Category Archives: birding

A Little Drama on a Short Walk, 06-04-21

Ugh! I got absolutely no sleep last night because of the Poltergeist and hip pain. Ibuprofen cuts the edges off the hip pain, but doesn’t touch the nerve pain at all.  Still, I felt I should get outside and walk, so I took my dog Esteban with me to William Land Park.  It was 63° when we got here around 6:30, but warmed up fast. Within 90 minutes it was already 70° outside.

We walked through the WPA Rock Garden and around the middle pool, but I couldn’t do much more than that.

It’s almost impossible to maneuver my cane, my camera and my dog on a leash at the same time, so I’d resigned myself to not getting very many photos. Still, I got a few.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

As we were walking back to the car, I saw a woman in a Wildlife Rescue shirt carrying a large net.  She was going after a black duck — who was paired up with a larger white Pekin duck.  I could see something hanging off the black duck’s bottom and assumed it was a fishing lure or something like that. [I’d seen similar injuries to ducks and geese at Mather Lake Regional Park. More recently, a goose with a longbow bolt impaled in its bottom was rescued.]  I took some photos and some video, even though the action was pretty fast and most of the ducks’ movements were a blur.

Wildlife Rescue worker chasing down the black duck.

The woman chased them around trees and tried to corral them against a planter — but the ducks ran or flew off away from her, just out of reach. Eventually, she was successful in catching the black duck, and just as she did so, three or four other ducks ran at her (as though coming to the black one’s rescue).  None of them got near her, though, and she was able to get the netted bird by its wings and carried it back to her vehicle. My drama for the morning.

All the while this was going on, Esteban was watching, but made no attempt to chase the ducks, or bark, or interfere in any way.  I was very proud of him.

When I got home, I checked the pictures I’d managed to get of the black duck and realized that it wasn’t a fishing lure hanging from underneath it. It was the duck’s prolapsed penis. Ouch!  Most male birds don’t have a penis, but many ducks and geese do, and “prolapsed phallus” is apparently something they have to deal with quite often. 

There was even a TV animal rescue show that had a segment on the condition.

This happens when the male ducks “… are unable to retract their male genital (phallus) back inside of their body. It requires immediate attention to avoid complications such as secondary bacterial contamination and irreversible damage. A prolapsed phallus is usually trauma-induced, but can sometimes also be a clinical sign related to venereal disease or duck plague. When the phallus is outside of the body, it runs the risk of becoming enlarged and swollen, dry and ulcerating, and necrotic during advanced stages… But since (unlike mammals) a drake doesn’t use his penis for peeing, but only for procreation, he can get along just fine without it.” Poor drakes!

I walked for about 90 minutes, but because I didn’t get very far, I didn’t count this toward my #52HikeChallenge.

Species List:

  1. Bear’s Breeches, Acanthus mollis
  2. Blue Jacaranda, Jacaranda mimosifolia
  3. Caper Bush, Capparis spinosa
  4. Common Yucca, Yucca filamentosa
  5. Convergent Lady Beetle, Hippodamia convergens
  6. Coulter’s Matilija Poppy, Romneya coulteri
  7. Crested Duck, Anas platyrhynchos domesticus var. Crested
  8. Elegant Clarkia, Clarkia unguiculata
  9. European Honeybee, Western Honeybee, Apis mellifera
  10. Indian Runner Duck, Anas platyrhynchos domesticus var. Runner
  11. Italian Cypress, Mediterranean Cypress, Cupressus sempervirens
  12. Kangaroo Paws, Anigozanthos flavidus
  13. Lavender, Lavandula sp.
  14. Lavender-Cotton, Santolina chamaecyparissus [silver leaves, yellow button flowers]
  15. Leaf Footed Bug, Leptoglossus zonatus
  16. Love-in-a-Mist, Niallgella damascena
  17. Milky Slug, Deroceras reticulatum
  18. Mullein, Moth Mullein, Verbascum blattaria [thin stick, white or yellow]
  19. Pekin Duck, Anas platyrhynchos domesticus var. Pekin
  20. Prickly Poppy, Argemone sp.
  21. Sacred Lotus, Nelumbo nucifera
  22. Smokebush, Smoke Tree, Cotinus coggygria
  23. Swedish Blue Duck, Anas platyrhynchos domesticus var. Swedish Blue
  24. Western Sycamore, Platanus racemosa
  25. White-Breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis
  26. Wood Duck, Aix sponsa
  27. Yellow Bird-of-Paradise Shrub, Erythrostemon gilliesii

The Other Gristmill Trail, 06-02-21

I got up at 5:30 this morning and headed over to the Gristmill Recreation Area, getting there around 6:00 am.  It was 59° when I arrived there, but it warmed up to 70° before I left.

I walked over to where I normally see the Western Screech Owl, and was happy to see her — but she ducked down immediately when a loud Scrub Jay flew down in front of her.

I then walked on the longer trail on the opposite side of the parking lot. I hadn’t been on that one before, so I didn’t know what to expect, really. It was more “wild” than the other trail with lots of trees, plants, and wildflowers (some still surviving in the heat) that are not seen on the shorter trail. It was also flatter with direct access to the river in a few spots.

The little footbridge on the trail

I was surprised to see so many Elegant Clarkia flowers still in bloom. And it looks like there had been several stands of a kind of phacelia (caterpillar flowers) there — which I’ll have to keep an eye out for next year.

Elegant Clarkia, Clarkia unguiculata

There was much of anything on the water, although I did see a Great Egret and the mama Merganser with her red-headed babies. She’s still got her four little ones, so she’s been pretty successful in keeping them alive and safe.

Common Merganser, Mergus merganser

I found quite a few galls on the trees including those of the Black Walnut Pouch Gall Mite and the Willow Rosette Gall Midge.  The rosette galls, this time around, were new ones, still all shiny and green.  New-to-me galls included those of the Smooth Petiole Gall Sawfly and Willow Fold Gall Sawfly. 

As their names suggest, the petiole galls were at the petiole (the point where the leaf attaches to the plant) of the willow leaves, and the fold-galls were, well, folded. In some of the fold-over galls, I found aphids being tended by ants. I think the aphids were secondary dwellers, though, having taken over the folds after the sawfly larvae hatched out.  I’m not sure, though.

Formicine Ants, Subfamily Formicinae, tending to aphids

On one of the cottonwood trees, I saw a collection of about a dozen “things” hanging down from the branches.  They looked like bushtit nests or maybe masses of bees, but I could tell they weren’t. They were made of plant material. But they weren’t like any of the hanging seed pods, and there weren’t any of them on any of the other trees. They were — and still are — a bit of a mystery to me. I think they might be panicles of seedpods that have been taken over by some kind of fungus or insects — like large leafy galls. More research is required…

Among the insects, I found a single specimen of a tiny planthopper, Agalmatium bilobum.  It’s an “adventive” species, which means it’s not native but also not very well established yet.

Issid Planthopper, Agalmatium bilobum

I also found several examples of what I think is a kind of “moth leaf tier” on an Arroyo Willow. They were collections of leaves with a dead leaf in the center surrounded by several live leaves — and I think they hid moth caterpillars of some kind.

I opened up a couple of them, and found that whatever had been inside the leaves was now long gone, leaving just plant material and old webbing behind. I’m still searching for a more specific ID. The construction of the things was really interesting to see, though.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

Although I didn’t get any really good photos of it, the most interesting moment on the trail today was seeing a female Nuttall’s Woodpecker foraging in the bark of a tree, while below her, near the ground, was a female Downy Woodpecker foraging on Mugwort plants.

I’d never seen a woodpecker foraging on plants before, so I had to look it up.  For the Downy Woodpecker, it’s rather unusual (used only about 2% of the time). I assumed the bird was looking for ants more than plant matter itself.

Fun fact according to Cornell: “…Percussion not a means of securing prey, but rather a means of locating prey by rapidly tapping along a branch or trunk, presumably in order to hear resonance produced when tapping is above tunnel of a wood-boring insect…”

I was out on the trail for about 3 hours and then headed back to the car…and it was from the car when I got photos of House Finches and Lesser Goldfinches. Always have to keep my camera at the ready.  This was hike #50 of my #52HikeChallenge.

Species List:

  1. Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna
  2. Aphid, Family: Aphididae
  3. Arroyo Willow, Salix lasiolepis
  4. Bewick’s Wren, Thryomanes bewickii
  5. Black Locust Tree, Robinia pseudoacacia
  6. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans
  7. Black Walnut Pouch Gall Mite, Aceria brachytarsa
  8. Black Walnut, Eastern Black Walnut, Juglans nigra
  9. Black-Tailed Jackrabbit, Lepus californicus
  10. Blue Elderberry, Sambucus nigra cerulea
  11. Boxelder, Box Elder Tree, Acer negundo
  12. Bushtit, American Bushtit, Psaltriparus minimus
  13. California Manroot, Bigroot, Marah fabaceus
  14. California Mugwort, Artemisia douglasiana
  15. California Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica
  16. California Wild Grape, Vitis californica
  17. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis
  18. Coast Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia
  19. Common European Greenbottle Fly, Lucilia sericata
  20. Common Merganser, Mergus merganser
  21. Conical Trashline Orbweaver, Cyclosa conica
  22. Dog, Canis lupus familiaris var. Golden Retriever
  23. Downy Woodpecker, Dryobates pubescens
  24. Elegant Clarkia, Clarkia unguiculata
  25. European Earwig, Common Earwig, Forficula auricularia
  26. European Praying Mantis, Mantis religiosa
  27. Exclamation Damselfly, Zoniagrion exclamationis
  28. Fennel, Sweet Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare
  29. Fremont’s Cottonwood, Populus fremontii
  30. Goldwire, Hypericum concinnum
  31. Goodding’s Black Willow, Salix gooddingii
  32. Great Egret, Ardea alba
  33. Green Lacewing, Chrysoperla rufilabris
  34. House Finch, Haemorhous mexicanus
  35. House Wren, Troglodytes aedon
  36. Issid Planthopper, Agalmatium bilobum
  37. Killdeer, Charadrius vociferous
  38. Lesser Goldfinch, Spinus psaltria
  39. Mallard Duck, Anas platyrhynchos
  40. Moth Leaf Tier on Willow, Order: Lepidoptera
  41. Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura
  42. Narrowleaf Willow, Salix exigua
  43. Northern Catalpa, Indian Bean Tree, Catalpa speciosa
  44. Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos
  45. Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Picoides nuttallii
  46. Oak Apple, California Gall Wasp, Andricus quercuscalifornicus
  47. Oak Titmouse, Baeolophus inornatus
  48. Phacelia, Caterpillar Scorpionweed, Phacelia cicutaria [white]
  49. Pied-Billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps
  50. Red-Shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus
  51. Smooth Horsetail, Equisetum laevigatum
  52. Smooth Petiole Gall Sawfly, Euura sp. [willows]
  53. Spotted Towhee, Pipilo maculatus
  54. Stink Bug, Trichopepla sp.
  55. Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor
  56. Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura
  57. Valley Oak, Quercus lobata
  58. Western Boxelder Bug, Boisea rubrolineata
  59. Western Ragweed, Ambrosia psilostachya
  60. Western Screech Owl, Megascops kennicottii
  61. White Horehound, Marrubium vulgare
  62. Willow Fold-Gall Sawfly, Phyllocolpa sp.
  63. Willow Rosette Gall Midge, Rabdophaga salicisbrassicoides
  64. Wood Duck, Aix sponsa
  65. ?? growth on cottonwood trees
  66. ?? soft blobby “eggs” on oak leaf

Caddisfly Larvae and the Nemesis Bird, 05-25-21

I got up around 6:00 this morning and headed over to the Gristmill Recreation Area on the American River for a walk. I hadn’t been there for a while, so I missed the fledging of the Red-Shouldered Hawk babies there. It was about 57° when I arrived, but the sun came up fast and hot.

I walked the most-used trail and then ventured out a little bit onto the river’s edge where there was some still, shallow water.

On the trail I could see some birds in and around the bird boxes including House Wrens and Tree Swallows. The wrens fill their box full of twigs, so there’s stuff poking out through the entrance hole — which makes it pretty easy to figure out who’s in there.

While I was taking photos of them, a pair of California Quails ventured out from a tangle of wild blackberry vines and scuttled across the trail. Just one male and a female; no harem and no babies.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

As I walked along, I could hear the chattering sound (called a “rattle call”) of Belted Kingfishers in the trees along the riverside. They’re like my “nemesis birds”: I can hear them a lot, but seldom get to get any photos of them because they’re shy and move so quickly. I was lucky today, though, two females landed on the same branch, and I was able to get some photos and some video snippets of them.

A female Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon

Kingfishers excavate and live in burrows in the banks of the river. I think they’re nesting cavity may have been below where the females were sitting, but I’m not sure.

I was taking photos of one of the Kingfishers when a bird group went past me on the trail. A few second later, one of the men in the group came back to me and asked me my name. I told him it was “Mary”… and then gave him a closer look. “Gene?!”

“Yes!” he said. It was Gene Trapp, and his wife Jo Ellen Ryan was with him along with a few other people. Gene and Jo Ellen doing bird counts and maintain the pollinator garden at the West Davis Pond site in Davis. (They have a house within walking distance of the park.) I’d first met them when I worked at Tuleyome. Gene always supported my desire to be a naturalist, and attended the lectures I gave on plant galls. It was so nice to see them!

They walked me over to where their small birding group was and introduced the leader (who was hauling around a birding scope) as Jeri Langham. Jeri literally walks the trail almost every day. He’s the one who’s set up and monitors all the bird boxes there.

Jeri let us know that the little Western Screech Owl I’d seen regularly in one of the nest boxes had actually had two babies in there this year! Neither the mom nor the babies was outlooking around this morning, but it was fun to think of them hunkered down all safe in their little box-home.

He also pointed out another box in which, he said, had been occupied by Barn Owls. They laid eggs in the box over several days, but on one day, while they were away from the box, a Merganser had flown in and laid several eggs of her own in there.  Brood parasitism (egg-dumping) occurs frequently for these ducks. When the owls found the duck eggs, however, they abandoned the nest… Sad-face emoji.

I gave him my card, and asked him to contact me next time he was putting a group together.  After meeting everyone, and giving Gene and Jo Ellen a hug — which I wouldn’t have been able to do last year — I excused myself to continue my walk.

Along the river, we could see a mama Common Merganser duck teaching her red-headed babies how to dive and scan for fish in the water. Later, Jo Ellen got a photo of them resting and drying off.  The merganser babies are sooooo cute!

Common Merganser, Mergus merganser, mama and her babies resting after their swim.PHOTO BY JO ELLEN RYAN.

I also saw a Great Blue Heron on the shore trying to figure out how to tackle and eat a fish that was nearly as big as it was. I think it might have stolen the fish from a stringer owned by the fishermen further up the shore. I don’t think it was an older cast-off because it hadn’t attracted any vultures, and it looked too large for someone to have just thrown away. I watched the bird struggle with it for several minutes before it gave up.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias, with a fish it couldn’t figure out how to eat.

In the shallows by the river’s edge, I came across several killdeer.  I watched out for their nests (which they create in the stones) but didn’t see any; no babies either.

In the insect realm I found Boxelder Bugs, a Black Dancer Caddisfly, honeybees, a few jumping spiders (one hauling a fly that was as big as he was), and a colorful Case-Bearing Leaf Beetle, among others.  In the shallow water, scooting and hopping through the mud and silt, I found several Big-Eyed Toad Bugs.  Seriously. That’s what they’re called. They have big bulging eyes and a heavy “collar”, and they hop all over the place when disturbed. Never noticed them before.

The find of the day for me, though, was seeing and getting some close-up shots of caddisfly larvae. I was almost done with my walk when I found them, so I wasn’t able to spend as much time with them as I’d have liked to. I was tired, and it was it already getting “too warm” for me. I’ll go back some other morning, first thing, when I’m feeling stronger and it’s cooler outside.  Anyway, I picked up a few of the little buggers and took some photos and video snippets of them.

Caddisflies spend their larval stage underwater, then emerge (like dragonflies do) from the water as terrestrial adults. The most common adult Caddisfly was see around here is the Black Dancer Caddisfly, Mystacides sepulchralis. I’m not sure if the larvae I saw were Black Dancers or some other species, but I think they were from the suborder Integripalpia (the “portable case makers”). They protect their soft bodies by covering them with a case made of bits of gravel, sand, tiny sticks… whatever they can find. After the adults emerge, they only live for a week or two, just long enough to find a mate and reproduce.

“…Case-building caddisfly larvae use [their] silk to construct various portable shelters. They protect soft their abdomen from predators, and abrasion from coarse particles drifting in stream. If disturbed, larva can retreat into the case, which is constantly being repaired when damaged, or rebuilt as the larva grows…”

One of them that I picked up had a case made of sand crystals and tiny sticks; so interesting. While I was taking photos of it, the birding group caught up with me and asked what I was doing — so I gave them the 5-minute elevator speech about caddisfly larvae. I showed them some of the larvae walking through the water, and also pointed out the trails they’d left in the silt on nearby rocks. They were all very excited about it and thanked me fore teaching them something new.

I also found a few galls on this trip including the oak apples, and a couple of willow galls: stem galls created by sawflies, and rose gall created by midges. Lots of different things to see today…

I was out for about 3½ hours and headed back home.  This was hike #47 in my #52HikeChallenge.

Species List:

  1. Acute Bladder Snail, Physa acuta
  2. Armenian Blackberry, Rubus armeniacus [pink flower]
  3. Asian Clam, Corbicula fluminea [little tan or white shells]
  4. Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon
  5. Big-Eyed Toad Bug, Gelastocoris oculatus
  6. Black Dancer Caddisfly, Mystacides sepulchralis
  7. Black Fly, Family: Simuliidae
  8. Black Locust Tree, Robinia pseudoacacia
  9. Black Walnut Pouch Gall Mite, Aceria brachytarsa
  10. Black Walnut, Eastern Black Walnut, Juglans nigra
  11. Black-Chinned Hummingbird, Archilochus alexandri
  12. Black-Tailed Jackrabbit, Lepus californicus
  13. Bushtit, American Bushtit, Psaltriparus minimus
  14. Buttonhook Leaf-Beetle Jumping Spider, Sassacus vitis
  15. Caddisfly, Suborder: Integripalpia (the “portable case makers”), larvae
  16. California Mugwort, Artemisia douglasiana
  17. California Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly, Battus philenor hirsuta
  18. California Quail, Callipepla californica
  19. California Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica
  20. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis
  21. Canada Rush, Juncus canadensis
  22. Case-Bearing Leaf Beetle, Cryptocephalus castaneus
  23. Coast Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia
  24. Common Fig, Ficus carica
  25. Common Merganser, Mergus merganser
  26. Double-Crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auratus
  27. European Honeybee, Western Honeybee, Apis mellifera
  28. European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris
  29. Fennel, Sweet Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare
  30. Fremont’s Cottonwood, Populus fremontii
  31. Giant Mullein, Broussa Mullein, Verbascum bombyciferum
  32. Goodding’s Black Willow, Salix gooddingii
  33. Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
  34. Hairy Woodpecker, Dryobates villosus [long bill]
  35. House Wren, Troglodytes aedon
  36. Interior Sandbar Willow, Salix interior
  37. Jersey Cudweed, Pseudognaphalium luteoalbum
  38. Killdeer, Charadrius vociferous
  39. Lesser Goldfinch, Spinus psaltria
  40. Mistletoe, Broadleaf Mistletoe, Phoradendron macrophyllum
  41. Moth Mullein, Verbascum blattaria
  42. Oak Apple, California Gall Wasp, Andricus quercuscalifornicus
  43. Poison Hemlock, Conium maculatum
  44. Purpletop Vervain, Verbena bonariensis
  45. Spotted Towhee, Pipilo maculatus
  46. Tree of Heaven, Ailanthus altissima
  47. Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor
  48. Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura
  49. Valley Oak, Quercus lobata
  50. Western Bluebird, Sialia Mexicana [flyby]
  51. Western Boxelder Bug, Boisea rubrolineata
  52. Western Tailed-Blue Butterfly, Cupido amyntula
  53. White Tailed Kite, Elanus leucurus [across the river]
  54. Willow Rose Gall Midge, Rabdophaga rosaria
  55. Willow Stem Sawfly, Euura exiguae
  56. Wood Duck, Aix sponsa
  57. Yellow-Billed Magpie, Pica nuttalli
  58. ??? fly being eaten by spider

Looking for a Mandarin, 05-23-21

I got up at 6:00 am this morning, and headed out to the Elk Grove Regional Park because a Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata) had been spotted there.  I had seen photos of the ducks before, but never saw a live one, in situ as it were. I walked around the whole 7½ acre lake, but didn’t find the duck I was looking for.

The park is easy to get to and sprawls out over 122 acres. It’s pretty but it’s  too “manicured”, too “Stepford” for me. There are gorgeous heritage oaks (including Black Oaks and Interior Live Oaks), Coast Redwoods, Weeping Willows, and others on the grounds that provide a lot of shade, but they’re trimmed up so high you can’t touch the leaves. So, nature is around you, but you can’t really interact with it very much. I’d prefer something more “scruffy” that I can explore, not just stand in  as though it’s a museum.

Those feelings aside…

I did see a lot of Mallards and Mallard hybrids, Wood Ducks, some Muscovy Ducks, Swan Geese and Canada Geese. Some of the Canadas had goslings at various levels of development. And I saw a group of tiny Wood Duck ducklings, that looked like newborns, swimming around in the water with no mama.

Something bad must have happened to her; I didn’t see her anywhere and she wasn’t responding to the ducklings’ cries. If they can find enough to eat, the ducklings can survive without mom, but they have no protection and no extra heat source when the nights get cold, so… the whole group may be goners. (see follow-up below)

Sad sights were seeing the handsome Yellow-Billed Magpies eating out of the trash cans, and going after the carcass of a squirrel on the road. And speaking of the squirrels… Although there are signs in the park telling people not to feed the geese or the squirrels, I saw one group of people blatantly feeding the geese; and the squirrels run right up to you looking for handouts. One came so close I expected it to grab my pant leg and demand breakfast.

An unexpected sighting was a Black Phoebe nest on one of the pilings in the lake. The babies inside were nearly fully fledged, but the parents were still feeding them. I could see four of them crammed into a nest that didn’t seem big enough to hold one.

Between feedings, the chicks rested in the sun, preened, and stretched their wings. I watched them for quite a while; couldn’t seem to get enough of them. Then I continued on to the other side of the lake and headed back to the car.

I was at the park for about 90 minutes and only walked about 0.7 miles, so it didn’t count toward my #52HikeChallenge tally.

Follow-Up on the Ducklings:

I got a message from Christy of the Sacramento Heron and Egret Rescue, who suggested I get in contact with local rescuer Ben Nuckolls. So, I did that, and Ben said he’d have the “duck lady” who’s at the park every day check on the ducklings. If they still look in distress or are unclaimed by a mama duck, they’ll try to coordinate a rescue. Thanks, everyone!

Species List:

  1. American Robin, Turdus migratorius
  2. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans
  3. Brewer’s Blackbird, Euphagus cyanocephalus
  4. Bushtit, American Bushtit, Psaltriparus minimus
  5. California Black Oak, Quercus kelloggii
  6. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis
  7. Coast Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens
  8. Deodar Cedar, Cedrus deodara
  9. Eastern Gray Squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis
  10. Eurasian Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto
  11. Gray Pine, Pinus sabiniana
  12. Interior Live Oak, Quercus wislizeni
  13. Mallard Duck, Anas platyrhynchos
  14. Muscovy Duck, Cairina moschata
  15. Swan Goose, Chinese Goose, Anser cygnoides [can be white, or gray/brown, knob on the bill]
  16. Weeping Willow, Salix babylonica
  17. Wood Duck, Aix sponsa
  18. Yellow-Billed Magpie, Pica nuttalli

Pocket Rookery, 05-21-21

This morning I met with Jan Robertson been volunteering at the “Pocket Rookery” site in Sacramento, checking out the birds and keeping stats for the Sacramento Heron and Egret Rescue (SHER).

It took less time to get to the site off of Windbridge Drive than I thought it would. There was very little traffic, so I actually got there about 20 minutes early. That was okay with me. I’m the sort who would rather be 20 minutes early than 2 minutes late. Jan showed up about 10 minutes later and walked me around the site. 

Jan Robertson was myguide on this excursion.

There were birds in the fir trees along the road, and in the cottonwood and birch trees in the green areas at the adjacent apartment complex.

Jan said this is the first year there have been Great Egrets brooding there. We also saw Black-Crowned Night Herons, Snowy Egrets and Cattle Egrets. This was the first time I’d seen Cattle Egrets in their breeding plumage. Normally, they’re all white, but when they’re breeding their head, back and chest get a rusty-colored wash.

I loved hearing all the different calls.  I didn’t see the baby Black-Crowned Night Herons, but I could hear them making their tick-tick-tick calls. On top of that we could hear the adult herons rok-rok calls, and the egrets’ chatty burbling (think of Donald Duck trying to talk in water). Hah!

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

There were quite a few bluish-green eggs shells on the ground, including one that looked like it fell before the chick even started forming. And we also found the carcasses of three babies that fell from the nests.

As the babies grow and begin to fledge, Jan said, they’ll be more visible, and will line up on the fences along a nearby canal.

Today, there were about eight Turkey Vultures in the fir trees, and several more on the roof tops and on fences near the canal. They’re no threat to the living herons or egrets (they don’t take live prey), but they might go after carcasses of the dead ones.

The amount of bird droppings was considerable and immeasurable. In some spots, the stuff covered entire bushes. One of the major problems with housing rookeries for herons, egrets, cormorants and the like is the amount of ordure the birds produce. It’s difficult for the humans to clean it up, and if it gets dense enough, the stuff can kill plants and even the very trees the birds are nesting in. So, it’s a mess.

A bush covered in bird offal

Some of the people in the area are willing to deal with it — understanding that the birds aren’t there for very long, and they get to see baby birds  born and fledged. But other people have no patience for it, so it’s always something of a balancing act for volunteers like Jan who work with the birds in these urban rookeries.

We were out there for about 90 minutes and then headed back to our respective homes. The place will absolutely be worth another visit in a few weeks.

The site is on the corner of Windbridge Drive and Cutting Way. Some of the birds nest inside the grounds of the Waterford Cove Apartment complex. Do not enter the apartment grounds without expressed permission. It’s best to enter with one of the SHER volunteers or become a volunteer yourself. You can get more information about volunteering with SHER at: https://sacheronsave.org/help/volunteer/

Species List:

  1. American Robin, Turdus migratorius
  2. Birch, Silver Birch, Betula pendula
  3. Black-Crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax
  4. California Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica
  5. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis
  6. Cattle Egret, Bubulcus ibis
  7. Cliff Swallow, Petrochelidon pyrrhonota
  8. Crow, American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos
  9. Fremont’s Cottonwood, Populus fremontii
  10. Giant Sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum
  11. Great Egret, Ardea alba
  12. Red Swamp Crayfish, Crawdad, Procambarus clarkii
  13. Snowy Egret, Egretta thula
  14. Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura

Heron Rookery, Wyndham, 05-17-21

I got up at 6:00 this morning and ready by 6:30 to head out with my friend and fellow naturalist, Roxanne, to look for a heron rookery in Natomas. There are actually two in this part of town, and both are by apartment complexes. We went to the one near the River Birch Park which has a large pond and walking trail in it. 

Along with landscaping around the lake, that mixed bot native and nonnative trees and plants, there were lots of cottonwood trees around the pond which the herons seemed to prefer.

When we first got there, I found it difficult to distinguish the nests and the birds, but my eye was soon able to pick them out.

We had never been to this place before, and weren’t really sure what to look for or where to look for it, but within a few minutes we were able to pick out the heron nests among the branches and twigs of the trees. Black Crown Night Herons dominated this rookery, but on the little island in the middle of the lake there were some Snowy Egrets nesting.

There were easily 30+ nests there, not counting the Snowy Egret nests. The nest sites are chosen by the males who then try to attract a female to join them. Males start the nest building, or refurbishes an old nest, but once a female is ensconced in the nest, the male continues to bring her sticks to add to it.

Cornell says: “…During and after pair formation, the male collects sticks from the ground or breaks them from trees and presents them to the female who works them into the nest. Adults may steal sticks from other active nests or old nests. The male’s twig ceremony gradually changes to nest building and may function to strengthen the pair bond…”

We hadlots of sightings of the “sticks” ceremony, and one male doing his “acceptance/greeting”. And I love all their rok-rok, scraak-scraak calls. So cool.

“…Advertising/Stretch: the male stretches its head up and forward, and treads raising legs and feet, brings extended head and neck forward and down, feathers of the back, crown, neck, and breast are raised, plumes fully erect, and the eyes protrude from their sockets appearing more red than usual…”

The herons are believed to be monogamous. According to Cornell: “…At the time of pair formation, the legs of both sexes turn pink, back and head plumage has a glossy bluish-green sheen, lores become black, plumes may reach 250 mm in length…”  We DID see evidence of that all around the rookery site.

Black-Crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax, sporting its pink legs

We saw several birds sitting on the nests. Both mom and dad incubate the eggs, and it’s usually dad that does day duty, so I’m assuming that we were seeing the males sitting this morning.

A bonded pair of Black-Crowned Night Herons, Nycticorax nycticorax. It’s probably the male on the nest with the female overhead.

I thought I might have seen babies, but it was just adult birds snuggled down into their nests. We found one broken egg, but no signs of chicks yet. According to Cornell: “…Eggs are smooth and non-glossy, greenish-blue in color, but they are the greenest on the first day (fade thereafter); thus, color can be used to assign laying order up to one day after clutch completion…”

Egg of a Black-Crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

The herons seemed to like the cottonwood trees better than the others; although we did see one nest in a pistache tree.

According to Cornell, the Night Herons return to their natal breeding sites each year, so we were no doubt seeing a generation or more of birds at this site.

It was nice to see the signage put out by the Sacramento Heron and Egret Rescue group (SHER) that let folks know about the rookery and what to do if they found a fallen or injured bird in the area.

We found several areas where there was evidence that small crayfish had been taken from the water. The claws were taken off and left lying around, and there were some spots where we saw either upchucked or defecated crayfish (reddish “splots” on the sidewalk).

Splot!

Night Herons are opportunistic feeders, meaning they’ll eat just about anything they can find or that’s most readily available. Cornell says: “…Foods including leeches, earthworms, aquatic and terrestrial insects, prawns and crayfish, clams, mussels, squid, freshwater and marine fish, amphibians, lizards, snakes, turtles, small mammals, birds, eggs, carrion, plant materials, and garbage/refuse from landfills…”

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

We also found a few very large pellets that, unlike the owl pellets I’ve found before, were still “glutinous”, a bit wet and exceedingly stinky. We put them into a bag and I dissected them at home.

Wearing a mask and gloves, I pulled apart the two pellets. Most of the pellets were comprised of undigested fur and feathers. There were lengths of skin and some partially digested organs, bones, skulls, and even a length of tail. I found evidence of at least two birds, six rodents, and possibly a bat in the pellets. I was surprised that, considering the crayfish bit we saw on the site, there was no evidence of crayfish in the pellets we found.

Walking around the lake at the site, we could see the Snowy Egrets starting to nest in the trees there. Because of their distance from us, it was hard to get clear photos of them.  We did see some of the birds gathering sticks for their nests. In this species, the female does most of the next building, but the males do bring her sticks to use.

On the oak trees around the lake, we found several galls including old Flat-Topped Honeydew galls, leaf galls and some petiole galls on a tree that looked like a Valley Oak hybrid of some kind. One of the willow trees had some bead galls on its tiny leaves, and we also found some evidence of white wooly aphid on the pyracantha bushes.

Also at the site we saw lots of Canada Geese, some crows, starlings, a few Bushtits and other birds. But none of them interacted with the herons. (Although I have no doubt that the herons would prey on the goslings during the night.)

I was also kind of disgusted by the fact that there were several dead carp in the water, just left to rot in the sun.

The Black-Crowned Night Herons are actually most active at night, and are just out and about now because it’s breeding season. After a couple of hours, the birds were all shifting into sleep mode, so activities ceased… and we headed home.

Sleepy Black-Crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax, on his nest

I look forward to returning soon to see how things progress. This was hike #45 of my #52HikeChallenge.

NOTE: If you plan to go to the site, park only in the designated “courtesy” parking spaces or on the street. Do not park in the numbered parking spacing, and do not disturb the residents (or the birds).

Species List:

  1. Black-Crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax
  2. Bushtit, American Bushtit, Psaltriparus minimus
  3. Butterfly Bush, Buddleja sp.
  4. California Black Oak, Quercus kelloggii
  5. California Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica
  6. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis
  7. Chinese Pistache, Pistacia chinensis
  8. Coast Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia
  9. Crow, American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos
  10. Desert Willow, Chilopsis linearis
  11. European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris
  12. Flat-Topped Honeydew Gall Wasp, Disholcaspis eldoradensis
  13. Fremont’s Cottonwood, Populus fremontii
  14. Goldfish Carp, Carassius auratus
  15. Great-Tailed Grackle, Quiscalus mexicanus
  16. Jumping Oak Gall Wasp, Spring generation, Neuroterus saltatorius [like a hard crust with holes in it]
  17. Leaf Gall Wasp/ Unidentified per Russo, Tribe: Cynipidi [on Valley Oak]
  18. Mallard Duck, Anas platyrhynchos
  19. Mistletoe, Broadleaf Mistletoe, Phoradendron macrophyllum
  20. Narrowleaf Willow, Salix exigua
  21. Oak Apple, California Gall Wasp, Andricus quercuscalifornicus
  22. Pied-Billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps
  23. Plant Bug, Family: Miridae
  24. Purple-Flowered Rock-Rose, Cistus × purpureus
  25. Pyracantha, Firethorn, Pyracantha coccinea
  26. Seed Chalcidoid Wasps, Sycophila sp.
  27. Seven-Spotted Lady Beetle, Coccinella septempunctata
  28. Snowy Egret, Egretta thula
  29. Valley Oak Petiole Gall, Tribe: Cynipidi 
  30. Valley Oak, Quercus lobata
  31. Willow Bead Gall Mite, Aculus tetanothrix
  32. Woolly Apple Aphid, Eriosoma lanigerum [also found on pyracantha]