Four Stops Around Several Counties, 11-06-20

This was a very long day in the car for me.  I got up around 6:00 am and was out the door by 6:15 to head out to the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area again with my friend and fellow naturalist Roxanne. It was partly cloudy and cooler this morning than it had been.  We were worried about heavy winds because of the sudden temperature shift from yesterday, but they actually weren’t too bad. The clouds also cut down on a lot of sun glare and stark shadows, which may photo-taking a little easier.

A Great Blue Heron and a Great Egret in an agricultural field

We stopped for some coffee and then hopped on the freeway, heading north. I’d heard that the Tundra Swans are now coming into the Yuba/Marysville area so I was keeping an eye out for them. Along Highway 99, in some of the agricultural fields, I saw the swans, so Roxanne, who was driving, diverted us off onto some more rural country roads to see if we could get close enough to get some photos of them.

Greater White-Fronted Geese, Anser albifrons, in the ag fields below the Sutter Buttes

Among the swans were white adults and dark gray juveniles, and they were joined in some areas by Greater White-Fronted geese. We also saw quite a few Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets. This is just the first wave of swans; we should be seeing lots more over the next few weeks.

Rox and I weren’t sure about the swans’ migratory behavior, so I looked that up when I got home.  According to Cornell:

“…Autumn pre-migratory staging along brackish shorelines of arctic river deltas, which provide food and remain ice-free longer than other wetland areas… Western wintering population arrives in Great Salt Lake area of Utah in early Oct; departing by mid-Nov and arriving in wintering areas in California and Oregon late Nov and early Dec… where they remain from mid Nov to early Dec, whereupon they mov across Nevada to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in California; they return to Alaska in spring via a similar route…Western population begins departing California in mid-Feb…[and] arrives in Yukon-Kuskokwim deltas in late Apr; most have arrived by mid-May…Migrates in flocks consisting of family groups. Juvenile birds probably separate from parents on or near the breeding grounds following spring migration…”

So they leave the north when it starts getting to cold, spend a few months in California, and then head back north in spring to breed when the tundra is starting bloom.

As for their diet: “…Mainly leaves, roots, rhizomes and stems of aquatic plants and grasses. On migration and in winter, agricultural crops including waste grains, growing winter cereal grain crops, and potatoes…” 

They apparently like the shallow water in the g fields better than deeper marsh water because they don’t have to expend a lot of energy trampling, swimming and digging for food.

We could hear the birds “talking” to one another. The sounds were kind of goose-like, but at a different pitch; lots of “oh’s” and “oo’s”. We also saw some posturing displays among some of the adults which included neck-stretches, raised wings and wing-flapping. These, according to Cornell, are considered to be low- to intermediate-intensity threats.

Tundra Swans, Cygnus columbianus

We also saw some of the swans doing a head-bobbing gesture, which Cornell also describes:

            “Head-bobbing: Head is raised and lowered vertically, each bob accompanied by a single call. Given prior to long-distance movements and probably signals intention to move.”

In other fields we saw lots and lots of Greater White-Fronted Geese and Snow Geese. We also saw one field full of White-Faced Ibises.  All along the way, we took photos of the Sutter Buttes which were clearly visible from the road.

The Sutter Buttes

When we got back onto the highway, we took a side trip to the Sutter National Wildlife Refuge.  We’d never been there before and didn’t know what to expect. We were kind of surprised, then, when he realized that there seemed to be no real access into the preserve itself during this time of the year.  We were restricted to driving back and forth along Hughes Road which bisects the refuge.  Apparently, in February the hiking trails are opened and remain open until June. So, I guess we’ll have to get out there again!

While we were out there, we saw quite a few hawks (mostly Red-Tails), White-Crowned Sparrows, Great Blue Herons, and House Sparrows.

Red-Tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis, in a Cottonwood tree. Note: below the hawk on the leaves are the galls of the Cottonwood Leaf Gall Aphid, Pemphigus populivenae

Along one slough, there were Greater Egrets and Snowy Egrets lined up along the banks on both sides, and at one bend in the road, we saw some crows come out on the pavement from behind a fallen tree branch. They were focused on the carcass of an opossum.

Great Egrets along the slough

We got out of the car to take a closer look at the carcass, and determined it had been hit by a vehicle, and the death must have been a relatively recent one. Blood was still moist and the eyeballs (usually one of the first things to go) were still intact. I took some photos, then moved the carcass furth off the road, so the scavengers could get to it without being run over themselves. In that same area, we saw a deer crossing the road and later saw several Turkey Vultures coming in to check out the opossum carcass.

One of the front paws of the Virginia Opossum, Didelphis virginiana,on the side of the road.
Turkey Vultures, Cathartes aura

At one point, I saw what I thought was a burrow in the side of a drainage ditch, and then heard the distinct chattering call of a Belted Kingfisher. My brain connected the bird with the burrow, but I’m not sure one actually had anything to do with the other. Kingfishers do nest in burrows in the banks of sloughs and rivers, however.  We saw both a male and female Kingfisher, catching sight of them when they landed on the telephone wires along the road.

After driving back and forth along the road, we headed on to the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area. As we pulled into Lot #14 where the head of the auto route trail is, we were stunned to see literally thousands of Snow Geese flying in and settling onto the ponds. The last time we were there, there was nothing. Among the adult Snow Geese were gray juvenile “Blue Geese”, and we also saw some dark-morph Snow Geese (with a white face and dark body).

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

Dark-morph Snow Goose, Chen caerulescens

Although dwarfed by the number of Snow Geese, there were also Greater White-Fronted Geese, a few Ross’s Geese, and several species of ducks in the pond.  We saw Gadwalls, American Wigeons, Northern Pintails, and Coots, as well as blackbirds, sparrows and phoebes.  The big surprise was being able to see some Blue-Winged Teals in the mix. I hardly ever see those, so it’s always a treat when I do.

Blue-Winged Teal, Anas discors, male

In and on the eucalyptus trees around the pond, we found several specimens of Sulphur Shelf Fungus. One of them was still relatively fresh, bright yellow, and opened up like a flower. So beautiful!

Sulphur Shelf Fungus, Western Hardwood Sulphur Shelf, Laetiporus gilbertsonii

As we went along the auto tour route we saw more large flocks of Snow Geese, Coots and ducks…but didn’t see as many of the smaller shorebirds as we saw the last time we were at the preserve. We wondered if the noisy crowds of larger birds scared off the smaller birds, or forced them into other ponds that we couldn’t see from the car.  We also saw a couple of places where Turkey Vultures were chowing down on bird carcasses.

We stopped off at the spot where the trails intersect the auto tour route and went into the nearer of the two blinds to have our lunch.  We went indoors to eat because the other “big flock” at the refuge was the mosquitoes. They were THICK in the air and biting a lot. I was walking across the road at one point, opened my mouth to inhale and got three mosquitoes in my mouth.  Pleh!! I  got bitten mostly on my hands, my neck and my back (through my shirt).

View out of the blind’s window

In this blind, we weren’t able to open the windows (as we were able to in the other blind),which was probably just as well.  There was a view of a large flock of Snow Geese out the windows, as well as a hummingbird and a California Towhee just below the eaves.

After lunch, we went back to parking lot #14 and started to walk the trail there, but weren’t seeing much of anything, so we decided to leave the preserve.

We ended up taking a circuitous route through Colusa and stopped off briefly at the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge.  Along the way, we saw quite a few kestrels on the telephone poles. We also spent part of the way driving on the levee roads next to the Sacramento River.

American Kestrel, Falco sparverius, female

There’s still not very much water yet at the Colusa refuge itself, so not a lot to see there. In the main pond by the viewing platform, though, we got to see geese, Mallards, Northern Pintails, Wigeons, Coots and Northern Shovelers… but again no small shorebirds like Stilts or Yellowlegs. 

On the auto tour route, however, we did come across our first Long-Billed Curlews of the season!  And we did get to see some Sandhill Cranes in the distance.  There weren’t as many Black-Crowned Night Herons at the end of the auto tour route as there normally are, and all of the ones we did see were fast asleep.

Long-Billed Curlew, Numenius americanus

On our way back to Sacramento, we asked what we HADN’T seen today that we expected to see while we were out and we came up with American Avocets, turtles (of any kind), and no Canada Geese.  I was sort of hoping to see some otters, but although we found some scat we didn’t see any of them. Nonetheless, I ended up with over 1100 photos in my camera!            

We got home around 5:00 pm, so that was a long day in the car for both of us.

Species List:

  1. American Coot, Fulica americana
  2. American Kestrel, Falco sparverius
  3. American Pipit, Anthus rubescens
  4. American Wigeon, Anas Americana
  5. Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna
  6. Armenian Blackberry, Rubus armeniacus
  7. Asian Tiger Mosquito Aedes albopictus
  8. Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon
  9. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans
  10. Black-Crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax
  11. Black-Necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus
  12. Blue-Winged Teal, Anas discors
  13. Brewer’s Blackbird, Euphagus cyanocephalus
  14. Bullock’s Oriole, Icterus bullockii [nest]
  15. California Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica
  16. California Towhee, Melozone crissalis
  17. Columbian Black-Tailed Deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus
  18. Common Crow, American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos
  19. Cottonwood Leaf Gall Aphid, Pemphigus populivenae
  20. Dallis Grass, Dallisgrass, Paspalum dilatatum
  21. Double-Crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auratus
  22. Filamentous Green Algae, Spirogyra sp.
  23. Floating Water Primrose, Ludwigia peploides ssp. Peploides
  24. Fremont’s Cottonwood, Populus fremontii
  25. Gadwall duck, Mareca Strepera
  26. Golden Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia atricapilla
  27. Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
  28. Great Egret, Ardea alba
  29. Greater White-Fronted Goose, Anser albifrons
  30. Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca
  31. House Sparrow, Passer domesticus
  32. Interior Live Oak, Quercus wislizeni
  33. Interior Sandbar Willow, Salix interior
  34. Killdeer, Charadrius vociferous
  35. Long-Billed Curlew, Numenius americanus
  36. Long-Billed Dowitcher, Limnodromus scolopaceus
  37. Mallard duck, Anas platyrhynchos
  38. Mosquito, Common House Mosquito, Culex pipiens
  39. Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura
  40. Narrowleaf Cattail, Cattail, Typha angustifolia
  41. Non-Biting Midge, Chironomus sp.
  42. Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus [heard]
  43. Northern Harrier, Marsh Hawk, Circus hudsonius
  44. Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos
  45. Northern Pintail, Anas acuta
  46. Northern Shoveler, Anas clypeata
  47. Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Picoides nuttallii [heard]
  48. Parrot’s Feather, Myriophyllum aquaticum [water plant]
  49. Pied-Billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps
  50. Red Gum Lerp Psyllid, Glycaspis brimblecombei
  51. Red-Tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis
  52. Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus
  53. Rio Grande Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo intermedia
  54. Ross’s Goose, Chen rossii
  55. Rough Cocklebur, Xanthium strumarium
  56. Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis
  57. Snow Goose, Chen caerulescens
  58. Snowy Egret, Egretta thula
  59. Sulphur Shelf Fungus, Western Hardwood Sulphur Shelf, Laetiporus gilbertsonii
  60. Sweet-Brier Rose, Rosa rubiginosa
  61. Tasmanian Blue Gum Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus globulus [white flowers]
  62. Tobacco, Tree Tobacco, Nicotiana glauca
  63. Tricolored Blackbird, Agelaius tricolor
  64. Tule, Common Tule, Schoenoplectus acutus
  65. Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus
  66. Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura
  67. Valley Oak, Quercus lobata
  68. Variegated Meadowhawk Dragonfly, Sympetrum corruptum
  69. Velvetleaf, Abutilon theophrasti
  70. Virginia Opossum, Didelphis virginiana
  71. Water Hyacinth, Eichhornia crassipes
  72. Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta
  73. White-Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys
  74. White-Faced Ibis, Plegadis chihi
  75. ?? Ballooning spiders’ webs