Category Archives: Firsts

Mama Owl and More at the River Bend Park, 03-10-18

I got up around 6:30 this morning. Even though rain was predicted for the day, I headed over to the American River Bend park for my walk. It was 48º there and totally overcast.

The manroot and pipevine at the river isn’t as “awake” as it is already at Lake Solano. We’re a little more inland here. It looks like the plants are about a month behind the ones at the lake… The Interior Live Oak trees were just starting to bud, sprouting out new leaves and catkins. Spring is coming.

One of the first things I went looking for when I got there was the Great Horned Owl’s nest. I wanted to see if mama was still there. She was! And she was sitting up in the nest, so I got to see more than just her plumicorns. While I was looking at her, a ranger came buy and asked if I’d seen the other owl, too. I didn’t know there was another one nesting around there! He said the second owl was off to the east about 100 yards away, along the bike trail, near the area where there are some bluebird boxes and where they’re doing a lot of restoration work. I didn’t over there to see it today, but I will be looking for it the next time out there!

I also got to see Wild Turkeys -– bachelor groups with the males trying to out-macho one another – a very cooperative Nutthall’s Woodpecker who let me take lots of photos of him, Mourning Doves, Acorn Woodpeckers, European Starlings, California Scrub Jays and Northern Flickers, and several Oak Titmice. I also was successful in getting several photos of some White-Breasted Nuthatches that were out and about, and lots of Western Bluebirds. Everyone seemed to be scoping out potential nesting cavities around the picnic area.

My walk was cut short when, what would’ve been halfway through, I got back to the car to find the rear passenger window smashed in. Cripes. That had never happened before in all of the years I’ve had the car and have been coming to the park. It looks like the vandal-guy tried to get in through the little passenger side side-window first (probably because the door lock is right there) and then smashed the larger window with a rock. Not a fun thing to come back to after my pleasant walk.

I checked through the car and it doesn’t look like anything was taken except for a jacket that was right by the door. I don’t know if the vandal was just really cold, or if someone else interrupted the guy before he could steal anything more. I don’t have anything really valuable in the car, but still… sheesh!!

And I cut my hands up on the shards of glass that were “hiding” everywhere in the backseat area, so now I have owies all over the place. And my blood usually gushes no matter how minor the cut, so there’s now blood all over the inside of the car, too. *Pouty face*

Rather than continuing on with my walk, I went back home.

At the West Pond in Davis, 03-07-18

Gene Trapp and his wife Jo Ellen headed up one of their monthly walks at the West Davis Pond site this morning. He thought it might be good spot to bring the naturalist class, but I wanted to check it out first. (I also thought that after a few visits, I can add this to my own walk list here on this site.) It can be found in the city of Davis, California, off of Covell and Denali, where Isle Royale Land and Bryce Lane merge together. Look for the large white gazebo-like structure and park on the street.  (There are no restrooms along the path, but you can find a public restroom in the medical facility across the street from the short end of the trail.) You can see more information at Friends of West Pond on Facebook.

I had never been to the pond before, but was pleased at it was so easy to  locate – with a paved trail that was super easy to walk. Our group was unusually large, though (about 27 people) so that was a lot of bodies moving along a tight walkway all at once. I’d take smaller groups if I go with the naturalist students.

CLICK HERE for an album of photos.

Because it was chilly and overcast outside, we didn’t see much of anything.  I can tell by looking at the area, however, that in another month or so, when things start to green up and the critters all go into mating mode, it should be a very interesting, very pretty place. Lots of trees (including some gorgeous Cork Oaks, Quercus suber) and pretty shrubbery along the route (including some lovely quince bushes). Most of the stuff is non-native, of course, but Gene and Jo Ellen oversee the construction and maintenance of a large native-plant garden along the path as well as a large butterfly garden. They hold a lot of promise for future photo-taking / naturalist opportunities.

I did see some wildlife: Canada Geese, Mallards, Crows, Black Phoebes, Wood Ducks, Scrub Jays, Mockingbirds, lots of Anna’s Hummingbirds and Fox Squirrels, White-Crowned Sparrows, Golden-Crowned Sparrows, a couple of Spotted Towhees, House Finches, and a very red, very wet Purple Finch… things you’d typically see in an urban wildlife area. The not-too-seeable critters included Nutthall’s Woodpeckers, a Hairy Woodpecker and a Red-Breasted Sap Sucker that teased us with their presence, but made photo-taking difficult because they kept flitting around.

When someone mentioned that are sometimes Wilson’s Snipes along the edges of the ponds, a newbie birder who had brought her Sibley’s guide with her tried to look it up. Oddly, there were no Wilson’s Snipes mentioned in her guide even though they’re fairly common in this area. So I opened up the Merlin app on my phone and showed her a picture of it. That app is one of the easiest birding apps to use, and it’s free!

Gene and Jo Ellen were fun to walk with; they have so much knowledge and so many area contacts. Someone found a skull on the side of the path and Gene identified it as a raccoon skull. Very cool.

The walk was a good one, very informative, and I look forward to visiting the pond again.

Decompression Time at the Wildlife Refuges

The dog and I headed to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge one day this week to decompress. Sometimes you just need to listen to your body and do what it wants…

We stopped at the Colusa refuge first (which is right on the way), and drove the auto tour there. Not a lot to see, really, but their ponds are starting to fill in nicely. Finally. I did see some female pheasants, several egrets, and lots of White-Faced Ibis among the usual suspects. The best find there was seeing a Red-Tailed Hawk and a Turkey Vulture sitting in the same tree.  The hawk had a dead Coot it was having for breakfast, and the vulture was sitting nearby hoping the hawk would drop something.

Oh, and I also saw a Great Egret with a vole it had just caught. The vole was still kicking when the egret swallowed it down.

Then we went on to the Sacramento refuge. There were lots of Black-Tailed Jackrabbits around, scurrying from one place to another, but the California Ground Squirrels aren’t out yet. (This is the time of the year when they have their babies, so most of the squirrels are still underground.) We saw most of the usual ducks and geese, both Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets, lots of Coots and Killdeer, some little Warblers, Pacific Pond Turtles, the last remnants of the Snow Geese flocks, and Ruddy Ducks. We came upon a Red-Tailed Hawk that was preening itself and didn’t mind if we watched, so I got some video and lots of photos of him (including one where he’s looking down between his legs at us. (Hilarious.)

CLICK HERE to see the album of photos.

The Marsh Wrens were out singing, and the Pied-Billed Grebes were hooting.  I came across one Marsh Wren that looked kind of odd to me; it’s coloring was different than I’m used to seeing. There were speckles all over its back.

When I got home, I posted a photo of it to a bird-identification group on Facebook, and they confirmed it was a Marsh Wren. Unbeknownst to me, the wrens actually have a few color variations, and this was one of the variations I hadn’t really seen or noticed before. So that was a first and a learning moment. I saw a few more female pheasants here, along with way too many Black Phoebes and a Great Blue Heron.  But here, the best find of the day was a Bald Eagle. I didn’t get many photos of it because it was high overhead in a tree, and I couldn’t get a good angle on it, but those guys are always great to see.

CalNat Field Trip #2, Lake Solano Park. 03-03-18

I led a California Naturalists field trip to Lake Solano Park today. The first thing we saw when we entered the park were two peacocks roosting high in a tree over our heads… and a male Phainopepla that was looking for mistletoe berries to eat.

It was originally the idea that half of the group would go in one direction and the other half of the group would go in another – so we could cover the whole park — but all of the students wanted to come with me, so we moved in one big group.

The walk was a productive one, however: we got to show students different kinds of plants including flowering Pipevine, Manroot vines with seed-pods forming on them already, and Northern Giant Horsetail (Equisetum telmateia braunii ), a subspecies of horsetail that grows in western North America. Although commonly referred to as “Horsetail Grass” it’s actually a kind of fern that grown simultaneously in fertile and non-fertile forms. We saw both the non-fertile green stems (that are photosynthetic), and the yellowish fertile spore-bearing stems in the same area. The spore-bearing stems die as soon as their spores are released, so there were a lot of them around looking like they’d “fainted”. Although the normal mature size of these ferns is about 4-5 feet tall, they can get as tall as 7 feet high. (So the ones we saw were just “babies”.) In another month or so, they’ll come up to my chest. (Both the infertile forms and the fertile forms grown from the same rhizomes of the same plant – so one feeds the overall fern while the other tends to reproduction.)

There were also plenty of waterfowl to see including Canada Geese, Double-Crested Cormorants, Common Goldeneyes, Mallards, American Wigeons, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons (which seemed to be almost everywhere we looked), and a Green Heron.

When one student took a close-up photo of a sprout of mistletoe, she realized there was a bug on it and asked me if I could identify it for her. I’d never seen anything like it before. It looked like a scale bug, but I wasn’t positive, so I took a bunch of close-ups of it and then researched it after I got home. It was Icerya purchasi — (my brain first saw that as “Ikea Purchases”; hah!) — and it’s common name is Cottony Cushion Scale. It’s considered a pest species and usually attacks citrus trees, but it’s known to parasitize mistletoe. So the parasitic mistletoe has a parasite of its own. The one we saw was in the medium stage of its development, before it gets its big white cushiony behind.

We also saw a family of about 5 river otters in Putah Creek, but they were too far away (along the distant shore) for me to get any good photos of video of them. Another hard-to-photograph find was a male Belted Kingfisher that kept flying back and forth on the opposite side of the river. “See that white dot on the tree over there? That’s his breast.” Hah!

The find that all of the students really enjoyed was being able to spot the tiny Western Screech Owl, who was sleeping in the same tree I’d seen him in before. His tree is behind one of the most remote restrooms in the park, so I had the students follow me around the building, then file in behind me at the adjacent picnic tables, before I showed them where the owl was. I used a laser pointer to help them pinpoint his location. It was gratifying to hear all of the ooo’s and ahhhs, and the clicking of camera shutters once they spotted him. If nothing else, I’d been able to give them the treat of seeing something they’d never seen in the wild before. And some of the students didn’t even know the park was there, so it was nice surprise to them, too.

Along the walk (and we only covered half of the park in 4 hours!), I also pointed out stuff like Turkey Tail fungus, Black Jelly Roll fungus, different kinds of lichen, and some Barometer Earthstars. They’d never seen anything like that before, so I demonstrated for them how the spores are released from the puffer-belly in the center of the fungus – and one of the students took a video of that.

It’s hard for me to lead a walk, point out and hold specimens, AND take photos of my own, so I didn’t get as many pictures as the students themselves did. I told them they have to share them with me!!

On the way back to the parking lot, where folks gathered to share to lunches and decompress, my coworker Bill spotted some scat along the shore. So I put on a nitrile glove and picked some of it up. We concluded it was probably otter scat, considering all of the crayfish parts we found in it – including an intact, undigested antenna. I told the students Bill was “great at finding all sorts of crap”, and everyone laughed, including Bill.

While we were having our lunches, too, someone noticed an aggregate of Western Boxelder Bugs so I was able to give them a mini lesson on those. Some of the bugs were having sex, so the mass kind of looked like an orgy, but most of the bugs were just huddled together to keep themselves warm. (By that time of the day it was about 46º and the rain was just starting.) The species we see here in California is Boisea rubrolineata. Their host trees are ash, maple, Goldenrain trees, and soapberry; and they usually eat nothing but the seeds.

We all left the park around 12:30 pm, and headed back home. I took the long way around, going back to Woodland and then on to Sacramento, so the drive took me over an hour… but it was neat to see all of the sofa clouds and the storm squall starting to move in and cover the valley.

R.I.P., Tiniest of Dudes, 03-01-18

So sad…

When I got home today I went to check on Mama Hummer and her nest, only to find the nest drenched and akilter on its branch, only one egg inside, and mama nowhere to be found.

Sadder still was when I checked around for the second egg. It had smashed on the ground, exposing the tiny embryonic bird inside. It only had another week to go before it properly hatched. RIP, Tiniest of Dudes.

I left the other egg in the nest in the off chance that mama might still return for it. The nest just got thrashed by the wind…

I know this happens all the time in nature, but still… These were “my” hummingbird babies. Gonna cry all night.

Other photos can be seen here.

At the Nimbus Fish Hatchery, 02-27-18

Around 7:30 I headed over to the Nimbus Fish Hatchery. This was going to be the last day they were going to do the Steelhead spawning, and I wanted to film some of that process for the naturalist students. When I got to the hatchery, nothing was open yet, so I walked the ground for a little while. It was 37º there, but the wind coming off the American River made it feel like 32º. Brrrr!

The visitor’s center opened up at 8:00, which is when the Steelhead spawning was advertised to start… But I was told that it was going to be delayed for an hour or so, so the process could be simulcast to grade schools in the area.

I didn’t want to just stand around for an hour and half, so I decided to brave the cold again and walk part of the trail instead. If nothing else, I could take some photos of that to share with my naturalist class.

Right around the visitor’s center there were lots of Brewer’s Blackbirds, and I also saw some Lesser Goldfinch, a House Finch, lots of House Sparrows and Golden-Crowned Sparrows, and several hummingbirds (Anna’s, I think).

On the river I saw lots of Common Goldeneye Ducks, Common Mergansers (more females than males), Canada Geese, a single Grayleg Goose, Herring Gulls, Ring-Billed Gulls, and California Gulls.

The best find by the river was being able to see gulls and Double-Crested Cormorants lining up on a wire that goes from one side of the river to another. I’m not sure what it’s used for, but the winch-end of the wire is on the hatchery’s side. The cormorants get their “nuptial crests” – that stand out like bushy eyebrows over their eyes — during the breeding season, and we’re right at the beginning of that now. Most of the crests you see are black (which generally means that the cormorant is a resident of California), but occasionally you’ll see one with white crests which generally means they’re migrating down into our area from more northerly regions, like Alaska. I saw one with white crests today. That was a first for me.

CLICK HERE to see the album of photos.

The salmon raceways were empty, even the water had been drained out; but on the trout side of the facility, there were Rainbow Trout in various stages of development in every raceway.

Caught inside the structure, too, were a couple of Black-Crowned Night Herons. They must’ve gotten in when someone opened and the forgot to shut the entrance gate – and then got trapped in there when the place was locked up again. They were looking pretty panicked. The only way to get them out would be to open the gates again and shoo them toward the open door. But opening the gates means other fish-eating birds can get into the raceways, too… A conundrum.

By the time I got back to the visitors center, they were halfway through the filming of the Steelhead spawning, and I didn’t want to interrupt that, so I left.

On my way home, I passed right by the American River Bend Park, so I stopped there for a few minutes just to see if I could spot the Great Horned Owl on her nest that I saw the last time I was there. Yep. She was there, sitting on her nest, dozing away. Because the nest is so high and the lighting around it is so bad, I can’t get very good photos of it, but I took a few anyway.

In the same area, I also saw a mule deer in the distance, several Mourning Doves, a few Northern Flickers, Spotted Towhees, Oak Titmice, and an Audubon’s Warbler. It looks like stands of Stinging Nettles are starting to come again – which may be a bad thing for hikers and campers, but is a good thing for Red Admiral butterflies who lay their eggs on the plants, and whose caterpillars depend on them for food and protection. I only stayed at the park for about 30 minutes and didn’t walk any of the trails.