Tag Archives: cocklebur

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.

Mostly Galls and Plants, 09-01-18

Up at 6:00 am to go over to the William Pond Park on the American River. I went looking for wasp galls and found them, but it seems to me there isn’t the variety there that there normally is. Not a lot of other stuff to see, although I did hear a pack of coyotes, and I saw a covey of quail – but I couldn’t get photos of them. I walked for about 2 ½ hours and then went home.

CLICK HERE for the album of photos.

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.

Saw My First Mink!

I got up around 5:30 am because the dog wanted his breakfast and needed to pee, so I let him do his morning stuff and brewed a pot of coffee… then went back to bed until about 7:30.  I’m still feeling crummy and still have a fever, but the cough has abated for the most part. I was dog-tired but also feeling really stir-crazy after being in bed for so many days, so I went over to the Cosumnes River Preserve and walked for a little bit.  I was hoping that moving around would encourage the fever to break.  I didn’t walk for as long as I usually do, and was headachy and exhausted when I got back home, but I still feel the fresh air and exercise was worth it.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos and video snippets.

I only walked along the boardwalk and the small ponds around it, and didn’t walk the longer trails. A lot of the usual suspects were out there, but I was astonished to come across a MINK (Neovison vison)!  It was the first time I’d ever seen a live mink in the wild, and at first I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. The mink was in a pond near the parking area, and I could see its head poking out of the water.  At first I thought maybe it was a baby otter, but the muzzle was the wrong shape. I got some photos of it in the water and then it ducked under the surface and I lost it.  A few second later, I saw it come up the bank to the side of the road right in front of me.  I watched it climb up and go to a tangle of fallen branches… and then realized there was the body of a dead mink there, too.  The live mink sniffed around the dead one for a little while, and then grabbed the carcass in its mouth.  It started pulling the dead mink down into the water, and I walked up a little bit closer to try to get more photos and video. The live mink saw me, dropped the dead one on the bank and swam off…  I considered going after the carcass, but the bank’s incline was too steep and I didn’t want to end up in the water.

I don’t know if the live mink wanted the dead mink’s body to mourn it or to eat it (or both). Mink DO eat just about anything including fish, frogs, rabbits, muskrats, insects, birds and snakes. They build burrows adjacent to water with at least one water entrance and up to 8 exit tunnels on land.  There are supposedly a lot of them in the area, but this is the first time I’ve ever actually seen one (or two as the case may be).

While I was walking along the side of the pond, an elderly gentleman, who said his name was Larry, drove up in his truck and asked if I’d seen anything interesting. When I told him I saw the mink, he quickly pulled into the nearby parking lot and joined me on the bank.  I commented on his super-fancy camera rig (with a lens as long as his arm) and he said he used to be a sports photographer for the Lodi Sentinel newspaper. Now that he’s retired, he was able to use the tools from his former job to augment his play.  He showed me some photos of Sandhill Cranes that he took, and they were awesome.  He’s kind of new at this nature-photography thing, though, so he doesn’t really know what he’s photographing.  (He thought Northern Shoveler ducks were Mallards, and didn’t know what the Black-Necked Stilts were.  But he’s anxious to learn.)  I think he’s probably in his 70’s; he had to quit working for the newspaper because he has recurring problems with sciatic pain and can’t be on his feet for any length of time.  We walked and talked for a little while, but the mink never resurfaced, so Larry and I went our separate ways…

Two misses today: I saw a Belted Kingfisher perched on a telephone line, watching for fish in one of the adjacent sloughs, but when I turned the car around to get a photo of him, he flew off.  Same thing with a gorgeous Black-Shouldered Kite sitting in a tree by the road. I saw it out of the corner of my eye, but when I got to a place where I could turn the car around, the bird was gone.  Dang.

Oh, and an odd thing: on my way back home, I saw an odd-looking bird standing along the edge of a rice field. I couldn’t tell what it was, so I pulled the car off to the side of the road to take a better look at the thing. It looked like a cross between a Great Egret and a Great Blue Heron… and it took me several minutes to realize I was looking at a fake bird. It was mounted on a pole that mimicked the long legs of the egrets and herons, and what finally made it obvious to me that it was a decoy and not a live bird was when the wind blew; the whole bird spun slowly in a circle on the pole. Hahahaha!

I went right home after that and crashed in bed with the dog for the rest of the day.

Things are Getting Interesting at the Wildlife Refuge, 10-28-17

At the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, the wetlands areas aren’t completely flooded yet, so it’s not as full of birds as it could be… but there were a lot of the early-arrival species like the White-Fronted Geese, Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese, Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers, and Gadwalls. I also saw a few different species of sparrow including Song Sparrows, White-Crowned Sparrows, and Savannah Sparrows, a Dark-Eyed Junco, and a Nutthall’s Woodpecker. Among the other birds I saw – like the Wilson’s Snipes, Killdeer, Black-Necked Stilts, and American Pipits — a nice surprise was spotting the local Peregrine Falcon who was sitting up in “the eagle-tree”. He was obscured by branches and twigs, but I got a few fair photos of him.

Later on, I came across a trio of mule deer browsing in the tall grass and weeds.  One was a male, a two-pointer, and I couldn’t see any details but could tell there was a big lump – like a knot made out of hide — on the side of his head near one of his eyes. It looked like the eye was missing, but I’m not sure; it could have just been that the knot was casting a shadow over the eye socket. It didn’t seem to inhibit the buck or interfere with his ability to move around…

The big surprise of the day, though, was when I saw a skunk moving along the tules and weeds on the edge of one of the wetland ponds, and stopped to take some photos and video of it. As I watched it, I could hear it nattering angrily at something and thought maybe there was another skunk or a snake or something near it in the weeds…  When a raccoon climbed out over the vegetation and moved gingerly past the skunk I had to laugh.  I wasn’t expecting that at all!  You can see the video here: https://youtu.be/yrja6wSMtxA.

I saw another raccoon further along the auto tour route near the large viewing platform.  I heard first as it went scuffing through the fallen dried leaves under the platform, and then saw it as it was walking away along the edge of the slough near the base of the platform.

Here is an album of pix: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mkhnaturalist/albums/72157665598291929

I was at the refuge for about 3 ½  hours and then turned around and headed back home.

Mostly Galls… which is what I was looking for, 08-06-17

Up at 5:30 again. I hate that I have to get up so early on the weekends just so I can get outside when it’s still cool, but… whatcha gonna do? I went over to the River Bend Park, but rather than going to the area where I usually walk, I crossed the bridge and walked along the west shore of the river.

I didn’t see much in the way of animals during my walk, but I did get to see quite a few different galls – which is what I was really looking for. I did get to see, though, some Canada Geese, Mallards, a Snowy Egret, Acorn Woodpeckers, some European Starlings, some Western Bluebirds, and very young fledgling Scrub Jays. The only mammal I saw (besides humans) was a California Ground Squirrel.

CLICK HERE to see the full album of photos.

Among the galls I found were: prickly Live Oak galls, Oak “apples”, Spiny Turbans and Red Cone galls (which are by far the most numerous around here), Yellow Wig galls, newly forming Spangle Galls, Flat-Topped Honeydew Galls (some tended by ants and protected by Yellow Jackets), and fuzzy Club Galls.  The majority of the gals I found were all on one tree.  Apparently it’s situated at an intersection where a lot of different wasps and other insects meet.  There was one other tree I went looking for, a small one that’s right along the river’s edge where there are usually great specimens of the Wooly Bear galls…  But, alas, in the flooding spring rains, that little trees was swept away (along with the piece of shore it was growing on.

The eucalyptus trees along the river were also covered in lerps (from the Red Gum Eucalyptus Lerp Psyllid).  The lerps are like little pyramids that the psyllid spin out of starch and sugar.  They’re all sticky with the honeydew the psyllids exude.   I also founds lots of clusters of eggs laid by Assassin Bugs. Most of them were already hatched out.  In one place, I came across some off-looking larvae climbing up and around the rushes along the river side. I’m not sure what they were (some sort of beetle, I suspect, based on their shape); I’ll have to investigate those some more.

The oak trees are just starting to sport their acorns. Give them another month and they’ll be shiny brown and ripe enough to pick and plant.  In September, Tuleyome is having Zarah Wyly from the Sacramento Tree Foundation come to do a lecture for us on acorn gathering.  And then on October 1st, if everything works out well, she’ll also lead an outing to collect Blue Oak acorns from the Silver Spur Ranch property.  Fingers crossed on that one…

I walked for about 2 ½ hours and then went back home