Lots of Hawks, Ducks, Geese and an Eagle!

Up at 6:30 again this morning, and I was out the door heading for the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge before 7:00.  It was 38° when I left the house, and was bright, sunny, and chilly all day.  Never got over 54°.  I love this kind of weather!  I had originally planned to go Lake Solano Park today, but something inside me insisted I go the SNWR instead… and I’m glad I did.  Got to see my first Bald Eagle of the season!

CLICK HERE to see the photo album.

The drive to the refuge was unremarkable; I had to stop and put gas in the car, and got some Jack breakfast stuff to eat, then was off again.  It was so clear out, you could see a lot of the foothills and smaller mountains around the valley.  Snow Mountain actually had snow on it… and I could see Mount Lassen in the distance, snow-covered, too… On the way, I counted 15 hawks along the highway…

I got to the refuge around 9:00 am, and juts as I drove into the first lot where the payment kiosk is, I saw a Great Egret fishing in the slough. As I crept forward a little bit to try to get some photos of it, I realized there was a smaller Snowy Egret standing behind it.  A two-fer! That was a nice way to start the morning!  I saw several more egrets along the way.

You could see the silhouette of the Sutter Buttes along the eastern horizon with a layer of fog crawling along below them.  It was neat to see the flocks of geese fly in and land across that backdrop…

An odd happenstance: I came across a flock of American White Pelicans that decided to WALK across the auto-tour route rather than fly… until they spotted my car.  Then little by little they all took off.  Another stunner: I stopped under a big willow tree where I usually see Northern Harrier Hawks.  Today there were no hawks, but there WAS a huge Great Horned Owl sitting up there!  It was dozing, its eyes open just a slit, and it was so well camouflaged it was hard to see it among all the little twiglet branches, but I did get a few photos of it.  I had a similar encounter with a Red-Tailed Hawk that was so covered by branches and stems, I could barely see it…

At another point on the route, something stirred up the Snow Geese, and they filled the air, flying and squawking and carrying on for the longest time.  Most of them settled in the “back 40”, fields a little further away from the auto-tour route which made taking photos a little difficult.  But among the Snow Geese were juveniles (once called “Blue Geese”) and some odd dark-morph ones.

Lots of Jackrabbits here and there, most of them trying to hide out in the tall dead grass or thickets because there were hawks everywhere.  I also saw a little American Kestrel.  I came across a few California Ground Squirrels, and got some close-up shots of one of them.  I also saw a Striped Skunk but – dang it! – it ducked down into its burrow before I could a picture of it.  I have no luck with skunk photos…

Among the ducks were most of the usual suspects: Mallards, Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers, Green-Winged Teals, Cinnamon Teals, and a few Buffleheads.  The Buffleheads were too far away to get any descent still shots of them, but I did get a little video of them diving and popping up in the water. Oh, and I also found some Ring-Necked Ducks (which actually have a ring around their bill); a small group of males and females.  Later, while I was taking some photos of a group of American Coots, two White-Faced Ibis flew in, so I got a little bit of video of them… I didn’t realize it until I got home a looked through my photos, but I got a fuzzy photo of a Blue-Winged Teal, too.  He was slumming with the Mallards.  Hah!

Among the smaller birds were Western Meadowlarks, Song Sparrows, Black Phoebes, and White-Crowned Sparrows.

I didn’t see the eagle until the very last part of the route, just before you head back to the nature center.  It was sitting in a eucalyptus tree above my head, and I had to do contortions out the driver’s side window to get pictures of her.  I assumed it was a “she” based on her size, and the “depth” of her beak.  (In males, the beak opens up to just in front of the eye; in the female it’s deeper, and opens up to the mid-eye, or even behind the eye.)  An older couple came up in a car behind me and at first seemed aggravated that I was stopped near the middle of the road, then they realized the eagle was up there, and I saw huge smiles cross their faces. The hubby leaned outside the driver’s side window of their car to get some photos, too.  That was a great way to end the run.

By the time I got to the front gate of the SNWR it was only about 11:30 am, so I decided to head over to the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge before heading home.  It’s on the way; just outside of the town of Williams.  At Colusa, I saw pretty much the same species of ducks and geese, except for some American Widgeons and the Black-Crowned Night Herons.  There  were also a lot of Great Blue Herons along the sloughs, and I was able to get some fairly good shot of them.

There were also lots of hawks, too, and at one point I stopped to watch a big Red-Tailed Hawk trying to manage a Coot it had been successful in catching. The Coot was too large to eat at all once, and too heavy to fly away with, so the hawk wasn’t sure what to do.  It ate as much as it could, then flew off into a nearby tree – where two other hawks and a Turkey Vulture were sitting, waiting for leftovers. After a few second, the first hawk flew back to its kill, and flew-dragged the Coot off onto a small knoll in the middle of a wet area.  There, the hawks kind of posed for me and I got some really good shots of it with its prey.  I got some video of it spreading its tail and raising its head-feathers to make itself look more formidable.  Such a handsome animal!

I left the Colusa refuge around 1:30 and then headed home.

And here are some video snippets:

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Mary K. Hanson is a breast cancer survivor who, at age 61, took coursework to become a Certified California Naturalist. The author of “The Chubby Woman’s Walkabout”™ blog, Ms. Hanson has also written nature-based feature articles published in regional newspapers, authored over ten books, including her "Cool Stuff Along the American" series of guide books, and has had her photographs featured in books, articles, calendars, on the American River Parkway Foundation’s Instagram stream, and even the White House blog. This year Ms. Hanson is helping to launch and teach a new Certified California Naturalist course through Tuleyome, in partnership with the University of California and the Woodland Library, so members of the public can themselves become certified as naturalists in the state. All of the photos seen on her website were taken by Ms. Hanson herself (unless noted otherwise) with moderate- to low-end photographic equipment more easily affordable to the everyday nature enthusiast. She also occasionally leads photo-walks through the American River Bend Park for the public and is sometimes available for public speaking.