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.

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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.