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At the Sacramento and Colusa Wildlife Refuges, 05-06-19

Certified California Naturalist, Roxanne Moger and I went out to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge around 6:00 am this morning. The weather was beautiful today, but there wasn’t a lot to see at the preserve. We’re kind of in between seasons, so the large flocks of birds have all left, but the insects (like dragonflies, damselflies, and orb-weaver spiders) haven’t arrived yet. We did see swarms of Painted Lady butterflies and some Cabbage White, but none of the other species normally seen there in the late spring/early summer.

Roxanne did all the driving, but we stopped a couple of time to get out of the car and walk parts of the trail or explore the boundaries of the park-and-stretch areas. Some of the vernal pools on the site were in bloom: all golden yellow and purple with Goldfields and Downingia. Just beautiful.

Although the species list at the end of the day wasn’t as long or as varied as I’d like, I did like the fact that I saw a few things I’d never seen before and learned more about some species than I’d known before. That’s what really makes these outings fun.

A large fly landed on the passenger side mirror of the car partway through the auto-tour and at first I thought it was a Robber Fly (those guys are pretty big). We were both intrigued by the fly’s huge goggle-like eyes and his tenaciousness.  He held onto that mirror for quite a long time.

When I got home, I looked up the fly to see if I could find its scientific name and found that it was actually a male Striped (or Lined) Horsefly, Tabanus lineola. I’d never seen one before. And, of course, once I find something new to me, I have to research it more.  Never having encountered a Horsefly before, I was surprised to learn that although the males drink nectar, the females drink blood (usually from large mammals like livestock). She had scissor-like mouth parts that slice into the skin so she can get to the blood. This species is usually found along the east coast and Gulf of Mexico, so it was something of a surprise to find it here… assuming I got the ID correct.

We also got to see a male Red-Winged Blackbird flaring his epaulets at a female, and a pair of Brown-Headed Cowbirds performing what we thought was courtship behavior.  The two birds sat across from one another, then one ruffled its feathers, opened its wings a bit and bowed down at the other, and the other responded in kind.

Roxanne and I inferred the behavior was “courtship” but, from what I read, after I got home, what we were seeing was actually two males trying to outdo one another in a machismo contest.  Apparently, the females don’t respond well to the males’ bows, which they see as aggressive, so the males only bow to one another. (You can read more here.)  The males open their wings to one another, and to females, to show how mature they are. Juveniles have pale markings on the inside of the wings.

You can see the video snippet I took of the birds HERE.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

And we found a couple of Black Phoebe nests, one stuffed full of babies who were almost fully fledged. They were stacked up, one on top of the other, with their tails sticking out over the edge of the nest. And toward the end of the auto tour route we came across a dead tree where there was a Western Meadowlark, a Red-Winged Blackbird and a tiny Song Sparrow all singing their respective songs.

We caught glimpses of American Goldfinches and Bullock’s Orioles, and hear Bitterns, but didn’t see any. One oddity was sighting a Mute Swan in the permanent wetlands area. That was odd because swans hardly ever go into the refuge, and Mute Swans are actually an invasive species. Unlike the Tundra Swans, the Mute Swans are super-aggressive and destroy the habitat they live in by ripping up water-plants from the roots.

When we were done at the Sacramento refuge, we decided to go over to the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge to show Roxanne the day-roost of the Black-Crowned Night Herons at the end of the auto-tour there. We were astonished to discover that the auto-tour there was roped off so no one could get to it… but the rope and signage was only visible AFTER you entered the refuge and started driving down the route. Stupid. They should have put the signs on the front gate or in the parking area.  A “manager” who showed up a little while after did, said that the auto-route was shut down because they were short handed and couldn’t patrol it well enough. Sad.

So, we didn’t do that tour and instead walked around a little bit in the native flower garden they have near the restroom facility.  Along part of a path near the garden, Roxanne found some galls we’d never seen before: the gall of the Elm Balloon-Gall Aphid, Eriosoma lanuginosum.

According to what I’ve read, the galls are initiated by a “fundatrix”, a parthenogenetic female aphid whose presence causes an extreme enlargement of the soft cell tissue on one side of the leaf. The galls are hollow and feel rubbery. They start out green and are covered with fine white hairs (which we saw) and turn brown as they age.

Inside the gall the fundatrix has her babies which are wingless and yellow until they mature. There can also be second generation aphids, called “alates” (usually winged individuals) which are dark green to black and wax powdered. Not all of the adults grow wings, however, and wing-growth seemed to be associated to crowding inside the galls, a short supply of food, and/or changes in the environment. Nature is so cool!

After walking around a bit, we headed back home to Sacramento and got there around 3:00 pm.

Species List:

1. American Avocet, Recurvirostra americana,
2. American Bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus,
3. American Coot, Fulica americana.
4. American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos,
5. American Goldfinch, Spinus tristis,
6. American Robin, Turdus migratorius,
7. Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna,
8. Annual Yellow Sweet Clover, Melilotus indicus,
9. Arches Moth, Habrosyne sp.
10. Bird’s Foot Trefoil, Lotus corniculatus,
11. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans,
12. Black-Tailed Jackrabbit, Lepus californicus,
13. Blessed Milk Thistle, Silybum marianum,
14. Blue Elderberry, Sambucus cerulea,
15. Bristly Oxtongue, Helminthotheca echioides,
16. Brown-Headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater,
17. Bullock’s Oriole, Icterus bullockii,
18. Bur Clover, Burr Medic, Medicago polymorpha,
19. California Flannelbush, Fremontodendron californicum,
20. California Ground Squirrel, Otospermophilus beecheyi,
21. California Poppy, Eschscholzia californica,
22. California Wild Rose, Rosa californica,
23. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis,
24. Cinnamon Teal, Anas cyanoptera,
25. Clark’s Grebe, Aechmophorus clarkia,
26. Cleveland Sage, Salvia clevelandii,
27. Common Mustard, Brassica rapa,
28. Convergent Lady Beetle, Hippodamia convergens,
29. Curly Dock, Rumex crispus,
30. Damselfly, Pacific Forktail, Ischnura cervula, (dots on thorax)
31. Damselfly, Sooty Dancer, Argia lugens, (no blue tip; rings around segments)
32. Desert Cottontail, Sylvilagus audubonii,
33. Dogtail Grass, Cynosurus echinatus,
34. Elm Balloon-Gall Aphid, Eriosoma lanuginosum,
35. Eurasian Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto,
36. Field Elm Tree, Smooth-Leaf Elm, Ulmus Minor,
37. Foothills Penstamon, Penstemon heterophyllus,
38. Foxtail Barley, Hordeum murinum ssp. glaucum,
39. Fremont Cottonwood Tree, Populus fremontii,
40. Fuller’s Teasel, Wild Teasel, Dipsacus fullonum,
41. Goldfields, Contra Costa Goldfields, Lasthenia conjugens,
42. Great Egret, Ardea alba,
43. Greater White-Fronted Goose, Anser albifrons,
44. Greenbottle Fly, Lucilia sericata,
45. Himalayan Blackberry, Rubus armeniacus,
46. Hood Canarygrass, Phalaris paradoxa,
47. Hoover’s Downingia, Hoover’s Calicoflower, Downingia bella,
48. House Finch, Haemorhous mexicanus,
49. House Sparrow, Passer domesticus,
50. Jimson Weed, Datura stramonium,
51. Killdeer, Charadrius vociferous,
52. Large Oxtongue Aphid, Uroleucon picridis,
53. Marsh Wren, Cistothorus palustris,
54. Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura,
55. Mute Swan, Cygnus olor,
56. Narrowleaf Milkweed, Asclepias fascicularis,
57. Northern Paper Wasp, Polistes fuscatus,
58. Northern Pintail, Anas acuta,
59. Northern Shoveler, Anas clypeata,
60. Oleander Aphid, Aphis nerii,
61. Pacific Pond Turtle, Western Pond Turtle, Actinemys marmorata,
62. Pacific Tree Frog, Chorus Frog, Pseudacris regilla,
63. Painted Lady Butterfly, Vanessa cardui,
64. Pied-Billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps,
65. Plantain, Ribwort, Plantago lanceolata,
66. Poison Hemlock, Conium maculatum,
67. Purple Finch, Haemorhous purpureus,
68. Purple Needle Grass, Stipa pulchra,
69. Rabbit Tail Grass,Hare’s Tail Grass, Lagurus ovatus,
70. Red-Tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis,
71. Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus,
72. Rush, California Bulrush, Schoenoplectus californicus,
73. Sedge, Pennsylvania Sedge, Carex pensylvanica
74. Showy Milkweed, Asclepias speciose,
75. Silverpuff, Microseris acuminata,
76. Snow Goose, Chen caerulescens,
77. Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia,
78. Striped Horsefly, Tabanus lineola,
79. Tule, Schoenoplectus acutus,
80. Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura,
81. Valley Popcorn Flower, Plagiobothrys canescens,
82. Varied Carpet Beetle, Anthrenus verbasci,
83. Variegated Meadowhawk Dragonfly, Sympetrum corruptum,
84. Western Fence Lizard, Sceloporus occidentalis,
85. Western Kingbird, Tyrannus verticalis,
86. Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta,
87. Willow, Gooding’s Willow, Salix gooddingii

Lots of Cavity Nesting Birds, 05-19-18

I got up around 6:00 am and was out the door by 6:30 to go over to the American River Bend Park. I was sure the Great Horned Owl owlets were fully fledged by now and off hunting, so I didn’t expect to see them. I wanted to go out there, though, to see if the Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillars were mature enough yet to start making their chrysalises. It’s apparently still too early for that around here, but I still got to see a lot birds and bugs and other things.

A lot of the usual suspects were out – Wild Turkeys, Starlings, Tree Swallows, Mourning Doves, House Wrens – and I was able to get photos of some of the cavity nesting birds in and around their nests. One pair of wrens was just starting to work on their nest, bringing sticks and soft stuff to line it with; another pair of wrens had babies and were flying food to them every few minutes. Standing nest tot heir tree, I was able to hear the bay birds inside cheeping away. I need to get a camera with a stretchy arm that can reach up and look down into the cavities…

The neat find of the day – even though I didn’t get many good photos because of the lighting and where the birds were – was a Western Bluebird nesting cavity. Both the male and female were feeding their nestlings (which, like the wren babies, I could hear from inside of the tree). Western Bluebirds are shy, though, and move really quickly, especially if they think you’re looking at them. (As brightly colored as the males are, it always surprises me how easily they can disappear into the shadows.) Still, I managed to get some photos of both the mom and the dad and they flew back and forth and brought bugs for their babies. At one point, the papa Bluebird figured I was getting too close to the nesting cavity, and he flew right at me, beak open. I got a few shaky photos of that before I backed off from the tree. I’m there to observe, not interfere…

CLICK HERE for the album of photos.

I also found a male hummingbird high up in a tree, and tried to get photos of him, but I couldn’t tell if he was an Anna’s or a Black-Chinned.

I saw some Scarab Hunter Wasps hovering close to the ground, looking for grubs to infest, and some other wasp-like insects that I haven’t been able to identify yet. There are sooooooo many insects with superfamilies, families, and tribes to go through before you ever get down to the genus and species level… They’re really difficult for me to identify properly. I really admire entomologists and their bug and insect proficiency.

One of the odd-ball insects I found was a small wasp-like thing with an iridescent blue thorax, red-orange abdomen, and somewhat clear wings. I was thinking maybe it was a kind of “Digger Wasp”, but I couldn’t find one on Bugguide.net with the right color legs. Maybe a “sawfly”?  I also found a golden fly-like thing with red eyes and an iridescent green thing I think is some kind of cuckoo wasp. I’m not sure. I’ll have to continue the search for the IDs.

I also came across quite a few Tussock Moth caterpillar cocoons. Most of them were already spent (with an opening at one end through which the mature moth emerged), but one was completely intact and had a layer of hard white “fluff” over the top of it. I’d never seen one like that, so I took photos and then did some more research when I got home.

I knew that the female moths (which are wingless) laid their eggs on their old cocoons and then covered the eggs with a layer of hair and foamy secretions from their bodies (which hardens to protect the eggs as they overwinter), and that could have been the case with the cocoon I found, but it seemed at first glance that the pupal casing was still inside the cocoon, which meant the moth hadn’t emerged yet.  A puzzle.

My research indicated that sometimes parasitic wasps will lay their eggs on top of the cocoons and as the larvae emerge they build a tight white webbing around them to protect themselves while they feast on the moth pupa inside the cocoon. I wasn’t sure which scenario I was looking at, so, I opened up the cocoon to see if there was anything inside of it.  Although the cocoon itself was intact (no emergence hole in the end of it), the pupal casing inside of it was empty.  I’m still not absolutely positive about what I was seeing, but I’m assuming the white fluff was made by a wasp, not by the female moth, and the pupa was devoured before the moth had a chance to develop. Nature is so fascinating.

The buckeye trees are all in bloom right now; so pretty. And some of the black walnut trees are already sporting new walnuts. I was surprised to see that many of the Hop Trees around had already lost most of their seeds. Lots of hungry birds out there, I guess.  Along the river, I found a lot of Elegant Clarkia in bloom as well as Bush Monkey Flowers. I would have gone further along that part of the trail but by that time I had already been on m feet for over three hours, and I needed to get back to the car.

All in all, I ended up walking for about 4 hours.