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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

Mostly Pheasants and Marsh Wrens, 03-21-19

I got up a little before 6:00 am and headed out with the dog to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.  I hadn’t been out there in a few months, so I was anxious to see what it was looking like.  I arrived there around 8:00 am and it was about 44° outside; when I left around noon, it was about to about 63°.  For the first half of my drive, the full moon was out, and all I could think was: I bet the Tiger Salamanders in Dunnigan are up and running around.  Hah!  Too much of a naturalist.

There “wasn’t much” to see at the preserve. Most of the large flocks of birds have moved on, and the summering birds haven’t arrived yet. What there was to see was mostly Ring-Necked Pheasants and Marsh Wrens… But there were other species as well, most of them too far away to get a decent photo of them. So, the day was a little frustrating for me. I did get to see some Black Phoebes building their nests under an overhang on the sign at the first park-and-stretch site, a pair of male pheasants squaring off against one another (although they were more interested in breakfast than in fighting), and a Great Egret fishing for crawdads in one of the sloughs.  One of the male Ring-Necked Pheasants jumped up onto a fallen log and “crowed”, then jumped back down and walked along the edge of a shallow levy to show off in the morning sun. He was unusually cooperative, so I got quite a few photos of him.  I saw a few Red-Tailed Hawks and some Northern Harriers (in flight); no eagles out today.

CLICK HERE for the album of photos.

Not a lot of wildflowers are out yet; it’s been too chilly for them. But I did see some Fiddleneck, and the pink Squirreltail Barley was all over the place.

I saw a small herd of deer cutting across one part of the wetlands, and one of the does looked VERY pregnant. Her belly was almost halfway down to her “knees”.

The Pool 2 Extension Loop was open, which was a nice surprise.  They’ve “manicured” some of the banks of the pool, though, knocking down and bending over some of the tules – which gives you a better view of the water, but means there are fewer hiding places for the birds (like the Bitterns), so you don’t get to see them. Can’t win.

The one thing that was out in abundance was the midges; they were everywhere, some of them in deep warming balls. Lots of food for the insectivores!

I drove around the auto tour route for about 4 hours and then headed home, getting there around 1:30 pm or 2:00.

Species List:

1. American Coot, Fulica americana
2. American Pipit, Anthus rubescens
3. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans
4. Black-Necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus
5. Black-tailed Jackrabbit, Lepus californicus
6. Brown-Headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater
7. Bufflehead, Bucephala albeola
8. Bullfrog, American Bullfrog, Lithobates catesbeianus
9. California Ground Squirrel, Otospermophilus beecheyi
10. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis
11. Cattail, Broadleaf Cattail, Typha latifolia
12. Cinnamon Teal, Anas cyanoptera
13. Columbian Black-Tailed Deer, Mule Deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus
14. Crayfish, Crawfish, Crawdad, Red Swamp Crayfish, Procambarus clarkii
15. Double-Crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus
16. Fiddleneck, Common Fiddleneck, Amsinckia intermedia
17. Great Egret, Ardea alba
18. Greater White-Fronted Goose, Anser albifrons
19. Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca
20. Green-Winged Teal, Anas carolinensis
21. House Sparrow, Passer domesticus
22. Killdeer, Charadrius vociferus
23. Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus
24. Marsh Wren, Cistothorus palustris
25. Meadowlark, Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta
26. Midge, Tanytarsus sp.
27. Northern Harrier, Circus cyaneus
28. Northern Shoveler, Anas clypeata
29. Pied-Billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps
30. Pink Barley, Squirreltail Barley, Foxtail, Hordeum jubatum ssp.
31. Red-Eared Slider Turtle, Trachemys scripta elegans
32. Red-Tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis
33. Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus
34. Ring-Necked Duck, Aythya collaris
35. Ring-Necked Pheasant, Phasianus colchicus
36. Ruddy Duck, Oxyura jamaicensis
37. Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis
38. Snowy Egret, Egretta thula
39. Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia
40. Teasel, Wild Teasel, Dipsacus fullonum
41. Tule, Schoenoplectus acutus var. occidentalis
42. Western Kingbird, Tyrannus verticalis
43. Western Pond Turtle, Pacific Pond Turtle, Actinemys marmorata
44. White-Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys
45. White-Faced Ibis, Plegadis chihi

Mostly Butterflies at the Refuge, 06-07-18

I headed out to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge to check out the insects there before it got too hot this month. I want to take the Summer naturalist class out there next year. I was hoping to see a lot of dragonflies, but without the large pond, there were only a handful out flitting around. Next year, the pond should be refilled so with a bit of luck the insect populations should be better then.

This year, I’m hoping the other wetland areas will churn out more dragonflies and damselflies later in the season. I did get to see quite a few butterfly species, though.

CLICK HERE to see the album of photos.

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.

Escaping from the Zantis at the Sacto Refuge, 04-03-18

The dog and I got up at 6:30 am and headed out to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge to get a nature fix and to escape the “Zantis” (termite inspectors) coming to the house today.  It was 49º when I left the house, and got up to 80º by the late afternoon.  It’s too early in the year for 80-degree-weather!

CLICK HERE to see the album of photos and video snippets.

On the way to the refuge, along the highway, I saw the carcasses of a red fox (!) and a raccoon. I always kind of punch myself when I see road kill. I have permits to pick up the carcasses if I want to so I can use them for the naturalist class – but I always forget to bring a copy of the permits with me. D’oh! The skulls would have been awesome…

At the preserve, I got to see a raccoon (stepping gingerly through the low water) but no foxes. I think the last time I saw a live fox was at the Shasta house. I HEARD some at Lake Berryessa last year, but I didn’t see them…

When I first drove into the preserve, before I even got to the kiosk, I saw a group of Turkey Vultures sitting on the railroad tracks. I couldn’t see if they’d found something to eat or not, but they all took off as soon as they realized I’d stopped to photograph them.  I came across another pair of Turkey Vultures further along the auto tour route. They were sitting near the ground on a stump, but once again, as soon as I approached to take photos, they took off.  What was really freaky was that a few seconds after the vultures left and Red-Tailed Hawk burst out through the tall greenery around the stump! The only thing I can think of was that the hawks chased something down and killed it, and when the vultures moved in to try to steal the meal, the hawk pushed it further into the shrubbery…

Along the auto tour route, I could hear the “pumper-lunk” call of Bitterns, but wasn’t able to see any of them. I could also hear  Great Tailed grackle singing his variety of songs, and looked all over for him. I finally found him in a tree, and got some video of him, but he was obscured by branches. So you can see him very well, but you CAN hear him.