National Public Lands Day, 09-30-17

It’s National Public Lands Day! And by coincidence, I got my lifetime “Senior Pass” to all of the national monuments and public lands in the mail today.  The passes are going up in cost to about $80… but I ordered mine before the price hike so it only cost me $10.  Such a deal!

I slept in a tiny bit and got up around 6:30 am, then headed out the door to the Effie Yeaw Nature Preserve for a walk.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

The first thing I saw when I went into the preserve was a small flock of female wild Turkeys chowing down in the grass… and then I could hear a Red-Shouldered Hawk screeling in a tree nearby, so I went to see if I could find it.  It was up pretty high in the branches of a tree, but I got a few photos of it.  I was so focused on keeping an eye on the hawk as I was walking that I went right past a mother Mule Deer and her fawn, and didn’t notice them until I turned around on the trail and started walking back up it again. D’oh!

Further along the trail, I could hear a California Ground Squirrel giving out one of its loud “Chip! Chip! Chip!” alarm calls, and although I couldn’t see the one shouting the alarm, I did see other ground squirrels around stop moving or stand up to try to figure out what was going on.  One of them stopped right on a length of an old, dried up, felled tree and sort of posed for me…

Along the river side, I could hear Spotted Towhees, California Quail, Killdeer, and a Belted Kingfisher, but never caught sight of them. Dang it!  What I did catch sight of, though,  was something I’d never expected to see there: a male Phainopepla (pronounced fain-oh-PEP-la.) They’re about the length of a jaw, but super thin and svelte-looking. The males are shiny blue-black with deep red eyes and they have a crest on the top of their head.  (Females look almost the same except that they’re a shiny ash-brown in color.)  It was sitting up on the top of an Interior Live Oak tree and was pretty far away, but with the “birding” setting on my camera I was able to get some fairly good shots of him.

The oak woodland/riparian habitat at the preserve is actually kind of perfect for it, but I’ve never seen one of them at the river before, so it was a nice surprise. Phainopeplas are kind of unique in that they breed twice a year in two different places: scrubby deserts/chaparral and woodlands. When they’re breeding in desert areas where food can be scarce they’re very territorial, but when the birds breed in woodland areas they’re “colonial” and often share nesting trees with others of their species.  They eat mostly berries, and love mistletoe berries…

I also saw some of the Turkey Vultures around: one adult standing in its “heraldic pose” in a tree, warming itself in the sun; and the juvenile I’d seen last week.  He was sitting in a different tree and pretty far away, but I recognized him by his gray head. I wonder if he’s flying better now that he was a week ago… The adult vulture kept its eye on me as I walked past it, and eventually folded its wings shut and turned around to face me as I got nearer to it.  Despite their size, Turkey Vultures are pretty much “harmless” birds, and don’t have the talons other raptors have that can rip your eyes out. Still, I gave this one a wide berth so I wouldn’t freak it out too much.

Along another loop of the trail I found a queen Yellow Jacket looking for a spot to overwinter… and I found the hive of bees again that’s I’d seen about a month or so. Apparently, they’re going to stay there, at least over the winter months. I could see that the grass from the trail to the tree was tamped down, which I assume was done by the rangers and docents at the preserve (walking back and forth as they kept an eye on the developing hive). I hope they leave it alone; it’s be a great teaching tool – and they’ll get some honey out of it.  I usually keep firmly to the trails in this preserve (because it’s kind of small and going off-trail can really impact the wildlife here), but because the ground was already tamped down near the bee-tree, I stepped in a little closer to it.  I’m assuming these are European Honey Bees and not Africanized Bees. As long as I kept my distance, they didn’t seem to mind my being there and just went on with their “terraforming” duties.  It would be neat to get an x-ray or sonograph of the inside of the tree: I wonder if there’s a long tunnel through it that leads to an underground chamber, or if the bees are actually filling up the entire tree with their hive… Where is my money from Publishers Clearing House?! I have scientific studies I want to do! Hah!

Near where the Yellow Jacket was I found the first outcropping of Sulphur Shelf fungus this season. This is a kind of fungi that doesn’t like real wet weather, so it shows up before the winter rains start.

I saw a lot of turkey and raccoon tracks along the trails…and lots of fresh coyote scat. Those guys were pooping everywhere!

As I was heading out of the preserve, I came across two young bucks play-sparring with one another. By their antlers, I’d guess they were both about 2½ or 3 years old. They’d graze for a while, then joust a little bit, then go back to eating, then joust a little bit. They were behind a thick tangle of vines and shrubs so I couldn’t get any really decent photos of them, but they were fun to watch. This is the start of the rutting season for these guys, so I should be seeing a lot more of the larger males out here soon.  As I was watching the boys joust, several female Wild Turkeys tip-toed by and then hurried down the trail in front of me. They’re such funny things… big as trucks, but so shy.

I also stopped at the pond on my way to the parking lot, and found a bunch of bullfrogs. One of them was actually sitting on top of a big leaf in the water, posing for everyone. Others were more difficult to spot: hiding under umbrellas of grass or blending in with the green of the water foliage… I walked for about 3 hours at the preserve.

At the Silver Spur Ranch, 09-24-17

I spent the majority of the day to/from/at Tuleyome’s Silver Spur Ranch property with my coworkers Nate, Bill and Kristie.  We were supposed to be going out there so Zarah Wyly from the Sacramento Tree Foundation could check the place out, in anticipation of doing an acorn gathering event there.  But I also wanted to go to check the place out in anticipation of (hopefully) receiving the grant from the Sacramento Zoo to do field studies on the property… and to take photos.  We don’t have enough photos of the properties Tuleyome owns, mostly because staff has never been allowed to go out to any of them; and the people who DO go out take very few, mostly crappy photographs. (Hah!)

This time of year the place isn’t very “pretty” – lots of dead grass and no water in the “crick”.  But we still found a few interesting things to look at including some mountain lion scat(!) and coyote scat, some cool galls including one called a “Coral Gal” of the wasp  Disholcaspis coralline, and a nest made by Blue Mud Wasps (Chalybion californicum).

We also found a lot of baby Blue Oaks – but they were pretty munched down by the deer and elk.  We’ll need to build cages around them to protect them until they can grow a little bit more.  Baby Blue Oaks are something of a rarity because the trees grow so slowly and when they’re mature may only produce acorns every three years or so; and the acorns are tasty to animals so they get gobbled up a lot.  There has been a severe decline in Blue Oak seedlings in California over the last 50 years… and invasive grass species which take water away from the acorns just as they’re starting to germinate seems to be one of the major culprits.  It might be cool to do a long-term study at the ranch to see how the tree population does there over time.

CLICK HERE to see the full album of photos.

Encounter with a Juvenile Turkey Vulture, 09-23-17

I headed out to the Effie Yeaw Nature Preserve and it was 48º when I got there. Fall has fallen. I love it when it’s like this!

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos and video snippets.

Saw some deer right off the bat, and a European Starling poking its head out of its tree-cavity nest. I also got to watch an Acorn Woodpecker trying to pull green acorns off of a tree so he could stash them in his troop’s granary tree (the tree where they keep all of their nuts and acorns and winter food).

They drill new holes into their granary trees only during this time of the year, when the sap in the tree is running low, so they don’t kill the tree. Then they find acorns and other food stuff and shove them into the newly drilled holes for the winter. In the spring and summer, you may see them banging on the trees, too, but they’re not drilling new holes then (except maybe for their nesting space); instead, they are moving those nuts and acorns that have shrunk in size from one hole to another to wedge them in more tightly. They’re such ingenious little birds, and funny too. They’re a hoot to watch.

Among the deer I saw a lot of does, some does with fawns (out of their spots and growing bigger), some bucks with their full racks of antlers (no long covered in velvet) and even a young “spike buck” (only one point; so he was around 2 years old).

The highlight along my walk today, though, was coming across a fledgling Turkey Vulture. It was full size but didn’t have all of its adult feathers in yet, and it couldn’t fly very well. It’s face was still grey (not red yet) and its beak was still metallic black (instead of bone white). I spotted it first in the low branches of a tree, and tried to get photos of it through the branches. It worked its way up to a slightly high branch, flew clumsily over my head and landed on a dead skag-tree. It then walked up the naked branches of that, and parked itself on the top of the tree. I got several photos of it and then realized an adult Turkey Vulture was flying in low circles around the skag.

As I watched, the adult flew into the upper branches of a nearby tree, and the youngster flew to it, kind of crashing into a branch just below the adult. The adult then fed the youngster and flew off again. So cool! At one point while I was taking photos of the juvenile, several people came up and looked on. I explained to them that they were seeing a juvenile and what differences to look for between adults and their babies. They all pulled out their cell phones to take photos. A teaching moment. It was fun.

You can see the video here.

On the way out of the preserve, I stopped at the frog pond… and two other “old women” with cameras came up to join me in finding and taking photos of the bullfrogs there. It was obvious that the pond had recently been cleaned out: it was easier to see the bottom of it today than it has been for a long time; most of the cattails were gone; and the pond had been scraped free of a lot of duckweed. All of the full grown, large-as-your-hand bullfrogs were also gone. But the pond was full of minnows, tadpoles and small bullfrogs, so there was still a lot to look at (and all of the remaining frogs seemed to be females).

It eventually became a kind of jovial contest between us old ladies over who could find the best angle on the loveliest frog. Hah! We had more fun there than the kids who passed by did. (This is why I’d rather host nature outings for adults than for kids.)

I walked for almost four hours (phew!) and then headed home.