Our First Bitterns of the Season, 10-12-20

Happy Indigenous People’s Day! I got up around 6:00 this morning and was out the door by 6:30 to head out for an all-day birding drive with my friend and fellow naturalist, Roxanne. We stopped off to get some breakfast at a drive-through and then got on the freeway, heading north.

We stopped first at the cemetery in the little town of Maxwell, looking for the Vermillion Flycatcher that has been spotted and photographed there over the past few weeks. We saw doves, finches, blackbirds and starlings… but didn’t see the flycatcher.

Eurasian Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto in a cypress tree at the cemetery.

He’s a bright red bird with black highlights, so it’s not like we could’ve missed him if we ever caught sight of him. But I guess he wasn’t up yet. Dang it! (What was a double dang-it was the fact that someone else went there later in the afternoon and got photos of him. Arrrgh!)

Vermilion Flycatcher, male. Photo by Janell Darroch at the Maxwell Cemetery

We then went to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge to see what the water situation was there, and to look for bitterns. Other people have posting photos of them from there recently, and Rox had never seen one before, so we were hoping to get lucky.

The first thing we saw when we drove into the turnout was a family of four river otters in the slough that runs parallel to the railroad tracks. They were pretty far away, and moving quickly in the water, so getting photos and videos of them was a bit difficult – but we felt it was an auspicious start to the morning there.  We could see that some of them were crunching up crayfish.

We stopped off at the nature center to use the restroom, and were greeted by a sign telling visitors to keep a look out for bees that had moved into part of the pergola outside the building. We could see where people had tried to fill gaps between the wooden parts of the pergola with expanding foam…but the bees still managed to find a way in.

As soon as we got on the auto tour route, we saw a juvenile Kite in one of the trees along the entrance path.  And it was a pretty good day for viewing raptors.  Along with the Kite, we also saw a Red-Shouldered Hawk, some Red-Tailed Hawks, Turkey Vultures, a Peregrine Falcon, and a couple of Kestrels. We were hoping to see eagles, too, but none were out when we were there.

Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus

One of the kestrels we saw was a female who was up in a bare-branched tree eating what looked like a large green praying mantis. She was harassed by blackbirds, and at one point lost her meal, but she wouldn’t let them chase her out of the tree.

There were large flocks of Greater White-Fronted Geese in the areas that had water in them.  Most of the refuge is still dry, dry, dry, but water was present in a few ponds and in the sloughs. We also got to see a couple of the bitterns.  Others had photographed them around the slough near the turn-off for the (now closed) extension loop. One was in the shade in the water, and the other was hunting along the side of the road. As I mentioned, Rox had never seen them “live” before, so she was excited to be able see and photograph them.

We also found a large flock of mostly Tree Swallows (with some Barn Swallows thrown in the mix) that were sitting on the road. I’d never seen that behavior before so, of course, I had to look it up when I got home. According to Cornell, Tree Swallows are attracted to warm surfaces, especially roads, and “often bask with belly or back to sun, wings slightly spread, apparently in effort to warm themselves”. That’s kind of what we were seeing. I’d worry, though, if they were on a road surface where there were a lot of cars that wouldn’t necessarily slow down or stop for them.

As an aside, a flock of swallows is called a “flight”, a “gulp”, a “richness” or a “swoop”. Hah!

Speaking of gulps: in one area we saw not fully developed Bull Frogs popping to the surface of the water in a slough to get a breath of air as they metamorphosed from their aquatic water-breathing bodies to their adult air-breathing bodies.

As we were heading out of the refuge, we came across a shallow pond there some ducks and geese were resting, and in among them was a pair of deer. The birds didn’t seem to mind the big animals so close to them; it was really neat to see.

Columbian Black-Tailed Deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus, among the Greater White-Fronted Geese and ducks.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

Then we headed over to the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge to see what might be out there. The majority of the auto tour route was a complete disappointment because things are bone dry out there. Even the pond by the viewing platform was nearly empty. I’d never been out there when it was THAT devoid of water.

The only places where we really saw anything were along the sloughs, and then we saw a lot of Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons. We also saw a couple of Pacific Pond Turtles basking on the top of a log poking out of the water, and a couple of Black-Crowned Night Herons. The big draw at that refuge is the huge flock of the Night Herons that usually gather at the end of the auto tour route. Today, there were only about four birds – when normally we’d see 40. So, we felt kind of cheated by that trip. 

The only surprise was seeing a couple of Sandhill Cranes hiding in the tall grasses and smartweeds.

Oh, and I found a banded Mallard, but I could only read part of its band, so I took a photo and reported it through email.

Banded Mallard, male; either a juvenile, hybrid or adult in eclipse plumage.

There are picnic tables near the restroom facility, but they’re all out in the hot sun, with no shade around them at all. So, when we were done driving the route, we pulled over in the shade in the bus turn-around area and parked, then had our lunch and took a potty break. 

There’s a kind of kiosk in front of the restrooms with flyers and signs on it. Under the roof of it I saw what I assumed was a Phoebe’s nest along with some mud-dauber wasp nests and paper wasp nests. On the side of the building, there was also a single little mud cup that I noticed because a wasp had flown up to it. I thought maybe she was building the cup – but then noticed there was already a wasp inside of it! One of her babies?  I got a few photos and determines she was probably a European Tube Wasp, Ancistrocerus gazella. Cool.

European Tube Wasp, Ancistrocerus gazella

When we finished our lunch, we headed back home.  All in all, we were out for about 8 hours.

Species List:

  1. American Bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus
  2. American Bull Frog, Lithobates catesbeianus
  3. American Coot, Fulica americana
  4. American Kestrel, Falco sparverius
  5. Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna
  6. Barn Swallow,  Hirundo rustica
  7. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans
  8. Black-Crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax
  9. Black-Necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus
  10. Blue-Eyed Darner Dragonfly, Aeshna multicolor
  11. Brewer’s Blackbird, Euphagus cyanocephalus
  12. California Ground Squirrel, Otospermophilus beecheyi
  13. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis
  14. Cinnamon Teal, Anas cyanoptera
  15. Columbian Black-Tailed Deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus
  16. Common Crow, American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos
  17. Common Gallinule, Gallinula galeata
  18. Common Raven, Corvus corax
  19. Common Teasel, Dipsacus fullonum
  20. Cracked Cap Polypore, Phellinus robiniae
  21. Double-Crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auratus
  22. Eurasian Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto
  23. European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris
  24. European Tube Wasp, Ancistrocerus gazella
  25. Floating Water Primrose, Ludwigia peploides ssp. peploides
  26. Fremont’s Cottonwood, Populus fremontii
  27. Gadwall duck, Mareca strepera
  28. Golden Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia atricapilla
  29. Goodding’s Black Willow, Salix gooddingii
  30. Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
  31. Great Egret, Ardea alba
  32. Greater White-Fronted Goose, Anser albifrons
  33. Green-Winged Teal, Anas carolinensis
  34. House Finch, Haemorhous mexicanus
  35. House Sparrow, Passer domesticus
  36. Jimsonweed, Sacred Thorn-Apple, Datura wrightii
  37. Killdeer, Charadrius vociferous
  38. Lesser Goldfinch, Spinus psaltria
  39. Mallard duck, Anas platyrhynchos
  40. Mediterranean Cypress, Cupressus sempervirens
  41. Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura
  42. Mud-Dauber Wasps and Allies, Subfamily: Sceliphrinae
  43. Narrowleaf Milkweed, Asclepias fascicularis
  44. Northern Harrier, Marsh Hawk, Circus hudsonius
  45. Northern Pintail, Anas acuta
  46. Northern Shoveler, Anas clypeata
  47. Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Picoides nuttallii
  48. Pacific Pond Turtle, Western Pond Turtle, Actinemys marorata
  49. Paper Wasp, European Paper Wasp, Polistes dominula
  50. Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus
  51. Red Gum Eucalyptus, River Redgum, Eucalyptus camaldulensis
  52. Red-Shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus
  53. Red-Tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis
  54. Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus
  55. Ring-Necked Pheasant, Phasianus colchicus
  56. River Otter, North American River Otter, Lontra canadensis
  57. Sandbar Willow, Salix exigua var. hindsiana
  58. Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis
  59. Showy Milkweed, Asclepias speciosa
  60. Smartweed, Persicaria lapathifolia [white]
  61. Snow Goose, Chen caerulescens
  62. Speckled Dun Mayfly, Callibaetis californicus
  63. Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor
  64. Tule, Common Tule, Schoenoplectus acutus
  65. Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura
  66. Variegated Meadowhawk Dragonfly, Sympetrum corruptum
  67. Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta
  68. White Tailed Kite, Elanus leucurus
  69. White-Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys