Tag Archives: cliff swallows

A Very Conspicuous Great-Tailed Grackle, 05-26-18

I got up at 5:00 today, even though it’s the weekend, because I wanted to get back to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge for a longer trip around the auto-tour there.  It was overcast and drizzling all morning, and the sun didn’t come out until just about when I was ready to leave the refuge.  I stopped off at the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge and spent about an hour there before heading onto the Sacramento refuge.

At the Colusa refuge, I was surprised to see a large flock of sheep near the front gate. Sheep and goats are often brought in to help clear the landscape of overgrowth and noxious weeds – because they eat anything. I saw several American Bitterns there, many of them on the ground among the tules. They were too far away to get really photos of them, but I managed to get a few so-so shots.

Most of the ground at the Colusa refuge are dry – no standing water – so it can be difficult to see much of anything.  I did get to see a lot of Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and Great Blue Herons there, along with several crayfish chimneys, pheasants and a young Pied-Billed Grebe that was still sporting its striped face. The neatest sighting was that of a young coyote loping across the fields.

At the Sacramento refuge I was first inundated by sightings of Black-Tailed Jackrabbits, Desert Cottontails and California Ground Squirrels, and I thought that was all I was going to be able to see there today. Eventually, the place “opened up” to me and I was able to get photos of other critters, too. What was really nice was that I literally had the place all to myself. Didn’t see any other vehicles (besides the rangers’) until just before I was ready to leave. So, everything was nice and quiet, and I didn’t feel rushed.

CLICK HERE for the album of photos.

Of the ground squirrels, I saw, I came across one that exhibited a behavior I’d never seen before. It raised itself up on its hind legs, into a standing position, and then rubbed its head and face against a twig. I don’t know if it was transferring scent or just had an itch (it looked a bit mangy), but it was neat to see.

At one point, I stopped because I saw something “odd” on one side of a slough. I couldn’t get a good look at it, even with the telephoto it was sitting on the bank closest to the road, among the tules, with its back toward me. I kept an eye on it, and eventually it dipped down into the water in the slough… a muskrat! It played “keep away” for quite a while, ducking under the surface of the water just as I got the camera focused on it. After a while I tried to anticipate where it might show up next and was rewarded with some video footage of it. Phew!

The other cool find of the day was seeing a male Great Tailed Grackle walking along the rails of a wooden fence.  It was calling and posturing all along the way. I got some video footage (so you can hear the sounds it made) and some fairly good still shots… and I got to see some male Ring-Necked Pheasants sitting a tree. I’d never seen them in tree before; I usually sot them on the ground. They’re large colorful birds, so when they’re up in a tree they’re very “exposed”. There must’ve been something on the ground that scared them.

When I stopped to get some photos of a large bullfrog in the water, I saw something else beside it that I couldn’t identify at the time. I took photos and video of it and when I got home, I looked at it over and over again trying to figure out what I was looking at. I finally decided it was a pair of freshwater snails or whelks laying eggs on a rock… So weird…

I left the refuge around noon and was back home around 2:00 pm.

Lots of Surprises at the Refuge Today, 05-23-18

I went out looking for field trip sites for the naturalist class.  I timed the trip(s) from Woodland, not the house in Sacramento, and to Anderson Marsh it takes a little over 90 minutes.  To Clear Lake State Park it’s another 30-45 minutes. (I just went past the main gate and didn’t go in.)  – and then finding somewhere to park and finding the trail heads might take up another 30 minutes.  That’s just too much time in the car and not enough time walking.  If we had a campout there it might be doable, but otherwise, no.

Anderson Marsh might be an option, but still, it might be easier on folks if we did an overnight in Williams and tackled the marsh from there. (It’s up Highway 20, to Highway 53.) I want to make that run one more time to see if it’s really feasible.  The crappy thing is: I wanted to go out onto the trails at the marsh, but although they let dogs in the parking lot, they don’t allow them on the trails. I wasn’t leaving Sergeant Margie alone while I did some walking.  I should have checked that before I brought him with me.

So, I felt like the first part of my morning was kind of a bust. There are caves and a geothermal plant up there, too, but I didn’t go to check them out. Instead, I turned the car around and headed back to Williams.

Since, I was already in the area, I went over to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge and made a quick run through the auto-tour there. I was MUCH more successful there than I was in Lake County. The drive seemed full of surprises.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

At one point along the auto tour route, I saw a pair of Killdeer along the side of the road.  Mama started doing her “broken wing” act, so I knew there must have been a nest near the road somewhere. (Killdeer like to nest in gravel, and their eggs look like little speckled rocks.) The surprise was, though, when I saw a tiny, fuzzy Killdeer baby running across the road! They’re so small, it’s hard to see them unless they’re moving. It crouched down in the gravel in the middle of the road, and I was soooo worried that I might accidentally run it over, so I very slowly pulled the car off to the side of the road (still worrying that a nest might be there.)  The baby ran around and stomped its tiny feet on the ground, peeping for mom.  Mama finally showed up, peeping loudly, and had the baby follow her back to the nest (behind my car and down the road a little way.)

Surprise #2 was seeing eagle at the preserve. They’re usually gone by March, so seeing them in May was completely unexpected. I saw an adult and what I thought was a juvenile Bald Eagle picking at a Snow Goose carcass. The juvenile eagle flew across the now-empty large pond (on the extension loop) and landed in a tree right along the side of the road – so I was able to get some photos of him. As I looked over the photos, it struck me that this wasn’t a juvenile Bald Eagle at all; it was a young Golden Eagle. The giveaway was the feathering that went all the way down its legs to its feet.  Cool!  I’d never seen a Golden Eagle out there before.

Surprise #3 was a muskrat. I saw something moving in the water in a slough along the side of the road, and it was at a distance, so I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. I videod it before it disappeared under the surface of the water. At first, I thought it had been a Pied-Billed Grebe floating low through the water, but when I took a closer look at the footage, I found it was a muskrat, swimming with its nose above the surface.  I think I also located where the entrance to its push-up was, so I’ll check that out the next time I’m there.

Surprise #4 was seeing a gorgeous Valley Garter Snake sitting the shore next to the water, warming itself in the sun. Usually, the snakes zip away and all I get is a photo of their side or the end of their tail as they disappear into the water or the brush. This snake sat still, and I was able to get a lot of pictures of it, even its face.

Surprise #5 was seeing a fawn that looked like it was “right out of the box”, maybe only a day or two old. It was very small – but bounding, jumping and curious – and still had its newborn blue eyes.  It was following after its mom who was walking through a stand of cocklebur. The baby was so little, he’d disappear under the big leaves of the cocklebur, then appear again a few feet away.

Surprise #6 was a California Ground Squirrel that ran out near the side of the road with a huge Milk Thistle flower-head in its mouth. I stopped the car and watched as the squirrel held onto the head, ripped through the back it, to avoid the spines on it, and pulled out all of the seeds.  It struck me as funny: it looked like a bridesmaid who had caught the bouquet and then ATE it. Hah!

I saw several American Bitterns flying overhead but none on the ground, a hawk flying off with its kill (with a Crow chasing it), a fledgling Northern Harrier sitting on the ground with whatever it had been able to catch, and Marsh Wrens singing (and one building a new nest). I also caught a glimpse of Orioles and got some good shots of a Blue-Winged Teal, among other critters.  It was a nice way to end the day.

American Bitterns Pumper-Lunking on Sunday

I was up at 6:00 am and out the door before 6:30.  It was my original intention to do some more wildflower hunting, but on the way to Highway 20 I got lost in my thoughts and missed the turn off (D’oh!), so I continued up the highway to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge and spent the morning there instead.  The weather was lovely (mostly sunny; 51º when I got there, 70º by the time I left).

CLICK HERE to see the whole album of photos and videos.

We’re right at the beginning of the breeding season, so lots of bird are starting to pair up, build nests, and claim territory.  I saw a lot of Great-Tailed Grackles flying overhead (and some American White Pelicans, too), and although I could hear the grackles occasionally singing their broad range of odd songs, I didn’t see any of them on or near the ground so I didn’t get any photos of them. I also saw a young garter snake and a green-tinted Western Racer snake, but they moved too fast for me. By the time I got my camera focus on them, they were gone into the brush.  I’d never seen a Western Racer before, so that was neat to see one for the first time.  When I initially saw it, I thought it was a tule on the auto-tour route… but then it moved.

A lot of the wildflowers and vernal pool flowers at the refuge were in bloom, so in area the ground was a patchwork of yellow Goldfields, orange Fiddleneck, white Popcorn Flowers and purple Dowingia… so pretty. There’s also wild mustard and Poison Hemlock, Blessed Milk Thistle, Italian Thistle, and Teasel blooming everywhere – just in time for the pollinators to wake up.

I saw only a few dragonflies, but it’s still early in the season for them. The Painted Lady and West Coast Lady butterflies on the other hand were everywhere. I bet I saw 20 of them just around the permanent wetland area.

There were jackrabbits and Cottontails bounding all over the place, and I got a few good shots of some California Ground Squirrels.

I didn’t see many babies today, just a pair of Canada Geese with their little troop of goslings, but it’s still early in the season.

The highlight of the day was seeing an American Bittern in the tall grass “booming”.  I don’t know why it’s called “booming” because the call has its own name but… whatever.  To stake out their territory, the Bitterns give out a loud complex call called the “pumper-lunk” call.  The bird claps its bill several time, sucking air into its esophagus, and then expels the air by compressing its neck – making a loud burbling sound, sort of like a melodious burp.  The one I was watching did his call five times, and I was able to get video of two of the calls.  Made. My. Day.  Here’s one of the videos of it: https://youtu.be/cg0HDZ2lhbw.

The odd moment of the day came when I saw something with long brown, black and white fur moving through the long grass.  I could see that it was moving nose-down along the ground, but because the critter never lifted its head, I couldn’t tell what it was.  I was thinking it was probably a Striped Skunk, but the brown shades were throwing me off… then I was thinking badger (but the fur was too long)… or maybe even porcupine (but they’re usually much larger, and the video proved that I was seeing fur and not quills)… So I’m settling on skunk, but I’m still not certain.

In another “what is that?” moment, I saw the dorsal fin and tail fin of a Northern Pike in one of the slews.  I know I’ve said it before, but those guys are brutal; they’ll eat anything.  They come up into the sloughs when the area gets flooded, then when the water recedes again, they get trapped.  They’re fast and powerful, though… and can move even in shallow water, so once they’re in the sloughs they prey on everything, including birds…

On the viewing platform, I came across a pair of Western Fence Lizards, that were challenging each other: doing pushups, body slamming one another, staring each other down.  I got some of the interaction on video.  The two males were very mature – showing off why they’re also called “Blue Bellies” – and had lots and lots of blue on their bodies, even along the back and on the head.  I’ve never ones that were this colorful before.  When the winner of the contest was done with his rival (who ran off) he decided that my blue-green walking shoes were an enemy, too, so he ran up as close to me as he dared and started doing pushups again.  Hah!  I let him win and walked away – after I got some video and photos of him.  In the same area, I found a melanistic Western Fence Lizard, a dark pitchy-gray one sitting on a branch sunning himself.  He was such a contrast to the brightly colored one, I had to get his photo, too.

I’m usually not too thrilled about seeing Black Phoebes, mostly because they’re so ubiquitous around here, but I caught sight of one carrying grass for its nest.  It perched on a limb of a tree and sat there for a while, letting me get some pretty good photos of it.  And the Kingbirds were out in force. I got some good shots of them, too.

Another good bird-moment was when I saw some American Coots playing “keep-away” with a crawfish.  One has caught it and was trying to eat it when a second Coot rushed up and grabbed it.  Coot #2 swam off with its prize, but as soon as it stopped to eat, Coot #3 rushed up and took it… When it comes to lunch, these guys aren’t polite.  Hah!

I stayed at the refuge for about 4 hours and then headed back home to crash with the dogs… So I didn’t see much in the way of wildflowers, today, but it was still a nice day out in nature…

Wildflower Hunting, 04-15-17

On saturday I was up at 6:15 am and out the door by 6:30.  The weather was gorgeous today; sunny and cool (49º when I headed out for my hillside trek and 68º when I got back home.)  I headed out looking for wildflower displays today, taking I5 to the spot where Highways 20 and 16 meet.  There are a lot of ranches around there, as well as some protected areas, and there are usually pretty displays.

Tuleyome had led a wildflower tour last weekend, but pickings were slim, and they couldn’t get down Bear Valley Road to Wilbur Springs because that road is all dirt – and with the recent rains it was basically a 15-mile mud hole.  I didn’t go down there today, and instead stuck to the highways and the turnouts along them.  As I went along, it occurred to me that I actually think we’re still too early for the full wildflower bloom. I think the rain and cooler temperatures have kept the wildflowers from showing off.  The poppies and most of the lupine aren’t awake yet, the onions aren’t opened up yet, and the Blow Wives are just now starting to “blow”.

CLICK HERE to see the entire album of photos.

CLICK HERE if you’d like directions to a self-guided wildflower tour along Bear Valley Road. Before you head out, though, check to make sure the road isn’t really muddy.

Still, I did get to see quite a few different species – about 3o or so – including Tidy Tips, Pepperweed, different kinds of lupine, tiny Owl’s Clover, that super-interesting looking Sack Clover, Big-Headed Clover, Navarretia, Soft Blow Wives, Silverpuffs, Blue Dicks, Bush Mallow, Death Camas, Ithuriel’s Spears, some tiny Blue-Eyed Mary, California Poppies, Goldfields, Fiddleneck, Buck Brush, Larkspur, Bush Monkey Flowers, Indian Paintbrush, Tule Peas, Chinese Houses, and Old Men’s Bear (a kind of clematis).

Driving along Highway 16 was a little bit scary. There had been huge mud and rock slides there, and the road was opened again just recently. As you drive along, you can see massive bald spots where the faces of the hillsides became too saturated during the heavy rains and just slide off.  There  were three places where I could see that the highway had been recently patched and in other places there were huge piles of boulders and mud that had been bulldozed off the road.  But my drive was unimpeded, and nothing fell on my car in the “falling rocks” areas.

Because it was so sunny, I had to contend with stark shadows and sun-glare when I was taking pictures.  If I was able to, I blocked the flowers with my body and took the pictures, but that wasn’t always an option. It’s easier to take photos when it’s a little overcast…

The Tamarisk trees were in bloom all along the waterways.  They’re gorgeous, but they’re totally invasive. Also called “salt cedars” they dump tons of salt into the rivers and streams and kill off a lot of native plant and animals species that can’t tolerate the high salt content. Red-Winged Blackbirds were using some of them as display stages, sitting in the top branches, singing away.

At one spot along Highway 20 and Bear Valley Road, there’s a bridge that goes over Bear Creek, and under the bride were swarms of Cliff Swallows building and tending to their mud nests.  I was surprised to see birds sitting in the unfinished nests – seemingly saving their spot — as their mates flew back and forth with daubs of mud to complete them.  I got some photos and video snippets of that process.

I also saw quite a few Western Fence Lizards, a male Lesser Goldfinch hunkered down in the flowers eating seeds, some katydid nymphs, Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies, Boxelder Beetles, and… eew… ticks.  There were ticks everywhere.  As I was heading back home, I found three of them crawling around the car, and one tiny one on my neck.  Eew, eew, eew!

Because the weather was so lovely, I actually drove around with the car windows open.  It made for a nice weekend drive. I was back home around 2:00 pm.

Lots of Exuvia Today

Damselfly exuvia on a tule frond. © Copyright 2016, Mary K. Hanson. All rights reserved.
All of the “white stuff” you see on this tule is the exuvia of dozens of damselflies. © Copyright 2016, Mary K. Hanson. All rights reserved.

I had planned on sleeping in a bit today, but woke up around 5:00 am anyway, so I got up about 5:30 and then headed out to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.  It was about 53° when I left the house and got up to about 77° by the late afternoon.  We had a breeze for most of the day so it was actually quite nice outdoors.

I put some gas in the car and then continued on toward Willows and the refuge. Whereas some days provide me with a lot Kingbird photos, or squirrel or jackrabbit photos, today I got a lot of Western Fence Lizard pictures.  Those guys were out everywhere.  I even came across a mating pair.  Lizard-porn.  Hah!

This rock looked like a rabbit to me.
This rock looked like a rabbit to me.

The other big attractions (for me anyway) was being able to photograph several  large dragonflies and finding LOTS of damselfly exuvia (the skin they shed when they emerge from the water and transform into winged damselflies).  I also found a few damselflies that had just shed their skin and didn’t have their wings entirely pumped up yet.  The exuvia looks so neat to me.  It’s the exact shape of the damselfly naiade, but is hollow and looks like a ghost or a reflection of the insect.  So cool!

Around that same area, I also came across a male Great-Tailed Grackle that actually followed my car for a while as he sang for the females.  He paused among the tules in a few locations and did some displaying and more singing.  He was really entertaining!  I got a few video snippets of him, and at one point he took a break from his songs to eat damselflies… A snack between concerts.

There were plenty of jackrabbits and cottontails, of course, but not so many of them posed for me today.  I also had to deal with a particularly shy Common Gallinule. It was way down in the tules along the bank and I was practically shooting at it “blind”.  Somehow the camera managed to get some photos in focus.  I was so pleased.  I was likewise hindered by the tules when I saw a joined pair of Green Darner Dragonflies land on the water.  I held the camera out the window, over my head, trying to get the camera’s eye over the top of the tules, and shot straight down at the water… and I somehow got the shot I wanted of the female dragonfly laying her eggs in the water.  Miracle.  I even got a shot of another male coming into the frame and the first male chasing it off – while still attached to the female. Woah!.

The Great Horned Owl owlets were out of their nest and sitting on an open branch of their tree.  Mom wasn’t with them the first time I passed them, but she was there when I went by again later.  The owlets are the same size as their mom now, just… “fluffier”.  You can tell by looking at the owlets which one is a little bit older than the other.  Great-Horned Owls usually lay their eggs several days apart… so there’s always a least one in the nest that’s older than the others. The mother hawk and her fledgling were in their own nest this morning, too.

I saw several mule deer, including a young male who was coming into his “velvet” (getting his new antlers; they were stubby but very visible on his head). I also came across a young Turkey Vulture who was sitting on the edge of an open gate holding his wings out to the sun to warm himself up.  He actually stayed there long enough for me to get a few close-up shots of him.

At other points along the auto tour, I’d stop and just listen to the sounds around me: Red-Winged Blackbirds and Meadowlarks singing, egrets croaking, grebes woo-woo-wooing, Night Herons doing their brisk “wok!” call… It’s a jungle out there, man.  I loved it.

CLICK HERE for a video of the Great-Tailed Grackle singing.

CLICK HERE for a video of a Marsh Wren singing.

On my way out of the refuge, I drove past one of the sloughs and could see something big and dark moving under the surface of the water, but I couldn’t tell what it was.  I parked the car and craned over the passenger side seat and out the window to see if I could get a better look at it.  Definitely some kind of large fish… but the shape wasn’t right to be a catfish…  I think it might have been a young Northern Pike!  If it was a pike, then anything else living in the water is in trouble; those guys are aggressive hunters.  It never came all the way to the surface, though, so I couldn’t really tell for certain.

There was also one spot, just before the exit, where I stopped to look into the drainage ditch – because you never know what you might find in there – and I spotted a Black-Crowned Night heron lurking in the shade.  Someone came up behind me in her car and flashed her lights for me to get out of her way.  Uh – I’m photographing here!  Grumbling, I drove up the road a little distance and pulled over for her to pass, and then backed up to the ditch again so I could get a few more shots of the heron.  They weren’t great, but at least I got them.

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Around 2:00 pm I headed back to Sacramento and got home around 3:30 pm.

Vacation Day 13: SNWR Part 2

California Ground Squirrel. American White Pelican. Copyright © 2016 Mary K. Hanson. All rights reserved.
California Ground Squirrel.  Copyright © 2016 Mary K. Hanson. All rights reserved.

Vacation Day 13. I got up about 5:30 this morning. The hotel bed and pillows were wonderfully comfortable, but I just couldn’t get into a sound sleep, so I cat-napped on and off all night. Still, I was feeling pretty energetic, so I packed up all my stuff and was out of the hotel before 6:00 am. I had some leftover pineapple from yesterday and had that for breakfast – and gave Sgt. Margie one of his small cans of dog food before we left. Then I went back to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (which was about 15 minutes away from the hotel).

I saw a lot today that I saw yesterday, but today I also got my first look at an Eared Grebe in its breeding plumage (which is VERY different than its non-breeding plumage) and I saw some Bullock’s Orioles, but they moved too fast through the trees for me to get any good photos of them. I also saw a Peregrine Falcon and a Bald Eagle. The eagle was perched in a tree, but I couldn’t get close enough to him to get a good photo. I got one shot of him through the windshield but it sucked. Dang it!

Here’s a video on the Eared Grebe: CLICK HERE

Here’s a video of a female Blackbird collecting fibers for her nest: CLICK HERE

Along one part of the auto tour you can see a bare scraggly tree off to the left. Today, I noticed there was a nest on one of the outer branches… and there was a huge Great Horned Owl sitting in it! Cool! I took some photos even though it was pretty distant from the car. I also think I saw the gray-white fluff of an owlet next to the mama. These are the moments when I wish I had a better telephoto lens.

Oh, and I also saw some goslings with their parents, AND the wildly-colored babies of a Pied-Billed Grebe. I’d seen photos of the babies before but had never seen one live. The pictures I got aren’t the best because the birds were moving away from me in the water, but I just loved the pattern on the chicks!

And where there were rabbits all over the place yesterday, today it was California Ground Squirrels. They were out en masse. Some of them are very skittish and shy, but others are bold. There were a couple of them who sat on the ground right outside my car window and posed for me. Hah!

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The dog and I were out of the refuge by about 11:00 and headed back to Sacramento, but along the way I stopped to get us some tacos which we ate for lunch at a rest stop. It was a nice couple of days. Now, I need to forage through the 2000+ photos I took! As we were heading home, the clouds were starting to move in… there’s supposed to be rain coming in for tomorrow.

Once home, I relaxed for a bit with the dogs, and then baked up some chicken and biscuits for supper and had them with fresh asparagus.