Tag Archives: vernal pools

Too Windy at the Refuge, Again? 05-07-17

Day 2 of my vacation. I got up around 5:30 this morning so I could head out before 6:00 to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.  Although the temperatures were great all day (about 56º when I headed out, and about 72º when I headed back home), it was SUPER windy at the refuge.  Wind gusts were so hard that at one point, when I got out of the car at a park-and-stretch area, the wind knocked me over into the side of the car.  I bet I’ll be black and blue tomorrow!  When the wind is fierce, you don’t see many birds because they don’t want to have to expend energy flying against it and they don’t like getting knocked around on the ground… So I wasn’t expecting to get many good photos today.  I was happy, then, when I actually got a few.

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

At one point, I came across a spot where three mule deer were grazing: two very pregnant females – I think it was a mom and her daughter — and a young male in his velvet.  To get pictures of them, I had to roll the window up part way and balance the camera on it so the wind wouldn’t blow the camera out of my hand.

…As I was driving along, very slowly, keeping an eye out for Bitterns (which I didn’t see all day), I was surprised to see a raccoon in the tules, keeping its eye on me. I came to a stop and took a few photos and a video snippet of it before it turned away and headed back to the water.

…I came across two crèches of Canada Geese: large groups of goslings being cared for by several adults.  One group with about 11 goslings was in the water, but had the babies buoyed up on rafts of aquatic plants to keep them safe against the “waves” kicked up by the wind.  They only moved out into the water when they figured I had watched them for too long and wanted to get further away from me.  Another group with about 28 goslings was out on a flatland area where the parents didn’t have to worry about the kids getting exhausted in the water and overwhelmed by the wind and waves. Birds are smarter than we think sometimes… I also found a mama duck with her six ducklings and a Killdeer nest with 2 eggs in it. Babies everywhere,

… And I also got to see an Avocet and a Great Egret catch and eat crayfish for lunch.  So the photo excursion was better than I thought it would be.

Too Windy at the Refuge, 04-28-17

I’d gotten the okay from my boss to work from home of Friday.  I checked in with office stuff on-and-off via cellphone and email  in the morning, and then did some more work from home in the afternoon, but spent several hours in between driving around the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.  It was way too windy there, so I didn’t get to see a lot of stuff, but it was still nice to get outside and into the fresh air.

CLICK HERE for an album of photos and videos.

Because the wind was blowing so hard, my subjects kept moving which made focusing on anything difficult, and at other times, the wind would latterly knock my camera to the side or back into my face, which also hampered picture taking and videoing.  So, I didn’t get as many choice photos as I would have liked.

I did see, in the distance a mama Mallard and what looked like 13 ducklings… It was hard to count them because they kept moving around…

For a minute, I saw a Red-Tailed Hawk in a tree. It’s crop was so full it looked like it had swallowed a tennis ball.  I think it was hoping to just rest in the top of the tree and digest its meal, but a pair of Kingbirds wanted that tree to nest in, and they mobbed the hawk until it flew off…

I also got to see a pair of American Bitterns. They had come out to the edge of the auto-tour road to challenge one another.  Both were doing their “pumper-lunk” calls, but by the time I got the car stopped and my camera primed, they were quiet… and one of them walked off into the tules where I could barely see him.  (Sometimes yet get the pictures; sometimes you don’t.)

Later in the tour I came across a roadkill, which is kind of unusual on the auto tour route because most cars are usually going less than 5 miles per hour. This was a full hit-the-critter-and-roll-it-inside-out kind of roadkill.  By the looks of the tail and the clawed back foot, I’m assuming it had been a muskrat. I wanted to take parts of it home with me – but I don’t have my collections permit yet, and besides you’re not allowed to get out of your car on the tour. Dangit!

A little further up the route, I came across a pair of Black Tailed Mule Deer sitting in a dry culvert, sunning themselves out of the wind.  One was a young male with black “nubbies” where is antlers will come in over the summer; the other was a female. They both lifted their heads to look at me, but didn’t get up.  They were comfortable where they were.

I’m used to seeing all of the Marsh Wren nests in tules, but today I saw a few that were really quite interesting in their construction. One seemed to complete with a grassy ‘handle” on top.  I’d love to be able to just camp out along a stretch of tules at the refuge and film the construction process… and try to figure out what attracts the females to a particular nest when there are so many options available to them.


American Bitterns Pumper-Lunking on Sunday

I was up at 6:00 am and out the door before 6:30.  It was my original intention to do some more wildflower hunting, but on the way to Highway 20 I got lost in my thoughts and missed the turn off (D’oh!), so I continued up the highway to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge and spent the morning there instead.  The weather was lovely (mostly sunny; 51º when I got there, 70º by the time I left).

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

We’re right at the beginning of the breeding season, so lots of bird are starting to pair up, build nests, and claim territory.  I saw a lot of Great-Tailed Grackles flying overhead (and some American White Pelicans, too), and although I could hear the grackles occasionally singing their broad range of odd songs, I didn’t see any of them on or near the ground so I didn’t get any photos of them. I also saw a young garter snake and a green-tinted Western Racer snake, but they moved too fast for me. By the time I got my camera focus on them, they were gone into the brush.  I’d never seen a Western Racer before, so that was neat to see one for the first time.  When I initially saw it, I thought it was a tule on the auto-tour route… but then it moved.

A lot of the wildflowers and vernal pool flowers at the refuge were in bloom, so in area the ground was a patchwork of yellow Goldfields, orange Fiddleneck, white Popcorn Flowers and purple Dowingia… so pretty. There’s also wild mustard and Poison Hemlock, Blessed Milk Thistle, Italian Thistle, and Teasel blooming everywhere – just in time for the pollinators to wake up.

I saw only a few dragonflies, but it’s still early in the season for them. The Painted Lady and West Coast Lady butterflies on the other hand were everywhere. I bet I saw 20 of them just around the permanent wetland area.

There were jackrabbits and Cottontails bounding all over the place, and I got a few good shots of some California Ground Squirrels.

I didn’t see many babies today, just a pair of Canada Geese with their little troop of goslings, but it’s still early in the season.

The highlight of the day was seeing an American Bittern in the tall grass “booming”.  I don’t know why it’s called “booming” because the call has its own name but… whatever.  To stake out their territory, the Bitterns give out a loud complex call called the “pumper-lunk” call.  The bird claps its bill several time, sucking air into its esophagus, and then expels the air by compressing its neck – making a loud burbling sound, sort of like a melodious burp.  The one I was watching did his call five times, and I was able to get video of two of the calls.  Made. My. Day.  Here’s one of the videos of it: https://youtu.be/cg0HDZ2lhbw.

The odd moment of the day came when I saw something with long brown, black and white fur moving through the long grass.  I could see that it was moving nose-down along the ground, but because the critter never lifted its head, I couldn’t tell what it was.  I was thinking it was probably a Striped Skunk, but the brown shades were throwing me off… then I was thinking badger (but the fur was too long)… or maybe even porcupine (but they’re usually much larger, and the video proved that I was seeing fur and not quills)… So I’m settling on skunk, but I’m still not certain.

In another “what is that?” moment, I saw the dorsal fin and tail fin of a Northern Pike in one of the slews.  I know I’ve said it before, but those guys are brutal; they’ll eat anything.  They come up into the sloughs when the area gets flooded, then when the water recedes again, they get trapped.  They’re fast and powerful, though… and can move even in shallow water, so once they’re in the sloughs they prey on everything, including birds…

On the viewing platform, I came across a pair of Western Fence Lizards, that were challenging each other: doing pushups, body slamming one another, staring each other down.  I got some of the interaction on video.  The two males were very mature – showing off why they’re also called “Blue Bellies” – and had lots and lots of blue on their bodies, even along the back and on the head.  I’ve never ones that were this colorful before.  When the winner of the contest was done with his rival (who ran off) he decided that my blue-green walking shoes were an enemy, too, so he ran up as close to me as he dared and started doing pushups again.  Hah!  I let him win and walked away – after I got some video and photos of him.  In the same area, I found a melanistic Western Fence Lizard, a dark pitchy-gray one sitting on a branch sunning himself.  He was such a contrast to the brightly colored one, I had to get his photo, too.

I’m usually not too thrilled about seeing Black Phoebes, mostly because they’re so ubiquitous around here, but I caught sight of one carrying grass for its nest.  It perched on a limb of a tree and sat there for a while, letting me get some pretty good photos of it.  And the Kingbirds were out in force. I got some good shots of them, too.

Another good bird-moment was when I saw some American Coots playing “keep-away” with a crawfish.  One has caught it and was trying to eat it when a second Coot rushed up and grabbed it.  Coot #2 swam off with its prize, but as soon as it stopped to eat, Coot #3 rushed up and took it… When it comes to lunch, these guys aren’t polite.  Hah!

I stayed at the refuge for about 4 hours and then headed back home to crash with the dogs… So I didn’t see much in the way of wildflowers, today, but it was still a nice day out in nature…

My First Trip to the Bufferlands

I really wanted to just sleep in all day today, but I also wanted to go on a “birds and buds” tour at the Bufferlands wildlife area because I’d never been there before.  So I dragged my carcass out of bed by 7:00 am, and was off to the site by 8:00.  It’s actually very close to the house; only about 20 minutes.  The area is a wetland area, grassland area and riparian forest that was created by the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District as “mitigation” for the land they took over when they built their enormous water reclamation and waste station out there.  The Bufferlands are the wide expanses of land that surround the plant to separate it from the local residential areas.  The tour I went on was just around a part of the grasslands and near the edge of the wetlands.  There weren’t a whole lot of blossoms out there because there hadn’t been enough rain to fill all the vernal pools on the property.  When the pools are full, flowers bloom all around and across the bottom of them.  Today there were patches of flowers, but no great expanses of them.  Still, it was interesting to see the layout of the place, and watch the birds out there.

The tour was lead by a guy named Roger.  He had a lot of great stories to tell including the year when he noticed that too many trees in the habitat were being felled by beaver.  He got permission to do catch-and-release work so he could see how many beaver were out there.  The 100 acres or so can only manage to safely hold about 18 to 20 beaver at a time… but he counted and tagged over 110 of them in one year.  The beavers were eating and destroying everything, so they had to get biologists and zookeepers and hunters and everyone out onto the property to get the population under control…  He said the beavers were relatively easy to catch and except for a few really angry ones, most of them were as docile as cats.  He could pick them up and hold them and pet them…

Not true of the otters he had to catch once, though, he said.  The otters were so vicious that they’d attack whatever human was nearest to them.  One time, he had someone video tape him releasing a captured otters back into the pond on the property after it had been health-checked and tagged.  When he opened the cage, the otter went straight for the camera man!  Hah!  They got more of an action video than they’d hoped for.

On another occasion he set up a night-vision camera to see what kind of other critters were roaming around the property and over a weekend he got footage of opossums, skunks, coyotes, foxes, turkeys, rabbits…  He even managed to get some footage of an opossum using a “tool”.  It could reach the part of its back it wanted to scratch so, with the camera watching, it picked up a stick and used that to scratch itself.  He said the footage went all over the world; animal behaviorists had never seen anything like that before…

Roger also told us that in the winter months the place is overrun with Starlings; millions of them.  So many, in fact, that every day he’d have to go out to where they roosted to clean up the hundred or so of them who died each week…  He said it was a ghastly mess, but he loved watching them fly in their “murmurations”…

We noticed there were bird boxes all over the place and he said they were necessary because there were so few trees around that could house the birds that only nest in holes.  The birds who weave nests or make them out of mud don’t need help, but Tree Swallows will only nest in holes… so he set up boxes all over the property to help house them… and we could see birds sitting on top of them or near them everywhere we looked.  There was also a huge owl box in one tree where, Roger said, there was a nesting pair of Barn Owls.  The owls generally had about 3 to 4 clutches of chicks each year.

We couldn’t see into the box to see the Barn Owls, but we did see Tree Swallows, Anna’s Hummingbirds, Robins, ducks, geese, Red-Winged Blackbirds, Red Headed Sapsuckers, a Kingfisher, egrets, a heron, a flock of American White Pelicans flying overhead (man, they’re BIG birds!), a kite dragging its prey into a tree, and a Great Horned Owl sitting up in its nest.  It was very ingenious and had hidden its nest on top of a pile of mistletoe in a tree.  If you looked up at it from the base of the tree, you couldn’t see the nest; but if you walked across the grassy area, and looked back at the tree, you could see the owl’s head peaking up over the top of the nest.  I even got to see my first Western Kingbird.

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We walked for about 2½ hours, and ended up back at the starting point, where he gave us packets of seeds he’d gathered from the native plants on the grasslands, and also gave us each a calendar with images of the critters on the property he’d taken himself.  Very cool.  Id’ love to out into the area again…