Category Archives: Firsts

My First Achemon Sphinx Moth and Caper Flower, 07-23-16

I didn’t sleep very well last night; neither I nor the dog could get comfortable for some reason.  Still, I got up at 6:00 and headed out to the WPA Rock Garden and William Land Park for a walk before it got too hot.

As I walked out of the house, I found a huge gorgeous Achemon Sphinx Moth (Eumorpha achemon) on the Bird of Paradise plant on the front porch.  I think it had just come out of its chrysalis and was trying to warm up for the day.  I got my camera and my cell phone out of my bag and took a bunch of photos of it before going any further.

When I got to the WPA Rock Garden, I was on the hunt for “jumping galls” which usually start cascading off of the oak trees this time of year.  And – score! – I found a bunch of them hopping in a gutter alongside the parking lot.  There is a teeny-tiny wasp (Neuropterus saltatorius) larva in each little gall (which are sort of like capsule-shaped “escape pods”). The capsules, which are about the size of millet seeds, form inside somewhat larger round galls on the leaves of oak trees. When it gets hot enough,  the larger galls rupture and dump the little capsules onto the ground by the thousands. The larvae flip around in an attempt to hide their capsule in the leaf litter under the tree… When they land in the cement gutter, though, they’re pretty much doomed.  I took some video of them, and scooped up as many as I could, got them off of the cement and onto softer ground.

CLICK HERE TO SEE A VIDEO OF THE GALLS.

CLICK HERE TO SEE THE ALBUM OF PHOTOS FROM TODAY.

There were other galls on the same tree including some Red Cone galls and some Spiny Turban galls.  This is the best time of year to start seeing all these cool things!

So the moth and the jumping galls were a great start to my morning excursion.  I was hoping to see some praying mantises, but no luck there.  I DID come across a small group of five male Longhorn Bees (Melissodes sp.) sleeping on a sunflower, though, and that was neat.  The males sleep in groups to keep warm overnight, and they collect in the same place every night if they can.  To keep from falling off the plant in their sleep, the bees latch onto the plant with their mandibles (mouth pieces) and “lock” the mandibles shut.

I was hoping to see more insects in the garden, but apparently the city people had just watered in there before I got there.  They use huge hoses to water the garden, and practically “flatten” the plants when they do that, so al the neat bugs get washed down onto the ground under the plants where I can’t find them. Grrr.  I did manage to get a few photos off a female Carpenter Bee doing her “nectar robbing” thing on some flowers.  The Carpenter Bees are too big and fat to fit inside some flowers, so they climb over the top of the flower and bite a hole in the back of it to suck the nectar out through there. It’s called “nectar robbing” because the flower doesn’t get the benefit of pollination from the insect. The Carpenter Bees bypass the pollen and go right for the juice…

I came across a mama Mallard and her fledglings (that were almost as big as she was).  The babies were rooting around in the ground cover under some pine trees while mom kept an eye on them.  I got a few stills and some video of them, and while I was doing that I could hear the “chitter-chitter-chitter” call of a Belted Kingfisher behind me.  I turned around and found the Kingfisher sitting on a small signpost in the middle of the pond.  As you know, Kingfishers are like my “nemesis” bird.  I can never get close enough to one to get a really good photo of it… and today was no different.  But I still managed to get a few shots of it, and got to watch it dive face-first into the pond a few times to catch small fish.  They’re such neat-looking birds.  I wish they weren’t so hard for me to photograph, though!  Hah!

I did get to see some hummingbirds and Bushtits on my walk… and I also came across a flower in the garden I’d never seen before.  I suck at identifying garden plants but I figured this one might be easy to research online – the flower was so distinctive.  I discovered it’s the flower of the caper bush (Capparis spinosa), also called Flinders Rose.  The buds are and berries are the “capers” people eat.  Cool!  As I said, I’d never seen one before, so I can add it to my “firsts” list.  Very pretty!

I walked around for about 2 hours and then headed over to Raley’s to get some groceries for the next few weeks.  That took another half-hour, so I figured I did pretty well getting my exercise for the day.

Day 2 of a 2-Day Excursion, 07-16-16

Up at 5:00 am.  I know, it’s my day off, but I wanted to get everything packed in the car, get some gasoline, and head out to the refuge again as soon as I could to take advantage of the cool morning air.  (It was about 67° when I got there, and was up to 82° before I left around noon.)  Early-early morning is really the best time to see cool stuff at the refuge… CLICK HERE to see the entire album.

I saw lots of jackrabbits and a skunk (who moved too fast for me to get any photos of), and flocks of White-Faced Ibis flying overhead (again, too fast for me and my camera).  There was one spot, deep in the tules, where I could see Ibis, Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets all gathering and flying in and out… I knew there was a shallow pool there, and I suspected they were all having breakfast.  I lifted my camera up out of the window, and tried to shoot over the tools and thistles.  Still photos weren’t turning out well at all, so I tried shooting a little bit of video.  That turned out a little bit better (although it’s still pretty crummy because the angle and all of the vegetation interference), and you can see one of the Snowy Egrets raising its crown feathers at another one in it.  Here is the snippet.

On “Pelican Island” out in the middle of the wetland area, there were quite a few American White Pelicans, Double-Crested Cormorants, some Black-Necked Stilts and sleepy American Avocets among the seagulls.  Later the pelicans and cormorants left the island to go fishing and I got some photos and video of that.  The pelicans often work together swirling the water so they can catch fish. Today, it seemed like the cormorants showed the pelicans where the fish were, and then as the pelicans worked to swirls up the fish, the cormorants get into the middle of everything and chowed down, too.  I love watching the pelicans when they’re feeding in a group; it’s almost like a choreographed water ballet.  Video of Pelicans fishing.

I also saw Ring-Necked Pheasants, Great Blue Herons, Yellow-Headed Blackbirds (females and juveniles), lots of female Red-Winged Blackbirds, a Turkey Vulture,  pair of female Great-Winged Grackles feeding by the rocks, tons of Coots, some Pied-Billed Grebes, and a group of immature Tree Swallows.  They had all gathered at an old gnarled tree and were eating bugs out of a cavity at the end of one of its stubby branches.  Video of Tree Swallows.

I also spotted several river otters on the road ahead of me, but when I got to the place where they’re entered the water, I couldn’t see them anymore.  Dang it!  Those little guys move fast!  And I got just a couple of photos through the windshield of my first Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus), a kind of long slender garter snake.  It was warming up on the road next to a pool, but when it saw the car coming it slipped into the water and vanished from sight.

Again, there were loads of Variegated Meadowhawks and blue damselflies.  I tried to get some photos showing how many there were, but the pictures don’t really do their numbers justice because the camera can only focus on one small area at a time.  I got a little bit of video of the damselflies, but still… imagine those multiplied a thousand fold and you get some idea of how many there were out there. I also saw some Black Saddlebag dragonflies, blue Pondhawks, and Widow Skimmers.  I’m still trying to get some decent shots of Green Darner and Giant Darners, but they’re few and far between… Oh, I also got a very brief video of a pair of Variegated Meadowhawks as the male flew the female over the top of the water. He’d “tap” her against the water’s surface and with each tap, she’d lay some eggs…  Video of egg-tapping.

And, of course, there were the “cities” of orb-weaver spiders among the tules on the side of the road, Common Buckeye butterflies, Sulphurs, Painted Ladies, some Hairstreaks, and a couple of Monarchs along with a variety of skippers.  I also came across a nest of Paper Wasps in a weird place. By the viewing platform (at the halfway point on the auto tour) there’s a gate that keeps visitors out of the area where one of the photo-blinds are, and in the open top of the fence post was the nest. It looked like they were all busy building new cells (which were all empty right now, as far as I could tell).  The wasps were so focused on what they were doing that they didn’t spook or fly out when I put my camera over the top of the nest to get photos of them.

I got lots of video snippets of the Clark’s Grebes out on the water.  [Please excuse the “shaking” in some of them; I sometimes had to move the car while videoing at the same time.] Some of the females are still sitting on eggs even though their other babies have already hatched, so the dads were doing “taxi service” for the kids a lot of the time.  In one video, the chicks are riding on the back of one of their parents while the other tries to feed them a fish (or flatworm of some kind). The morsel is too big for the babies, though, and they keep dropping it in the water. So the parent retrieves it, “washes it off” and tries again.  Then the fish gets covered with eel grass and crud… and you can almost feel the parent’s frustration with the whole thing.  Here’s that video.

In another snippet, you can see the mother grebe, on her nest, rolling her egg around while dad floats nearby with their chicks on his back.  Cooperative parenting.  [In this video, it looks to me like the dad is actually a Western Grebe, not a Clark’s Grebe like the mother!  The black on his head surrounds his eye – one of the field markings of a Western Grebe.  On the Clark’s Grebe, the eye is surrounded by white, not black.] Here’s that video.

I also have a video snippet of this pair in which the dad first feeds feathers to the babies – [This is normal of the species; the feathers seem to aid in digestion (sort of like the way chickens eat gravel; the gravel sits in the gizzard and grinds up the seeds they eat).] – and then dumps them in the water so he can go fishing. You can then see the babies then try to climb up onto the nest to get warm with their mama. Here’s that video.

Then in another video, I have a snippet of a Clark’s Grebe dad who’d caught a good sized panfish.  Mom came by with the babies on her back, but dad didn’t want to share. The fish was way too big for the kids; I even thought it was way too big for dad to swallow but he somehow managed it, gulping it down whole. Here’s that video.

Further on down toward the end of the auto-tour route, I came across a mother Killdeer.  When she saw the car coming, she dropped to the ground and did her “broken wing” act – which told me she had a nest nearby.  [Killdeer mothers pretend to be injured and roll around on the ground hoping to distract predators from their nests.  When the predator goes after the mom, she flies away at the last second to safety.] But as I looked around, I realized it wasn’t a nest from which she was trying to distract me. She had two new fuzzy hatchlings running along the opposite side of the road!  I’d seen photos of Killdeer chick before, but had never seen one in “real life” before.  They were beyond adorable!  The video I got of them was terrible, because I had to keep moving the camera from one window of the car to another, but I did capture mama’s “wounded” routine.  Here is the video of the Killdeer.

One of the oddest things I encountered all morning was a spot where the water seemed to be “alive” with jumping, plopping creatures.  The critters moved so fast, I couldn’t get any real still shots of them, but I did get a video snippet.  At first I thought they were some time kind of fish, but on closer inspection, I found they were bullfrog tadpoles!  They were getting close to emerging as frogs, and were jumping up to the top of the water to gulp air (as their tadpole gills weren’t functioning at full throttle anymore). Gulping air also helps to make them more buoyant in the water. Super cool! Here is the video of the tadpoles gulping air.

Another neat find was spotting an immature American Bittern in a shallow pond where it was fishing.  I’d actually passed the bird at first, and then caught a glimpse of it in my side-view mirror, so I backed up and watched it for a while.  In order to see it through the tules, I had to open the back passenger side window and hold the camera out behind the front seat on that side of the car.  Holding the camera at such a weird angle strained my shoulder a little bit, but it was worth it, I think.  I got some still shots and a little bit of video of it.  In of the still shots, you can see it’s caught a bullfrog tadpole – and this photo give you some idea of how BIG those tadpoles are. Here is a video of the Bittern.

Oh, I also came across a two different groups of Black-Tailed deer.  The first one was a female with a bum leg traveling with a young male who was in his velvet.  I assumed it was a mother and son pair.  Mom was having difficulty maneuvering; it looked like her left front leg or foot was giving her trouble, and she limped pretty severely.  I couldn’t see her leg or foot, though, because she was traveling in high vegetation.  Eventually, she got tired and just sat down – and all I could see was her ears and part of her head.  I got some still shot, and some video of the male walking through the plants. Here’s that video.

A little further up the road, I came across another female – with two fawns. The babies were just starting to come out of their spots – good sized, but still obviously nursing along with eating their veggies.  They were moving away from me (so I got butt shots of them, mostly), but I could tell what direction they were going in, and knew that the road turned up ahead, so I drove up ahead of them, and got photos of them as they came through the deep vegetation and tules.  They all starting browsing among the cocklebur plants.

Here is a video of mom and the fawns walking away from me.

Here is a video of mom and the fawns walking toward me.

So, although I didn’t get a lot of stuff in the heat of the afternoon on Friday, I got to see loads of interesting stuff this morning.  I left the refuge about noon and got home right around 2:00 pm.  When I got to the house, I unpacked the car, and then the dog and I crashed for the rest of the day.

Otters, Poults and Galls, 07-10-16

I got up a little before 6:00 am this morning and headed over to the American River Bend Park for a walk.  Rather than going on my regular route, I opted to cross the river at the bridge and walk alongside the banks there.  So, I pulled the car into the parking lot on “my side” of the river and got out… and immediately saw several mama Wild Turkeys walking around the picnic tables eating leftovers with their babies (poults).  The poults were about half their parents’ size, and in most of their feathers now, although still pretty scraggly-looking.  One mama had three babies; another one had one.  I got a few photos and some video snippets of them before moving on.

CLICK HERE TO SEE THE WHOLE ALBUM OF PHOTOS.

The acorns and summer wasp galls are starting to show up on the oak trees now.  I found three or four different kinds of galls – including one I don’t think I’d ever seen before.

I also got some good photos of a sleepy Anna’s Hummingbird who decided to flit over to a branch next to me and just doze in the sun for a few seconds.  I could tell something was “off” with the bird; it just didn’t look okay, and it also looked to me like his tongue was stuck in the “out” position, so I did some research on that after I got home.  Apparently, the condition is known as “swollen tongue”.  It’s caused by a fungal infection the birds get from feeding from dirty hummingbird feeders.  The fungus causes the hummer’s tongue to swell and it eventually starves and suffocates to death.  Oh, no!  KEEP THOSE HUMMINGBIRD FEEDERS CLEAN, people!

The best find of the day, though, was seeing a mother river otter and three of her babies swimming and fishing along the shore, looking for mussels.  So cute!  But man those guys move fast!  I managed to get a little bit of video of them.  CLICK HERE to see it.

I walked for about 2 ½ hours and then headed home.