A Muskrat and Baby Birds, 04-10-20

Today, I got up around 6:45 with the dog and got him pottied and breakfasted before I headed out with my friend and fellow naturalist Roxanne Moger, around 8:00 am, to do some nature bathing.  It was overcast when we headed out, but the clouds broke up and it warmed up quickly, so I really didn’t need the coat I’d brought with me.

We stopped first at the Mather Vernal Pool area to see if anything new had popped up since the last time we were out there. A lot of the yellow Field Poppies were opening up, as were the pale pink Dwarf Checkermallow.  We also found a few flowers we hadn’t seen earlier including a kind of white mallow and Doublehorn Downingia (a tiny purple-blue Calicoflower with a white “face” and yellow polkadots).

Downingia, Doublehorn Calicoflower, Downingia bicornuta

I also saw several Painted Lady butterflies and some of the micro-sized Fairy Longhorn Moths.  By comparison, Painted Ladies are about 65 millimeters long (2 to 2½ inches) and the Fairy Longhorns are only about 5 millimeters (0.2 inches).  The cool thing about these tiny moths is that the male’s antennae are actually about three times as long as their forewings. They’re so small, though, it’s hard for me to get photos of them, out of the ones I saw, I was only able to get somewhat-fuzzy-good pictures of one of them.

Fairy Longhorn Moth, Adela flammeusella

Under a flat piece of wood, we found some beetles and a centipede.  The ‘pede moved so quickly that I was only able to get one photo of it before it disappeared into the grass.

Rox and I noticed several Western Meadowlarks in the field with their beaks full of insects, and we presumed they were carrying them as food for their babies.  Meadowlarks nest on the ground, creating a kind of domed push-ups in tall grass which are well-hidden.  I’m hoping that the next time I see the parent birds carrying bugs over the field, I can trace one back to the nesting sight, so I can catch a glimpse of my first Meadowlark nest.  “…The female lays 3 to 7 eggs that have white base with completely spotted and speckled brown on top of base color. The female incubates the eggs for 13 to 14 days…”

When we were out by the large pond area (which actually had a bit of standing water in it) we saw a Killdeer standing at the edge of the water.  That made for some pretty photos.  There were also several Killdeer along the side of the road – where I think they’ll be nesting shortly.  They like low dirt and gravelly areas. So, I’ll need to keep an eye out for those as well.

Killdeer, Charadrius vociferous

In some spots along the road, around the base of the telephone poles, we also found several owl pellets.  The pellets are balls of undigested fur and bone that the owls cough up when they’re done eating/digesting their meals.  According to Cornell: “…Owls swallow their prey whole or in large pieces, but they cannot digest fur, teeth, bones, or feathers. Like other birds, owls have two chambers in their stomachs. In the first chamber, the glandular stomach or proventriculus, all the digestible parts of an owl’s meal are liquefied. Then the meal passes into the second chamber, the muscular stomach or gizzard, which grinds down hard structures and squeezes the digestible food into the intestines. The remaining, indigestible fur, bones, and teeth are compacted into a pellet which the owl spits out. Owls typically cast one pellet per day, often from the same roosting spot, so you may find large numbers of owl pellets on the ground in a single place…”

And according to Carolina Biological: “An owl pellet generally reaches its final form a few hours after the owl has eaten. However, the pellet is not usually ejected immediately after it is formed. Owls can store a pellet in a structure known as the proventriculus for as long as 20 hours before disgorging it. Since the stored pellet partially blocks the entrance to the digestive system, it must be ejected before the owl can eat again. Young owls do not produce pellets until they have begun to eat their prey whole… The actual process of regurgitating a pellet lasts from a few seconds to several minutes. The pellet is forced out by spasms of the owl’s esophagus. These spasms make the owl look like it is coughing painfully. However, it is not hurt by the process because the pellet remains soft and moist until it leaves the owl’s body.”

Pieces of one of the owl pellets including a rodent skull

You have to be careful when dissecting the pellets because they can be vectors of disease – like salmonella – so wear gloves and a mask when you dissect pellets you’ve found in the wild.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

When we were done at the vernal pool area, we went over to the Mather Lake Regional Park and walked along the far side of the lake (which we hadn’t done the last time we were out there.  I liked that side of the lake better than the other.  It less “manicured” and a bit more rugged.  We also got a different, better angle on the lake and seemed to see more birds.  There were quite a few people fishing at the lake, including some folks in canoes and kayaks.  The lake is supposed to be stocked with bass and Bluegill, but I didn’t see anyone catching anything.

At the entrance to the park, there was a pair of Canada Geese and their three goslings. Soooo cute. I love those fuzzy bird babies. 

Canada Goose, Branta canadensis, and goslings

In the water, we saw several swans, including one that looked like it was sitting on a nest. I’ve never seen a live cygnet before, so I’ll watch for them the next time we’re out at the park.

Mute Swan, Cygnus olor

The big deal at the park today, though, was spotting a muskrat in the water. (It might have been two that we saw in two different places, but I got the impression it was the same one we saw each time we saw one.)  First it was coming toward us at an angle along the shore.  It got pretty close, but then dove under the water where we couldn’t see it.  The next time we spotted it, it was on the other end of the lake and swimming with its mouth full of greenery.

When it got to the rocky shore, under it dove under the water and disappeared again. That shore is right next to a berm road, and I imagine that the muskrat had a cut a burrow in from the lake and underneath the berm.  They also make “push-ups” of tules and other vegetation, smaller and less complicated than beaver dens.

I got some photos of the muskrat and also a video snippet, so I was pleased with that.          

We encountered quite a few House Wrens, and I got a video snippet of one of the singing.  I didn’t realize it until I got the video home and played it on my laptop, that partway through his song the wren spots a small flying insect and snags it right out of the air before finishing his song.  Hah!

Other finds at the park included getting photos of a Familiar Bluet and a Pacific Forktail damselfly.  There was also some huge, fat beetle thing that we saw climbing up a rush.  I got one blurry photo of it before we were distracted by the approach of the muskrat.  By the time we focused on the rush again, the beetle was gone. So, I have no idea what that was.

When we were pretty much worn out by our walk at the park, we headed back home and stopped at the American River Bend Park so I could show Roxanne where the owl’s nest was.  The mama owl was nowhere to be seen; we assumed she was out hunting. But the owlets were there, sitting side-by-side on a branch near the nest.  They are just so darling…

Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus, owlets

We also saw a Black Phoebe nest under the eaves of the roof of the ranger kiosk at the park, and watched while the parent flew back and forth with food for the babies in the nest.   The Phoebes are sort of Roxanne’s and my adopted “totem animal” (we see them everywhere we go), so it was neat to be able to spot the nest.

All in all, we were out walking for about 6 hours!  So it was a long but super-successful and fun day.

Species List

  1. Audubon’s Warbler, Setophaga coronata auduboni
  2. Beaver, American, Beaver, Castor canadensis [sign on trees]
  3. Black Bean Aphid, Aphis fabae
  4. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans
  5. Black Willow, Salix nigra
  6. Blue Dicks, Dichelostemma capitatum
  7. California Ground Squirrel, Otospermophilus beecheyi
  8. California Wild Rose, Rosa californica
  9. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis
  10. Common Cat’s-Ear, Hypochaeris radicata
  11. Common Fiddleneck, Amsinckia menziesii
  12. Common Fringepod, Thysanocarpus curvipes
  13. Common Gold Cobblestone Lichen, Pleopsidium flavum
  14. Cork Oak, Quercus suber
  15. Coyote Brush Stem Gall moth, Gnorimoschema baccharisella
  16. Coyote Brush, Baccharis pilularis
  17. Cryptopid Centipede, Theatops californiensis
  18. Cut-Leaved Crane’s Bill, Geranium dissectum
  19. Dock, Willow Dock, Rumex salicifolius
  20. Double-Crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auratus
  21. Downingia, Doublehorn Calicoflower, Downingia bicornuta
  22. Dwarf Brodiaea, Brodiaea terrestris
  23. Dwarf Checkermallow, Sidalcea malviflora
  24. Fairy Longhorn Moth, Adela flammeusella
  25. Familiar Bluet Damselfly, Enallagma civile [female]
  26. Field Bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis
  27. Field Owl’s-Clover, Castilleja campestris [looks like Johnnytuck but has green brackets not red]
  28. Floating Water Primrose, Ludwigia peploides ssp. Peploides
  29. Fremont’s Cottonwood, Populus fremontii
  30. Fremont’s Tidy Tips, Layia fremontii
  31. Fresh Water Snail, Fluminicola sp.
  32. Frying Pan Poppy, Eschscholzia lobbii
  33. Golden Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia atricapilla
  34. Goldfields, California Goldfields, Lasthenia californica
  35. Goldfields, Vernal Pool Goldfields, Lasthenia fremontii
  36. Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus
  37. Greenish Blue Butterfly, Icaricia saepiolus
  38. Hawksbeard, Smooth Hawksbeard, Crepis capillaris
  39. Himalayan Blackberry, Rubus armeniacus
  40. House Wren, Troglodytes aedon
  41. Jointed Charlock, Wild Radish, Raphanus raphanistrum
  42. Killdeer, Charadrius vociferous
  43. Little Rattlesnake Grass, Little Quaking Grass, Briza minor
  44. Low Woolly Marbles, Psilocarphus brevissimus
  45. Lupine, Arroyo Lupine, Lupinus succulentus
  46. Mallard duck, Anas platyrhynchos
  47. Meadow Barley, Hordeum brachyantherum
  48. Miniature Lupine, Lupinus bicolor
  49. Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura
  50. Muskrat, Ondatra zibethicus
  51. Mute Swan, Cygnus olor
  52. Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos
  53. Pacific Forktail Damselfly, Ischnura cervula [male]
  54. Painted Lady Butterfly, Vanessa cardui
  55. Paltry Puffball, Puffball Fungus, Bovista californica
  56. Pied-Billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps [heard]
  57. Pineappleweed, Matricaria discoidea
  58. Poison Oak, Pacific Poison Oak, Western Poison Oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum
  59. Popcorn Flowers, Plagiobothrys sp.
  60. Purple Sanicle, Sanicula bipinnatifida
  61. Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus
  62. Ribwort Plantain, Plantago lanceolata
  63. Rio Grande Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo intermedia
  64. Rose Clover, Trifolium hirtum
  65. Rusty Popcornflower, Plagiobothrys nothofulvus
  66. Scarlet Pimpernel, Lysimachia arvensis
  67. Shrubby Sunburst Lichen, Polycauliona candelaria
  68. Silverpuff, Marsh Scorzonella, Microseris paludosa
  69. Stem Rust Fungus, Puccinia evadens [attacks Coyote Brush]
  70. Stork’s Bill, Big Heron Bill, Broadleaf Filaree, Erodium botrys
  71. Strap Lichen, Western Strap Lichen, Ramalina leptocarpha
  72. Swainson’s Hawk, Buteo swainsoni
  73. Sweet Vernal Grass, Anthoxanthum odoratum
  74. Tomcat Clover, Trifolium willdenovii
  75. Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor
  76. Tripartite Sweat Bee, Halictus tripartitus [tiny, striped abdomen]
  77. Valley Tassels, Castilleja attenuata
  78. Vernal Pool Checkerbloom, White Checkerbloom, Sidalcea calycosa ssp. calycosa
  79. Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta
  80. White American Vetch, Vicia americana
  81. White Checkerbloom, Vernal Pool Checkerbloom, Sidalcea calycosa ssp. calycosa
  82. White-Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys
  83. White-Tipped Clover, Variegated Clover, Trifolium variegatum
  84. Whitehead Navarretia, Navarretia leucocephala
  85. Yellow Dung Fly, Scathophaga stercoraria
  86. ?? willow gallfly