At the Nimbus Fish Hatchery, 02-27-18

Around 7:30 I headed over to the Nimbus Fish Hatchery. This was going to be the last day they were going to do the Steelhead spawning, and I wanted to film some of that process for the naturalist students. When I got to the hatchery, nothing was open yet, so I walked the ground for a little while. It was 37º there, but the wind coming off the American River made it feel like 32º. Brrrr!

The visitor’s center opened up at 8:00, which is when the Steelhead spawning was advertised to start… But I was told that it was going to be delayed for an hour or so, so the process could be simulcast to grade schools in the area.

I didn’t want to just stand around for an hour and half, so I decided to brave the cold again and walk part of the trail instead. If nothing else, I could take some photos of that to share with my naturalist class.

Right around the visitor’s center there were lots of Brewer’s Blackbirds, and I also saw some Lesser Goldfinch, a House Finch, lots of House Sparrows and Golden-Crowned Sparrows, and several hummingbirds (Anna’s, I think).

On the river I saw lots of Common Goldeneye Ducks, Common Mergansers (more females than males), Canada Geese, a single Grayleg Goose, Herring Gulls, Ring-Billed Gulls, and California Gulls.

The best find by the river was being able to see gulls and Double-Crested Cormorants lining up on a wire that goes from one side of the river to another. I’m not sure what it’s used for, but the winch-end of the wire is on the hatchery’s side. The cormorants get their “nuptial crests” – that stand out like bushy eyebrows over their eyes — during the breeding season, and we’re right at the beginning of that now. Most of the crests you see are black (which generally means that the cormorant is a resident of California), but occasionally you’ll see one with white crests which generally means they’re migrating down into our area from more northerly regions, like Alaska. I saw one with white crests today. That was a first for me.

CLICK HERE to see the album of photos.

The salmon raceways were empty, even the water had been drained out; but on the trout side of the facility, there were Rainbow Trout in various stages of development in every raceway.

Caught inside the structure, too, were a couple of Black-Crowned Night Herons. They must’ve gotten in when someone opened and the forgot to shut the entrance gate – and then got trapped in there when the place was locked up again. They were looking pretty panicked. The only way to get them out would be to open the gates again and shoo them toward the open door. But opening the gates means other fish-eating birds can get into the raceways, too… A conundrum.

By the time I got back to the visitors center, they were halfway through the filming of the Steelhead spawning, and I didn’t want to interrupt that, so I left.

On my way home, I passed right by the American River Bend Park, so I stopped there for a few minutes just to see if I could spot the Great Horned Owl on her nest that I saw the last time I was there. Yep. She was there, sitting on her nest, dozing away. Because the nest is so high and the lighting around it is so bad, I can’t get very good photos of it, but I took a few anyway.

In the same area, I also saw a mule deer in the distance, several Mourning Doves, a few Northern Flickers, Spotted Towhees, Oak Titmice, and an Audubon’s Warbler. It looks like stands of Stinging Nettles are starting to come again – which may be a bad thing for hikers and campers, but is a good thing for Red Admiral butterflies who lay their eggs on the plants, and whose caterpillars depend on them for food and protection. I only stayed at the park for about 30 minutes and didn’t walk any of the trails.

A Western Screech Owl and Other Critters, 02-24-18

Brrr.  It was 32º this morning when I headed over to Lake Solano Park for a walk and a pre-field trip photo session.  This is the park where I had fallen earlier this month, so I was very much on my guard while I was there.  I got to the park without any ado, and had the parking lot all to myself when I arrive (around 8:00 am), so I was able to park in an easily accessible place. Score!  The rest of my morning went along well, too… and I didn’t fall down once. Hah!

At the park, I was accosted by a peacock looking for handouts when I first got out of my car, but then I didn’t any of the peafowl again throughout my walk (although I could hear them calling to one another across the park).  It was cold enough there in the early morning that some of shallower water was frozen solid.

Bufflehead ducks seemed to be everywhere I looked in the river, females with males around them doing their head-bobbing thing and bullying each other. I also saw Mallards, American Wigeons, some Wood Ducks and lots of Common Goldeneyes. I saw quite a few Great Blue Herons, including one that was very cooperative and let me walk to within about 10 fee of it while it waded in the water.

There are always Canada Geese at the park, but I was surprised to find a pair that were actually hybrids, crossed with Greater White-Fronted geese, so their coloring was way off. As Billy Crystal would say, “This is what happens when cousins marry.”

Along with the ubiquitous Acorn Woodpeckers, I also saw several Northern Flickers (although I had a lot of trouble getting photos of them because they were up so high in the trees and kept moving around), and some Nutthall’s Woodpeckers (a male in one tree and a female in another). And there were California Scrub Jays all over the place; some stashing food in the ground, some picking up twiglets for their nests.

I also saw a Cedar Waxwing (that wouldn’t turn around, so all I got was the back of its head), several Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets, Spotted Towhees, Golden-Crowned Sparrows (eating the flowers off what I think was a fruitless pear tree), Song Sparrows, Pied-Billed Grebes, a few Hooded Mergansers, several Crows, Black Phoebes, a couple of Myrtle Warblers and a Eurasian Collared Dove.  I was teased by Belted Kingfishers all morning, flying back and forth along the shore of the river, but never on the side on which I walking… and they’re so freakin’ fast! I just barely got some a really bad photos of a female in a tree.

I was surprised and happy to see several Phainopepla in the park, both males and females. But the best sighting of the day was of a tiny Western Screech Owl.  I would have completely missed him if a birder-lady hadn’t pointed him out to me… “See the tree with the blue mark on it?” She said. “Now look up where the knots are on it.” Wow!  Amazeballs. He was sitting with his butt in a hole in the side of the tree, dozing, and opened his eyes just a slit to look at me when I took some photos of him. Think of an owl the size of your palm – that’s how little he was.

Find the owl.

Among the plants I could easily identify were Pipevine, Manroot Vine, Miner’s Lettuce and Burr Chervil, tules, cattails… y’know, the usual suspects.

I also saw my first Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly of the season, and got it to sit on my sleeve for a little while so I could take some photos of it.  I think it like that the coat was WARM on such a chilly morning. I could tell by the amount of blue on her hind wings that it was a female.

Here is an album of photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mkhnaturalist/albums/72157690848390452

I walked for about 4½ hours, which is way past my limit, so I was exhausted and achy by the time I got back home.

A Fast Run at the SNWR, 02-22-18

After my work appointment this morning, I had lunch in my car and took a quick run out to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge to clear my head and get some fresh air before the predicted rain came in. I usually do the auto tour in 4 hours; today I zipped through in just 1… but I still got to see this guy (a juvenile Bald Eagle) before I headed back home and finished my work for the day.

Guh! I Broke My Camera!! ( — and a Bit of Myself)

I got to the office around 7:00 am, printed up a grant request letter and got it ready for mailing, and then I headed out for Lake Solano Park. to do a preliminary walk of the trails before our naturalist field trip on March 3rd.  The park is in Winters, about 35-45 minutes from the office in Woodland.  It was chilly, in the low 40’s and a little overcast, but it was still nice “walking weather”. My coworker, Bill got there a little after I did. I was trying to fend off one of the resident peacocks who walked right up to the door of my car looking for handouts when he drove up. Hah!

While I was fending of the peacock, I missed being able to get a photo of a squirrel who went hurrying across the parking lot at the same time with a mouth full of feathers and grass for its nest. Dang it!

Anyway, Bill and I walked down the short driveway from the parking lot to the front gate where the pay-here kiosk was standing.  In the first couple of minutes I managed to get some photos of the peacocks, a tiny White-Breasted Nuthatch, and a Turkey Vulture.  But just as we were about to cross the street from the kiosk to the camping ground to look for the riverside trail, I tripped on the very uneven pavement around the kiosk and fell forward.  I landed HARD on the pavement and dirt, primarily on my knees, and also hit the ground with my right forearm.  I did not hit my head, but I could feel a kind of “whiplash effect” at the back of head and neck (as though my spine shoved forward into the base of my skull).  The impact with the ground was very hard, but I never lost consciousness.

[This is why you should try to have someone with you when you go out into the wild. Accidents happens even in the most benign places.]

When I managed to crawl to a fence and get myself back onto my feet, I noted that I was seeing double and my vision was blurry, so I asked Bill to check my pupils for any sign of concussion. He said my pupils seemed to be of equal size, but he wasn’t able to determine if they reacted normally to changes in light.

I leaned over the fence for a few minutes to let my body process the shock of the fall — maybe 5 minutes — and by the time I stood upright again my vision had gone back to normal, and remained normal for the rest of the day.

I sustained deep bruising, abrasions and some small hematomas on both knees, and it felt like the cartilage or bursa or whatever you call it behind both knee caps was “burning”.  I also sustained abrasions to my right forearm — even through the heavy coat I was wearing — and slight abrasions to the heel of my hands.  I felt pain in the triceps of both of my arms (more so on the right side than the left), like the muscles had been strained in the fall.

Still, I was able to walk (with some but not a lot discomfort; maybe a 6 on a scale of 10), and Bill and I scoped out part of the trail.  While I walked, Bill kept an eye on me to make sure I was okay and didn’t have any other issues with my vision. We were able to come up with a plan of action for the field trip, and also generate some extra questions/fun facts for the naturalist students. So, mission accomplished despite the fall.

My main concern, though, was my camera.  It was smashed in the fall.  The lens was in the elongated telephoto position when I fell, and the entire lens housing was smashed into the body of the camera. I need my camera for the naturalist course, for Tuleyome social media postings and albums, and for my own personal stuff (and being very attached to my camera I feel “blind” without it).  I can take the damaged camera to a shop to see if it can be repaired, but it looks pretty thrashed.  I wasn’t able to take photos with the camera – obviously – for the rest of this trip and had to use my cellphone for photos. It does okay on the close-up stuff, but it sucks for anything else. I couldn’t get descent shots of the other birds we saw along the way.

[[As an aside, Tuleyome agreed to reimburse me for the broken camera, so… yay!]]

I was surprised to see, during our walk, that the Pipevine at the park is already in bloom. That usually doesn’t show its face until March.  We also saw Acorn Woodpeckers, an American Robin, Buckeye trees just starting to get their leaves, lots of Bufflehead ducks in the river, a couple of Bushtits, California Mugwort, Canada Geese, Common Goldeneye ducks, Elderberry bushes, Giraffe’s Head Henbit, some Golden-Crowned Sparrows, several Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets, a Green Heron, Long Stalks Cranesbill, Mallards, Manroot vines in blooms (so you could see the boy flowers and the girl flowers), Miner’s Lettuce, Mistletoe, a Nutthall’s Woodpecker, some Oyster Mushrooms, lots of Poison Oak, a couple of Snowy Egrets, and all sorts of other stuff.  I hope it’s this nice and varied when we take the students there.  I think they’ll really enjoy it.

I was able to drive myself home, but noted that bending my knees to get into and out of the car was very painful.  I opted not to seek immediate medical attention because I didn’t feel “concussed” or that anything was “broken”, and I didn’t want to go to the emergency room if I was just bruised.  When I got home, I took some Aleve, and went directly to bed.

Even though I “hate” the quality of most of the photos I took today, I’m putting them into an album to share with my naturalist students anyway.  You can see the album here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mkhnaturalist/albums/72157691735739781

The CalNat Field Trip #1, 02-10-18

Around 7:00 am we headed out from Woodland to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.  Many of the students had never been there before, and some didn’t even know it existed, so it was kind of an eye-opener for them.

In the early hours it was in 50’s and sunny, but by mid-morning the winds kicked up and were really brutal, blasting everything with the fine dust kicked up by the vehicles on the dirt auto-tour route.

I drove my own car to the refuge, but joined Bill, Nate and one of our students (a young Latino man named Huraira) in Bill’s van when we got onto the auto-tour.  Before that, though, while some in our group took potty breaks, others wandered around the parking lot and nearby wetlands trail.

Our first sighting of the day was a juvenile Bald Eagle who flew up into a tree over our heads, then flew off to another tree further down the trail.  A handful of us followed it and tried to get photos of it, but where it sat in the tree, its head was completely hidden by the foliage, so all we got were shots of its body. Hah!  Others ambled further up the trail and spotted a Cooper’s Hawk, a Red-Tailed Hawk and a Great Horned Owl.  I’m hoping they’ll share their photos with everyone (!).  The student’s assignment for the day was to find and identify 10 bird species, 5 plant species, and 5 other species of their choosing.  There were so many different kinds of birds out today that they were all able to find their 10 birds within just a few minutes.

The one that seemed to give everyone trouble was the “5 other”.  I’d thrown that in there to make them really look around them and focus on what was in front of them.  I told them they could count any critters they smelled or heard along with anything they actually saw.  At next week’s class, we’ll be sharing the lists of what we found.

CLICK HERE for an album of my photos from the trip.

When we were leaving the area where the young Bald Eagle was, we came across some pellets that had obviously been coughed up by raptors. The size of the pellets, and their location, seemed to indicate that they had been cast by very large birds, and someone asked if eagles cough up pellets the same way owls do. We weren’t positive, so we did a little research and found the following:

“The only part of the prey that eagles can’t digest is the fur or feathers. About 12-18 hours after eating prey with fur or feathers an eagle will cough up, or cast, a pellet. A pellet is a compact bundle of indigestible material formed in the stomach/gizzard and covered with mucus.”

 In the pellets we saw there was evidence of fur, some bone fragments, some pieces of turtle shell, claws, snake skin, and other material. Under our collections permit, I picked up a few of the pellets so we could share them with the students at the next class.  I’ll ask Bill to bring our digital telescope along so we all can get a closer look at what the pellets held. ((DID I MENTION THAT I LOVE TEACHING THIS COURSE?!)

After meeting briefly in the parking lot again, I reiterated to the students what I expected them to find and report back about during their drive along the auto-tour route, and then let them go along the route at their own pace.  There were three park-and-stretch spots where we’d all meet and share notes and talk a little bit about what we’d seen, but otherwise, I let the student explore the place on their own – which is the best way to see it.

When everyone was done with auto-tour loop we convened at the picnic tables near the nature center, had some lunch, and explored what the nature center had to offer.  I actually ended up buying two of their books on birds. One was a pocket guide to the most common birds in the Central Valley, and will be great to take along on our future outings.  By the picnic tables were several bird feeders, so the students all got to see examples of a variety of small birds like Lesser Goldfinches, White-Crowned and Golden-Crown Sparrows, and House Sparrows.

We were able to wrangle a portion of the group up to get something a of group photo and then let everyone disburse. Most went home, but a few of them stayed on to try to walk the wetlands trail even though the wind was brutal.

The only big snafu of the day was when I accidentally locked my keys in my car. D’oh!!   Otherwise, I thought it was a fun day.

47 Species in One Day, 02-04-18

The dog and I got up around 6:00 am this morning, and headed out to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.  It was so foggy between Sacramento and Woodland that traffic was moving at a crawl.  There were a few spots where the fog was so thick, I couldn’t see beyond the reach of the headlights, and I almost missed the off-ramp to the gas station because I couldn’t see it… Scary.

It was about 43º when I arrived at the refuge (where it wasn’t foggy at all) and about 67º when I left.

One of the first things I saw was a lone raccoon walking through a pond. I caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye, and pulled into the park-and-stretch area and got out of the car to rush to the edge of the pond to see if I could find him again.  He walked right out from a stand of tules, and stood in the water, staring at me for a few seconds, before walking on again. I got a little bit of video of him, but didn’t get any good still shots.

CLICK HERE to see the full album of photos and video snippets.

I also saw a pair of Northern Harriers harassing a Red-Tailed Hawk. I think the Red-Tail had blundered to near to where the Harriers were setting up their nest — (Northern Harriers nest on the ground, not in trees.) – and the Harriers freaked out.  They were pretty far away from me, and moving quickly in and around the tules, so it was hard to get any photos. Finally, one of the Harriers stopped and rested on top of a pile of dead tules, and I was able to get a few shots of him.

Further along the route, I came across a Bald Eagle sitting by the edge of a pool, up to his “knees” in the water.  I got some video of him just as he leapt up from the shore and took off flying across the wetlands – making the waterfowl scatter all around him as he flew along.

Later, when I had arrived back at the nature center at the end of the auto-tour route to take a potty break before heading back home, one of the docents was outside the building setting up a birding scope. I asked her if she’d seen anything good, and she said, “If you look through the scope you can see an eagle in the tree right over there,” and she pointed to a tree within walking distance of the scope. I looked through the scope, figured out which tree the eagle was in, and then ran to go potty. Hah! When I got back out the restroom, the dog and I walked down the trail to see the eagle. I was able to get photos of him from several different angles, even from directly below him when he bent over a little bit and stared straight down at me. Yikes! (I kept Sergeant Margie close to me so the eagle wouldn’t get any ideas of snatching him.)

While I was out on the trail taking photos of the eagle, I could hear two Great-Horned Owls hooting at one another, so I went back to the docent to ask about them. The owls were in a tree on the other side of the nature center, but the tree was in a restricted area, so I couldn’t get near it. The docent said the owls already had eggs and were brooding.  It was so neat to hear them call back and forth to one another from different branches, the male’s voice is deeper than the female’s. They were hooting softly at one another, first him, then her, then him, then her… It was so sweet.

I had finished the Sacramento auto-tour relatively quickly, so I headed over to the Colusa refuge before going home. Not a lot to see over there, but between the two refuges I saw about 47 different species today.