Lots of Wrens and Squirrels, 03-24-18

Around 6:30 am I headed out to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge with the dog. They’ve opened the loop to the permanent wetlands area, so I wanted to see what that looked like these days – and I needed a nature fix. The mountains around us, which aren’t too terribly tall, had snow on their summits, and a light dusting of snow all down their flanks (which had pretty much melted by the end of the day today). It was 44º when I got to the refuge and around 51º when I headed back home. Clear and bright, though. I got some nice scenery shots while I was out there.

I saw most of the usual suspects while I was out on the preserve; and for the most part I had the place all to myself. I only saw two or three other cars on the auto route when I was driving it (although, a phalanx of cars showed up just as I was leaving. I assumed it was a birding group who were there to see the fly-out at dusk.)

CLICK HERE for the album of photos and videos.

Jackrabbits and Cottontails were out, and I also got a glimpse of a Striped Skunk and a small herd of mule deer. Otherwise, it was mostly birds. The huge-huge flocks are gone now, but there’s more variety in the different kinds of species you can see out there (if you know where and how to look for them.)

I saw American Coots, American Wigeons, Killdeer, Red-Winged Blackbirds, several Great Egrets, Western Meadowlarks, some Northern Harriers, White-Faced Ibis, Great Blue Herons, Song Sparrows, Green-Winged Teals, Northern Shovelers, White-Crowned Sparrows, a couple of Red-Tailed Hawks, lots of Double-Crested Cormorants, Pied-Billed Grebes, Ruddy Ducks, Ring-Necked Ducks, Cinnamon Teals, Golden-Crowned Sparrows, a Belted Kingfisher, Audubon’s Warblers, Black-Necked Stilts, Tree Swallows, Long-Billed Dowitchers, Snowy Egrets, Gadwalls, a Red-Shouldered Hawk, some Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Goldfinches, House Sparrows, an Anna’s Hummingbird, and several Crows. And, of course, this time of year the Marsh Wrens are out everywhere building their nests and singing their buzzy songs trying to attract females. I got lots of photos of them.

At one spot along the route, I came across an area where there were several Ibis and Snow Egrets gathered, and a Great Egret standing nearby. One of the Ibis caught a crayfish in the water, but as soon as it lifted it up, about three of the Snowy Egrets went after it, making the Ibis drop its meal. One of the Snowys picked it up and tried to fly off with it, but then the great Egret flew over and body-slammed the Snowy making it drop the crayfish, too. The Great Egret then had to search through the turbid water to find the crayfish again so he could eat it himself.

I saw only one of the Ibis starting to get its white breeding face, and the Snowy Egrets I saw aren’t showing any signs of their breeding plumage yet. But some of the Great Egrets are… and their faces are turning neon green: a signal to other Great Egrets that they’re ready and available for mating.

I also got quite a few photos of California Ground Squirrels. I’m just enamored with those little guys. If I had the time and funding, I’d love to be able to a long-tern field study on them. This is the time of year when the females have all set up their natal chambers in their burrows and are lookin’ for love. I saw one pair of the squirrels though in which the female was not at all interested in the male who kept harassing her. Maybe she already had babies in her burrow she needed to take of, or she just wasn’t that into him, but their antics were hysterical to watch. I got a little bit of it on video and in photos, but they just don’t do the comedy justice. The male first approached the female from the front, sniffing at her, reaching out to her with a paw, touching his nose to hers. But when he tried to move in further to get a whiff of her goodies, she jumped straight up into the air about a foot and ran off. The male chased her, and the two of them went running down the road in front of my car, tails up, the male body-slamming the female occasionally to try to get her to slow down or stop for him. More jumping. More running. Then they took a break for about a second before the male tried to approach the female again and… More jumping. More running. Hah! It was exhausting to watch them. I don’t know if he ever got her or not, but it was valiant effort.

The permanent wetlands loop was kind of disappointing. They’re redone the dirt road there and cut down all of the tall grass and most of the roadside vegetation. That makes viewing easier, but because there aren’t any places now near the road with high vegetation, there’s no place for the critters to hide or eat or build nests. So there was “nothing” to see. The refuge is also going to drain the big pond there, which means for a brief period of time, as the waters shrink and the water-living bugs and crustaceans are forced into a smaller and smaller living space, the birds will have a feast. When that happens there will be a lot of activity and photo ops. But the draining of that pond also means that the Clark’s and Western Grebes won’t be able to build their floating nests on the water – which is usually a big draw for photographers. So, this might be a disappointing year for photographers at the refuge.

((The draining of the pond is done about every years to get rid of the invasive carp who get into the basin when the area floods and then get trapped there when the flood waters recede. The refuge also has to till the pond bottom to expose it to the sun, so that all of the bacteria and viruses in the accumulated bird droppings can get irradiated.))

I was at the refuge for about 5 hours and then headed back home.

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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.