Category Archives: Naturalist

Bobcat Ranch

Got into a lottery for a chance to go birding on Bobcat Ranch in Winters, CA.  Along with California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Audubon Society is inviting people to go birding there on specific days throughout the next several months.  I put in a lottery ticket for two different Saturdays in December. 

According to their site: “The ranch is home to a variety of wildlife, including Lark Sparrow, Golden Eagle, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Oak Titmouse, Nuttall’s Woodpecker and Yellow-billed Magpie, as well as bobcat, mountain lion, black-tailed deer and black bear. The Audubon Society bought it in 2007 and it’s now an important conservation anchor within the Blue Ridge-Berryessa Natural Area (BRBNA), a 750,000 acre matrix of private and public lands. Also nearby are the 27,000- acre Blue Ridge BLM lands, the Department of Fish and Game’s Putah Creek Wildlife Area and University of California’s Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve.” 

You can usually only get in by invitation, so… it would be awesome if I could get a Saturday date to get in there and look around.

Almost Done with My Certified Naturalist Class

After work I went home to change clothes and have some supper before heading off to my naturalist class.  This is the last formal class we’re having; next week is our graduation and the night when we each present our capstone projects.

After an intital lecture by Brett Korven of SMUD, we all went out onto the preserve for an hour or so to document the changes the river since the first day of class.  When the class first started the flow in the American River was around 800 cfs; today it was around 2500 cfs… So a lot of the area we’d been able to walk on during the first excursion was now under water.  That was kind of cool to actually witness and document over a period of several weeks.  With the water rising in the river, the waterfowl were closer to shore, so we were able to see geese, Killdeer, cormorants, a Great Blue Heron, a Merganser, Mallards, a Great Egret, a Spotted Sandpiper and other birds or easily.

On the way back to the nature center, I also came across a large bullfrog singing in one of the man-made ponds, and a gorgeous blue dragonfly… and there were about 8 Monarch Butterfly caterpillars on the Showy Milkweed right near the center in their native plant garden.  So that was cool, too.

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Here is a video of the caterpillar:

Here is a video of a goose feeding in the river:

On a Field Trip for my Certified Naturalist Class

On Saturday, I was up at six and out the door by 7:00 am to go to the Cosumnes River Preserve for a naturalist class field trip. We all met in the parking lot in front of the nature center. I and one of my classmates were the first ones there and while we waited for the others to arrive we got to see a large Monarch Butterfly come in and land on one of the willows trees in front of us.

After everyone showed up, we went into the nature center and stood through a lecture by one of their volunteer docents, Bruce Miller. He talked about the preserve; how all of the sloughs and wetland ponds are managed by man (not by the river) – they’re flooded or allowed to dry out according to whatever the yearly – as are the vernal pools on the property; about the different kinds of animals you can see there, etc. The preserve is over 50,000 acres, but it’s not all “contiguous”; some of the properties are outlying; and some are conservation easements (like the one on Howard Ranch – the ancestral home of Seabiscuit – where the vernal pools are. It was all interesting, but the room was too hot and there was no place to sit down, so I eventually had to step outside and breathe some fresh air. I was afraid I was going to pass out. As soon as I stepped out, several other people did, too… I guess they were just waiting for someone else to open the door first…

When he finished his talk, Bruce came out and asked what our group was training for. I let him know that we were seeking our naturalist certificates and he suggested that I attend the volunteer docent training at the preserve (June 6th and June 20th) and/or volunteer there. They do bird counts, bat studies, habitat restoration projects, etc… and work with the BLM, Fish and Wildlife, the Nature Conservancy and other agencies. Might be a good experience… But I would only want to work out there in the winter and spring. The rest of the year, it’s too hot and dry… I might go to the training anyway (if there still spots open). That means I’d miss the bat handling training on the 6th, but Cosumnes is closer; the bat training is Placer County… We’ll see how things shake out.

We were also told about the bat-watching events being hosted over the summer by the Yolo Basin Foundation. I had thought about going to one of these last year, but didn’t sign up. John, our naturalist class instructor, said these events are awesome and that we shouldn’t miss the opportunity to participate in one… so… , so I signed up for one of those on August 10th during which they’re also going to be serving Sudwerks beer. Sounds like it should be fun.

Anyway, back to the field trip: We walked for about three miles around one part of the preserve. I saw a few new things to add to my naturalist journal. By about 11:00 o’clock it was already 80° outside, and heat and I do not do well together. I finally had to John that I had reached my physical limit, so he found a shady place for me to sit down and then went on the with group – with the promise he’d come back for me in about 30-45 minutes. While I was sitting, I ate my lunch and got to see a few different butterflies, and a small cottontail rabbit came up to pose for photos.

As the rest of the group finished the last loop of the tour and headed back to the nature center, John came back for me and we walked back together. It was a great happenstance for him that he had to stop and take some extra time to come back for me. He’s an avid birder, and while just the two of us were walking he got to see and photograph an Ash-Throated Flycatcher and also got to hear the call of a Black Rail.

Black Rails are considered “threatened” – on the verge of being endangered – and are super secretive. John said he’d read somewhere that one had been heard on the preserve, so he was anxious to find it. On our way back to the nature center, we passed another guy with a camera who said he’d heard the Black Rail over in the tule field on the center trail. So we walked over there, and found a group of three other birders who were also hoping to hear the bird. John took out his cell phone and used his bird call app. The call on the phone sang out, “kick-ee-doo!”… and the Black Rail in the reeds answered it immediately.
Imagine it: four adults holding a hand over their mouth so as not to scream out loud, while they grinned ear to ear and jumped up and down in joy. They’d waited all morning to hear that sound. Hah! It was so cute to see.   John was so ecstatic that on the rest of the way back to the center, he was laughing, giddy, and pumping his fist, “yes, yes, yes!” Sort of how I’d probably act if I’d met Tom Hiddleston. Hah-ha-ha!

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According to Cornell Laboratory’s “All About Birds” site: “…The smallest rail in North America, the Black Rail is perhaps the most secretive too. This small denizen of shallow salt and freshwater marshes is rarely seen and its distinctive call is heard primarily at night…” So it was a cool thing that we were able to hear one in the early afternoon… and that we were able to hear one at all.

When we got back to the center, everyone else was sitting outside at the covered picnic tables. While the others ate their lunch, John recapped our walk – and announced he’d heard the Rail – and helped to identify some of the sparrows and hummingbirds we saw around the tables. He also told us about some other local places to see birds: Elk Grove Park (on Elk Grove and Florin Roads), Camden Pak (on Camden Lake Way in Elk Grove), and along the levies on Twin Cities Road (from I5, turn left onto Twin Cities and go about 7 miles…) So, now I have some extra places to add to my “go to” list…

I went straight home after the field trip, and was too tired to put together anything for “linner”, so I tried a new place on list: Chic Express, they do Thai and “Asian” food. I ordered spring rolls, pot stickers, Yum Woon Sen salad (glass noodles and prawns tossed with vegetables in a spicy lime dressing), and Five-Spices chicken. It was all brought to the door within about an hour, and everything was incredibly delicious: fresh, super tasty. I was very pleased.

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!