The Caterpillar was Having a Bad Hair Day, 06-17-20

Up at 5:00 this morning to get the dog and myself seen to before I headed off to the Cosumnes River Preserve for a walk with my friend and fellow naturalist Roxanne.  This is the first day the preserve has opened since it was shut down for the COVID-19 thing.  Even though we got there before the gates officially opened, we were still able to access the trails.  I took the Rollator Walker with me for a “test drive” to see how it works on slightly uneven terrain. The trails and boardwalk at Cosumnes are wide enough to accommodate it.

Rollator Walker

When we got to the preserve, the gates weren’t open yet, so Roxanne parked on the road. The first thing we saw was a new nest box with a Tree Swallow on it who posed for some photos.  Then, as we were walking down the sidewalk that leads toward the main pond – which is now completely dry —  a ranger came and opened up the gate.  So, Rox went back to the car and pulled it into the parking lot.  Then we walked down the boardwalk and back, around the trail that looks at what is now open fields, and across the street to the oak tree forest. It was VERY windy all the while we were out, and sometimes the wind was strong enough to get my walker rolling away from me, so, I had to learn fast to lock the wheels whenever I stepped away from it.

I noticed immediately that I walk “differently” with the walker than I do with a cane. Most obvious was the fact that I could sit my heavy carry bag on the seat of the walker, instead of having it hang from my shoulder, so I walked more upright. It occurred to me that what might have been a factor in the arrival  of The Poltergeist (my psoas flexor muscle pain) was that I was carrying that heavy bag on my shoulder on every outing (for about 5 years), and my body had to lean to the right to compensate for that extra weight on my left… It’ll be interesting to see if the change from the cane to the walker (along with my PT exercises) helps my posture and balance, and eliminates The Poltergeist.

Anyway, back to preserve: There’s basically no water at the preserve right now, which means no waterfowl, practically no dragonflies, and no fish or crayfish for the otters and mink to eat. So it’s pretty “desolate” out there.  Until the insect galls start making themselves obvious in the late summer, there will be “nothing” to see at the preserve.

We also noticed how short the Jointed Charlock plants were this year; they all seem very low to the ground. Rox found one plant with this year’s growth looking dwarfish next to the towering remains of last year’s growth.  Just not enough water, I’m guessing.

Jointed Charlock. The newer growth is green; last year’s growth is brown. Most of the preserve was covered in dead/dying grasses.

There are mostly Valley Oaks at the preserve, but we noted that the leaves on them are much, much smaller than the leaves of the Valley Oak trees we see around the American River. In some cases, the leaves on the trees here are ¼ of the size of the leaves on the trees elsewhere. I wonder if they’re a different subspecies, or if they’re just stunted by a lack of water (or maybe salts in the ground).

There was a lot of Bristly Oxtongue, cocklebur, dock, and Pennyroyal out on the waterless fields.  We also found some pink Common Centuary and white Buttonbush in bloom.  There were also several different grasses growing around including Dallis Grass, Canary Grass and Rabbitsfoot Grass.  Grasses are the most difficult plants for me to ID, so I only recognize a few of them. 

Rabbitfoot Grass, Polypogon monspeliensis

On one of the stalks of grass I saw what I first thought was an oddly-colored flowering head (Inflorescence) on it.  Closer inspection, though, proved that I was actually looking at a super-fluffy Salt Marsh Moth caterpillar! That was fun find! We took several photos of it before releasing it to the wild again.  It was having a “bad hair day”, so the close-up photos I got of its face were hysterical to look at.

Salt Marsh Moth, Estigmene acrea

In the oak forest area, along with the large oak apple galls, we found some galls of the Fuzzy Gall Wasp and the Round Gall Wasp (yes, very unimaginative names, I know).  Both the Fuzzy and Round galls are round, but the Fuzzy ones grow on the stems of the Valley Oaks, and the Round galls grow at the base of the leaves.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

We also came across several different kinds of birds’ nests. I’m not very good at ID-ing those either (there are literally thousands of different kinds), but I’d like to get better at it. I know what some nests look like and/or where they’re generally located, but when I find an abandoned nest with nothing it, I get stumped.  Today, I recognized a Bushtit nest and a Kingbird nest, but was a bit stumped on two others.        

There was one lodged deep inside the stems and branches of a small Valley Oak tree. The entire base of it was made of mud but the rest of it was made of grasses. Normally, I’d figure that was a Robin’s nest, but they generally use a lot more mud and the nests are, therefore, pretty heavy.  I’m calling the one we found a Robin’s nest, but I’m not at all sure about that.

The other one we found was in some dried, tall marsh plants in a field.  It had an open top and cup shape, and was made entirely of dried grass, with some of the grasses wrapped around the stems of the plant for stability. There was also a small egg inside of this one, but the egg had a hole in the side of it and was completely empty.  Normally, I’d say the nest was that of a Red-Winged Blackbird, but the little egg was throwing me off.  The egg was off-white with lots of brown spotting on it. Red-Winged Blackbird eggs are larger and “pale blue-green to gray, overlaid with streaks, blotches, and spots of black or brown” – and the spots and streaks can rub off.

Now, there are Brown-Headed Cowbirds in that area. They don’t build their own nests, and instead parasitize the existing nests of other birds (including blackbirds).  Their eggs are “white, grayish white with brown/gray spots, usually denser at larger end”… and that describes the little egg we found in the abandoned nest. 

The other possibility was that it was the nest of a Song Sparrow.  The eggs look about right in color and mottling, but Song Sparrow eggs are larger than the egg we found.  They’re usually about 1¼ inch long… and the one we found was smaller than that (just a little bit more than half an inch which is the size of a Cowbird egg.)

So, I’m deciding that the nest might have been that of a Red-Winged Blackbird with a Brown-Headed Cowbird egg in it. Could be totally wrong, but that’s what I’m going with…

Around the restroom facility near the boardwalk, we found several mantis oothecas, mud-dauber wasp nests, some Paper Wasp nests, and a large Black Widow spider with her egg sac. One of the Paper Wasp nests was just on its “first generation” of daughters. There were only a few cells built and a few wasps around it.

Paper Wasp, European Paper Wasp, Polistes dominula. You can see eggs in some of the cells.

Among the Paper Wasps, the queen (“foundress”) builds all of the first cells by herself, lays eggs, feeds the babies and protect them until they hatch. Then her daughters help her build more cells and feed and care for the next round of babies while the foundress just lays eggs.  None of the viable nests we saw were beyond the egg-laying stage yet; no obvious larvae in the cells.  Once the larvae get big enough, the cells are closed off so the larvae can pupate and then emerge as full-grown adults.  Everyone then works to enlarge the nest by adding cells until the end of the season, at which time everyone dies off except the queen.  She won’t use the same nest again, so once everyone is gone, it’s safe to remove (or even keep) the nests.

While we were at the restroom facility, I noticed what looked like a turtle on the trail at some distance from us.  Roxanne went to retrieve it so we could get a better look at it, and got peed on by the turtle for her efforts. D’oh! Urination is a common “defense strategy” among turtles and tortoises. This particular turtle, a female Red-Eared Slider, had a LOT of pee to eject which made me think she might have been storing it up to urinate on eggs…(Desert Tortoises urinate on freshly laid eggs to make them unpalatable to predators.) I don’t know if Sliders do that, too; it was just a thought.

Red-Eared Slider Turtle, Trachemys scripta elegans, “urination defense”.

How do you tell the males from the females? It can be tricky if the turtles are really young, but in adult turtles the easiest indicators to see in the females is that they’re much larger than the males, have a thin tail and short fingernails.  (Males use their long front fingernails in their courtship behavior.)  If you want to get more technical, look at the turtle’s cloaca: “…In females, the cloaca is close to the body, while males have a cloaca located almost at the tip of the tail…”

Red-Eared Slider Turtle, Trachemys scripta elegans

I thought this particular female might be looking for somewhere to lay eggs because she was moving AWAY from a water source (a small nearby pond).  Although they’re technically aquatic turtles, the Sliders won’t lay their eggs in the water.  Instead, they find a patch of ground where they can dig a shallow hole with their hind legs, lay the eggs in it, and then lightly cover it up again.  “…One female can lay up to five clutches in the same year, and clutches are usually spaced 12 to 36 days apart…”

After we took some photos of the turtle, Roxanne set her back onto the side of the trail so she continue on in whatever direction he wanted to go.

  We were out and about for about 4 hours before heading back home.

Species List:

  1. American Robin, Turdus migratorius [? Nest]
  2. Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Lotus corniculatus
  3. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans
  4. Blue-Eyed Darner Dragonfly, Aeshna multicolor [in flight]
  5. Bristly Oxtongue, Helminthotheca echioides
  6. Broad-leaved Pepperweed, Lepidium latifolium
  7. Brown-Headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater [? Egg]
  8. Bushtit, American Bushtit, Psaltriparus minimus [nest]
  9. Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis
  10. Cabbage White butterfly, Pieris rapae
  11. California Centaury, Zeltnera venusta
  12. California Praying Mantis, Stagmomantis californica [ootheca]
  13. California Wild Grape, Vitis californica
  14. Canary Grass, Reed Canary Grass, Phalaris arundinacea
  15. Cudweed, California Cudweed, Pseudognaphalium californicum
  16. Curly Dock, Rumex crispus
  17. Dallis Grass, Dallisgrass, Paspalum dilatatum
  18. Dense-Flowered Willowherb, Epilobium densiflorum [looks kind of like of like a giant owl’s clover, pink flowers]
  19. Fiddle Dock, Rumex pulcher [very small flowering heads/ seeds]
  20. Field Bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis
  21. Fuzzy Gall Wasp galls, Disholcaspis washingtonensi [round faintly fuzzy galls on stems]
  22. Harvest Brodiaea, Brodiaea elegans
  23. Jointed Charlock, Wild Radish, Raphanus raphanistrum
  24. Leafhopper, Gyponana procera
  25. Mallard Duck, Anas platyrhynchos
  26. Narrowleaf Willow, Salix exigua
  27. Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos
  28. Oak Apple Gall Wasp, Andricus quercuscalifornicus
  29. Paper Wasp, European Paper Wasp, Polistes dominula [black & yellow]
  30. Pennyroyal, Mentha pulegium
  31. Poison Oak, Pacific Poison Oak, Western Poison Oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum
  32. Queen Anne’s Lace, Wild Carrot, Daucus carota
  33. Rabbitfoot Grass, Polypogon monspeliensis
  34. Red-Eared Slider Turtle, Trachemys scripta elegans
  35. Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus [? nest with Cowbird egg in it]
  36. Ribwort Plantain, Plantago lanceolata
  37. Rough Cocklebur, Xanthium strumarium
  38. Round Gall Wasp, Cynips conspicuous [round gall near base of leaf on Valley Oaks,formerly Besbicus conspicuous]
  39. Salt Marsh Moth, Estigmene acrea
  40. Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia [? Nest]
  41. Tall Flatsedge, Cyperus eragrostis
  42. Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor
  43. Tule, Common Tule, Schoenoplectus acutus
  44. Turkey Tangle Fogfruit, Phyla nodiflora
  45. Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura
  46. Valley Oak, Quercus lobata
  47. Water Primrose, Ludwigia hexapetala [rounded leaves; not floating]
  48. Western Black Widow Spider, Latrodectus Hesperus [with egg sac]
  49. Western Kingbird, Tyrant Flycatcher, Tyrannus verticalis [? nest]
  50. Willow Herb, Epilobium brachycarpum [tiny pink flowers, seeds sort of like soaproot]
  51. Willow Pinecone Gall midge, Rabdophaga strobiloides
  52. Willow Stem Sawfly Gall, Euura exiguae
  53. Yellow-Legged Mud-Dauber Wasp, Sceliphron caementarium [nests and pupa cases]