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CalNat Field Trip #2, Lake solano Park, 07-13-19

On the way to Lake Solano Park for our second Certified California Naturalist field trip of the summer, I stopped to put some gas in my car, and I was treated with the sight of some hot air balloons floating over the city of Winters and its surrounding fields. One of the balloons was either dragging or coming in for landing because it got REALLY low over downtown. I could see the people in the basket.  I was kind of surprised to see the balloons at all considering that it was already about 62° when I got to Winters.  Hot air balloons only work if the air around them is cooler than the air in the balloon (so they fly more successfully in the fall-to-spring time period than they do in the summer.)

I was the first one in our group to get to the park and pulled up into one of the upper parking lots because the lot nearest the park itself was still closed.  Technically, the park doesn’t open until 8:00 am, so I was there before the all-gates-open time. The rangers weren’t too pleased that I was in the upper lot before 7:30 am, but they didn’t say anything – until AFTER 8:00 am and my students had arrived, and we were in the park area itself.  I’ll know better next time not to get there early.

The reason for trying to get my group there earlier in the day, though, was to try to beat the heat. It got up to 79° by 10:30 am. So, we cut the trip a little short to get everyone back in their air-conditioned cars before we all overheated. Along with my co-worker Bill and most of the students in the class, Greg Ira (the Director of the Certified California Naturalist program at the University of California) joined us for our walk.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

One of the first things we pointed out to the group was the difference between the native Black Walnut trees and the English Walnut trees. English Walnut trees don’t generally do good in California, so they’re grafted onto the native Black Walnut root stock. We were able to show the students the graft mark in one of the trees (with the Black Walnut on the bottom and the English Walnut on top) and showed them that even through the tree itself was now primarily English Walnut, they could still see some shoots of Black Walnut stems and leaves growing up out of the root stock.

English Walnut grafted onto Black Walnut rootstock.

We seemed to hear more birds than we put eyes on, and my student Alison K., who like our student Ken E., is a birding expert, helped us with the sound IDs.  Alison also told the group about the sap wells we were seeing in the bark of some of the trees, created by Sapsucker birds who drill the wells not so much to suck the sap, but to attract insects they can eat.  On one tree we found several clear samples of the wells, along with some hefty outpourings of the sweet sap.

Tree sap oozing from wells drilled by Sapsuckers.

We also came across a large juvenile Great Blue Heron that was sitting in a tree adjacent to the trail.  It posed for some photos, pooped into the river and then flew off with a deep-throated croaky squawk. I guess he told us what he thought about us. We also came across a small creche of Peahens with their fledgling poults. A group of three moms were taking the babies to the edge of the river to get a drink.

 I myself was focused more on finding galls than seeing birds on this trip, however, and was able to point out newly budding examples of Pumpkin galls, Roll Gall Midge galls, Erineum Mite galls, Cluster Galls, Spiny Turbans, Two-Horned galls and Flat-Topped Honeydew galls. Most of the galls were just starting to emerge and weren’t their full size yet.  Give them another week or two and they should be spectacular.

 Our group also found quite a few different orb-weaver spiders included Spotted Orb Weavers and Long-Jawed Orb Weavers. And we spotted a variety of butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies including: California Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies, a sleepy Buckeye butterfly, a Painted Lady butterfly, and a Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on the wing; Widow Skimmer dragonflies, Flame Skimmers, Four-Spotted Skimmers, Pond Skimmers and Blue Dasher dragonflies, plus several damselflies that looked like they’d just emerged and weren’t colored-up yet.

Along with imparting some of what I know to the class, I always learn something new on these field trips or add to knowledge I already have, so it’s always fun and exciting to me. I found two galls I hadn’t seen before and found out that even the experts were having trouble properly identifying them. One was a gall made by the Roll Gall Midge (whose species is known but not its genus) and it took the form of rolled edges along the leaves of Live Oak trees.  The other was an odd tubular “prick” on the leaf of a Valley Oak tree. At first, I thought I was just looking at a weird anomaly on the leaf, but then I saw the exact same structure repeated on leaves of different Valley Oaks, so I took some photos and looked it up when I got home.  Experts recognize it as a wasp-induced gall but they don’t know what species it’s associated with yet, and think it might be a second-generation gall for an already identified gall wasp.  Everything I found on it called it a “Leaf Gall Wasp” gall but with the species listed as “Unidentified”. How neat!

Gall of the UNIDENTIFIED Leaf Gall Wasp.

 As we were looking at some California Wild Grape vines, Greg asked for the term for the process by which tendrils wrap around things. None of us could remember it at the time. Of course, when I got home, it came to me: “THIGMOTROPSIM”! Cool word, huh?  You can read more about it here: http://biology.kenyon.edu/edwards/project/steffan/b45sv.htm

Another word that wouldn’t come to mind yesterday when we were out on the field trip… We saw a lot of damselflies that had apparently just emerged and weren’t “colored up” yet, and I couldn’t remember the term for that state.  It’s “TENERAL“: the state of an insect immediately after molting. At this time the insect’s exoskeleton has not hardened and it may be pale in color.

A “teneral” damselfly

A little further along our walk, some of the students noticed frothy ooze coming out of the base of a Valley Oak tree. It looked something like Sudden Oak Death (SOD) to me, but it was a lot more frothy, and I’d never seen SOD near the bottom of a tree before. So, I looked it up when I got home.

 The foam is from a bacterial infection in the tree called “Alcoholic Flux” or Foamy Canker. It usually affects trees in the summer that have been stressed in some way. Bacteria infects the tree and ferments some of the sap. The fermentation is expelled by the tree in a frothy slime that kind of smells like sour beer. Unlike SOD, alcoholic flux isn’t usually a permanent or fatal kind of infection. It’s usually gone by the end of the summer.

“Alcoholic Flux” or Foamy Canker on the base of a Valley Oak tree.

We’d also seen a lot of small gnats around the ooze, and I’m not sure, but I’m going to infer that they were getting buzzed on the fermented juice. Hah!

By 10:30 it was already too hot to keep people out in the sun, so the group broke up and we all headed back to our cars by different routes.

Species List:

  1. Acorn Woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorus,
  2. Alcoholic Flux bacteria, Foamy Canker, Slime Flux,
  3. American Bullfrog, Lithobates catesbeianus,
  4. Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon,
  5. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans,
  6. Black Walnut, Juglans nigra,
  7. Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis,
  8. Blue Elderberry, Sambucus cerulea,
  9. Box Elder Tree, Acer negundo,
  10. Bull Thistle, Cirsium vulgare,
  11. California Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly, Battus philenor hirsuta,
  12. California Pipevine, Aristolochia californica,
  13. California Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica,
  14. California Wild Grape, Vitis californica,
  15. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis,
  16. Common Buckeye Butterfly, Junonia coenia,
  17. Common Merganser, Mergus merganser,
  18. Convoluted Gall Wasp, Andricus confertus,
  19. Eight-Spotted Skimmer, Libellula forensic,
  20. English Plantain, Ribwort, Plantago lanceolata,
  21. English Walnut, Juglans regia,
  22. Flame Skimmer, Libellula saturate,
  23. Flat-Topped Honeydew Gall Wasp, Dishopcaspis eldoradrnsis,
  24. Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias,
  25. Green Shield Lichen, Flavoparmelia caperata,
  26. Hoary Rosette Lichen, Physcia aipolia,
  27. Indian Peafowl, Pavo cristatus,
  28. Interior Live Oak, Quercus wislizeni,
  29. Leaf Gall Wasp, Unidentified
  30. Painted Lady Butterfly, Vanessa cardui,
  31. Poison Oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum,
  32. Pumpkin Gall Wasp, Dryocosmus minusculus,
  33. Roll Gall Midge, Contarinia sp.,
  34. Spiny Turban Gall Wasp, Antron douglasii,
  35. Spotted Orb Weaver Spider, Neoscona crucifera,
  36. Sunburst Lichen, Xanthoria elegans,
  37. Two-Horned Gall Wasp, Dryocosmus dubiosus ,
  38. Valley Oak, Quercus lobata,
  39. Walnut Erineum Mite Gall, Aceria erinea,
  40. Western Pondhawk, Erythemis collocata,
  41. Western Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly, Papilio rutulus,
  42. Widow Skimmer Dragonfly, Libellula luctuosa,
  43. Woolly Aphid, Prociphilus sp.,

Standouts: a Lorquin’s Admiral and a Wilson’s Snipe, 11-03-18

I left the house with the dog around 5:30 am to head out to the Sacramento and Colusa National Wildlife Refuges. It was already 62º there and was windy; not a strong blow-you-over wind, but strong enough so that it kept a lot of the birds hunkered down to keep warm. Neither refuge is at full water capacity yet, so there were long areas of nothing but dried grass and tules. In another month or so, viewing should better.

At the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, the first thing I saw was a Black-Tailed Jackrabbit using a stand of tules as a windbreak. I saw several Red-Tailed Hawks in the trees, saw some American Kestrels on the wing, saw a Northern Harrier on the ground, and lots of Turkey Vultures surfing the wind currents. One of the Red-Tails was so huge, I thought at first that it might be an eagle; the female Red-Tails can get REALLY large. I also heard but didn’t see a Red-Shouldered Hawk.

Lots of Song, Savannah and White-Crowned Sparrows were out along with huge flocks of Snow Geese, Greater White-Fronted Geese, and Northern Pintail ducks. I also saw several Ross’s Geese – which look like Snow Geese, but they’re smaller and don’t have the black “grin patch” on the beak. Among the other ducks were Northern Shovelers (some still in their eclipse plumage), American Wigeons and Gadwalls. The Pintails always out-number the other ducks this early in the season as they’re the first to arrive.

Some areas along the auto-tour route were laden with the thick sticky webbing spiderlings use to “balloon” along the landscape. Long strands and bunches of “spider snot” seemed to be everywhere.

Two standouts at the Sacramento refuge were a Loggerhead Shrike and a Lorquin’s Admiral butterfly. The Shrike had posted itself on some dead cattail stems and as I watched it impaled a large insect on a shard along the side of the stem. Then it manipulated the insect a little bit with its beaks and feet before eating it. I think the insect was a big grasshopper, but I couldn’t get a really good look at it. Shrikes are referred to as “butcher birds” and “songbirds with the heart of a raptor” for their hunting and butchering behaviors.

The Lorquin’s Admiral was a huge surprise. It’s very late in the season for them to be out. This is a kind of butterfly that has several “flights” throughout the year, and they feed on nectar from California Buckeye trees, but they also like bird feces. Ugh. No accounting for taste! What’s cool about these guys is that even though they’re basically made out of “fuzzy air”, they’re super-aggressive and will fight protect their territory. Sort of like getting sucker-punches by a paper doll. Hah! The caterpillars roll themselves up in the leaves of willow trees (among others) and overwinter in them.

CLICK HERE for the album of photos.

At the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, I saw a lot of the same birds that I did at the Sacramento refuge, but the standout was a Wilson’s snipe and flew up right next to the car and walked around the muddy ground there. Every once in a while, the bird would tilt its head to look up at me as I frantically snapped photos of it through the driver’s side window of my car.

On our way out of the auto-tour route at this refuge, I saw a pair of young Columbian Black-Tailed Deer grazing on the berm that was covered with geese and ducks. The deer didn’t seem to mind it when I stopped my car next to the end of the berm to take some photos and video of them, but when another car came up behind mine, they startled. I was surprised when, instead of running away up the berm through the flock of birds, both deer came charging down the berm right toward my car. I was afraid they were going to hit it. But they both veered off, one after the other, and crossed the auto-tour route road in front of my car – kind of using my car as a shield – before they jumped into the trees and overgrowth on the opposite side of the road. Wow. Got my heart going for a little bit. I don’t know what it was about the other car that made them so afraid.

When I was done with the auto-tour route, I parked near the restroom facility and then took Sergeant Margie out on his leash to stretch his legs. ((Dogs are allowed on the preserve, as long as they’re in your car or on a leash.)) I started down the trail that runs along between a large wetland area and a slough (so you have water on both sides) and was happily surprised to see that Sergeant Margie was able to handle walking a half mile in and a half mile back to the car (one mile round trip). He hasn’t been able or willing to do any kind of “long” walk for almost a year.

I think it helped that the temperature outside was comfortable and the trail was flat and covered with soft leaves. His tongue was hanging out when we got back to the car, but he wasn’t coughing or complaining. I gave him some lunch and a big drink of water before we headed back home.

The Butterfly was a Surprise, 10-09-18

DAY 4 OF MY VACATION.  I got up around 6:30 this morning and headed over to the Effie Yeaw Nature Preserve again for my walk. It was 53º when I got to the river, and the temperature got up to 84º by the late afternoon.

There were a lot of deer near the front gate area, on the hillside beside the nature center: a doe with a fawn, a few more does, and a pair of young bucks. The buck pestered the doe with the fawn, but she was having none of it. The boys sparred a little, too. Further on along the trail I found the bog bucks, sitting in their favorite grassy spot, and came along another female with a single fawn on the Meadow Trail.

At another part of the trail, I could hear a Wild Turkey giving off an alarm call. The turkeys do that frequently, but usually get over whatever is startling them and stop making noise within a few seconds. This turkey’s call was persistent. After a few minutes, when it didn’t stop, I hurried over to where the sound was coming from to see if I could tell what the bird’s issue was.  I found the turkey that was hollering and took some video of it.

CLICK HERE to see the full album of photos.

Then I looked around – and found what the turkey was upset about. On the opposite side of the trail from the bird was a large (and gorgeous) coyote. It came out from behind a tall pile of twigs and branches, walked past me and down the trail. I bet that coyote had been stalking the turkey from a distance, and the turkey could see it and was warning other turkeys of the coyote’s presence. This was near the same area where, on two occasions, I’d found evidence of turkeys being taken down and eaten by coyotes.

A little further down that part of the trail, I found a wake of Turkey Vultures sitting in a dead tree. There was also one vulture that was off by itself in another tree, half-raising its wings to warm its joints in the early morning sunlight.

Once again, I came across a lot of the squirrels, most of them eating or stashing nuts and acorns for later. One California Ground Squirrel let me get pretty close to its burrow where it was stuffing its cheek pouches with acorns it found on the ground and burying them near the entrance to its burrow. I got both photos and a little video snippet of that guy.

One really odd thing I saw today was a butterfly. It’s late in the season for any of those guys, but beyond that, this butterfly looked something like a Painted Lady, but it was missing the spots on the hind wings – and there was a thin line of blue iridescence at the point where the hind wings met. I looked up all of the butterflies in the Vanessa genus, including the Admirals, and I can’t find one with the markings on the butterfly I saw today. So, I’m not sure the species identification.

I walked for about 3 hours and then headed home.