Heron Gulp and Vulture Lunch, 02-10-21

I got up around 6:30 this morning after not getting much sleep last night because my hip was screaming, and headed out for a walk with my friend and fellow naturalist, Roxanne. We went first to Paradise Beach, where we hadn’t been before to see what we could see there.

The beach is located near California State University, Sacramento, on an oxbow bend in the river which creates a kind of cove to which the public has access. We walked across the lawn of the small Glenn Hall Park to the levee and had to climb up it to get to the top, then find a way down again to the waterless rocky shole there.

Water was in the distance to the left and right of us, but we never got to it. The uneven rocky ground was hard for me to walk on, and the places were we had to walk on loose sand made walking very tiring. The willows and cottonwood trees all around us were naked of leaves, and what few birds we could hear around us were out of range of our cameras… So, the walk there was very frustrating.  After maybe a half an hour, I told Rox I was bored, aching and wanted to leave, so we did.  I won’t be adding this location to my go-to list, at least not for now. Maybe it will be more interesting when things are greener… or maybe we can access that part of the river from a different location and see more later.  We’ll see.

We decided instead to see if anything was happening at the Mather Vernal Pool and the Mather Lake Regional Park. There didn’t seem to be much water on the ground in the vernal pool fields – and there isn’t any greening of the area at all yet. We did see some women setting flags out in the grass near the fence line, but we weren’t sure what they were doing (and didn’t ask them). We didn’t even get out of the car to look around there.

It was then on to Mather Lake Regional Park. Before we got there, we saw a couple of Turkey Vultures near the side of the road. One was in a tree and the other was sitting on a fence post. We couldn’t see what had attracted them to the spot, and they flew off when we got too close.

Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura

At the park, it looked like they’d done more “mowing” in the lake and around the shores, so with all the leafless trees around things looked kind of “naked”. There were a surprising number of felled trees near the water, including the one the beavers had been gnawing at for the past several months, and I wonder if they had been purposely knocked down by humans before they fell down.  Some of them were far too big for beavers to float off with, but I suppose that felling the trees meant they could “prune” the branches for use in their den- and damn-building.

There was a LOT of bird noise around today especially among the House Finches, the Tree Swallows who seemed to be vying for nesting cavities, and Canada Geese, many of who have paired up getting ready for the breeding season. Both Rox and I got videos of their raucous chatter.

As we were going along, we came across a woman who was going in the opposite direction. Roxanne can start up a conversation with just about anyone, so they started chatting about the swallows and the geese and suchlike, and then the woman introduced herself as “Colleen”.  Roxanne introduced herself and I said, “And I’m Mary.”

“…As in ‘Hanson K. Mary’?” Colleen asked.  [Hanson K. Mary is my Facebook name.] I chuckled and said, yes. And Colleen said she followed my Facebook posts and was aware of my blog. Hah! I’m famous.

We all chatted a little more and then headed off on our own directions on the trail. Colleen turned back to let us know that the pair of White-Tailed Kites were back, and hung out in trees near the front part of the trail.  We thanked her, and kept an eye out for them.

We also came across a man with his big Lab dog. We’d seen him a few times. His dog almost always has a ball in its mouth. If the dog, his owner said, kind find a ball in the open field by the lake, he lets the dog go play in the water before they leave. The dog had his ball today.  Hah! Lucky him.  The man told us there was a Great Blue Heron at the far end of the little island in the lake, and as we were heading that way, we kept an eye out for that, too.

We found the heron standing stalk still in the water; its neck stretched out over the surface, as though it was watching something in the water next to it.  We took some immediate photos, just in case it flew off, and approached it slowly, using the part of the trail that hugged closest to the shore.  It took us a little over 10 minutes to get into the best position to see and photograph the bird, and all the while the bird never moved a muscle. Imagine keeping your own body in a full extension, not moving, for 10 minutes. We were impressed. 

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias. The bird maintained this stance for over 10 minutes.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

Then, as we watched, the heron stabbed into the water and brought up a fish, what might have been a small bass or bluegill. The bird flipped it around a couple of time, getting it into the correct position, and swallowed it whole. Then it lifted itself out of the water and flew to the opposite side of the lake, croaking at us. 

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

There was a Great Egret on that side of the lake, and after the heron landed, the egret walked up to it and pecked in the water around its feet until the heron moved further down the shore.

As we were heading back to the car, Rox found a shallow divot in the ground littered with what empty, mostly dry, papery-shelled eggs. They were pretty well done in, so it was hard to tell much about them or how they got there.  I was thinking they might be turtle eggs, but they could also have been a large snake’s eggs. We took some photos and continued on.

Papery-shelled eggs on the ground

Then we spotted Kites. They were right in the area where Colleen said they’d be, and where we had seen them courting before. They seemed to being playing a sort of tag. One which we assumed was the female would fly into a tree, and the other would follow.

When the male got close, the female responded with a “kewt, kewt, kewt!” sound, but wouldn’t let him do anything. They moved from tree to tree, sometimes in different branches of the same tree, sometimes in different trees altogether, and sometimes flew in wide circles overhead and around one another. We were able to get several photos of them before they got sick of us stalking them, and they flew off out of the park.

As we neared the parking lot, we saw a Say’s Phoebe sitting on top of a sign. It seems to us that we’re seeing a lot more Say’s than we’d ever seen before over the past several years, and wondered if they were pushing out the ubiquitous Black Phoebes. Was Climate Change affecting their range, or were they just more prolific recently? Questions, questions.

Say’s Phoebe, Sayornis saya

Across from where the Phoebe was, down in where the drainage water runs out of the lake, we saw a young Turkey Vulture eating something. It was a skinny juvenile (we could tell by the black tip on its beak). Because the rock faces all around it cast deep shadows and had bright reflective faces, it was difficult to get ant decent photos of the bird or what it was eating. We finally decided it had a very large bullfrog. The carrion was still plump and “juicy”, so if it was a roadkill, it must’ve been a very recent one.

Turkey Vultures are carrion eaters and aren’t equipped to kill live prey, so I wondered if this juvenile’s parent had brought it a snack, or if it had found the roadkill and took it into the rocks where it was relatively safe from snack-stealers like herons and egrets. The vulture was making slow work of tearing the frog apart, sometimes lifting it up by its belly-skin that stretched and looked like and over-filled plastic bag filled with crap.  Yum.

Our walk lasted almost 4 hours before we headed home, and this was the first time in a long time, my feet were actually hurting more than my hip did.  Hah! This was walk #15 in my #52HikeChallenge.

Species List:

  1. American Coot, Fulica americana
  2. American Pipit, Anthus rubescens
  3. Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna
  4. Asian Clam, Corbicula fluminea
  5. Audubon’s Warbler, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Setophaga coronata auduboni
  6. Azolla, Water Fern, Azolla filiculoides
  7. Beaver, American, Beaver, Castor canadensis [sign, felled tree]
  8. Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon [heard]
  9. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans
  10. Bluegill, Lepomis macrochirus
  11. Brewer’s Blackbird, Euphagus cyanocephalus
  12. Broad-Leaved Dock, Rumex obtusifolius
  13. California Ground Squirrel, Otospermophilus beecheyi
  14. California Mugwort, Artemisia douglasiana
  15. California Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica
  16. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis
  17. Candleflame Lichen, Candelaria concolor [bright yellow-orange]
  18. Coastal Willow, Salix hookeriana
  19. Common Pin Mold, Mucor mucedo
  20. Double-Crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auratus
  21. Eastern Fox Squirrel, Sciurus niger
  22. Eurasian Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto       
  23. European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris
  24. Fremont’s Cottonwood, Populus fremontii
  25. Gold Dust Lichen, Chrysothrix candelaris
  26. Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
  27. Great Egret, Ardea alba
  28. Great-Tailed Grackle, Quiscalus mexicanus
  29. House Finch, Haemorhous mexicanus
  30. Interior Sandbar Willow, Salix interior
  31. Lettuces, Lactuca sp.
  32. Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura
  33. Mute Swan, Cygnus olor
  34. Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus
  35. Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Picoides nuttallii
  36. Oak Titmouse, Baeolophus inornatus
  37. Philonotis moss, Philonotis sp. [on the ground]
  38. Pied-Billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps
  39. Red Pine, Pinus resinosa
  40. Red-Shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus
  41. Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus
  42. Say’s Phoebe, Sayornis saya
  43. Soft Rush, Juncus effusus
  44. Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia
  45. Sweet-Brier Rose, Sweetbrier, Rosa rubiginosa
  46. Telegraphweed, Heterotheca grandiflora
  47. Trailing Blackberry, Rubus ursinus
  48. Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor
  49. Tule, Common Tule, Schoenoplectus acutus
  50. Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura
  51. White Tailed Kite, Elanus leucurus
  52. White-Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys
  53. Willow Rose Gall Midge, Rabdophaga rosaria
  54. Willow Stem Sawfly, Euura exiguae