Category Archives: Naturalist

Bats and Herps at my Naturalist Class

Tonight we had two critter lectures, went out into the field for about an hour, and then had another hour of general lecture, so it was a busy night.  We heard first from Sam Bachinni who’s a self-taught herpetologist (snakes, reptiles, etc.) and botanist.  He showed us photos and told us about the different kinds of reptiles, amphibians, turtles and tortoises we could find in the surrounding area.  I now have a whole checklist of new critters I want to go searching for, hah!  He told us that the best time to go look for amphibians, for example, is in the winter and spring months before it gets too hot, in areas where there’s fresh water that doesn’t have a lot of fish in it… And for the best viewing go out on full moon mornings because that’s when the Tiger Salamanders are out and about.  Get up above 800 feet in elevations, too, or pickings are slim. Now, see, THAT’S the kind of information I need!

Sam also said that the easiest way to tell a turtle from a tortoise is to look at its hind legs.  Tortoises have “elephant legs” in the back – short stumpy legs with a flat bottom – whereas turtles have more splayed feet that turn out to the sides.  I didn’t know what.

When Sam was finished with his presentation, we heard from Dan Neil.  He’s a bat expert, who is also into wild flower identification, insects and mycology.  He was a far more engaging and interesting speaker than Sam, but was pressed for time – our instructor John wanted to get us out into the field, and Sam had talked a bit longer than expected – so he whizzed through his presentation.  His talk included information on “megabats” (large bats, like fruitbats, that have small ears, large eyes, and don’t use echolocation) and “microbats” (which are the small ones we most often think of as classic bats with large ears that do use echolocation..  The bats most commonly found in our region include: Big Brown Bats (which have a lot of complex vocalizations), Great Mastiff Bats (who’s echolocation sonar is actually audible to human ears…”chip, chip, chip!”), Pallid Bats (light colored guys that roost in crevices), Hoary Bats (large furry bats with silver tips that are usually solitary and like to hang out in foliage), Western Red Bats (that look like winged pug dogs and live in riparian habitat), Mexican Free-Tailed Bats (that live in huge colonies under the Yolo Bypass and under the franklin Road bridge; their tails aren’t connected to their wings by webbing like most other bats), and Canyon Bats (that look like Siamese cats: blonde body and a black face).  More critters to add to me “I want to see these” list!

Things to look for when you’re searching for bats, Neil says, (besides guano) are urine stains on trees or buildings/construction and “pissicles” (really, that’s what they’re called) which are stalactites of crystalized urine.  Also look for “exfoliating trees”, trees where the bark is loose and shedding off, because bats like to climb in under the bark to roost.  When we went out into the field after the talks, we found several exfoliating trees on the nature preserve grounds, and checked out one of their bat boxes… no bats, though.  Sam said the best way to tell birds from bats in the low-light of dusk and dawn is that bats flaps their wings constantly and birds flap-and-glide.  “If it’s gliding, it’s not a bat.”  Good to know.

As an aside, I have the opportunity to go to a bat rehabilitation training in Placer County on June 6th.  Even though I don’t have any experience in it – and can’t handle the bats because I don’t have a pre-exposure rabies vaccination – I think I’d like to go just for the learning experience.  It only costs $10 to attend, but it’s about a 2-hour drive one way to the rehab center.  I’ll have to think about, but it sounds like a kewl thing to watch.

Anyway, during our field exercise for the night, we also went to another small made-made pond on the preserve surrounded by rushes, grasses, sedges and other vegetation, and learned a children’s poem to help tell them apart:  Sedges have edges… Rushes are round… and grasses, like asses, have holes.  Hah-ha-ha-ha-ha! Along the route we also came across a large deer skeleton.  It still had some of the hide on it, but all of the meat and organs were gone.  I took a few photos, and some video of Sam speaking and our teacher John trying to see if there was an owl in a tree (there wasn’t.)  He also has an app on his cellphone with bird calls on it, and he held his phone up and played a Screech Owl call… and a dog in an adjacent yard started barking in response.  D’oh!


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Then it was back to the nature center for a short lecture on producers, consumers, and decomposers in the animal kingdom before we headed home for the night.

Backyard Naturalist

When I was outside in the backyard with the dogs, I realized that there’s a huge tomato plant growing in the area that Marty let’s go to seed and dry out in the summer months. It has blossoms on it and everything. Hah! I don’t know how it got out there; birds must’ve brought the seeds in… There was also a rather large orange-brown moth out there which I think might be Idaea sp., a kind of Red-Bordered Wave moth. There were a bunch of other plants growing in that area, too, like American Pokeweed (Phytolacca Americana), Catchweed / Velcro Weed (Galium aparine) a herbaceous annual plant of the family Rubiaceae, Spiny Sowthistle (Sonchus asper) and Smooth Sowthistle (Sonchus oleraceus), Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) and Arum maculatum which is a kind of jack-in-the-pulpit that goes by a variety of common names like “Lords-and-Ladies”, “Snakeshead”, “Wild Arum”, and “Naked Boys”… and I didn’t even count the grasses… Oh, and there was also some tan tube slime mold out there (Arcyria sp.). Even the backyard is a treasure-trove for a newly sprouting naturalist! Hah!

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Naturalist Class Tuesday, May 19th

I  left the office early today and headed out to my weekly Certified Naturalist class for the evening.  Tonight’s class was on Forests and Woodland Resources and the guest speaker was Zarah Wyly of the Sacramento Tree Foundation.  I’d met her previously at last year’s acorn-gathering class at the nature center.  She’s a funny and engaging speaker, as well as very knowledgeable, so it’s always nice to spend time listening to her.  She identified all of the species of trees and shrubs within an hour or so walking distance from the nature center, so it was a great learning experience for those of us who don’t know a lot about the regional trees.

Before the class, I scouted around a little bit and got photos and video of a California Ground Squirrel doing its “alert call” for several minutes, several White-Breasted Nuthatches flitting from tree to tree – sometimes in groups and it made me wonder if they were adults with fledglings –a Scrub Jay picking berries from an Elderberry bush, and what I think was a Purple Finch (more colorful than the House Finches I’ve seen) singing in another Elderberry bush.

During the field study part of the class, we also saw a variety of birds along the way, and some Cottontail Rabbits, and a California Alligator Lizard.  You know, those lizards that were all over southern California when we were kids?  Well, now they’re considered “rare”.  I didn’t know that – although I was suddenly aware of the fact that, yeah, I hadn’t seen any of them for decades.  I see the Western Fence Lizards everywhere (the “blue bellied” ones that do push-ups), but I haven’t seen an Alligator Lizard in… forever.  I got photos and some video of the instructor, John, sneaking up behind it so he could catch it and show it to us.  He got it on the first grab.

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I learned that Interior Live Oaks are the only ones in California that stay evergreen… that the “sycamore trees” along the riverside are actually London Planetrees… that Cottonwood trees are “beaver candy” (they’re the first trees beavers go for when they move into an area)… and that there is this totally weird-looking hybrid oak close to the nature center.  (Zarah thinks it’s a cross between a Blue Oak and a Valley Oak.  She said, “It’s kind of on the Valley side of Blue.”

We also learned about “mast years” for acorns.  I had heard about them – they’re the years when the oak trees produce massive amounts of acorns – but I had no idea that the phenomenon was statewide.  That is, ALL of the oak trees all over the state synch up and ALL of them produce an over-abundance of acorns at the same time.  Then the mast year is followed by a year where there is a glut of mule deer, squirrels and mice; and the year after that there’s a massive glut of ticks everywhere; and the year after that there’s a massive population explosion of snakes…  Kewl, huh?

There was also a brief discussion about Oracle Oaks, which are a recognized species of hybrid oak, a cross between the Black Oak and the interior live oak… and there are individuals of these trees along the American River Parkway.  They’re more common further north though.  You can read more about them if you want at:

As an aside: we learned that the mating pair of coyotes had their pups several weeks ago, and the pups are now out on the preserve… but no one will say WHERE exactly because the nature center doesn’t want the public tracking the babies down and annoying (or harming) them.  Mama coyote had FIVE pups.  In the class, they passed around a photo one of the on-site naturalists had taken of them… All five of them huddled together, heads up, curious, looking straight at the camera.  A classic shot.  And those babies are soooo cute!

Oh, and the nature staff gathered four Monarch butterfly chrysalises from the small stand of showy milkweed they have out in the front of the nature center, and one of the butterflies matured yesterday, and they were able to release it…  So growing milkweed in your yard DOES work.  FEED those Monarchs!

Training Workshop in Coloma, Ca in July.

I got word that the next Northern California UC California Naturalist Program Instructor/Partner Workshops are going to be held in Placer County in July (about an hour or so from the house in Sacramento).  This is the next step in the process that Tuleyome needs to take to get the organization onboard to actually TEACH the naturalist classes.  I asked Sara if I could sign up for it and she said, sure!  So I’m booked for the workshops.  It’s a 2-day thing over a Tuesday and Wednesday, so I’ll drive up on Monday night, stay in Placerville and then go to the workshops from there.

The first day covers all the necessities of building and executing the classes, the volunteer portal, iNaturlaist, homework and capstone projects; the CalNat system and partnering organizations; how to put a teaching team together; a week-by-week walkthrough of the classes required; and then techniques to market the classes you set up.  The second day is a “play” day and includes a tour of the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park and journaling in the field.  Should be interesting stuff!  These workshops come right on the heels of a 4-day weekend during which I’ll be going up to Mount Shasta for two days of dragonfly classes.  I should be thoroughly exhausted by the end of that week!

Certified Naturalist Class

After work, I took the dog home, had a quick late afternoon supper, changed my clothes and then headed out to my Certified Naturalist class. Our guest lecturer tonight was Laura Burris, a botanist and certified arborist. The class focused on plants and how they differ depending upon the kind of habitat they grow in. Most of the class was spent out in the field, on the grounds of the preserve, observing plants, doing some sketches of what we saw, and learning about what habitat restoration crews have to consider when deciding what to plant and where to plant it.

I bring my camera along with me on these excursions, so I was able to get a few panoramic shots of the landscape by the river; and some shots of the river area itself (that I can use for comparison pictures later down the line as more water is released from the Folsom dam). We also looked at the native plant gardens around the nature center: poppies, yarrow, milkweed, field irises, etc. And we were intermittently distracted by Acorn Woodpeckers, a female Wild Turkey who decided to fly up into an old scag right near where we were talking, and some Red-Shouldered Hawks – including a fledgling just learning how to fly, and an adult who sat in the top of a tree and was challenged by Starlings.

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After the outside portion of the class, we went back into the classroom for a PowerPoint presentation and talked a bit about the capstone projects we each wanted to do. I’m doing mine on the books I’m writing and putting together for Tuleyome, how they help to interpret the wild world for the general public, and how they can be used to engage the public in citizen science work and conservation… I’m really enjoying this coursework, and can see now how it directly relates to the work I’m doing at Tuleyome, so I feel like I’m getting a lot more out of it than some of the other folks who may not be so involved with an environmental/conservationist group.

So, it was very long day – I got home around 9:30 pm – but a productive one.

My First Certified Naturalist Class

Yep.  I’m going legit.  Hah!

I went to my first Certified Naturalist class today.  They’re taking place Tuesday now through June 9th at the Effie Yeaw Nature Center in Carmichael.  I can only get there by surface streets and traffic in the late afternoon is a “B”, so it took me an hour.  (I’ll have to leave the house earlier next time.)

The first 90 minutes of the class included some introductions and then a walk through the oak forest to the American River, which included spotting deer, woodpeckers, turkeys, water fowl, a tag-teaming pair of Red-Shouldered Hawks, Titmice, wrens, and other critters, information on ant colonies, a little bit of animal tracking, seeing the Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars (one in the process of forming its chrysalis), identifying galls and granary trees, looking nests, trying to spot cotton rabbits and jack rabbits in the tall grass, and seeking to identify some of the plants in the area.  Then there was a short break, and after that we had a presentation on what a “naturalist” is and what role the naturalist plays in educating the public, and learned a few key terms.  The classes are four hours long, but tonight’s class sure didn’t feel like four hours; it felt more like 1 or 2.  Very engaging, very educational.  I was really pleased.  I hope the rest of them are this appealing.

Here’s the video of the ducklings:

Another neat thing: they had each attendee tell the rest of the class about who they were and why they were taking the course.  A lot of my classmates (all except one was over 40) were retired grade school teachers and some of them worked for the Effie Yeaw center.  When I told them about myself and that I was with Tuleyome, there was a lot of positive response; a lot of them knew what Tuleyome was and what we were doing in the Berryessa Snow Mountain region – and two of them stopped me after class to tell me they’d read my Tuleyome Tales articles in the newspapers and really enjoyed them.  So, that awesome!

I’m taking copious notes to share with the rest of the office staff, and we’re also supposed to start keeping a field journal, so I’ll need to find something that’s easy to carry and can stand being out in the “wilderness”…

Watching Steelhead Eggs Get Gathered & Fertilized

I got up about 6:16 this morning, so I could get out the door a little after 7:00… and headed out to the Nimbus Fish Hatchery.  I wanted to see them gather the eggs from the Steelhead Trout.  I got there about 10 minutes before the process started, so one of the docent guys in the visitors’ center walked me through it and showed me all the key things I should look for when the fish were let in.  When the process started, it was just me and a woman with her two kids, and a couple of staffers watching it, so I was able to see everything really easily.  I got photos and some video… but I was shooting through a dirty glass wall most of the time, so the camera was having trouble focusing on what I wanted it to.

I’m glad I went to see the Steelhead eggs gathering rather than the Chinook Salmon egg gathering process.  When the salmon go through, they’re killed: smacked on the head with a hammer and gutted.  They’re going to die right after they spawn anyway, but the process sounded really bloody and brutal.  Steelhead, on the other hand, can spawn year after year, so the hatchery doesn’t kill them and instead puts them through a process that allows them to go back into the river after the eggs are gathered and fertilized.

The process starts outside of the hatchery building.  Fish come up the 260-foot ladder from the river and then go into a “crowding tank” which is about 12 feet wide and 60 feet long.  Once in the tank is closed off, a mechanical arm pushes the fish forward to a lifting tank on the outside of the hatchery building.  A gate on the side of the hatchery’s wall opens up, and the fish in the crowding tank swim into a “lift-tank” inside the building.  From this point, you watch the egg-gathering through a glass wall.

There’s a curling cable that goes down into the lift-tank, and it “anesthetizes” the fish with a low electrical charge.  Once the fish are calm, the tank rises and the handlers check each fish.  Rainbow trout (trout that haven’t gone to sea yet) were mixed in with some of the Steelheads, so they were put into a chute that sent them right back to the river.  The Steelheads are all checked to see who’s “ripe” and who isn’t.  The “unripe” fish are put into a run (outside) to hold them for a day or two to see if they can “ripen” before being returned to the river.  They don’t keep the Steelhead in the run for very long, because the fish don’t handle being confined well and can die of shock.

Ripe males and females are “tagged’ by cutting a notch in their tail, and separated into large pans by sex.  Inside the large pans is a mixture of mineral salts that also helps to keep the fish calm.  (When the fish are released back into the river, they sometimes turn around and come back up the ladder again.  The handlers can tell if they’ve already seen and counted the fish by whether or not there’s a notch cut into its tail.) Even with the electrical zap and the chemical bath, some of the fish were still really spry.  The docent said that the fish are really strong, and if they’re not handled properly, they can injure themselves or the handlers.  The salmon, especially, he said, are so tough that they’ve actually smacked the handlers hard enough to knock them out, split their lips open and and break their noses.

Then the females are taken out of the “girl pan”, one at a time, and one guy holds her while another guy uses a syringe to pump a little air into her belly.  The air pushes against the mass of eggs inside the mama fish and helps to push them out.  The handler squeezes out all of the remaining eggs, and then “burps” the female to get all the air bubbles out of her.  (If all of the air isn’t removed, then the fish can’t swim properly because she’d be too buoyant.)  She’s then turned over to a team of biologists who measure her, and take scale, blood, tissue and ovarian fluid samples for research purposes before she’s released down the chute into the river.  Her eggs are put into in a plastic pot, and then a male Steelhead is pulled out of the “boy pan”.  The handler squeezes the male’s belly to push out the milky sperm (“milt”) over the eggs, and the guy holding the pot stirs the eggs and milt together with his hand.  The male Steelhead goes to the biologists and then down the chute, while the guy holding the pan of now fertilized eggs carries the pan over to another guy who then moves the eggs to a tank with betadine-like stuff in the water to kill any microbes or diseases that might have been in the ovarian fluid.  After their betadine bath, they’re put in cylindrical clear-walled hatching tanks where the Steelhead eggs hatch into fry.

It was really neat to watch the process; they have it down so well that no one got in anyone’s way, and the fish were all processed quickly. Here are a couple of short videos:

Separating the Boys from the Girls video:
Fertilizing the Eggs video:

The docent said that last year at this same time they would get about 26-30 pairs of Steelhead each time they did an egg-gathering round, and the rounds could continue on back-to-back for the whole day.  Today, because the river is so low, there were only 4 pairs of Steelhead in the first round (of fish that came up the ladder) and about 6 pair in the second round (that came out of the holding run)… and then the crowding tank was empty.  So egg-gathering this morning only took an hour.  Yikes!  He also noted that the hatchery releases about 4 million Chinook fry and 1 million Steelhead fry into the adjoining rivers each year… but their numbers will probably be lower this year because of the drought conditions.

 When I was done watching the egg-gathering process, I walked on the path along the American River and took some photos of the water birds out there.  Lots of cormorants, seagulls, and ducks… and one little Phoebe.  Awwww…  It was a fun morning!

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