Category Archives: Events

Summer 2019 CalNat Class #4, 06-28-19

After an early morning meeting, I was totally exhausted by the time the naturalist class started. But I didn’t want to miss Hillary Kasemen from West Coast Falconry and her talk on falcons. 

She brought with her “Cubby”, a male Anatum Falcon (Falco peregrinus anatum) a subspecies of Peregrine Falcon also called an American Peregrine, “Aerial”, a female American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) and “Islay”, a female Lanner Falcon (Falco biarmicus).

We learned, among other things, that because they fly so fast (up to 200 mph in a dive) falcons have an exaggerated tubule in the nose to help channel air so they can breathe better. Jet engines are made with the same kind of “baffle” (nose cone) in the center. “This example of biomimicry is very retrospective in that engines weren’t first designed this way.” Nature never ceases to amaze.

And we also learned that the hoods often used in falconry help to calm the birds. Falcons take a lot of information in through their eyes, and can get visually over-stimulated at times. Put a hood or other covering over the eyes helps to cancel out some of that stimuli.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos and some video snippets. #CalNat

Some students asked why we have presentations like this during the naturalist classes, and the reason is two-fold: (1) we want to introduce students to live specimens of species they might not otherwise encounter, and (2) we want to provide students who capstone ideas and volunteer opportunities.

The 1st Summer 2019 Naturalist Field Trip, 06-15-19

I got up at 4:00 this morning, got the dog fed and outside to pee, and then headed out to Woodland for our first field trip for the summer naturalist class.  I got to the Woodland Library around 5:45 am and waited for my coworker Bill and the students arrive. The weather was VERY cooperative today. I was worried that the summer heat would make our field trips unbearable in the summer, but today it was nice.  It was in the low 60’s when we headed out, and only about 78° when we came back, so that was great.  There was also a slight breeze which helped, too.

When everyone got to the library and had signed in, we all headed out to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.  I left my car in the parking lot and went with Bill in his van along with our student, Jeanette, who is a middle school teacher.

  • Locate and identify at least fifteen (15) animal species (birds, amphibians, reptiles)
  • Locate and identify at least ten (10) plant species
  • Locate and identify at least ten (10) insect species

While we were walking around the nature center, I think they all got the majority of those requirements!  The insects were probably the most difficult for everyone, but we’ll see on Friday (at class) how well everyone did. 

Near the nature center, we came across a large fat weevil sitting on the top of the flowering head of a tule.  Bill rapped on the weevil a couple of times and figured it was dead, but when I stroked it, its feet moved, so we all inferred that the weevil was in a state of torpor, waiting for the sun to get a little higher in the sky so it could warm up more and start moving around. 

Everyone took photos of it and tried to identify it using the iNaturalist app we’d told them about in class on Friday.  It came up as a Billbug Weevil from the genus Sphenophorus. If you look at the map in iNaturalist, though, you’ll see that Billbug Weevils have been sighted all over the globe. So, calling this a Billbug Weevil is somewhat accurate, but for a more precise ID, I wanted the students to try get down to the species level on the weevil when they got home. Insects can be especially hard to ID because there are literally millions of them, and you have to deal with taxon levels that include superfamilies, tribes and subtribes before you can get close to the species. It will be interesting to see how far the students are able to get.

We also found a buckwheat plant that I didn’t recognize as buckwheat at all because its shape wasn’t like any buckwheat plant I’d seen before.  The signage by the plant said it was California Buckwheat, Eriogonum fasciculatum, as did iNaturalist, but that didn’t quite look right to me. The leaves were the wrong shape.  So, I did a little more research, and I believe it was actually St. Catherine’s Lace, Eriogonum giganteum, a kind of wild buckwheat that usually only grows in Southern California. When we were studying the plant, two of the students (Jeanette and Edna) also observed that some of the flowers still had their pink pollen balls and others did not… and we inferred that those that didn’t have their pollen balls anymore had already been pollinated.

Buckwheat, St. Catherine’s Lace, Eriogonum giganteum, with pollen blass intact

When it came time to drive the auto-tour route, I drove Bill’s van so he could do more observations, and Jeanette and another student, Mica, a retired farmer, came along with us. Bill was able to open up both sides of his van, so the gals could get an unobstructed view of what was out on the preserve. Although everyone was able to go at their own pace along the route, we stopped at two of the park-and-stretch areas so we could compare notes and get a closer look at things.  At the first stop, the students Ken and Alison, who are already expert birders, were helping the students spot and identify bird species and also explained what they meant when they talked about the birds’ GISS.

GISS stands for “General Impression, Shape, and Size” (originally a military term). Birders often use the bird’s GISS as a way to do a preliminary or in-field identification of a bird when it’s backlit (only seen in silhouette) or is too far away to see any details of its coloring. So, Alison and Kent were able to distinguish a pair of Northern Harriers flying over our heads from the Red-Tailed Hawk that was flying near them by nothing but their GISS. Very cool.  I’m nowhere near being that kind of an expert. 

At the second park-and-stretch spot, students relaxed with their lunches for a little while, and I was able to find a couple of examples of a specific kind of gall to tell them about, a Cottonwood Petiole Gall and is created by the aphid, Pemphigus populitransversus. The wingless female aphid called a “stem mother” chews at the leaf petiole (the stalk that joins a leaf to a stem) until it swells and then she climbs inside the swelling and has her babies inside of it. The baby aphids are born live and can be in either a winged form (called an “alate”) or without wings.

Cottonwood Petiole Aphid Gall,
Pemphigus populitransversus

While the students were resting and checking up on their notes, one of them, Alison, let us see what she’d put into her field journal for the morning. She’s an artist, and she uses fountain pens and watercolors to write and decorate her entries. It was beautiful. I can hardly wait for Friday when all the students share their journals, so I can take photos and let you see what they’re doing…

I also overheard a couple of students talking about how much they enjoyed the class, how much they’ve learned already (in just two sessions) and how many resources we’ve introduced them to that they didn’t even know existed before now.  That is so gratifying!

One more learning moment: On the eucalyptus trees along the end auto-tour route on Saturday, I also stopped to pull a leaf off of an obliging eucalyptus tree, so I could show the students in our vehicle the white teepee-like formation on it that some folks mistake for galls.  The formations are actually called “lerps” and they’re created by a tiny insect called the Red Gum Lerp Psyllid, Glycaspis brimblecombei. These insects spin little white houses for themselves made of sugars and wax pulled from the leaves. They’re often very sticky with the honeydew produced by the insects.             

When we were done with the tour, everyone went their separate ways.

Species List:

  1. American Bullfrog, Lithobates catesbeianus,
  2. American Robin, Turdus migratorius,
  3. American Wigeon, Anas americana,
  4. Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna,
  5. Ash-Throated Flycatcher, Myiarchus cinerascens,
  6. Bermuda Grass, Cynodon dactylon,
  7. Bewick’s Wren, Thryomanes bewickii,
  8. Billbug Weevil, Sphenophorus sp.,
  9. Birds-foot Trefoil, Lotus corniculatus,
  10. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans,
  11. Black Saddlebags Dragonfly, Tramea lacerata,
  12. Black-Tailed Jackrabbit, Lepus californicusm,
  13. Blessed Milk Thistle, Silybum marianum,
  14. Brewer’s Blackbird, Euphagus cyanocephalus,
  15. Bristly Oxtongue, Helminthotheca echioides,
  16. Buckwheat, St. Catherine’s Lace, Eriogonum giganteum,
  17. Bulbous Canary Grass, Phalaris aquatica,
  18. Bullock’s Oriole, Icterus bullockii,
  19. California Flannelbush, Fremontodendron californicum,
  20. California Fuchsia, Epilobium canum,
  21. California Ground Squirrel, Otospermophilus beecheyi,
  22. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis,
  23. Cinnamon Teal, Anas cyanoptera,
  24. Cleveland Sage, Salvia clevelandii,
  25. Common Checkered Skipper, Pyrgus communis,
  26. Common Minnow, Phoxinus phoxinus,
  27. Common Teasel, Dipsacus fullonum,
  28. Cottonwood Petiole Aphid Gall, Pemphigus populitransversus,
  29. Coyote Brush, Baccharis pilularis,
  30. Desert Cottontail, Sylvilagus audubonii,
  31. Eurasian Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto,
  32. European Heliotrope, Heliotropium europaeum,
  33. European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris,
  34. Field Bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis,
  35. Field Mustard, Sinapis arvensis,
  36. Flax-leaved Horseweed, Erigeron bonariensis,
  37. Floating Water Primrose, Ludwigia peploides ssp. peploides,
  38. Fremont Cottonwood, Populus fremontii,
  39. Gold Dust Lichen, Chrysothrix candelaris,
  40. Goodding’s Willow, Salix gooddingii,
  41. Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias,
  42. Great Egret, Ardea alba,
  43. Greater White-Fronted Goose, Anser albifrons,
  44. Great-Tailed Grackle, Quiscalus mexicanus,
  45. Green-Winged Teal, Anas carolinensis,
  46. Italian Thistle, Carduus pycnocephalus,
  47. Jimson Weed, Datura stramonium,
  48. Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos,
  49. Marsh Wren, Cistothorus palustris,
  50. Monarch Butterfly, Danaus plexippus,
  51. Mosquitofish, Gambusia affinis,
  52. Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura,
  53. Mute Swan, Cygnus olor,
  54. Mylitta Crescent Butterfly, Phyciodes mylitta mylitta,
  55. Narrowleaf Cattail, Cattail, Typha angustifolia,
  56. Narrowleaf Milkweed, Asclepias fascicularis,
  57. Northern Bluet Damselfly, Enallagma cyathigerum,
  58. Northern Pintail, Anas acuta,
  59. Northern Shoveler, Anas clypeata,
  60. Oleander Aphid, Aphis nerii,
  61. Pied-Billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps,
  62. Poison Hemlock, Conium maculatum,
  63. Raccoon, Procyon lotor,
  64. Red Gum Lerp Psyllid, Glycaspis brimblecombei,
  65. Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus,
  66. Rough Cocklebur, Xanthium strumarium,
  67. Sharp-leaved Fluellen, Kickxia elatine,
  68. Showy Milkweed, Asclepias speciosa,
  69. Spotted Orb-Weaver Spider, Neoscona crucifera,
  70. Striped Horsefly, Tabanus lineola,
  71. Sunburst Lichen, Xanthoria elegans,
  72. Teasel, Wild Teasel, Dipsacus fullonum,
  73. Tule, Common Tule, Schoenoplectus acutus,
  74. Turkey Tangle, Fogfruit, Phyla nodiflora,
  75. Variegated Meadowhawk Dragonfly, Sympetrum corruptum,
  76. Western Fence Lizard, Sceloporus occidentalis,
  77. Western Kingbird, Tyrannus verticalis,
  78. Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta,
  79. Yellow Starthistle, Centaurea solstitialis

Behind-The-Scenes “Natives” Tour, 04-18-19

Today, I was treated to a behind-the-scenes “natives” tour at the reptile house and got to visit with a Burrowing Owl at the Sacramento Zoo.  There were two school buses full of kids there, so I didn’t hang around much after the tour, but I still got to see and learn some cool stuff.  My tour guides were Kathryn, a keeper named Bill (who did all the reptile house stuff) and a keeper named Mike who showed me the Burrowing Owl.

CLICK HERE for the album of photos.

Inside the back of the reptile house it was warm and kind of humid (which is what most of the reptile need to feel comfortable). The place is laid out like a snake, in a serpentine pattern, with the back sides of the habitat enclosures along the outer walls and other tanks and materials along the center spaces and inside walls. Each enclosure has pouches on the door with cards that tell when the animals’ feeding scheduled are and what work has taken place during the week, and also give the keepers detailed information on each animal inside the enclosure.  Some of the enclosures have one or two specimens inside, but others, like the one for the tiny Dart Frogs, can have a dozen individuals in them. Somehow – usually by color pattern – the keepers can tell who each individual is.  Everybody gets weighed about once a week to make sure they’re on track physically.

The first thing I had to do when I got inside the reptile house was dip the soles of my boots in a disinfectant bath to make sure I wasn’t tracking in anything that might harm the animals inside. (And we did the same thing just before leaving the building.)

Some of the critters don’t get enough UV light inside their enclosures (because the light is set in the ceiling of the enclosures and the animals (like turtles) can’t climb up to it.  So, sometimes the critters are taken off exhibit and allowed to bask under UV lights in separate terrariums to make sure they get all the “sun” they need. When I was there, they had some handsome Hamilton’s Pond Turtles (Geoclemys hamiltonii) doing the basking thing. The Hamilton’s have beautiful black-and-white polka dotted faces. I don’t remember ever seeing them before, so getting to meet a couple of them was a treat.  [They’re native to the Ganges, not California.]

I also got to see the Venomous Bite Alarm: a red phone that automatically connects directly with the local fire department.  So, if a keeper or a guest gets bitten by a venomous snake, all someone has to do is knock the receiver off the phone and an alert goes out to emergency personnel who are dispatched immediately.  All of the enclosures that hold the venomous snakes also have red warning cards on them, and a garbage can underneath the door, so if the snake lunges out at someone, it falls into the can instead of on a person.  Sometimes, the low-tech stuff is what works best.

And I got to see the food room for the reptile house, which is kept separate from the food storage for the other animals in the zoo because it’s comprised mostly of live insects and small frozen mice. There were egg crates crawling with live crickets and bottles of different kinds of worms… Some of the creatures, though, are vegetarians, so there are also greens, small flowers and other goodies for them to eat.

The tour was so cool! I got so much information from the staffers, that I don’t know if I’ll remember it all. But I’ll give you some of the highlights.

I got to see the zoo’s California Newt (Taricha torosa), our state’s endemic newt (found here and nowhere else on earth).  The are considered a Species of Special Concern because their numbers are dropping due to habitat loss and having to deal with invasive species like Bullfrogs and Red-Eared Slider Turtles. They’re often confused with Rough-Skinned Newts and Red Bellied Newts, but although they’re all from the same genus, they are separate species.

The newt’s poison (which it excretes through its skin) is so potent, it can kill a dog within 4 minutes. It’s believed that the Common Gartersnake is immune to the toxin.

California Newts breed in February and March in the wild. To keep the newts from going into breeding mode with its associated “water drive” (that causes them to leave their terrestrial homes to go find water in which to breed, preferably the same water source in which they were born) the zoo controls the temperature of their habitat to “skip” the spring and jump from winter directly to a cool summer.  So far, depriving the newts of their spring time doesn’t seem to adversely affect them.  Because their habitat had to be kept cooler and drier than the rest of the reptiles’ habitats, they have their own room that’s kept around 65° for most of the year.

Like the California Newt, the California Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma californiense) prefers the cool weather, too, so it’s kept in the same enclosure as the newt.  It’s also a native and endemic species. It’s considered an Endangered Species and is gone from most of the state.  A “mole salamander”, it spends most of its life underground and only comes out for any extended period of time to breed.  Although they go through courtship rituals, the males and females don’t actually touch one another to reproduce. The males deposit balls of sperm on the ground or in the water, and the female then drags her body over it.

They breed in vernal pools which are temporary water features, so the baby salamanders either have to develop, absorb their gills and start breathing with their lungs before the pools dry up, or they have to “overwinter”, buried under the ground in a sort of stasis that can last for a year or more and then finish developing the next spring. Amazing.

The spots on their bodies can change as they age, but are always unique to each individual, so the keepers at the zoo can tell who’s who by looking at and tracking the spots.

Next up was the California Giant Garter Snake (Thamnophis gigas). A threatened species, and another endemic one, they’ve lost about 98% of their habitat (!) so there are a lot of efforts throughout the Sacramento Valley to try to reestablish habitat for them – and a lot of that is in and around rice fields. The zoo got their female, which is the snake I met, from a farm after she’d been accidentally run over by some of their equipment. Her body has scars on it she’s blind in one eye, and a good portion of her tail is missing… but she was very mellow and seemed very comfortable with her keeper, who said that these snakes, despite their size, aren’t as aggressive as other gartersnakes and seldom bite. Their defense mechanism is to dive under water (they spend the majority of their time in or around water) or “skunk” their attacker with musk from their cloaca.

The Giant Gartersnake can grow up to 5½ feet long, and although some of the other gartersnake species can get almost as long as the Giants, they don’t have the Giants’ girth. These are thick snakes, like rope. Their diet is mostly made up of aquatic species, lots of fish and frogs.

Then I got to meet one of the zoo’s Common Chuckwallas (Sauromalus ater), a big male with orange staining on his back. I always forget that we have these guys live in this state. I always think of them being from Arizona or Nevada… They do “push-ups” like our Western Fence Lizards do as a warning and territorial display, but their main defense is their skin.  They have extra skin hanging from their sides that they can inflate, like a balloon, when they feel threatened. Usually, they’ll climb into a rock crevice, inflate their bodies to wedge themselves in, and wait for whatever is bothering them to leave.  Bill, their keeper, said he could tell what their mood was like just by how they felt in his hands. The male Chuckwalla was super docile, and I bet he could have gone to sleep if Bill hadn’t kept moving him this way and that so I could take photos of him.

They have special longer scales around their ears (tympanic membranes) to protect them when the lizard digs into the ground or wedges itself in rocks. And they also secrete excess salt from their nose – which Bill says then then rub onto the front of the glass of their enclosure, dirtying up the glass with their salty snot. Hah!

Although they have a pair of Chuckwallas, a male and a female, the male has yet to fertilize any of the eggs the female lays.  Sometimes, they can tell the female is pregnant with eggs, but then she reabsorbed them into her body before they get laid because they don’t get fertilized. Interesting.

Their diet consists of nothing but veggies, and I got to see some of their feeding dishes with included a variety of greens and little flowers, and some protein powder.

Next up was the Pacific Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata), California’s endemic turtle which is considered a “vulnerable” species. It’s lost a lot of its territory to the invasive Red Eared Slider Turtle which was brought into California for the pet trade, but then – when people found out how difficult water turtles are to keep – they were just dumped in the wild.

Unlike the Slider Turtles, the Pond Turtles have smooth marginal scutes (the “scales” along the edge of the shell in the rear) and they don’t shed their scutes. Instead, to grow, the scutes add rings to the outer rim of each one (like the rings of a tree). Like the Slider Turtles, male Pond Turtles wave their fingernails in front of the female’s face as part of the courtship ritual.

There are a couple of different ways to tell the males from the females at a glance. The easiest way it to look at the skin under the chin: if it’s a plain creamy color, it’s a male; if it has spots, it’s a female.  The female’s cloaca is also closer to the edge of the shell than the male’s is.  Both sexes have flat plastrons (the bottom half of the shell).  In some other turtle species, the female’s is flat, and the male’s is concave (so he can climb up on top of the female’s shell without rocking off).

As an aside: the Sacramento Zoo is the only zoo in the country that has a clutch of natural-born Pond Turtles. There’s a pond on the zoo property that local wild turtles went into and where they had their babies. At first, the zoo staff didn’t know that they were there, but then they saw crows snatching the babies out of the water, so the staff rushed in to rescue the little ones and now keep them as exhibit animals °and breeding stock.

When we were done with the reptile house visit, Kathryn walked me out to behind the amphitheater where their teaching animals are housed.  These included Cameron the Bateleur Eagle, Foster the Laughing Kookaburra, Charlie the Great Horned Owl, and sister Burrowing Owls, Sapphire and Ruby.

Cameron greeted us by lifting her hackles and bowing down on her perch. Rather than it being a threatening gesture, what she was actually doing was asking for someone to scratch her neck. Hah!  Charlie was being quiet in his enclosure, peeking out between some lengths of fire hose. He was a rescue and release owl who refused to fly off when he and his fellows were released in the wild. He just sat on the ground, preferring to be with humans than other owls.  Mike the keeper who looks after the educational animals, said that it’s the breeding season right now, so a lot of wild owls have been flying into the trees around Charlie’s enclosure eyeing him and hooting to him. Hah!

What I really wanted to see were the Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia), and Mike brought out one of them on the glove so I could get a close look at it. The zoo has several Burrowing Owls, but the educational ones are sisters, Ruby and Sapphire. Ruby was being anti-social this morning, so Mike brought out Sapphire. She was super mellow, and just sat on his hand, looking around while he talked about her.  (He said she has the worst mouth-breath, but I didn’t notice that. Hah!)  The owls, which are native to California, are losing their habitat all over the state, so they’re considered a vulnerable species and Species of Special Concern.

In most raptor species, the females are larger than the males, but this isn’t true of the Burrowing Owls. Males are larger and have a lighter color than the females.

It was so great to see all of the animals up so close. I got to touch most of them (except for the newt and the owl) and took photos of everyone. It was a fun tour; I’m so glad I was able to do it.