Tag Archives: River Otter

A Beaver and a Loon at Lake Solano Park, 03-16-19

The weather at Lake Solano Park was perfect for walking with my naturalist students; about 49° when we first got there, and then up to about 68° by the time we left. It was sunny, clear and bright outside. My coworker Bill and I took turns pointing things out to everyone, and one of the students, Charlie (who’s something of a plant expert) helped us identify plants.

CLICK HERE for an album of photos.

When I got to the park, Bill and some of the students were already there, and some of them had already spotted an otter in the water. What a great way to start their day! Other highlights during the outing included spotting a beaver in the lake (!) and a Common Loon (!!) which I had never seen there before. We at first thought the beaver was another otter, but it’s large size and big ears brought us to the conclusion of its true identity. It was moseying along in the water, and treaded water for a long time, so we were able to get some photos of it. ((I think I took about 500 photos of its head poking out of the water. Hah!)) Eventually, it made its way to the other side of the lake and disappeared into the shadows. We inferred it might have had a lodge over there although we couldn’t see one.

The loon was a big surprise. At first we were all looking at it, trying to wrap our heads around what we were seeing. Checking through a field guide, though, we were able to determine that it was a non-breeding Common Loon, most likely resting there during its migration through our region.

Deeper inspection of the skull and skeleton we’d found on Wednesday, seemed to indicate that they were from opossums, not dogs as we’d originally thought (based on the canine teeth). There were “too many” small teeth between the canines for the skulls to be from a dog, so opossum was the next best guess. I need to study skulls more deeply – especially the ones of the common animals around here.

I stupidly stepped into the ants’ nest near where we located the Giant Horsetail ferns again. I recognized the spot and tapped on the area with my foot to see if the ants were still there from Wednesday, but nothing emerged, so I thought it was safe to go in there… But as soon as my shadow passed over their nest, they came out in force again. I got bit a few time, but nothing bad. They weren’t Fire Ants; more like red Harvester Ants. But they were still angry about my trespass over their nest and practically “exploded” out of the ground to swarm all over me. The students helped to whack them off my clothes.

On another part of the trail, we came across a large colony of Velvety Tree Ants swarming over an old log. What alerted me to them was a White-Breasted Nuthatch that flitted down onto the log, snatched up an ant, and flew off, flitted down onto the log, snatched up an ant, and flew off several times in a row. Along the ridgeline of the log was a line of winged adults getting ready to take off to establish new colonies… and it was the big winged one the Nuthatch was after. Very cool.

On the lake were Bufflehead ducks mingling with Goldeneyes, and both Common and Hooded Mergansers (along with the egrets, some herons, and Canada Geese). On the shore were lines of turtles sunning themselves; both Red-Eared Slider Turtles and a few Pacific Pond Turtles. We also all got to watch a Belted Kingfisher on the other side of the lake, dive-bombing for fish in the water. Some of the students had never seen that before and were “wow-ing” at the speed of the little bird.

In the ponds, we found Water Boatmen, Mosquito Fish, Bullfrog tadpoles, and a Black-Fronted Forktail Damselfly that was “swimming” along the top of the water before it lighted on some algae to dry off. I’d never seen a winged damselfly swim before! So odd! I need to remember to bring my dip-net with me next time I go out there so I can scoop up some critters to photograph.

We walked for about 3 ½ hours, and all in all, I think I recorded over 60 different species (that we saw and/or heard). It was a good day.

Species List:

1. Acorn Woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorus,
2. American Kestrel, Falco sparverius,
3. American Robin, Turdus migratorius,
4. Arundo, Giant Reed, Arundo donax,
5. Audubon’s Warbler, Setophaga auduboni auduboni,
6. Beaver, American, Beaver, Castor canadensis,
7. Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon,
8. Bewick’s Wren, Thryomanes bewickii,
9. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans,
10. Black-Fronted Forktail Damselfly, Ischnura denticollis,
11. Brewer’s Blackbird, Euphagus cyanocephalus,
12. Bufflehead, Bucephala albeola,
13. Bullfrog, American Bullfrog, Lithobates catesbeianus,
14. Bushtit, Psaltriparus minimus,
15. California Manroot, Bigroot, Wild Cucumber, Marah fabaceus,
16. California Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica,
17. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis,
18. Cattail, Broadleaf Cattail, Typha latifolia,
19. Chickweed, Stellaria media,
20. Cliff Swallow, Petrochelidon pyrrhonota,
21. Common Goldeneye, Bucephala clangula,
22. Common Loon, Gavia immer,
23. Common Merganser, Mergus merganser,
24. Double-Crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auratus,
25. Fresh Water Snail, Fluminicola sp.,
26. Galium, Bredstraw, Velcro-Grass, Sticky Willy, Cleavers, Galium aparine,
27. Giant Horsetail Fern, Equisetum telmateia,
28. Giraffe’s Head Henbit, Lamium amplexicaule,
29. Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias,
30. Great Egret, Ardea alba,
31. Honey Fungus, Armillaria mellea,
32. Hooded Merganser, Lophodytes cucullatus,
33. Longstalk cranesbill, Geranium columbinum,
34. Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos,
35. Mistletoe, American Mistletoe, Big Leaf Mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpum,
36. Mosquito fish, Gambusia affinis,
37. Mugwort, California Mugwort, Artemisia douglasiana,
38. Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos,
39. Pacific Pond Turtle, Western Pond Turtle, Actinemys marmorata,
40. Peafowl, Indian Peafowl, Pavo cristatus,
41. Phainopepla, Phainopepla nitens,
42. Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly, Battus philenor hirsuta
43. Pipevine, California Pipevine, Dutchman’s Pipe, Aristolochia californica
44. Red Harvester Ant, Pogonomyrmex barbatus,
45. Red-Eared Slider Turtle, Trachemys scripta elegans,
46. Red-Shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus,
47. Red-Tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis,
48. Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus,
49. River Otter, North American River Otter, Lontra canadensis,
50. Snowy Egret, Egretta thula,
51. Speedwell, Veronica arvensis,
52. Spotted Towhee, Pipilo maculatus,
53. Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor,
54. Tule, Schoenoplectus acutus,
55. Valley Oak, Quercus lobata,
56. Velvety Tree ant, Liometopum occidentale,
57. Water Boatmen, Corixidae (family),
58. Western Bluebird, Sialia mexicana,
59. Western Screech Owl, Megascops kennicottii,
60. White Alder, Alnus rhombifolia,
61. White-Breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis,
62. Yellow-Headed Blackbird, Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus,

CalNat Field Trip #2, Lake Solano Park. 03-03-18

I led a California Naturalists field trip to Lake Solano Park today. The first thing we saw when we entered the park were two peacocks roosting high in a tree over our heads… and a male Phainopepla that was looking for mistletoe berries to eat.

It was originally the idea that half of the group would go in one direction and the other half of the group would go in another – so we could cover the whole park — but all of the students wanted to come with me, so we moved in one big group.

The walk was a productive one, however: we got to show students different kinds of plants including flowering Pipevine, Manroot vines with seed-pods forming on them already, and Northern Giant Horsetail (Equisetum telmateia braunii ), a subspecies of horsetail that grows in western North America. Although commonly referred to as “Horsetail Grass” it’s actually a kind of fern that grown simultaneously in fertile and non-fertile forms. We saw both the non-fertile green stems (that are photosynthetic), and the yellowish fertile spore-bearing stems in the same area. The spore-bearing stems die as soon as their spores are released, so there were a lot of them around looking like they’d “fainted”. Although the normal mature size of these ferns is about 4-5 feet tall, they can get as tall as 7 feet high. (So the ones we saw were just “babies”.) In another month or so, they’ll come up to my chest. (Both the infertile forms and the fertile forms grown from the same rhizomes of the same plant – so one feeds the overall fern while the other tends to reproduction.)

There were also plenty of waterfowl to see including Canada Geese, Double-Crested Cormorants, Common Goldeneyes, Mallards, American Wigeons, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons (which seemed to be almost everywhere we looked), and a Green Heron.

When one student took a close-up photo of a sprout of mistletoe, she realized there was a bug on it and asked me if I could identify it for her. I’d never seen anything like it before. It looked like a scale bug, but I wasn’t positive, so I took a bunch of close-ups of it and then researched it after I got home. It was Icerya purchasi — (my brain first saw that as “Ikea Purchases”; hah!) — and it’s common name is Cottony Cushion Scale. It’s considered a pest species and usually attacks citrus trees, but it’s known to parasitize mistletoe. So the parasitic mistletoe has a parasite of its own. The one we saw was in the medium stage of its development, before it gets its big white cushiony behind.

We also saw a family of about 5 river otters in Putah Creek, but they were too far away (along the distant shore) for me to get any good photos of video of them. Another hard-to-photograph find was a male Belted Kingfisher that kept flying back and forth on the opposite side of the river. “See that white dot on the tree over there? That’s his breast.” Hah!

The find that all of the students really enjoyed was being able to spot the tiny Western Screech Owl, who was sleeping in the same tree I’d seen him in before. His tree is behind one of the most remote restrooms in the park, so I had the students follow me around the building, then file in behind me at the adjacent picnic tables, before I showed them where the owl was. I used a laser pointer to help them pinpoint his location. It was gratifying to hear all of the ooo’s and ahhhs, and the clicking of camera shutters once they spotted him. If nothing else, I’d been able to give them the treat of seeing something they’d never seen in the wild before. And some of the students didn’t even know the park was there, so it was nice surprise to them, too.

Along the walk (and we only covered half of the park in 4 hours!), I also pointed out stuff like Turkey Tail fungus, Black Jelly Roll fungus, different kinds of lichen, and some Barometer Earthstars. They’d never seen anything like that before, so I demonstrated for them how the spores are released from the puffer-belly in the center of the fungus – and one of the students took a video of that.

It’s hard for me to lead a walk, point out and hold specimens, AND take photos of my own, so I didn’t get as many pictures as the students themselves did. I told them they have to share them with me!!

On the way back to the parking lot, where folks gathered to share to lunches and decompress, my coworker Bill spotted some scat along the shore. So I put on a nitrile glove and picked some of it up. We concluded it was probably otter scat, considering all of the crayfish parts we found in it – including an intact, undigested antenna. I told the students Bill was “great at finding all sorts of crap”, and everyone laughed, including Bill.

While we were having our lunches, too, someone noticed an aggregate of Western Boxelder Bugs so I was able to give them a mini lesson on those. Some of the bugs were having sex, so the mass kind of looked like an orgy, but most of the bugs were just huddled together to keep themselves warm. (By that time of the day it was about 46º and the rain was just starting.) The species we see here in California is Boisea rubrolineata. Their host trees are ash, maple, Goldenrain trees, and soapberry; and they usually eat nothing but the seeds.

We all left the park around 12:30 pm, and headed back home. I took the long way around, going back to Woodland and then on to Sacramento, so the drive took me over an hour… but it was neat to see all of the sofa clouds and the storm squall starting to move in and cover the valley.

Bitterns and Otters Made My #OptOutside Day, 11-24-17

I got up with the dog around 5:30 am and we immediately headed out to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.  This is #OptOutside day; rather than doing Black Friday shopping, I’m spending the day outdoors. It was around 50º when we left the house and 61º when we got back home in the afternoon.

It was super-foggy on the way to the refuge, and the fog lingered to some extent for most of the day… which made photo-taking a challenge at times. There were a lot of the usual suspects at the Sacramento refuge: Killdeer, Golden-Crowned Sparrows, White-Crowned Sparrows, Turkey Vultures, House Sparrows, a Peregrine Falcon, Northern Shovelers, Greater White-Fronted Geese, Gadwalls, Northern Pintails, Mallards, Western Meadowlarks, Northern Harriers, Red-Winged Blackbirds, American Coots, Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese, Black Phoebes, Red-Tailed Hawks, Great Egrets… There were two standouts for the day though, and they were within a few feet of one another.

I stopped at a spot where two sloughs intersect, near the gate for the extended loop section of the auto tour route. I found an American Bittern in one of the sloughs, treading on the aquatic vegetation, looking for fish and crayfish. As I was photographing it and taking some videos, I could hear something gurgling in the water to my right. I looked over and could see the vegetation moving; something was underneath it. I focused the camera on that spot and saw a River Otter poke its head up to look around!  It ignored the Bittern – who in turn ignored the otter – and ducked back under the plants again.  A few seconds later, two otter heads popped up… and then three!

The otters all swam down the slough and climbed up onto the side of it. And then a fourth otter appeared! A whole family. They posed on the bank for a little while, and then disappeared into another section of wetland.  I looked back behind me, and the Bittern was still there, fishing away. It was completely oblivious to the otters. Hah!  I saw another Bittern further along the auto-tour route, in among the tules, but didn’t see the otters again.

CLICK HERE for the album of photos and video snippets.

I finished the route early (around 10 o’clock), so I decided to go over to the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge to check things out there. That refuge is much smaller than the Sacramento one, and usually not as interesting, but there are some birds that I see there that I don’t see at the Sacramento refuge (like Wigeons and Gallinules). The Colusa refuge isn’t full of water yet, and there weren’t many birds at the viewing platform there, so it wasn’t as “fun” a diversion as the Sacramento refuge was. I was through the Colusa refuge within about 90 minutes, and headed straight home from there.

A Thanksgiving River Otter, 11-23-17

Around 7:00 am I headed out to the Cosumnes River Preserve for a walk. It was super foggy all the way to the preserve. In some places, the fog was so thick I could only see a car length or two in front of me. When I got to the preserve, the fog had lifted up a little bit, but was still hovering near the ground.  I wasn’t expecting to see a lot in this kind of weather. The dark skies fool the birds into thinking it’s earlier in the day than it really is, so they sleep in a little bit. One good thing about fog, though, is that is sometimes clings to the spiders’ webs, and you can get some interesting shot of those (if the light hits them just right.)

CLICK HERE for the album of photos and video snippets.

I drove down Bruceville Road before going to the preserve’s boardwalk parking lot to see if there was anything interesting out there. I stopped at one place to get web photos and came across a very-late-in-the-season praying mantis, a pregnant female who was probably looking for somewhere to lay her eggs.  It was chilly and wet out there, around 49º, so she didn’t really want to move to do anything, but she posed for me for a little while and climbed up onto the sleeve of my jacket (mostly for the warmth, I think.)

At the preserve itself, there wasn’t a whole lot to see: mostly the little shorebirds and some Northern Pintails and Green-Winged Teals. There were quite a few American Pipits and lots and lots of sparrows.  I walked the length of the boardwalk and back and then decided to walk up the road a bit to see if there was anything interesting along the sloughs that run parallel to the road. There were two guys fishing in one of the ponds near the parking lot (which I think is illegal) and I saw something in the water across from them. At first I thought maybe they had snagged their lines on some crud on the bottom of the pond and were dragging it through the water.  But when I looked back at their fishing poles, I could see that the lines were “soft” and they had bobbers floating on the surface.  So, I looked at the disturbance in the water again, and saw what I thought might have been a snout poking up… But it was gone again before I could see for certain.  Then it reappeared further down the length of the pond and into the spot where the pond narrowed into the slough. So I figured since I was walking that way anyway, I’d try to keep an eye out for whatever it was.

After walking about 20 feet, I saw something dark on the opposite side of the slough, so I moved slowly and quietly between the oak trees on my side to see if I could get a better look at whatever it was. And…

SCORE!

It was a river otter!

It was grooming itself and rolling in a patch of high grass it had squished down. It stayed there for about 5 minutes which allowed me to get lots of photos and some video snippets of it before it went back in the water again.  Coolness! That made my morning! …And no one else saw it but me, so I feel kind of “privileged”.

I walked around a bit more, and then drove the loop around Bruceville Road once more before heading home. On Bruceville, I saw a pair of Sandhill Cranes grazing in the short grass and got some video of them before leaving the area and getting back on the freeway.  Altogether, I was at and around the preserve for about 2½ hours.

It was Hit and Miss at the Refuges on Saturday

I was going to sleep in today, but the dogs got me up a little before 5:00 am, and then I couldn’t get back to sleep. So, I just got up and headed over to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge for the day.

When I drove into the refuge I saw a Turkey Vulture sitting on the edge of the sign at the mouth of the auto-tour. It let me walk up pretty close to get photos of it before it flew away. I think those are the coolest birds… I heard some Bitterns “pumper-lunking” but only saw a few in flight, and didn’t get any photos. The bullfrogs were doing their ninja thing, too: I could hear their deep cello-calls, but couldn’t see or photograph any of them…

Click here for the full album of photos and videos.

I did get some good photos of Clark’s Grebes and a few other birds, though.

There was a male Great Tailed Grackle in the tules around the permanent wetlands that was performing for the females. He went through a variety of different calls including its high-pitched “peep”, deep-throated “clap!” and loud echoing “yeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!” I got some video of him, but was interrupted a few times by other drivers along the trail who crept or rushed past my car. One lady parked right next to my car and yelled through the open window, “Did you see the owl?!” Uh, yes… but I’m trying to film a grackle right now… Guh!

I also came across a family group of otters, a mom and dad and two babies. They were one of the permanent ponds but moved so quickly, it was really difficult to get any clear shots of them. I did manage to get a little bit of video, though… until dad saw me, snorted loudly and turned his family around.

When I was done at the Sacramento refuge, I headed over to the Colusa one. I hadn’t been there in quite a while because they took the brunt of the flooding earlier in the year, and were closed to the public for months. It was kind of a waste to go there today, though, because now they’ve drained off a lot of the water (so the surrounding rice fields can have it), and most of it is just a big dirt hole with flowers growing here and there.

One pond was filled with dead carp – stinking bodies everywhere – and others that were slowly dying as the pond evaporates. The carp come up with the flood waters, and when the flood recedes, they get caught in-land and can’t get out. I was surprised that the refuge allows them to suffer slow deaths like that; surely there must be some way to collect them and relocate them.

Where there were spots in the refuge that still had water in them, the water was shallow, and the banks were overrun with water primrose… One interesting thing, though, was that in some of the waterless ponds there were crayfish chimneys, structures the crayfish make by piling up little balls of mud. The bottom of the chimney opens into water (when there is water), and the top opens to the air. They use them to hide in when they’re breeding and getting ready to lay their eggs…

My visit to the Colusa refuge was also kind of ruined because there was a biplane from one of the neighboring rice fields flying around. He’d circle over the refuge, fly down really low, and dump seeds and pesticides on the fields next door. The noise was horrible… You can’t “relax and enjoy nature” when there’s some guy buzz-bombing the place every few minutes. It was ugly… I won’t need to go back there at all for the rest of the year…

The Universe Played Keep-Away, But I Still Got Photos, 05-12-17

DAY 7 OF MY VACATION. I go up around 5:00 this morning and headed out to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge again.  It was another beautiful day as far as the weather went: 48º when I headed out; 73º by the late afternoon with a slight breeze all day.

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

I got to the refuge around 7:30 am… and it was a kind of frustrating, disappointing day.  It was like the Universe was playing “keep away” all the while I was out there.  You know, that horrible “game” wherein someone takes your hat, dangles it out in front of you, and then snatches it away just as you reach for it.  It was like that.  Oooo, there’s an otter in the water… but as soon as I trained my camera on it, it was gone.  Oooo, there are two Bitterns… but they’re in the tall grass and the camera refuses to focus on them.  Oooo, there’s a Yellow-Headed blackbird… and it flies away.  Oooo, there’s a Bullock;s Oriole… and won’t sit still. Oooo, listen! You can hear the calls of a Great-Tailed Grackle… but it never comes out where you can see it long enough to get a photo…  Even the ground squirrels wouldn’t pose for me.

Guh! It was like that ALL DAY.  It seemed like I was “fighting” with nature and the camera every minute.  It was the most unproductive photo day I’ve ever had out on the refuge.  So frustrating.  I was getting more and more pissed off as the day went on… And, of course, that kind of negativity broadcasts out, and then none of the critters want to come anywhere near you… *Sigh*

There were a couple of “yay” moments, however.  I was hoping to see at least one White-Striped Sphinx Moth flitting around the blooming thistles and teasel; it’s the right time of the year for them to wake up and start flying. Well, as soon as the sun started warming up the air, I saw about a dozen of them at different points along the auto tour; sometimes two or three at a time.  That was cool!

And on my way out of the refuge, I came across a Black-Crowned Night Heron fishing in a slough… and he was close enough and cooperative enough that I was able to get photos and video of him… While I was filming him, a pair of American Bitterns landed onto the side of the slough: one with its white shoulder feathers extended.  They lighted on the ground for a moment and then took off again… That white-shoulder display is part of their courtship ritual, but they went by so fast, I only barely got a few frames of the male’s display (and no images of the female).  At another spot, I also saw a male Common Gallinule fan his tail for a female… So, the day wasn’t a total waste.

Oh, and the little Killdeer I saw the last time I was there who had built her nest close to the road on the auto-tour route, was still there. And she had 4 eggs now instead of the two I saw the last time.  So, that was nice.