitat restoration projects, etc… and work with the BLM, Fish and Wildlife, the Nature Conservancy and other agencies. Might be a good experience… But I would only want to work out there in the winter and spring. The rest of the year, it’s too hot and dry… I might go to the training anyway (if there still spots open). That means I’d miss the bat handling training on the 6th, but Cosumnes is closer; the bat training is Placer County… We’ll see how things shake out.

We were also told about the bat-watching events being hosted over the summer by the Yolo Basin Foundation. I had thought about going to one of these last year, but didn’t sign up. John, our naturalist class instructor, said these events are awesome and that we shouldn’t miss the opportunity to participate in one… so… , so I signed up for one of those on August 10th during which they’re also going to be serving Sudwerks beer. Sounds like it should be fun.

Anyway, back to the field trip: We walked for about three miles around one part of the preserve. I saw a few new things to add to my naturalist journal. By about 11:00 o’clock it was already 80° outside, and heat and I do not do well together. I finally had to John that I had reached my physical limit, so he found a shady place for me to sit down and then went on the with group – with the promise he’d come back for me in about 30-45 minutes. While I was sitting, I ate my lunch and got to see a few different butterflies, and a small cottontail rabbit came up to pose for photos.

As the rest of the group finished the last loop of the tour and headed back to the nature center, John came back for me and we walked back together. It was a great happenstance for him that he had to stop and take some extra time to come back for me. He’s an avid birder, and while just the two of us were walking he got to see and photograph an Ash-Throated Flycatcher and also got to hear the call of a Black Rail.

Black Rails are considered “threatened” – on the verge of being endangered – and are super secretive. John said he’d read somewhere that one had been heard on the preserve, so he was anxious to find it. On our way back to the nature center, we passed another guy with a camera who said he’d heard the Black Rail over in the tule field on the center trail. So we walked over there, and found a group of three other birders who were also hoping to hear the bird. John took out his cell phone and used his bird call app. The call on the phone sang out, “kick-ee-doo!”… and the Black Rail in the reeds answered it immediately.
Imagine it: four adults holding a hand over their mouth so as not to scream out loud, while they grinned ear to ear and jumped up and down in joy. They’d waited all morning to hear that sound. Hah! It was so cute to see.   John was so ecstatic that on the rest of the way back to the center, he was laughing, giddy, and pumping his fist, “yes, yes, yes!” Sort of how I’d probably act if I’d met Tom Hiddleston. Hah-ha-ha!

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According to Cornell Laboratory’s “All About Birds” site: “…The smallest rail in North America, the Black Rail is perhaps the most secretive too. This small denizen of shallow salt and freshwater marshes is rarely seen and its distinctive call is heard primarily at night…” So it was a cool thing that we were able to hear one in the early afternoon… and that we were able to hear one at all.

When we got back to the center, everyone else was sitting outside at the covered picnic tables. While the others ate their lunch, John recapped our walk – and announced he’d heard the Rail – and helped to identify some of the sparrows and hummingbirds we saw around the tables. He also told us about some other local places to see birds: Elk Grove Park (on Elk Grove and Florin Roads), Camden Pak (on Camden Lake Way in Elk Grove), and along the levies on Twin Cities Road (from I5, turn left onto Twin Cities and go about 7 miles…) So, now I have some extra places to add to my “go to” list…

I went straight home after the field trip, and was too tired to put together anything for “linner”, so I tried a new place on theGrubhub.com list: Chic Express, they do Thai and “Asian” food. I ordered spring rolls, pot stickers, Yum Woon Sen salad (glass noodles and prawns tossed with vegetables in a spicy lime dressing), and Five-Spices chicken. It was all brought to the door within about an hour, and everything was incredibly delicious: fresh, super tasty. I was very pleased.

A Tribute to My Brother Miles

My tribute to my brother.  ©2015 Mary K. Hanson.  Al rights reserved.
My tribute to my brother. ©2015 Mary K. Hanson. Al rights reserved.

I am all cried out, but still emotionally exhausted. I wanted to do a little private farewell ceremony for my brother Miles who passed away over the Memorial Day weekend in his apartment in Texas, so I took a photo of him out along a trail that runs along the side of the American River. He always loved green places. I found a tree that is accessible from the trail, but not so close that you can see the river-facing side of it from the trail. In the base of that tree , facing the water, is a natural hollow, like a “tree womb”. I put the photo in there – so Miles can “see and hear” the river – and decorated it with some wild fennel, woodland clarkia, rattlesnake grass (because I think it’s pretty) and some wild herbs. I said a quiet “farewell” and an “I love you”, and then I went on with a longer walk. I know it’s just a “symbol” but it means a lot to me to have done it.

Here are a few more photos of him from his Facebook page:

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Lots of Bird Encounters

After saying goodbye to my brother, Miles, I looked in on the Red-Shouldered Hawk fledgling at the American River Bend Park, and also briefly encountered his mother who did NOT like me hanging around her baby’s tree.  She screeched at me and then sky-rocketed over me.  The baby is almost fully fledged.  He’ll probably be flying by next week.  I also saw the Wrens, Tree Swallows, and a couple of pairs of Western Bluebirds at their nests.  I thought I was getting video of one of the bluebird nests but when I got home I realized I didn’t have it.  The nest was low enough that I was hoping the camera could see inside of it and catch a glimpse of the babies. I could hear them chirping… but I must not have pressed the record button hard enough.  Dang!  I then found a Mourning Dove nest tucked away in the “elbow” of a tree.  It was camouflaged so well that I didn’t see it until it was right in front of my face.  Mama was sitting on it, perfectly still, perfectly quiet.

Along the river, I came across a large flock of Turkey Vultures.  Some were sitting on a large flat rock in the water; others were up in the trees in front of me and over my head.  Most of them flew off when I approached — shy creatures — but there were a couple of brave ones that stayed around long enough for me to get some photos of them.  While I was watching them, they were watching a family of Canada Geese swimming along the river bank: two adults, two fuzzy silver-gold goslings, and two fledglings that were just starting to come into their adult coloring.  The vultures didn’t bother them.

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While I was walking, another photographer came along and said there was a Cooper’s Hawk nest by the horseshoe pit area, so I drove over there, but I couldn’t find the nest.  That ARE always well-hidden though. While I was there, I took some photos of a pair of male Wild Turkeys that were napping in the shade before I headed home – and pretty much collapsed for the day.

Bats and Herps at my Naturalist Class

Tonight we had two critter lectures, went out into the field for about an hour, and then had another hour of general lecture, so it was a busy night.  We heard first from Sam Bachinni who’s a self-taught herpetologist (snakes, reptiles, etc.) and botanist.  He showed us photos and told us about the different kinds of reptiles, amphibians, turtles and tortoises we could find in the surrounding area.  I now have a whole checklist of new critters I want to go searching for, hah!  He told us that the best time to go look for amphibians, for example, is in the winter and spring months before it gets too hot, in areas where there’s fresh water that doesn’t have a lot of fish in it… And for the best viewing go out on full moon mornings because that’s when the Tiger Salamanders are out and about.  Get up above 800 feet in elevations, too, or pickings are slim. Now, see, THAT’S the kind of information I need!

Sam also said that the easiest way to tell a turtle from a tortoise is to look at its hind legs.  Tortoises have “elephant legs” in the back – short stumpy legs with a flat bottom – whereas turtles have more splayed feet that turn out to the sides.  I didn’t know what.

When Sam was finished with his presentation, we heard from Dan Neil.  He’s a bat expert, who is also into wild flower identification, insects and mycology.  He was a far more engaging and interesting speaker than Sam, but was pressed for time – our instructor John wanted to get us out into the field, and Sam had talked a bit longer than expected – so he whizzed through his presentation.  His talk included information on “megabats” (large bats, like fruitbats, that have small ears, large eyes, and don’t use echolocation) and “microbats” (which are the small ones we most often think of as classic bats with large ears that do use echolocation..  The bats most commonly found in our region include: Big Brown Bats (which have a lot of complex vocalizations), Great Mastiff Bats (who’s echolocation sonar is actually audible to human ears…”chip, chip, chip!”), Pallid Bats (light colored guys that roost in crevices), Hoary Bats (large furry bats with silver tips that are usually solitary and like to hang out in foliage), Western Red Bats (that look like winged pug dogs and live in riparian habitat), Mexican Free-Tailed Bats (that live in huge colonies under the Yolo Bypass and under the franklin Road bridge; their tails aren’t connected to their wings by webbing like most other bats), and Canyon Bats (that look like Siamese cats: blonde body and a black face).  More critters to add to me “I want to see these” list!

Things to look for when you’re searching for bats, Neil says, (besides guano) are urine stains on trees or buildings/construction and “pissicles” (really, that’s what they’re called) which are stalactites of crystalized urine.  Also look for “exfoliating trees”, trees where the bark is loose and shedding off, because bats like to climb in under the bark to roost.  When we went out into the field after the talks, we found several exfoliating trees on the nature preserve grounds, and checked out one of their bat boxes… no bats, though.  Sam said the best way to tell birds from bats in the low-light of dusk and dawn is that bats flaps their wings constantly and birds flap-and-glide.  “If it’s gliding, it’s not a bat.”  Good to know.

As an aside, I have the opportunity to go to a bat rehabilitation training in Placer County on June 6th.  Even though I don’t have any experience in it – and can’t handle the bats because I don’t have a pre-exposure rabies vaccination – I think I’d like to go just for the learning experience.  It only costs $10 to attend, but it’s about a 2-hour drive one way to the rehab center.  I’ll have to think about, but it sounds like a kewl thing to watch.

Anyway, during our field exercise for the night, we also went to another small made-made pond on the preserve surrounded by rushes, grasses, sedges and other vegetation, and learned a children’s poem to help tell them apart:  Sedges have edges… Rushes are round… and grasses, like asses, have holes.  Hah-ha-ha-ha-ha! Along the route we also came across a large deer skeleton.  It still had some of the hide on it, but all of the meat and organs were gone.  I took a few photos, and some video of Sam speaking and our teacher John trying to see if there was an owl in a tree (there wasn’t.)  He also has an app on his cellphone with bird calls on it, and he held his phone up and played a Screech Owl call… and a dog in an adjacent yard started barking in response.  D’oh!


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Then it was back to the nature center for a short lecture on producers, consumers, and decomposers in the animal kingdom before we headed home for the night.

Lots to See at the River Bend Park Today

:  I got up with the dogs around 6:30 am and then went over to the American River Bend Park for my walk without having any breakfast.  I spent about an hour or so walking along the riverside, looking at and photographing the plant-life there: rushes and sedges, dove weed, hemlock, and a whole catalog of other stuff which will look great in my naturalist journal.  I’ve noticed all along that on some of the dead willows I’ve seen there are little cluster-structures that look like pine cones, and I never knew what they were.  While I was researching the Narrowleaf Willows I saw along the river, I found out that the structures are actually galls caused by midge larvae (Rabdophaga strobiloides).  The larvae enter the stems of the willows and secrete a chemical that tells the willows to form “leaves” over them… The “leaves” form a little pointed end ball over the larvae that look sort of like tiny pinecones.  How kewl is that?!

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While I was at the river, a Spotted Sandpiper flew right up onto a log in the water in front of me and I was able to get a lot of photos (and some video) of it.

Then I drove the car over the camping area, and walked around there for about 3 more hours.  While I was photographing some Mourning Doves and a pair of Western Bluebirds, the rangers drove up beside me and said, “There’s a Red-Shouldered Hawk next right over there beyond that truck, and it looks like there’s a hawk in it right now.”  They then drove a few feet around the camping area, and pointed out the tree to me.  I was able to get photos and video of the fledgling hawk standing on the rim of the next.  So neat.  The bird was well camouflaged ad I would have missed him completely if the rangers hadn’t pointed him out to me.

I also watched A White-Breasted Nuthatch fly over to the bluebirds’ nest and peak in – right before the male bluebird flew in and chased the nuthatch away.  Hah!  Then I watched a pair of Wrens feeding their tree full of babies.  I could hear the hatchlings peeping inside of the tree and caught a glimpse of them one time when their parent flew by.  The entrance to their tree-hole nest was more like a slash in the side of the tree, and at first I couldn’t believe the birds were actually able to get into and out of it, but they squeezed through the entrance without a problem.  I then walked up the trail a bit and found the Tree Swallows’ nest again.  The parents were tag-teaming, feeding the babies in shifts.

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As I was leaving the Tree Swallows, I came across a pair of Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies – a male and a female – chasing each other over the trail.  I stopped to watch them, hoping I could get some good photos, but I was interrupted by a group of ladies who came up the trail being me.  They wanted to get past me, but I asked them to wait to see if the butterflies settled down together.  “It’s a mating pair…” I told the women, and they all stopped to watch the butterflies.  I got to tell them a little bit about the butterflies’ mating behaviors while they watched – doing my “naturalist” things.  When the butterflies moved on, so did the group of woman, and as the last one passed me she said, “See you in class on Tuesday.”  I did a double-take and realized she was the younger girl from the naturalist class (the youngest one in the class).  I had to laugh; small world!

I took so many photos and video clips during my walk that I burned through two batteries!  By the time I got to the car it was after 11:00 am, so I headed back home, stopping for sandwiches on the way to have for lunch.  I then crashed for the rest of the day.