My nature column article on American Coots showed up online with the Lake County Record Bee newspaper. You can read it HERE.
I packed up a tin of dog food and a lunch for me, and we headed out to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge to do some birding. I was hoping to see a Bald Eagle or two… and ended up seeing about SEVEN of them, all different ages from juveniles that looked like they were one or two years old, to full-fledged adults. Bald Eagles don’t get their white head and bright yellow beaks until they’re about four years old, so before that they come in a lot of interesting color combinations.
The first one I saw was in a tree that was pretty far away from the car, so it was almost impossible to get any clear photos of it. The fact that there was a branch right in front of it didn’t help much either. But I could tell it was about three years old. It had a white head, but there was still some brown flecks in the white. It was finishing off its breakfast, trying to keep the scraps from the Ravens and Turkey Vultures that were also sitting in the tree. One of the Ravens flew up very close to it and started giving off this low, rapping-chortling call, like it was begging. So cool! But, dang, I wish it had been just 20 feet closer…
Later along the auto-tour route, I came across a juvenile and an adult. The adult flew off before I could get any decent photos of it, but the juvenile lingered for a while. I think it was about 1 or 1½ years old: still a lot of dark brown overall, and its beak was still dark. While I was getting photos of that one, some guy came up behind me, blowing his car’s horn, so I drove on a bit until I could pull over to the side of the road. As he drove past me he said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for the horn to go off. I leaned against it accidentally when I was moving around in the seat. Sorry. So sorry.” *Sigh* Whatever, dude…
I kept on driving along the tour route, and then came across an adult Bald Eagle sitting in a eucalyptus tree. It was right over the road, so getting photos of it was a little difficult. I had to hold the camera out the driver’s side window of the car at a weird angle and then just shoot, hoping I could get some decent photos. Some of them turned out pretty good, and I got on nice close up photo of the bird’s head.
I actually did the auto-tour loop over again, and ended up being able to see another juvenile (a little older than the second one) and a pair of adults sitting off in one of the partially flooded rice fields. The ones in the field – a male and female – were pretty far away, though, so I didn’t get many clear shots of them.
The other neat find of the morning was seeing a Striped Skunk waddling along the side of the trail. They usually forage at night, so I was surprised it was still out and about. It kept close to the tangle of tule where the wetland hugs the road, so I didn’t get any super clear shots of it, but it was nice to see.
I also got to see all of the usual suspects at the refuge:
Killdeer, House Sparrows, Golden-Crowned Sparrows, White-Crowned Sparrows, Lesser Goldfinches, Jackrabbits, Northern Shovelers, a couple of Mule Deer, Northern Pintails, Savannah Sparrows, Ring-Necked Pheasants, lot of Red-Tailed Hawks and American Coots, Great Egrets, quite a few Red-Shouldered Hawks, Northern Harriers, Snow Geese and Greater White-Fronted Geese, a Nutthall’s Woodpecker, some Western Meadowlarks, Song Sparrows, an immature Pied-Billed Grebe, Black Phoebes, Snowy Egrets, House Finches and a Loggerhead Shrike. Phew!
Even making two rounds of the auto-tour route, I was done by noon, so I headed back home and got there around 1:30 pm. A long day in the car, but I got a lot of photos out of it… and I got to see the eagles I was hoping to see.
I headed over to the American River Bend Park for a walk. It was 34º when I got there, and got up to about 53º when I headed back home.
I wasn’t expecting to see a lot – we’re kind of “between seasons” at the river; all of the birds haven’t migrated in yet and it hasn’t rained enough for the fungi to come out – but the walks themselves always do me good. When I first got there, a light fog was still hanging over the river, so I went to the shore first to try to get some photos of that. Since the flooding earlier this year, the water had receded enough so that the riverside trail was passable again. (At the height of the flood, the river was right up to the trailhead, and beaver had floated up to chew on trees that normally wouldn’t have access to.)
The flood has left its mark, though, with toppled down trees, scraggly flotsam high in the scrub brush and branches of still-standing trees, and rearranged rocks and sandbars. Still, the path was recognizable and I was able to make it through without incident. In places along the way, I could see the tracks of others who had walked along it: humans, dogs, deer, and what might have been a bobcat – fat rounded “fingers” with no toenails.
The trail let out close to what’s now the riverside, but I had to walk over tons of river rocks to get to the water. The rocks are all smooth and beautiful, but are a pain for me to walk across. My arthritis is welding all the bones in my feet together, so my feet don’t bend like they normally should anymore. Traversing uneven ground is a misery for me, but the few photos I got of the fog and a few birds were worth it.
The first creature I saw was a young Herring Gull, preening at the very end of a sandbar. He looked cold and sleepy, waiting for the morning sun to burn through the fog some more so he could warm up. Further up the shore was a Great Blue Heron, puffed up and hunkered down against the chill in the air, but still keeping an eye on the water in case breakfast swam by.
A little further up was a female Common Merganser floating on the water. And then I saw the Goldeneye ducks: mostly females, but several males, too.
Along with the Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), I also caught sight of a Barrow’s Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica), distinguishable by the shape of the blotch on the face of the male. On the Common goldeneye, the blotch is round, and on the Barrow’s it’s like a paint-stroke. The Barrow’s also has “blocks” of white along the wing-line. We don’t get to see Barrow’s Goldeneyes around here much, so it’s always a treat when they show up. I was hoping the boys would do their flip-head dance for the girls, but they were all more interested in eating than in displaying. I got photos (and a little video) of all of them through the haze of the fog.
The other bird species I saw a lot of today were the European Starlings. In several spots, I saw them checking out nesting cavities in trees, going in and out, and talking to each other. I also saw quite a few California Scrub Jays, and one of them posed nicely for me on the humped back of a curved branch. In another park of the park,
I came across an area where smaller birds were trying to get to the last seeds on the now-dead star thistle: Spotted and California Towhees, Dark-Eyed Juncos, Golden-Crowned Sparrows and Lesser Goldfinches. What was surprising was that I didn’t see a lot of Acorn Woodpeckers or Canada Geese. They’re kind of ubiquitous, so to NOT see them is unusual.
Along my walk I also came across some Gouty Stem Galls, the leftover cocoon of a Tussock Moth caterpillar, the chrysalis of a Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, and a few Deer Shield mushrooms. I walked for about 3 hours and then headed home .
I did some journaling and checked my email before heading over to the Cosumnes River Preserve.
The temperature gauge said it was 38º at the preserve, but it felt much colder than that. My fingers were “freezing” every time I took some photos, and I had to stop now and then to plunge my hands into my pockets until they thawed out again. Brrr! It remained overcast for the whole day and never got above 50º (lingering around 45º for quite a while).
I walked around the main wetland area near the boardwalk, then crossed the street, and took the wetland path down to the nature center, then back up to the boardwalk area again. There didn’t seem to be very many birds out, but considering the chill, I wasn’t really surprised.
I did get to see a LOT of Wilson’s Snipes; they seemed to be everywhere. And I also got to see some Ring-Necked Ducks which I think are so handsome. The males have an iridescent brown ring around their neck, but you can’t see it unless the duck lifts up its head and stretched its neck (usually to show off to the females). They’re always a treat to see because they’re only in this area for a short time each winter.
There were also a couple of Turkey Vultures who had found dead stuff to snack on. One looked like it was working on the carcass of a Coot, but the other one looked like it had a goose. The thing was too big for the vulture to lift or move…
On the wetland trail I found some earthball fungus commonly called “Dead Man’s Foot” because it looks kind of like a rotting toe-less foot sticking up out of the ground. The things are gross, but they’re interesting at the same time. As they mature and ripen, the whole thing turns into a huge lump of brown spores… I also found some mistletoe (how appropriate) that was full of berries, so I pulled down a sprig to get some photos of it… and then left it for the birds and squirrels who love those things.
I walked for about 3 hours and then headed back to the house.