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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.,

Insects at the Wetlands, 09-09-18

I headed out to the Cosumnes River Preserve to see how things looked there.

On the way to the preserve, I counted 15 hawks along the highway (not including two that had been hit by cars), and that seemed to bode well, but at the preserve itself it’s still pretty bleak. They’re just now starting to pump water into the wetland areas, but today there was only a puddle at the far end of the boardwalk. Not enough to support many birds; and what birds were there flew off as soon as they saw me.

There is also no water along Desmond Road, so nothing to see there either. I DID get to see a handsome juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk along the also-empty slew. It had landed on the cracked and dried bed of the slough… but was then chased off by a very brave ground squirrel. The hawk flew up into the naked branches of a nearby tree, and I was able to get quite a few photos of it before it took off again.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

Since there wasn’t much else to see, I pulled by focus in tighter and started combing the few surrounding trees and shrubs with my eyes for any sight of galls, insects and other stuff like that. It took a little time, but I was rewarded for my patience.

I found single specimens of three different species of dragonfly: Easter Forktail, Green Darner and Blue Dasher. All of them were in the trees, not moving, trying to warm themselves up in the morning sun. I also found several Praying Mantises (mostly boys and one girl), and a fat adult Katydid. I got some of them, including the Katydid, to walk on my hands. I also spotted some Trashline Spider webs but couldn’t see the spiders themselves.

Along the road I found a large bird’s nest that had fallen out of a tree, and, sadly, some road kill including an opossum and *waah! a Black-Tailed deer fawn. The fawn was smashed flat, so it must’ve been hit by a semi or something. I can’t imagine how traumatic that must have been to its mother. The fawn was a newborn, still in its spots…

As for the galls, I also found several different kinds: Spiny Turbans, Club Galls, Round Galls, Oak Apple galls, and every some “Woolybear” galls (Sphaeroteras trimaculosum). There were also the galls of the Ash Flower mite on an ash tree.

My sister Monica had asked what “galls” were specifically… Galls are malformations caused by the interaction between a plant and an insect (like a wasp or midge or mite), a plant and a fungus (like rust fungus), or a plant and another plant (like mistletoe). To protect itself from the insect, fungus or other plant, the host plant (or tree) forms a protective layer of material over the intruder, and that protective layer is the gall. Galls can be in the leaves, in the bark, on the branches, or on the flowers, seeds, catkins or acorns.

The Woolybear galls I saw today, for example, are formed on the backside of oak leaves when a cynipid wasp lays its egg on the leaf. A chemical in the egg tells the tree “grow something here”, and also gives it a blueprint of what to grow. So, what you’re seeing in the photos is actually fuzzy plant material that the oak tree grew to protect itself from the developing critter inside the egg. The wasp larva grows inside the gall and then exits when its mature. Each wasp species has its own unique gall (and some have two different ones in the same year).

Anyway… I walked for about 2 hours and then headed back home.

Lots of Grebe Babies, 07-08-16

I headed with the dog over to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge to see if I could find any other cool dragonflies or see any more Grebe babies.  On the way, I stopped at a gas station to top off the tank, and got some stuff for lunch for Sergeant Margie and me.  It was in the high-70’s when we got to the refuge, and over 90° when we left just a few hours later.

I got to see quite a few dragonfly species including Black Saddlebacks, the ubiquitous Variegated Meadowhawks, blue and green Pondhawk, some Widow Skimmers, and several mated pairs of Green Darners that were laying their eggs in the water.  The pairs were fighting over who got to sit on what stick in the water, and the males dragged the females back and forth while they fought for egg-laying territory.

There were a couple of male Great-Tailed Grackles out singing and chirping around the nests where their females were – like expectant fathers waiting for the babies to hatch.  And I came across a California Ground Squirrel eating along the side of the auto-tour route.  She had a particularly beautiful coat with bands of russet brown around her body and a very dark-brown “mantel” across her back.  Most ground squirrels are scruffy looking, but she looked very… svelt.

CLICK HERE TO SEE AL ALBUM OF PHOTOS.

I did get to see some more Clark’s Grebe babies.  One pair of adults had chicks sitting on the backs of both of parents, mom and dad, and the parents were feeding them bugs they’d catch from the top of the water.  At a few points, the babies jumped off of the parents’ backs and tried swimming on their own – then immediately climbed back on for the ride.

I also came across a mom who had one baby on her back and was tending her nest where her other babies were apparently just hatched out.  They weren’t very coordinated yet or very strong.  When dad floated by, two of the babies climbed up on his back but the others kept trying to get mom to sit on them some more – as she tried cleaning all the egg crap out of her nest.  I could see dad feeding some of them bugs…  They’re so fascinating to watch.  Unfortunately, they were all still too far away to get any real good clear close-up photos or video of them, but I did the best I could.

Here’s a distant video of a mama Grebe on her nest getting her eggs settled.

Here’s a video of a mama Grebe on her nest with the babies all around her.

I’m soooo in need of an upgrade in camera equipment – even if it’s just to get a camera on which I can shut off the auto-focus… I’ll have to look for a grant for that… I was thinking I should get a car mount for my birding scope, too; maybe I can figure out a way to the camera (or even my cell phone) to focus through that to get some closer shots.  Hmmmm…

I also got to see American White Pelicans – (I got some video of a pair of them feeding in the water) — cormorants, Pied-Billed Grebes, and some juvenile Ruddy Ducks.

Here’s a video snippet of the pelicans feeding.

One cool sighting, though, was a covey of Ring-Necked Pheasant poults running across the road after their mama from left to right, right in front of the car.  I had to shoot through the windshield to get some photos of them – which were crappy – but I did get a little video snippet of some of them.  Then I could hear one of the poults peeping loudly from my left.  It had gotten separated from the group and didn’t know where it’s mom was.  When I stepped out onto the road, I tried getting some photos through the driver’s side window.

A super-brief video of the poults.

Another video of the one lost poult.

Another cool sighting that I didn’t get any photos of: I saw a Lesser Nighthawk (which is a species I’d never seen before) getting mobbed by Kingbirds that didn’t want him around their nesting area.  I recognized the Nighthawk immediately by the bright white bands on its wings.

On the way out of the refuge, I came across some Turkey Vultures who had descended on a squished skunk on the side of the road.  Photo op!  I’m so weird. Hah!

Friday Afternoon at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Female Variegated Meadowhawk dragonfly. ©2016 Copyright Mary K. Hanson. All Rights Reserved.
Female Variegated Meadowhawk dragonfly. ©2016 Copyright Mary K. Hanson. All Rights Reserved.

After work, I headed over to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge as I’d planned.  It was about 77° there, so not too bad.  Just as I started the auto-tour route, I saw a lean jackrabbit who posed on the side of the road for me, and an adult Great Horned Owl sitting a tree about 100 feet away.  The big news seemed to be the larger dragonflies which are starting to come out everywhere in the refuge.  I saw Blue Dashers, Black Saddlebags, Variegated Meadowhawks, a Green Pondhawk and several Widow Skimmers.  Very cool.  As for other insects, I also saw Hoverflies, some big Orb-Weaver Spiders, some Painted Lady Butterflies, and a White-Striped Sphinx Moth.  I also got a few photos of a pair of damselflies mating.

At one stop along the route I saw a snake – or what I believed to be  snake – in the water along the edge of the wetland area.  It was limbless, but it was all pale grey with no other discernable markings on it.  I know garter snakes hunt in and around the water, but this one wasn’t marked like a garter snake at all.  Then I wondered if it was a legless lizard… but they don’t usually live in habitats like this.  So, I don’t know what it was – and I didn’t get any photos of it because by the time I realized it was there and got my camera focused, it had ducked in between several rocks.  Dang it!

As I was driving along, two cars kept tailgating me.  There was enough room for them to go around, but they just kept riding my rear bumper, like they were trying to crowd me and force me to drive through more quickly.  I pulled off to the side of the road as I could, put the car in park and turned off the engine.  It took them a few minutes to figure out I wasn’t budging, and they finally drove past me.  I saw both cars ahead of me later on, and people got out of both of them to take photos – which is against the rules of the park.  So I took photos of the offenders – AND their license plate numbers – and emailed them to the refuge rangers.

Anyway, driving along I saw the usual suspects – ducks, geese, seagulls – and came across some adult and juvenile Pied-Billed Grebes.  All along the last part of the extra loop around the permanent wetlands, I also saw quite a few Clark’s Grebes building and sitting on their nests.  I got still shots and a couple of video snippets.

CLICK HERE FOR SOME VIDEO of the mama grebe adjusting some of the vegetation on her nest before she sots down on her eggs.  Notice that when she sits, she exposes her almost featherless belly which she’ll press against the eggs to keep them warm.

One sad discovery – and I wonder if it was in reaction to the stupid people getting out of their cars to get closer to the birds – I found one nest very close to the road that had eggs in it… but the parents were nowhere to be seen.  I hope it wasn’t completely abandoned.

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I did the whole auto-tour route far more quickly than I normally do –(took 2 hours instead of 4) — so I could get to my hotel by check-in time, so I didn’t linger much anywhere.  I’ll go much slower tomorrow.

The dog and I stayed at the Ramada Inn in Williams (about 20 minutes from the refuge).  I had picked up some food from The Nugget before I left Woodland, so I had some of that for supper – and gave the dog a can of his favorite dog food.  Then we crashed for the rest of the day…