Sami is an avid birder – she logged 300 species last year! – and she was able to point out birds to us that we might have otherwise missed. Many of them – including a juvenile Golden Eagle – were on the fly and moving fast so I wasn’t able to get photos of them. But it was still cool to see them.
And Nate is a total nature nerd, like me, so it’s always fun to go out into the field with him. We get excited by things like bugs and fungus and otter scat… so, we enjoyed locating and identifying galls on the trees in the park, hah! We even found a gall I had never seen before. (Or at least didn’t recognize. It turned out to be an early stage of the Round Gall.)
The stand outs for the day for me, though, besides the lovely scenery at the park (which sits right along Putah Creek), were the peahens and their babies, a sleepy Western Screech Owl, a juvenile Great Blue Heron (who startled us by “appearing” on the shore right next to the path we were walking on), and an American White Pelican who was sitting in the middle of the creek, preening, sunning, and doing a little fishing.
We walked for about 3 hours, and then headed our separate ways.
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 Refugeand 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.
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.
Around 10 o’clock I headed off to Lodi for the Sandhill Crane Festival “Raptors by Boat” excursion. Because I’d never been there before I wasn’t sure how long the trip would really take or if I’d be able to find the place, so I gave myself a little less than 2 hours: 1 hour for the drive, 20 minutes to get lost, find the place and find a place to park, then another 20 minutes to find the check-in station and wait in line for the tour to start. Well I didn’t get lost – which is a plus – and although parking was a bitch, I did manage to find a nearby side street to park on, so I had about 30 minutes to kill before standing in line. The “festival” was really a much smaller event than I was anticipating. It consisted of the tours and classes at the Lodi town hall center, and a small room full of vendors. There was only one sign outside of the building announcing that the festival was taking place there.
As I was walking up to the front door of the hall lobby, I saw a lot of Western Bluebirds in the trees, along with some Dark Eyed Juncos. Inside the doors was a big checklist of the birds and critters people could see on the tour, so I checked off the two bird species I saw before I even got in the door. The vendors were mostly from surrounding conservation groups and local artists (some of whom did spectacular work). I wanted to buy some things, but didn’t have the funds for them this weekend. (I get paid next weekend. Sigh.) The rooms being used for the festival were directly adjacent to an art gallery, too, so I peeked in there.
When it came time for everyone to line up and check in for the tour, we were all handed a map and told we were going to drive out to the boat at the Pardee Reservoir ourselves—there was no van or bus to take us. I knew it was going to take at 2 hours for the round trip and about 3 hours for the boat tour – which meant we wouldn’t get back to Lodi until after dark. There was no way I was going to drive out to the middle of nowhere and then try to find my way back in the dark, so I told the group leader I was going to need a ride. A 30-ish couple, Ramona and her hubby Rick, said they would drive me. ((If they hadn’t offered, I wouldn’t have gone on the trip. I don’t like driving out to the middle of nowhere by myself, when I’m not sure where I’m going. And I hate driving in the dark. The festival needs to TELL people things like this in advance, or charge an extra $20 a head to pay for van rentals.))
The drive took us up into the foothills well outside of Lodi, through some little “hick towns” and past the giant Cherokee Reservoir to the smaller Pardee Reservoir (which is still pretty big). Ramona and Rick were quiet but good natured people, so the drive was nice. They both has a gentle quirky sense of humor, and got excited about things like the retro 1950’s-looking McDonald’s in town and the cows in the pastures along the road. They called the calves “cow kittens” Hah!
To thank them for being my chauffeur, I told them that I would pay to fill up their gas tank for their trip back home if they’d let me; they were very grateful for that. Ramona was excellent at following the directions to the reservoir so we got there in the middle of the pack of cars. ((You’d think, too, that the festival people would supply 2 vans for transport, rather than causing a huge waste of gasoline and impacting the environment with the trammeling and exhaust of the 10 cars they made drive out to the reservoir.)) On our way we saw a dead deer on the side of the road with a big Turkey Vulture sitting on top of it. It went by too fast for me to get a photo (and on the way back, it was dark, so we missed that opportunity.)
Anyway, at the Pardee Reservoir – which is closed to the public during this time of the year – we waited at the gate for the tour leader, a ranger named Charles, a handsome 30-ish bald man with a sweet disposition. He even brought homemade cookies for us to snack on. He opened up the gates for us, and then escorted us down to where the boat launch was. The water level in the reservoir was unusually low (only at 60% of capacity instead of its normal 90%) because all of the cold water from the bottom of the reservoir had been drained off into the Cherokee Reservoir to attract spawning trout and salmon. So, we had to walk down the bank a distance and climb onto the boat – a 2 pontoon houseboat piloted by another young handsome man named Matt.
As I said, I’d never been to this place before, and I was immediately struck by the eerie beauty of all of the exposed rock formations. The reservoir was dug out of hillsides that are predominantly slate and the sheet of slate were stacked up at all angles along the shore like decks of cards. In some areas, stands of the shale were bleached white and looked like alien dinosaur bones. The place would be great for fossil-hunting expeditions, I’m sure.
The first and last parts of the boating tour were pretty much BOR-ING, but the middle part of it was awesome and made up for that. Matt drove the boat into a large alcove (where he almost grounded us on a sand shoal) and there we saw some hawks, Common Mergansers, Grebes, Canada Geese, Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles, deer, river otters, and other small shorebirds. The Bald Eagles were all first through third year birds, so they didn’t have their white heads yet. (They get the white head when they’re about 4 years old.) They flew back and forth over the boat, landing on trees or rocks on the shoreline and posed for us. It was funny to be on a boat during this because people would all rush to one side to photograph the birds from there – and the boat would tip that way – and then the people would all run to the other side of the boat to see something else – and the boat would tip to that way. Lots of “rocking the boat” on this trip which made photo-taking a little difficult at times. No one got seasick, though; I think that was because the boat was so open and the shoreline was always in site… I tried to stay in a center area as much as I could, and shot photos through and around people; although I DID venture to the railing on occasion, especially when someone spotted the otters.
What was funny, too… Remember how I’ve been telling you in earlier posts that I’m having trouble getting photos of Belted Kingfishers? Well, EVERYONE of this boating trip said they were having the same problem. The birds seldom sit still long enough for you to get any shots of them. As we were going along the shore of the reservoir, we spotted about 6 Belted Kingfishers, and as soon as we focused or cameras on them, they took off. It became kind of a game. Everyone laughed about it.
Even though we didn’t do any real walking or hiking, the drive and all of the fresh air had us all yawning on the way back to the boat launch area. There was a Loon in the water there, but like the Kingfisher, he wasn’t cooperating for photos and would dive down every time someone tried to snap his picture. We all disembarked on the shore, and thanked Charles and Matt, and then everyone headed home. Ramona and Rick drove me back to the festival hall in Lodi and stayed for a little bit to see if any of the vendors were still around. I walked to my car and headed home – in the dark. I got lost a couple of times, but realized my missteps right after I made them, so I was able to get back on track. I got home around 7:00 pm. Phew! A long day… but I really enjoyed seeing the eagles.