Category Archives: birding

Low to No Water at the SNWR, 05-26-23

I got up around 5:30 this morning, so I could get the dog and myself ready to make the long drive to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (SNWR). It takes about 2 hours to get there from the house. We stopped to top off the gas tank and get some coffee, and were on the road in earnest by 6:00 AM.

With the place nearly devoid of any standing water, it was more like a late-spring grassland than a wetland area.

There was a little water near the turnouts on the auto route, but not a lot. And I didn’t see any waterfowl in those areas.

Even the large “permanent wetland” pool was just barely full of water. It looked like it was maybe only a few inches deep, and when the coots and grebes swam through it, their knobby knees came up over the surface of the water.

This pond had recently been reformed, and along a large swath of the bank all of the vegetation had been completely removed. I didn’t understand that. The place is supposed to be a “refuge” for wildlife, but removing the vegetation meant the little Marsh Wrens wouldn’t be able to build their nests there, dragonflies and damselflies wouldn’t be able to emerge there, and the summer spiders wouldn’t have anywhere to build their webs.

The lack of vegetation does mean you have a much better view of the water. But with the lack of waterfowl at the moment and the shallow depths of the pool, there wasn’t much to see anyway. I also noticed that some of the “islands” that had stood in the pond previously, were now gone. That was upsetting because traditionally, cormorants and White Pelicans used to rest on those islands.

I DID get to see some of the usual suspects like the Coots, Canada Geese, the last of the migrating Snow Geese, Killdeer, Lesser Goldfinches, Meadowlarks and Mallards. In some places along the auto tour route, the Killdeer ran in front of the car, sometimes laying down in their “broken wing” displays — which meant they had nests on the ground around there. I drove really slowly, worrying all the while that I was inadvertently crushing the nests and their eggs hidden in the gravel. Yikes!

In the water of the permanent pool were a few Clark’s and Western grebes floating about, but none of them seemed to be paired up yet. There were also a few Pied-Billed grebes. One of them was hoot-calling to its mate; such a cool sound. I also got a little footage of a Black-Necked Stilt complaining about something. They’re so loud!

There was also a pod of Ruddy Ducks, males and females, and most of the males were in their breeding plumage, bright blue bills and everything.

I saw a couple of the males doing their courtship displays, which are really kind of hilarious. The males swim in front of the females with their tails and eyebrows raise high, then they thrum against their chests with their bills, making bubbles appear in front of them. Hah!

“…They punctuate the end of the display with a belch-like call,,, Everything about this bird is interesting to the naturalist, but almost nothing about it is interesting to the sportsman…” –– Cornell

I got a tiny bit of video of the behavior, but the birds were pretty far away, and sometimes had their back to me.

I had better luck getting some video and photos of the male Marsh Wrens, including one that was standing next to one of the nests it had built.

Along another part of the pond, there was nothing but Bird’s-Foot Trefoil on the bank. And in other areas there was Poison Hemlock, Blessed Milk Thistle, and teasel in various levels of blossoming. I also saw some Brass Buttons, Downingia, Spikeweed, Cocklebur, Smartweeds, and Dock. The Yellow Star-Thistle was just starting to emerge.

One of the things that surprised me was seeing a few different forms of witches broom on the mustard plants. The wild growth is caused by a kind of phytoplasma.

…Phytoplasmas are obligate intracellular parasites of plant phloem tissue and of the insect vectors that are involved in their plant-to-plant transmission. Phytoplasmas were discovered in 1967 by Japanese scientists who termed them mycoplasma-like organisms…” — Wikipedia

“…Dr. Saskia Hogenhout, a scientist at the John Innes Centre in England, and her colleagues reveal that some of these creepy alterations are driven by the work of a single protein from the parasite called SAP05, which stands in the way of the plant’s maturation…In the new paper, they explain how SAP05 seems to drive some of the more surprising effects, like the life-span extension. ‘It looks like it stays in a juvenile phase,’ [she] said…” — The Indian Express

I didn’t see any evidence of the large orb-weaver spiders that usually inhabit the pond area in the summer, and I only found a few damselflies and dragonflies. Among the dragons, I only found male and female Variegated Meadowhawks. It’s still early in the season, though. A kind of Deer Fly with “crazy eyes” came into the car for a short period of time. I also saw some Sulphur and Cabbage White butterflies flitting around, but I was only able to get photos of a cooperative West Coast Lady butterfly.

As I left the pond area and headed toward the viewing platforms, I saw some Cliff Swallows darting back and forth, into and through a drainage block. [I assume they were building nests in there, and/or feeding nestlings.] Some of the fledglings sat among the tules, waiting for their parents to feed them.

Other critters I saw today were quite a few jackrabbits, a pond turtle, some Western Fence Lizards, and a California Ground Squirrel grooming itself.

Because I was in my vehicle for the majority of this trip, I didn’t count it toward my #52hikechallenge for the year.

Species List:

  1. American Coot, Fulica americana
  2. American Pipit, Anthus rubescens
  3. Ash Tree, California Ash, Fraxinus dipetala
  4. Bees, European Honeybee, Western Honeybee, Apis mellifera
  5. Bindweed, Field Bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis
  6. Bird’s-Foot Trefoil, Lotus corniculatus
  7. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans
  8. Blackberry, Armenian Blackberry, Rubus armeniacus [red canes, white flowers]
  9. Black-Necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus
  10. Black-Tailed Jackrabbit, Lepus californicus
  11. Brass Buttons, Cotula coronopifolia
  12. Brewer’s Blackbird, Euphagus cyanocephalus
  13. Bufflehead Duck, Bucephala albeola
  14. California Ground Squirrel, Otospermophilus beecheyi
  15. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis
  16. Cinnamon Teal, Spatula cyanoptera
  17. Common Spikeweed, Centromadia pungens
  18. Dock, Curly Dock, Rumex crispus
  19. Dock, Fiddle Dock, Rumex pulcher
  20. Downingia, Flatface Calicoflower, Downingia pulchella
  21. Dragonfly, Variegated Meadowhawk Dragonfly, Sympetrum corruptum
  22. Eucalyptus, Tasmanian Blue Gum, Eucalyptus globulus
  23. Flax-Leaved Horseweed, Erigeron bonariensis
  24. Flies, Deer Fly, Chrysops sp. [many have wild-looking eyes]
  25. Flies, Face Fly, Musca autumnalis
  26. Grasses, Foxtail Barley, Hordeum murinum
  27. Grasses, Harding Grass, Phalaris aquatica [a kind of canary grass]
  28. Grasses, Rabbitfoot Grass, Polypogon monspeliensis
  29. Great Egret, Ardea alba
  30. Grebe, Clark’s Grebe, Aechmophorus clarkii [black above the eye]
  31. Grebe, Pied-Billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps
  32. Grebe, Western Grebe, Aechmophorus occidentalis [black through/below the eye]
  33. House Finch, Haemorhous mexicanus
  34. Killdeer, Charadrius vociferous
  35. Kingbird, Western Kingbird, Tyrannus verticalis
  36. Lesser Goldfinch, Spinus psaltria
  37. Mallard Duck, Anas platyrhynchos
  38. Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura
  39. Pacific Pond Turtle, Western Pond Turtle, Actinemys marorata
  40. Pineappleweed, Matricaria discoidea
  41. Phytoplasmas, Phytoplasma sp. [creates witch’s broom]
  42. Poison Hemlock, Conium maculatum
  43. Red-Tailed Hawk, Western Red-Tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis calurus
  44. Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus
  45. Rough Cocklebur, Xanthium strumarium
  46. Ruddy Duck, Oxyura jamaicensis
  47. Rushes, Sea Clubrush, Bolboschoenus maritimus
  48. Smartweed, Pale Smartweed, Persicaria lapathifolia
  49. Sneezeweed, Helenium sp.
  50. Snow Goose, Chen caerulescens
  51. Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Petrochelidon pyrrhonota
  52. Teasel, Fuller’s Teasel, Dipsacus sativus [flowers in bands]
  53. Teasel, Wild Teasel, Dipsacus fullonum [flowers overall]
  54. Thistle, Blessed Milk Thistle, Silybum marianum
  55. Thistle, Yellow Star-Thistle, Centaurea solstitialis
  56. Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura
  57. West Coast Lady Butterfly, Vanessa annabella [blue spots]
  58. Western Fence Lizard, Blue Belly, Sceloporus occidentalis
  59. Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta
  60. White-Faced Ibis, Plegadis chihi
  61. Wren, Marsh Wren, Cistothorus palustris

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The Pipevine Swallowtail Caterpillars are Abundant at the River Bend Park, 05-24-23

I felt really good after doing the chores I did yesterday, and was looking forward to doing some exercise today with a walk at the American River Bend Park. Third or fourth visit there over the last month or so, but I always see something different every time I go there. It was a gorgeous morning, 51ºF, clear, sunny, and breezy.

The American River was still way up. Water covered most of the bank areas and swamped the trees. Some of the trails that led down to the bank, now led right to the water. According to the Department of Water Resources, releases from the Nimbus Dam are currently at 15,000 CFS. That’s up from 7,521 CFS just last month. Wow.

The first thing I saw when I drove into the park was a young buck in his velvet grazing along the side of the road. I later saw a couple more deer near the equestrian area. I also saw a few Black-Tailed Jackrabbits, Fox Squirrels and California Ground Squirrels. I was hoping to come across a coyote (as there were signs all over the park stating there is an active den in the park), but… no such luck.

I didn’t see a lot of birds, although I could hear them singing and moving through the trees overhead. I did see some Black Phoebes, and watched as a House Wren brought bright green caterpillars to her fledglings for breakfast. They’re such cute little birds. I also found an old hummingbird nest held to the forked branches of an oak tree with spider webs.

The river was running so fast, I only saw two waterfowl braving the current: a male Mallard and a female Common Merganser. Across the river in the the high naked branches of a tree were several Turkey Vultures sunning themselves.

The big news for me today was: I saw lots and lots of Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars ,in various instars, almost everywhere I looked. Although some had climbed up into the tall grass and Mugwort plants to warm themselves in the sunlight, I didn’t see any of them making themselves ready to form their chrysalises. CLICK HERE to see a video of the butterfly’s lifecycle.

I saw some of the butterflies flitting about, and was also able to catch a well-worn female to get some close-up photos of her. Her wings were ragged from dealing with males, winds, and the razor-edges of the grasses. As battered as she was, she was still very much a fighter. I took a few photos of her and released her back onto a pipevine plant.

In one of the photos above, you can see a caterpillar extending its bright, gooey, orange osmeteria.  “…The everted organ resembles a fleshy forked tongue (not unlike a snake tongue)… [and emits] a foul, disagreeable odor which serves to repel ants, small spiders, and mantids…” It’s also said to have a foul taste.

The pipevine plants and Wild Grape plants were climbing along the ground and high into the trees. Some of the grapevines were already brandishing clutches of not fully formed “baby grapes”.

I was happy to see that the Orange Bush Monkeyflowers were out in force, as were the Elegant Clarkia flowers. I saw color variations from different shades of pink, to bicolored pink-on-pink, and pure snowy white.

Along with the common Oak Apple galls on the Valley Oak trees, I found a new-to-me gall on the leaves of an ash tree. There were a lot of shot-holes on some of the leaves, and on one leaf were hard little chambers that I believe were formed by the Ash Bead Gall Mite.

I was out for about 3 hours. This was hike #30 of my #52hikechallenge for the year.

Species List:

  1. Acmon Blue Butterfly, Icaricia acmon
  2. Acorn Woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorus
  3. Alder, White Alder, Alnus rhombifolia
  4. Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna [bird and nest]
  5. Araneomorph Meshweaver Spider, Dictyna sp.
  6. Ash Bead Gall Mite, Aceria fraxini
  7. Ash Leafcurl Aphid, Prociphilus fraxinifolii
  8. Ash Tree, California Ash, Fraxinus dipetala
  9. Bees, Yellow-Faced Bumble Bee, Bombus vosnesenskii
  10. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans
  11. Black Walnut, Eastern Black Walnut, Juglans nigra
  12. Black-Tailed Jackrabbit, Lepus californicus
  13. Blue Elderberry, Sambucus nigra cerulea
  14. Broom, Spanish Broom, Spartium junceum
  15. Bumpy Rim-Lichen, Lecanora hybocarpa [tan to brown apothecia]
  16. Bur Parsley, Anthriscus caucalis
  17. California Ground Squirrel, Otospermophilus beecheyi
  18. California Mugwort, Artemisia douglasiana
  19. California Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly, Battus philenor hirsuta
  20. California Pipevine, Dutchman’s Pipe, Aristolochia californica
  21. California Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica
  22. California Wild Grape, Vitis californica
  23. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis
  24. Candleflame Lichen, Candelaria concolor
  25. Columbian Black-Tailed Deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus
  26. Common Merganser, American Common Merganser, Mergus merganser americanus
  27. Common Saint John’s Wort, Hypericum perforatum
  28. Coyote Brush, Baccharis pilularis
  29. Deerweed, Acmispon glaber
  30. Eastern Fox Squirrel, Sciurus niger [rusty belly]
  31. Elegant Clarkia, Clarkia unguiculata 
  32. Fennel, Sweet Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare
  33. Grasses, Bristly Dogtail Grass, Cynosurus echinatus
  34. Grasses, Greater Quaking Grass, Rattlesnake Grass, Briza maxima
  35. Grasses, Pink Grass, Windmill Pink, Hairypink, Petrorhagia dubia
  36. Grasses, Smilo Grass, Oloptum miliaceum
  37. Iris, Yellow Water Iris, Iris pseudacorus
  38. Lesser Goldfinch, Spinus psaltria
  39. Live Oak Erineum Mite Gall, Aceria mackiei
  40. Live Oak Folded Leaf Aphid, Stegophylla essigi
  41. Mallard Duck, Anas platyrhynchos
  42. Monkeyflower, Orange Bush Monkeyflower, Diplacus aurantiacus
  43. Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura
  44. Mullein, Moth Mullein, Verbascum blattaria [thin stick, white or yellow]
  45. Non-Biting Midges, Cricotopus sp.
  46. Oak Apple, California Gall Wasp, Andricus quercuscalifornicus
  47. Oak, Interior Live Oak, Quercus wislizeni
  48. Oak, Valley Oak, Quercus lobata
  49. Powder-Edged Speckled Greenshield, Flavopunctelia soredica [pale green, soredia on the edges of the thalus]
  50. Rio Grande Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo intermedia
  51. Rose, California Wild Rose, Rosa californica [pink]
  52. Silverpuffs, Silverpuffs, Uropappus lindleyi [pointed tips]
  53. Strap Lichen, Ribbon Lichen, Ramalina leptocarpha
  54. Swallow, Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor
  55. Tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus
  56. Towhee, Spotted Towhee, Pipilo maculatus [heard]
  57. Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura
  58. Vetch, Hairy Vetch, Vicia villosa
  59. Western Bluebird, Sialia mexicana
  60. Western Fence Lizard, Blue Belly, Sceloporus occidentalis
  61. Western Hoptree, Ptelea crenulata
  62. Wren, House Wren, Troglodytes aedon

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This and That at Effie Yeaw, 05-21-23

Around 6:45 AM today, I decided to go over to the Effie Yeaw Nature Preserve for a walk. My “cancer-leg” was hurting, around a “5”, but I thought the walk might loosen up the muscles and stretch it out.

I was surprised that it was actually cloudy and chilly at the preserve. I wished I had brought my jacket with me. The place was pretty quiet as far as humans went; I saw just a handful of people on the trails and most of them were around my age — and that made for a quiet restful place to walk this morning. No screaming children.

There was a lot of birdsong in the air, but I was unable to get photos of most of the birds — like the Black Phoebes, wrens and quails. I did get a few photos, though, of the ubiquitous Acorn Woodpeckers, Spotted Towhees, a Western Bluebird, White-Breasted Nuthatches, and others.

It was really a “squirrel day”, though. I saw them everywhere. Mostly Eastern Fox Squirrels — including one very pregnant female. But I also came across Western Gray Squirrels and a few California Ground Squirrels. One of the Ground Squirrels was a pregnant female who seemed to be standing guard outside her large burrow. As I watched, another Ground Squirrel came up from the burrow and relieved her. [You can READ MORE about the Ground Squirrels in an article I wrote in 2017.]

The Ground Squirrels and Western Gray Squirrels are native to California, but in many areas the Western Grays have been driven out by the invasive Fox Squirrels.

“…Both eastern gray and eastern fox were brought from the other side of the United States in the early 1900s and have been increasing their range and population ever since, both on their own and from humans deliberately spreading them through the state, unaware of the consequent damage to environment, agriculture, and property that would cause. Meanwhile, the western gray has decreased in range and abundance…” Bay Nature

A very pregnant Eastern Fox Squirrel, Sciurus niger [rusty belly]

Another reason why the Fox Squirrels outnumber the Gray Squirrels is because the Fox Squirrels breed twice a year, and the Gray Squirrels only breed once a year.

“…Fox Squirrels mate twice a year, from mid-December to early January and June. Gray Squirrels mate from December to February and May to June…” Welcome Wildlife.

As I was walking along — I took the Pond Trail –I noticed that the tree across from the 4B stanchion had been felled. That upset me because for several consecutive years the resident Red-Shouldered Hawks had used that tree to hold their back-up nesting site. The hawks cleaned and brought new material for a nest in that tree each year– even though they actually chose a different site to nest.

And worse than that loss was the fact that it looked like the “bee tree”, where wild honeybees had built and maintained a hive for several years, had been broken open, its different trunks split apart. I couldn’t see the entrance hole to the hive and didn’t see any bees there. A travesty. That made me so angry and sad. And it just seemed to really hit home for me that there is NOTHING in the preserve that hasn’t been disrupted or manipulated by humans tasked with “protecting” the space.

There are plots where they’re trying to grow more Showy Milkweed at the expense of natural plants and grasses. And there were outcroppings of Lupines and Fleabane that has escaped the confines of the gardens near the Nature Center and showed up near the river. I also saw what looked like dip-system lines and hoses in the “nature area”.

The river was running very high. There was so much water that some of it was gathered into a large pond that reach out very near to the trail. The geese were making use of it to exercise their goslings. I’m assuming the extra water is from the snowmelt in the Sierras.

I had been looking for deer in the preserve today, but only found a small group of them browsing on elderberry leaves near the large river-pond. They were all mostly in silhouette from where I stood, but I was able to tell that one of them was a young buck in his velvet.

I was happy to see that the wild, native Elegant Clarkia was starting to bloom near the river, and I found a few outcroppings of Harvest Brodiaea, a perennial herb that is also native to California. There was a little bit of the Miniature Lupine left in a few spots, and the California Trees were in bloom.

I was able to find a few more insects to add to my species list for the year including a kind of Darkling Beetle, a silverfish, and a Ground Spider (that looked like it was made of rubber). I also found a couple of galls including Oak Apples and a Fimbriate Wasp gall.