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.

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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.