Wrens, Tree Swallows and… Pronghorns, 04-29-18

Things didn’t go quite as planned today, but it was okay.  Up around 6:00 am and off to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. I had intended to go out Highway 20 to search for wildflowers, but the season is almost passed around here, so I drove on to the refuge instead.  It was 49º when I headed out and about 66º on my way back. The sky was full of big sofa clouds and there was a slight breeze all day. Very pretty.

At the refuge, the large pond has been drained down to almost nothing, so there’s nothing to see, really, along that extra loop right now. It’s a disappointment. Without the water there are no dragonflies, no grebes nesting on their floating mats, no rafts of pelicans fishing… Just a big dirt hole with deer tracks running across it.  Still, the trip wasn’t a complete waste. When I started the auto-tour route, I was greeted with the sight of a male American Goldfinch in the tall grass, eating seeds. They’re much brighter than the Lesser Goldfinches I usually see around there. Very striking.

CLICK HERE for the album of photos.

I also got to see several of the male Marsh Wrens successfully luring females to their construction sites. The males build several different nests close to one another, and then let the female decide which one she likes best. Two of the males I saw had females working to line the nests with soft grass and feathers.  I also watched as another male worked frantically to build a nest, not out of cattail skins (like most of the other nests), but of green weeds and bits of wet stick.  He was really struggling. The green weeds were thin and leafy and wouldn’t bend or sit the way he wanted them to. When he brought the stick in, he tried it in several different spots and just couldn’t seem to get it into the right spot. I got some photos and video snippets of all of this.  I also came across one male Marsh Wren without a tail.  Usually the males “flag” with their tail and hold it upright when they sing. This guy had nothing to work with. I don’t know if the tail feathers had molted out and not regrown yet, or were pulled out by some other critter that tried to make the small bird its meal… I wonder if being tailless will impact on the little guy’s ability to find a mate.

Seriously. I wished I could stay there longer, and study it all more. Where’s my millions, Universe? I want to be able to retire and do naturalist stuff full time!

At another spot along the route, by the big viewing platform, I found a pair of nesting Tree Swallows. Mom and dad took turns patrolling the nest and going out to look for food. I couldn’t hear any babies, though, and the parents didn’t seem to be bringing whatever food they found back to the nest. Maybe mom is still building up enough protein to lay eggs; or maybe the chicks aren’t hatched yet – but far enough along so that mom doesn’t need to be sitting on the nest all of the time. More questions left unanswered because I can’t get out there long enough to do a definitive study. I need to look for research grant funding…

There were lots of ground squirrels out, and a couple of them posed for me.  And I came across several “wakes” of Turkey Vultures.  On group was perches on a gate with huge tufts of poison hemlock growing up all around them. That made for an unusually creepy yet lovely photograph.  Who knew vultures could look so pretty?

Here is the album of pix from today:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/mkhnaturalist/albums/72157695871401034

The big surprise of the day, though, was at the end of the day as I was heading home. Just off Road 68, where the I5 onramp is there was a herd of … wait for it… Pronghorns! I knew there were pronghorn in California, but I’d never seen one. This was a small herd and they were walking through a recently plowed agricultural field. It was such a surprise that it actually took my brain several seconds to understand what I was looking at. An amazing sight.

Photo Tour #1 with the Naturalist Class Graduates

I got up around 6:00 am and was out the door a little after 7:00 to go to the Effie Yeaw Nature Preserve.  I’m leading a photography walk with some of my naturalist class graduates today. From the Nona Way house, it takes about 45 minutes to get there. From the Hollygrove house today, it still took 45 minutes because Friday morning traffic on Watt was horrible.  It took me 10 minutes just to get through one intersection. Yikes!

The weather was beyond gorgeous today: sunny, breezy and in the low 70’s. Lissa remarked that it could stay like this for the rest of the year if it wanted too. That wouldn’t make for much plant and animal diversity, but sure would be nice for us humans. Hah!

When I got to the preserve, three of the graduates were there and two more joined us later so that was nice.  There was a lot to see out there today, but we needed to finish by noon, so we didn’t get very far through the preserve.  Even with the abbreviated route, we saw lots of wildflowers, deer, insects, birds and even some raccoon tracks in the mud around a small pond.

While we walked, I showed the group how change the lighting to get better shots, how to use a macro lens to focus on the small stuff – and how to get the automatic cameras to focus on what YOU want it to focus on, and how to frame the subject(s) in a photo BEFORE you take it so you don’t have to crop it so much afterwards.  The stars of the day, as far as subject matter goes, were the insects. We found some really unusual-looking guys including a species of long-horned beetle, a pink and white moth, and a semi-iridescent beetle we couldn’t readily identify. Because there are literally millions of insects, getting a proper ID is a daunting task even for the experts.

We also got to watch a pair of Black Phoebes bring insects to their nest full of fledglings. Mom and dad took turns flying back and forth to feed the kids. I saw one of the parents m with a large hoverfly, and another one with a large bright green worm. Those kids get fed well!  Because we were standing near the where the next was, the parents would stop and sit for a little while before transporting the food directly to the kids. This gave us the opportunity to gets some good close-ups and still shots of them.  We could also see the babies in the nest – almost fully fledged already, they looked too big to still be hand-fed by their folks. This particular pair of Phoebes have been nesting under the eaves of the nature center at the preserve for years. They come back season after season.  Their nests are mud cups filled with grasses and other soft plant fibers.

We found the Red-Shouldered Hawk’s nest on the Pond Trail. We could hear mama calling from the nest but couldn’t get an angle on the structure that allowed us to see her. she must be sitting eggs at the moment.  And we found several tree cavity nests of wrens, Starlings, and Acorn Woodpeckers (some of them in or near the same tree).

We also got to see some Ash-throated Flycatchers. Besides being pretty birds, these guys are kind of special because they don’t drink water. They get what fluid they need from the stuff they eat.

Among the deer we saw, I believe one of them was very pregnant and may have been experiencing some early contractions. She’d walk along and life her tail like she wanted to defecate, but nothing came out.  Might be seeing some fawns in the next month or so!

On our way out of the preserve, one of the graduates and I loitered around the small pond again and tried to get photos of the Bullfrog tadpoles and crawfish under the water.  Getting the camera to focus past the surface of the water is always an interesting trial… and I can never really tell if I got the shots I want until after I get the photos home and download them, so I can see them better.

We finished up our walk around noon. #CalNat

Lots of Nesting Birds, 04-15-18

I was up around 6:00 this morning.  It was supposed to rain here today, so I thought I’d better get out early if I wanted to get a nature walk in before the clouds got organized. I went over to the American River Bend Park because it’s close by (no long-distance driving) and I wanted to check on mama Great Horned Owl again.

Mama Great Horned Owl was still in her nest with her three owlets. The owlets are now starting to get their primary wing feathers in and they’re very itchy.  I saw mom helping her oldest owlet preen a bit and give him bite-kisses all over his head and neck. So cute!  I notice that when mom is around her babies, she often holds her plumicorns back against her head.  I wonder if that’s a communication thing…

After I walked around for a while, I went back to check on the nest and mom was gone. She must’ve been out hunting…

CLICK HERE for an album of today’s photos.

In a green area across the trail from the owls’ nest, I watched a House Wren singing from on top of an old snag… and then followed him as he flew over to where the nest was.  I got some photos of the wrens poking their heads out of the nesting cavity, and while I was doing that, I noticed that to my right, there were some Tree Swallows in an adjacent tree where they, too, were setting up house in a tree cavity. They were trying to line the cavity with twigs and stuff, but kept getting interrupted by a pair of Nutthall’s Woodpeckers who, apparently, wanted the same cavity the Tree Swallows had. So, just in that small area, I got to see three different species of birds AND their nests.  In the same area, a few yards away, was a second Tree Swallow nest… and I got some photos of that one, too.

While I was doing that, I was near enough to my car to lean on it and rest a little bit… and saw something flash to the ground to my right. I looked over there and saw that there was some hair fluff – like someone had brushed out their dog and left all of the undercoat hair there. There was a tiny White-Breasted Nuthatch grabbing up mouthfuls of the hair and flying off with it to feather its nest. I tried to see where it flew off to, but lost it in the tangle of branches. It came back several more times for the fluff, so I was able to get photos and a little video snippet of it in action.

A few minutes later, when I moved to step away from my car, I could hear a hummingbird nattering away, and saw it collecting bugs from the side of a tree. I followed after it, and was just barely able to make out its tiny nest in a scraggly tree on the other side of the trail. The nest was covered in lichen and blended right into the lichen-covered bark of the tree, but I still managed to get a few shots.

In one area, there were quite a few Scarab-Hunter wasps flying low to the ground. They have special heat-sensors in their abdomens that allow them to detect the body-heat of grubs under the surface of the dirt. When they find a grub, they land, and stick their ovipositor down through the dirt into the grub and lay their eggs in it. Cool, huh?

There were also quite a few Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies around (mostly males today), and one of them landed on the front of my jacket. I was worried he’d get squished by the shoulder strap of my carry bag, so I set him on my shoulder (on the side opposite the strap) and he stayed there for quite a while, hitching a ride while I walked. He even climbed up onto my head for a bit before taking off to sun himself in the grass. I also found more butterfly eggs today, but no caterpillars yet…

I got a pretty good shot of an orb-weaver spider’s web, and also noted that the Oak Apple gall wasps are starting to lay their eggs on the Valley Oaks. New fat, round, green galls are appearing on the trees…

At another point during my walk, I could hear a California Quail shouting out his “Chi-ca-go!” call, and looked all over for him. I finally caught sight of him off the side of the trail and down on the sandy shore of the river. He was pretty far away, but I still managed to get a photos of him before he scurried off into a tangled bit of shrub.

There were a lot of Fox Squirrels around today, “barking” at me from trees almost everywhere I walked. They’re so funny. They’re teeny, but they bark at something as big as me expecting me to be intimidated by their sound. They’re like the Chihuahuas of the Forest.

I walked for about 3 hours and then headed back home.