Lots of Greater White-Fronted Geese, 09-25-21

I woke up around 3:00 am in pain again. I’m getting really tired of this. By 5:00 am I still couldn’t sleep, so I decided to just get up and go to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.  It’s a long (for me) drive there, but I’d be sitting for most of the day, so I wouldn’t be walking around aggravating And the morning was cool, only 51º F. I love that. Of course, it was still dark outside at that hour. I fed Esteban his breakfast and packed a lunch for us both (applesauce, crackers, peanut butter, and a Dr. Pepper –mostly for me for the sugar and caffeine), and we were off like a herd of turtles.

I hit most of the traffic lights green and got through town to the freeway in record time. I was at refuge by about 7:00 am. There was still some lingering smoke in the air from the wildfires, and the view of the Sutter Buttes was obscured by that, but it seemed okay for breathing.

There were LOTS of ducks, geese, and ibises doing flyovers in flocks, but many of them were headed OUT of the preserve and settling into the surrounding ag lands where there was free rice and corn. That’s because there still isn’t much water on the ground inside the preserve. I’d say that along the auto tour route, about 90% of the landscape was still bone dry.

Most of the refuge’s landscape looked like this: VERY dry and devoid of bird-attracting water.

There was water in a few places, but it was still relatively shallow, and much of it was off-trail in spots where you could SEE it, but you couldn’t GET to it because it was off limits. *Sigh* Even the little ponds near the nature center were dry.

The first bird I saw up close (relatively speaking) was a spunky male Anna’s Hummingbird who was guarding “his” feeder. He was facing me, but because the sun wasn’t really up yet, I got no iridescence from his gorget.

A male Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna

According to the Audubon Society: “…A hummingbird’s brilliant throat feathers are called its gorget (pronounced gor-jit). The term comes from days of old, when a knight-in-armor wore a metallic collar—or gorget—to protect his throat. The hummingbird’s intense glint is the result of iridescence, rather than colored pigments. The bird’s throat feathers contain minutely thin, film-like layers of ‘platelets,’ set like tiles in a mosaic against a darker background. Light waves reflect and refract off the mosaic, creating color in the manner of sun glinting off oily film on water…”

Then I saw a “wake” of Turkey Vultures sitting on the bare branches at the top of a tree. Later, I also saw some sitting on the ground. I’m assuming they’d just eaten and were too full to fly just yet.

The nearby willow trees seemed to be teaming with tiny birds; all or most of them very adept at avoiding my camera’s eye. Two that I managed to get very blurry shots of were a Yellow Warbler and an Audubon’s Warbler.

I then saw, in a tree across the Wetlands Trail from where the warblers were, a handsome Red-Shouldered Hawk.

Red-Shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus, getting some extra color from the “red” of the sun rising through the smoke.

There were a few dragonflies still in the refuge, most of them on their last legs as their breeding season comes to a close. I found one Variegated Meadowhawk clinging to a teasle stalk. 

Variegated Meadowhawk Dragonfly, Sympetrum corruptum

As it was still cool then (in the 50’s), the dragonfly was very torpid, so I was able to grab it by the wings and take it back to the car, where we both warmed up a bit. I got some photos of the dragonfly, and a video snippet of it hyper-vibrating its wings as it tried to warm up its flight muscles. When it was able to fly, I opened the car window and released it back to the wild.

According to the Tree of Life Project: “…Dragonflies’ flight capabilities are prodigious. They dash, they dart, they maneuver, they cross oceans. At least four distinct flight styles are recognized in Odonata: counter-stroking (where fore- and hind-wings move up and down about 180 degrees out of phase), phased-stroking (where the hind-wings cycle about 90 degrees – a quarter cycle – before the fore- wings), synchronized-stroking (where fore- and hind-wings move in unison), and gliding…

Dragonfly flight is powered by muscles attached directly to the wing bases. Efficient muscle action depends on temperature and many dragonflies spend considerable time and energy in maintaining a near constant elevated temperature for their flight muscles. When at rest the dragonfly thorax appears skewed, but in flight the head is held low and the stroke of the wings is about parallel to the long axis of the flight muscles, providing mechanical efficiency. Small controller muscles operating on the wing base adjust the wing shape and angle of attack of the wing during each stroke…

Dragonfly wings are very dynamic structures. They are not simple planar objects. The corrugations in the wing hold an airfoil of air around the physical wing, lowering friction, and the wings flex around several axes, responding both to muscle actions and to inertia effects. The pterostigma on the leading edge near the tip is a weight that causes the wing tip area to flex during a wing stroke, improving aerodynamic efficiency.

“To make things more impressive, dragonflies can fly with different wings doing quite different things, even using different methods to generate thrust. Asymmetric wing stroking in damselflies permits wings on one side to drive forward, and the other side to drive back, spinning the animal on its axis in a single combined stroke. All dragonflies achieve their mastery of flight by varying what their wings are doing in a coordinated fashion. They can adjust wing shape, stroke length, angle of attack, move a wing forward (or backwards) of its “usual” position, stop one or two wings, adjust relationships between any two wings on either side of the body … the list goes on…”

They’re amazing!

I saw several other Variegated Meadowhawks along the auto-tour route, including a bound pair that was daubing eggs into some still water. I also glimpsed quite a few Blue-Eyed Darners and Green Darners, a Blue Dasher and a Black Saddlebags. I might have been able to see more, but the road to the extension loop where a lot of the dragonflies are, is now closed to the public until March of next year.

There were LOTS of sparrows in the tules and feeding on the ground: Song Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, migrating White-Crowned Sparrows…

It was a little bit difficult for me to identify the ducks I saw because many of them were backlit by the rising sun and/or in their non-breeding plumage. I tried to ID them by their GISS (General Impression Shape and Size) but I don’t know how successful I was.  Mallards, Northern Shovelers, and Northern Pintails (many without their “pins” yet as they’re going through a major molt right now).

At one spot, I could see something dark I among the weedy things, and stopped the car to get a closer look. From the weed emerged a large male Ring-Necked Pheasant who continued to nonchalantly walk away from me down a no-people-allowed track beside the road. I also a few other males (no females), most of them flushing suddenly and flying across the road in front of the car.

There were no Snow Geese there yet, but the place was stuffed full of large flocks and congregations of Greater White-Fronted Geese. You could hear the noise of their vocalizing all over the preserve.

Some of the Greater White-Fronted Geese were traveling with their fledged youngsters. You can tell by their size and coloration.

According to Cornell: “Adults have bright white forehead, black patches and/or bands on lower breast and belly, pinkish bill with light orange wash above nostrils, and orange legs… Fall immatures slightly smaller and lighter than adults, lack black bars on belly and white forehead… Young gain a few indistinct belly bars and narrow white forehead over winter…”

The Red-Winged Blackbirds are coming in, in force, too. I pulled off the side of the auto tour route for a moment, just to listen to and record the gurgling, chortling sound of them.

I could also hear a few Western Meadowlarks singing, but trying to zero in on them was almost impossible. Their voices travel sooooo far; they sound like they’re right next to you when in fact, they’re halfway across a field.

The tiny male Marsh Wrens are starting to sing to establish their territories before the next-building frenzy starts, so their buzzy songs were added to the bird-cacophony of the place.

I came across the ubiquitous Black Phoebes that seem to follow my friend Roxanne and me everywhere. 

Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans

I was surprised to hear in an email from Joseph Zinkl that the most recent Audubon Society survey at Bobcat Ranch they found only one phoebe. He wrote: “…A minor  up-note was the presence of a single black phoebe. Over the years they have been around headquarters/parking lot nearly every survey. Sonjia, Josh and I have shared our concerns regarding the absence of these birds. My notes indicate that the last time we saw one was on July 1. Anyway they seem to be back. I have no idea what caused their absence…”

Rox and I seem to see the phoebes everywhere. I’m surprised there seem to be so few at Bobcat. (Joseph DID say that they found lots of Lewis’s Woodpeckers there, though, 38 of them! Dang it! I haven’t seen even ONE in over three years.)

The only place where I saw a fairly wide variety of birds was about ¾ of the way through the auto-tour route. There was a flooded field on the other side of berm, in a place where the car couldn’t go. Over the edge of the berm I could see Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Black-Necked Stilts, Greater Yellowlegs, White-Faced Ibis, Greater White-Fronted Geese, and Long-Billed Curlews.

BUT…because they were so far away, and I had to shoot across the passenger seat of the car from a very awkward position, I couldn’t get really clear photos of any of them.  So unfair!

I don’t understand why the refuge doesn’t flood the field accessible to the auto-tour route FIRST, so visitors could at least see a variety birds in relative comfort. More birds means more visitors; more visitors mean more money. What good does it do to lure me there and then show me nothing but dry fields and a handful of species in a plot I can’t get to. So aggravating!

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

The excitement for the day was provided by a Peregrine Falcon (who refused to let me get any clear photos of it). It had apparently dropped its meal on the gravel road somewhere in front of where my car was heading, and a Turkey Vulture was starting to circle it. The falcon, screeching all the while, chased off the Turkey Vulture, then zoomed down in front of my car, snatched its breakfast right off the gravel without landing or missing a wingbeat, and flew away. Those birds are sooooo fast! Gasp-worthy!

This was the only shot (and through the windshield) I got of the Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus, as he took off from a branch and zeroed in on the Turkey Vulture.

Because there was so little water at the preserve, and therefore not much to stop and look at, I got through the auto-tour route faster than I normally do. So, I decided to try the nearby Colusa National Wildlife Refuge…but like the Sacramento refuge, this one, too, was practically without water. The main pond where the viewing platform is was just starting to fill up… and again there were more Greater White-Fronted Geese than anything. 

The other 80% of the place was dry-dry-dry.

Among the geese, I got a photo of one that looks like it might have “bird pox”.

According to Northeast Wildlife: “…Avian pox, caused by a poxvirus, is one of the oldest known infectious disease of birds. There are many different strains of the avian pox virus but most are species specific. However, some strains have the ability to infect birds across different families… Wild waterfowl in North America have recently experienced an apparent increase in infection rate, though infections in these birds are still relatively uncommon…

“…Biting insects such as mosquitoes, mites, fleas, midges, and flies are most frequently responsible for transmitting avian pox. These insects pick up virus particles when they take a blood meal from an infected bird and then transmit the virus when they do the same with another susceptible bird. Transmission rates are highest when biting insects are abundant. 

“…The most common clinical sign of avian pox is the formation of wart-like growths on the skin, particularly on unfeathered parts of the body such as the legs, feet, eyelids, base of the beak, and the comb and wattles. This is the cutaneous or “dry” form of avian pox. Birds with mild infections may only have a few growths that minimally affect their health status. These lesions can persist from 1 to 4 weeks but in most cases, the bird will survive and the nodules will heal potentially with some scarring. …”

What do you think?

The real shocker at the preserve, for me, though was seeing only about three Black-Crowned Night Herons in the day-roost area. There’s usually 50 to 100 there.

Black-Crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

The highlight of that tour was being able to see a White-Faced Ibis fairly close up as it fished in some shallow water.

I was out for about 8 hours — a very long day — but because I spent the majority of it in the car, I didn’t count it toward my annual hike challenge.

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Species List:

  1. American Kestrel, Falco sparverius
  2. Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna
  3. Armenian Blackberry, Rubus armeniacus [pink flower]
  4. Arroyo Willow, Salix lasiolepis
  5. Audubon’s Warbler, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Setophaga coronata auduboni
  6. Big Saltbush, Atriplex lentiformis
  7. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans
  8. Black Saddlebags Dragonfly, Tramea lacerata
  9. Black-Crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax
  10. Black-Necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus
  11. Blue Dasher Dragonfly, Pachydiplax longipennis [white faced]
  12. Blue-Eyed Darner Dragonfly, Aeshna multicolor
  13. Bristly Oxtongue, Helminthotheca echioides
  14. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis
  15. Common Gallinule, Gallinula galeata
  16. Coyote Brush, Baccharis pilularis
  17. Damselfly, Familiar Bluet, Enallagma civile
  18. Desert Cottontail Rabbit, Sylvilagus audubonii [scat]
  19. Double-Crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auratus
  20. Fiery Skipper, Hylephila phyleus
  21. Gadwall Duck, Mareca Strepera
  22. Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
  23. Great Egret, Ardea alba
  24. Greater White-Fronted Goose, Anser albifrons
  25. Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca
  26. Green Darner Dragonfly, Anax junius
  27. Killdeer, Charadrius vociferous
  28. Least Sandpiper, Calidris minutilla
  29. Long-Billed Curlew, Numenius americanus
  30. Long-Billed Dowitcher, Limnodromus scolopaceus
  31. Mallard Duck, Anas platyrhynchos
  32. Margined Calligrapher Hoverfly, Toxomerus marginatus
  33. Marsh Wren, Cistothorus palustris
  34. Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura
  35. Non-Biting Midge: Chironomus sp.
  36. Northern Harrier, Marsh Hawk, Circus hudsonius
  37. Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos
  38. Northern Pintail, Anas acuta
  39. Northern Shoveler, Anas clypeata
  40. Pale Smartweed, Persicaria lapathifolia [pale drooping flowering heads]
  41. Pectoral Sandpiper, Calidris melanotos
  42. Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus
  43. Red Gum Eucalyptus, River Redgum, Eucalyptus camaldulensis
  44. Red-Shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus
  45. Red-Tailed Hawk, Western Red-Tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis calurus
  46. Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus
  47. Ring-Necked Pheasant, Phasianus colchicus
  48. Rio Grande Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo intermedia
  49. Rough Cocklebur, Xanthium strumariumswal
  50. Sacred Datura, Jimsonweed,  Datura wrightii
  51. Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis
  52. Sea Clubrush, Bolboschoenus maritimus
  53. Snowy Egret, Egretta thula
  54. Tule, Common Tule, Schoenoplectus acutus
  55. Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura
  56. Variegated Meadowhawk Dragonfly, Sympetrum corruptum
  57. Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta
  58. White-Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys
  59. White-Faced Ibis, Plegadis chihi      
  60. Wild Teasel, Dipsacus fullonum
  61. Yellow Warbler, Setophaga petechia