Saturday, January 16, 2021

An Open Slope


In the winter I often visit a big, open, grassy slope off of Highway 49, that drops down to the North Yuba River. It is one of my favorite places to observe nature. I never know what I might see! The open field attracts a variety of birds, insects, and a few mule deer. It's easier for predators to see prey here, and vice versa. Deer forage on the grasses. Raptors come here to hunt for rodents, reptiles, and other birds. Birds visit to eat seeds and insects. Insects enjoy the warmer temperatures of the sunny slope. I find it really rewarding to observe an area repeatedly. There's always something new happening, patterns emerge, and the "pulse" of the area becomes familiar. 

Non-biting Midges - Chironomidae Family

This week the Non-biting Midges were back!  I see them every year in the winter!  They looked like fountain spray on the tops of the scattered pine trees!  The shape changed continually while I watched for 10 minutes!  Such backlit beauty! 

Most midges are active from Spring through Fall, but some orders fly in the winter. Adult midges are known for their large mating swarms. Often, these cloud-like swarms congregate just above some tall object such as a bush, tree, hilltop, or over a pool, stream, or lake. How lucky I was to watch this incredible spectacle! 

Non-biting Midges - Chironomidae Family

Midges are often mistaken for mosquitoes due to their similar size and body shape. They lay their eggs in shallow waters. The eggs sink to the bottom. In a few days the larvae hatch out of the eggs and burrow into mud, or construct a small tube in which they live, feed and develop. The aquatic larvae feed on detritus in the water and are a great source of food for fish and aquatic insects. After 2-7 weeks, the larvae turn into pupae. The pupae then swim to the surface and the adults emerge from their pupal exuviae (cast off skin). Adults do not feed and spend their short, 3-5 day lives mating! 

So then I wondered what eats midges?  It seems like they'd be a good find for some hungry bird in the winter. It turns out American Dippers eat their larvae underwater.  What about in the air?  Several times in the past week I spent time watching the midges, but never saw a bird eat them. Of the birds that are here now in winter, I would guess that a Black Phoebe might eat them as they are insectivores.  I need to keep watching!

American Kestrel (male, juvenile) - Falco sparverius

Two days ago I was thrilled to see a juvenile male American Kestrel perched in the top of one of the pines on this open slope!  WOW!!!  I have never seen a Kestrel in our neighborhood before!  What a beautifully colored little falcon!  They are the smallest falcon in North America, measuring 9" in length, with a wingspan of 22", and a weight of 4.1oz.  Their diet consists primarily of insects and small rodents such as:  grasshoppers, beetles, dragonflies, scorpions, spiders, butterflies, moths, voles, mice, shrews, bats, snakes, lizards, frogs, and small songbirds!  Right now there aren't many insects around, so it was probably hunting for rodents in the field.

American Kestrel (male, juvenile) and Non-biting Midges
 Falco sparverius - Chironomidae Family

American Kestrels prefer to hunt in wide open, grassy fields.  Locally, open fields aren't that common, and are usually man made.  The majority of the land is covered in a dense, mixed-conifer forest. Typically, American Kestrels are found in lower elevations in the winter.  The currently mild winter may be the reason why this American Kestrel arrived in our area.  This one stayed around for about four days.  It was so fun to watch, and didn't seem to mind my presence.  I was, however, careful to not over-extend my welcome and limited my observation times to around 15 minutes.  I didn't want to interrupt his search for food. 

Red-tailed Hawk (adult) - Buteo jamaicensis

Two winters ago, an adult Red-tailed Hawk frequented this open slope.  I would often see it perched in the top of a pine tree, searching the slope for prey.  Red-tails are medium sized hawks, measuring 19" in length, with a wingspan of 49", and a weight of 2.4 lb. They are one of the mostly commonly seen raptors in North America, and are found from coast to coast in the U.S. and as far south as Venezuela.  If the winter is snow-free, they will live year-round in our neighborhood.  They like to perch in trees, or posts on the edges of clearings or meadows, and watch for prey. Ground squirrels, gophers, rabbits, mice, snakes, lizards, kestrels, and meadowlarks are their main prey. They use the perch-and-wait method of hunting. Once prey is sighted they will drop from their perch, flap-and-glide downward, thrust their legs forward when about 3 m from prey, and grab prey with feet. I'm so glad a Red-tailed Hawk didn't show up while the American Kestrel was here, even though two of them have been in the area the past few weeks!

Black Phoebe (adult) - Western Bluebird (male)
Sayornis nigricans - Sialia mexicana

Lately, every time I visit this open slope, I see a single Black Phoebe perched on its edge.  Black Phoebes are typically non-social and solitary, except during breeding season.  They are flycatchers, and feed by flying out from a perch and catching flying insects, or "hawking".  Their diet consists of variety of insects, spiders, small fish, as well as fruits and berries in winter.  Midges aren't listed in their diet of insects, but perhaps they do eat them!  They prefer to live near water.  They are year-round residents in our neighborhood, and do not migrate. 

In the past years, as well as a month or so ago, I've seen Western Bluebirds feeding in this open slope. In the winter they stay in small flocks. In the summer, Western Bluebirds are primarily insectivores. In winter they eat fruits and berries, such as juniper, poison oak, wild grapes, and elderberry. They also particularly love to eat mistletoe berries, and will sometimes sleep overnight in a clump of mistletoe to defend their find! They like to live on the edge of open areas, such as meadows or burned areas. They are short-distance migrants, and generally move down slope in winter. Males have brilliant plumage, and females are dully colored in comparison. They are SO beautiful with their brilliant powder-blue feathers!

Columbian Black-tailed deer (buck) - Odocoileus hemionus columbianus

I've seen several deer off the highway, by this open slope, in winter.  Usually when it's raining or drizzling.  Apparently, if rain is warm and not too heavy, deer will remain active. When a rainstorm is heavy and cold, they tend to seek shelter and bed down. But there are always exceptions! Nature is not that predictable. Rainy weather also has some advantages. Rain makes dry leaves limp and quieter to walk on, increasing the deer's ability to be stealthy. The increased moisture in the air also increases their sense of smell and hearing. A few years ago, this young buck, bounded across the damp field when it saw me. The size of its antlers indicated its young age. Male mule deer shed their antlers between January and March. Antler regrowth begins in April and extends through August. 

Columbian Black-tailed deer (does) - Odocoileus hemionus columbianus

I luckily saw this female deer and her two offspring several times this past month, just across the highway from the open slope!  The young are twins and almost full grown.  They will stay with their mother until next Spring or longer. Female deer often travel, throughout their life, in groups of females that are related through maternal descent. Right now, most females are traveling together in small groups, foraging on grasses and shrubs.  I've never seen this group in the field.  I does seem that they would be super obvious to a Mountain Lion out on that open slope!

Hygroscopic Earthstar - Insect-egg Slime
Astraeus hygrometricus - Leocarpus fragilis

I found these two interesting organisms on the open slope this week! The Earthstar was in among the dried grasses, and is a type of puffball mushroom. Spores are emitted through the hole in the central sphere. The Insect-egg Slime was growing on pine needles in the shade of a tree. I've only seen it once before, in a damp shady forest. iNaturalist.org identified it for me! It is not a fungus, or mold, it is a slime mold. The following information from https://herbarium.usu.edu/fun-with-fungi/slime-molds explains the difference.

"Defining Fungi and Slime

Slime molds may be slimy, but they are not molds. Molds are fungi. A century ago, fungi, were defined by what they did not have, or did not do:

- They did not move, like animals.
- They did not have the green pigment chlorophyll
- They were not as small as bacteria.

Today, organisms in the Kingdom Fungi are defined by:

- having chitin in their cell walls. 
- not being able to move during any stage of their life cycle
 - lacking chlorophyll
- being larger than bacteria.

Alive and Durable

Slime molds move, and lack chitin in their cell walls. They are now classified as belonging to the Kingdom Protista (Protoctista). 

Their ingestion of food is one reason slime molds are not considered to be fungi. Fungi produce enzymes that break down organic matter into chemicals that are absorbed through their cell walls, not ingested."

Common Goldeneyes on the surface, and underwater
Bucephala clangula

On the river below the open slope, I've often seen groups of Common Goldeneyes feeding in the winter. In California, Common Goldeneyes are the only ducks that regularly spend the winter on rivers and lakes above the foothills of the western Sierra. They are diving ducks and eat fish, aquatic vertebrates, seeds, and tubers. When diving, they keep their wings pressed to their sides underwater, and swim with their webbed feet! They will spend the rest of the winter here. In the spring they will leave for their northern breeding grounds in Alaska and Canada. The open slope is a great vantage point to watch them swim underwater!

Upper Sardine Lake - 1/10/21

Lakes Basin Update

Last week we hiked up to Upper Sardine Lake from Highway 49.  This time there was less snow on the ground, but we could see more snow at the higher elevations. It was a gray, overcast day, just great for photographing white snow!  It was lovely as always to be back up there!  


More Damp Earth Art!

Since the local rainfall total at this point is way below our normal amount, I am once again sending out a "Call for Art" in celebration of rain. My intention is to focus on the need for rain, and through collective positive energy invoke rain to fall. It is just a wish, a thought, and a hope. If you would like to submit some art, or writing, or a photo please email me at northyubanaturalist@gmail.com. Check out what's already been submitted at dampearthart.blogspot.com

You can view what was submitted last year at dampearth.blogspot.com.
I will be posting new art weekly. Check it out and pray for rain!


How is Project FeederWatch going?

How deep is the snow at Yuba Pass?

What's happening at the local ponds?

Check back next week for the answers to these questions and more!

Unfortunately you can no longer sign up to get my blog emailed to you.
Something changed at Blogspot.com. Oh well... However, my blog looks better if you just go to northyubanaturalist.blogspot.com, rather than get the emailed version. I suggest that you just bookmark my blog and visit it every Sunday afternoon!

Your questions and comments are greatly appreciated!
Please email me at northyubanaturalist@gmail.com.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Spore Bearing Plants in Winter


Spore bearing plants evolved a long time before seed-bearing plants, and have developed a variety of complex reproduction strategies. Each plant produces billions and billions of spores! However, less than 1% of these spores survive! This is mainly because the spores dry out before they get to a place that has the right conditions for them to germinate. If the billions of spores ALL germinated, the earth would be covered in spore-bearing plants!  Locally, there are several kinds of spore bearing plants that are currently thriving in the cool winter rains, including mushrooms, lichen, moss, and evergreen ferns. Unlike seed-bearing or flowering plants, these plants don't have flowers and don't need insects to pollinate them. Winter is the time for them to thrive as they all need rain for their spores to be produced. The more I read about them, the more complex they become! So bear with me, it's a lot of information! I find it super interesting, but I just read it to my husband and he dozed off! Not a good sign!

Questionable Strophuria - Strophuria ambigua

Mushrooms!

Due to the recent rain and slightly warmer temperatures, mushrooms (Basidiomycetes) have started popping up in our neighborhood. 
 This type of fungi is either parasitic, saprophytic, and/or mycorrhizal. 

Parasitic fungi feed on living organisms, usually trees. Saprophytic fungi live on dead organic matter, and break it down into simpler, reusable compounds. Mycorrhizal fungi are underground fungal filaments that connect with the roots of trees and form a mutual relationship between them. The tree benefits because the fungi filters out heavy metals and protects the tree from bacteria and detrimental fungi. In return, the fungi get sugars and carbohydrates from the host tree.


The main part of a mushroom is a web of fine white threads called mycelium, usually found underground.  The individual threads are called hyphae. This is the part of the mushroom that digests nutrients and can also create a mycorrhizal relationship with trees.  Additionally, when a male hyphae and a female hyphae meet underground, they fuse together and produce a mushroom.  Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of the mycelium. 


 To reproduce, mushrooms produce spores.  Basidia are the microscopic, club-shaped, spore-bearing structures in mushrooms.  There are three main structures in mushrooms that contain the basidia; gills, pores and teeth!  Most people are familiar with the gill structure pictured above left.  Pores are found on Bolete fungi and others, and are the small holes (actually tubes) on the smooth underside of the mushroom cap.  Teeth are found on Lion's Mane fungi as well as others, and look like tiny hanging icicles.  Thousands and thousands of basidia are arranged along the outside edges of the gills, the insides of the tubes that end in pores, and on the outside of the teeth!


A variety of critters are fungivores (eaters of fungi), such as the Northern Flying Squirrel, deer, mice, voles, squirrels, and even banana slugs!  I recommend that you DON'T eat them unless a mycologist has identified them for you.  Some of them can be deadly if you eat them.  I've only seen a couple dozen mushrooms so far, but I'm sure more will be popping up soon.  I'll keep you posted on what I find.

Crustose Lichen and dried Bracken Fern

Lichens!

Lichen (Ascomycetes), like moss, is a non-flowering plant, that has no roots or vascular system, has several methods of reproduction, and is dormant during the hot and dry summer. Lichen is a combination of a fungus and an algae or cyanobacteria, living together in a symbiotic relationship! The fungus cannot photosynthesize like moss, as it has no chlorophyll, but the algae can. The fungus forms the external shape, or thallus, of the lichen, and keeps the algae from drying out. It also supplies the algae with water and minerals that it absorbs from the atmosphere. In return, the fungus lives off the sugars produced by the photosynthesis of the algae! There are about 17,000 species of lichen worldwide!

There are three main forms that lichens are grouped in, crustose, fruticose, and foliose. Crustose lichens (above) grow on rocks and are more or less flat. They can come in a wide variety of colors including, apple green, rust, orange, yellow, black, white and gray. They are extremely slow-growing and long-lived! It's estimated that some of the crustose lichens found in the Arctic are approximately 8,600 years old!


Foliose lichen usually grows on tree bark or rocks, and is distinguished by its "leafy" appearance.  I think it looks like lettuce! 


The fruticose lichen usually grows on shrubs and trees.  It is multi-branched, and can be found growing either upright or hanging down.  Fruticose and foliose lichens are slow growing like crustose lichen, but may only be a few hundred or a thousand years old.


Like mosses, lichens reproduce in a variety of ways.  They can sexually reproduce with spores that are found on their apothecium (the brown shapes in the above photo).  However, these spores will only reproduce the fungus, not the algae.  This newly made fungus will have to somehow connect with the right algae to form a new lichen plant.  Lichen can also reproduce vegetatively from pieces of its thallus, through soredia (clusters of algae cells wrapped in fungal filaments), or through isidia (miniature lichens, including algal cells, that grow on the top of the thallus).

        Membranous Pelt Lichen - Peltigera membranacea  

The Membranous Pelt Lichen is leafy with BIG leaves, and seems to mainly grow in among mosses.  It's grayish, blue-green color indicates that it has mainly cyanobacteria in the leaves, rather than mostly algae.   Cyanobacteria can make amino acids from nitrogen gas absorbed from the air!    

Membranous Pelt Lichen apothecium and underside of leaf with rhizines
Peltigera membranacea   

The apothecium (spore-bearing structure) of the Membranous Pelt Lichen is somewhat cup-shaped, like most Ascomycetes or Cup Fungi.  On the underside of its leaves it has lots of spiky-looking rhizines, that help attach it to a substrate.   

Microscopic image of a Tardigrade
©https://cloudfront.net/images

As in mosses, Tardigrades/Water Bears/Moss Piglets inhabit lichens!  I discussed these fascinating creatures in my blog on "Moss in Winter", Nov. 21, 2020.  I have since looked for them in lichen and I FOUND SOME!  I also re-looked at moss and found some Tardigrades in them as well!!  WOW!  So cool to see, but WAY too tiny to photograph!  The best way to find them is to not initially focus too close with your microscope. Look at the water that was lightly squeezed from the moss or lichen, at the lowest power of your microscope.  Watch for movement.  Then power up to zoom in close on the movement!  When you are done observing them, make sure you return the lichen or moss, and tardigrades, back outside where you found them!

Haircap Moss - Polytrichum sp.

Mosses!

Mosses are also spore-bearing plants!  My blog on "Moss in Winter", Nov. 21, 2020 thoroughly discusses mosses and their multi-faceted existence!  Please check it out!  Featured in these photos is Haircap Moss and its sporophytes (spore-bearing structures). 

Haircap Moss sporophytes Polytrichum sp. 

Haircap Moss is the second most common moss in my neighborhood, 
Dendroalsia Moss (Dendroalsia abeitina) being the most common.

Imbricated Sword Ferns - Polystichum imbicans

Ferns!

Some ferns can survive the freezing temperatures of winter, and some can't.  Those that stay green, reduce the water and increase the sucrose in their cells. This acts like an anti-freeze and lowers the temperature at which water freezes, thus preventing the formation of ice crystals and subsequent damage to the plant cells.  This is the same winter strategy as moss, and evergreen trees/shrubs.   

Imbricated Sword Fern sori - young fern fronds
Polystichum imbicans

Ferns reproduce by producing spores.  Spores are encased in structures called sporangia, which sometimes clump together to form a sorus (plural sori).  Right now some of the ferns have sori and some don't.  

The life cycle of a fern is QUITE complex! The following information is from the website https://www.thoughtco.com/fern-life-cycle-4158558 .

"The fern life cycle requires two generations of plants to complete itself. This is called alternation of generations.

One generation is diploid, meaning it carries two identical sets of chromosomes in each cell or the full genetic complement (like a human cell). The leafy fern with spores is part of the diploid generation, called the sporophyte.

A fern's spores don't grow into a leafy sporophyte. They aren't like seeds of flowering plants. Instead, they produce a haploid generation. In a haploid plant, each cell contains one set of chromosomes or half the genetic complement (like a human sperm or egg cell). This version of the plant looks like a little heart-shaped plantlet. It is called the prothallus or gametophyte.  Within the gametophyte, sperm is produced within a structure called an antheridium. The egg is produced within a similar structure called an archegonium. (the same structures as in moss!)
When water is present, sperm use their flagella to swim to an egg and fertilize it. The fertilized egg remains attached to the prothallus. The egg grows into the diploid sporophyte, completing the life cycle."

Phew!  Now that was complex enough!


Weather Update!

We had some wet and windy days this week, with a total rainfall of 1.86"!!!
This week coming up is supposed to be sunny.  Hopefully more rain will come again soon!

Sierra Buttes from the Ramshorn Trail - 1/5/21

What's happening in the Lakes Basin?

What about those deer?

Are there any insects around?

Check back next week for the answers to these questions and more!

Unfortunately you can no longer sign up to get my blog emailed to you.
Something changed at Blogspot.com. Oh well... However, my blog looks better if you just go to northyubanaturalist.blogspot.com, rather than get the emailed version. I suggest that you just bookmark my blog and visit it every Sunday afternoon!

Your questions and comments are greatly appreciated!
Please email me at northyubanaturalist@gmail.com.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Local Raptors!

Northern Pygmy-Owl (adult Pacific) - Glaucidium gnoma

Oh WOW an OWL!!!  While walking in our neighborhood one afternoon last week, I spotted a small silhouetted bird with a broad, round head in a bare tree.  It's an OWL I thought!  A Northern Pygmy-Owl!  I tried getting closer but a Steller's Jay arrived and chased the owl away!  Rats!  I did get a few photos (see center photo below), but not that great.  The owl had been perched on the edge of a big open field near the cemetery.  I thought it might be visible from the cemetery, so I walked up there and hung out for about 15 minutes.  I saw quite a few Western Bluebirds but no owl.  I decided to head home, but just then out in a distant part of the field a commotion of bluebirds began.  They were all calling and flying around, and then one flew towards me.  I watched it fly overhead and land in a big cedar tree in the cemetery.  I zoomed in on it with my camera, and to my delight it was the Pygmy-Owl!!!  WOW!!!  It watched me for about a minute and then took off!  That was SO exciting!  They aren't commonly seen in my neighborhood.  The last one I saw was in February 2018!  I was so lucky to see one of these beautiful little owls again!

Northern Pygmy-Owls are little, about 6.75" long with a wingspan of 12".  Unlike most owls, Northern Pygmy-Owls are diurnal (active during the day). They prey on small birds and mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. They perch and drop down on their prey, and often take prey up to 3x their size! They rely on their vision for hunting, rather than sound, and lack the facial discs of nocturnal owls

The Cornell Lab states, "Small birds such as nuthatches, robins, crossbills, wrens, creepers, hummingbirds, blackbirds, warblers, and jays frequently mob Northern Pygmy-Owls as they do other raptors—this behavior seems particularly bold considering small birds are what pygmy-owls eat. Some people have suggested that the eyespots on the back of the Northern Pygmy-Owl’s neck help deter mobbing birds."
 
Pygmy-Owl (adult Pacific) - Glaucidium gnoma

Apparently Northern Pygmy-Owls live in our area year-round, but are uncommonly seen. Not a lot of information is available on their breeding, nesting, incubating, and hatching times, as they are difficult to find and observe! They are seasonally monogamous, and pairs are known to allopreen each other!!! They never excavate their own nesting cavities, but instead rely on cavities caused by rot or woodpeckers.

Red-tailed Hawk (juvenile) - Buteo jamaicensis

Two weeks ago I spotted this juvenile Red-tailed Hawk in a tree on the edge of the river.  I've seen it a few times since then, always perched high up in a tree. They like to perch in trees, or posts on the edges of clearings or meadows, and watch for prey. Ground squirrels, gophers, rabbits, mice, snakes, lizards, kestrels, and meadowlarks are their main prey. Once prey is sighted they will drop from their perch, flap-and-glide downward, then thrust their legs forward when about 9' from prey, and grab prey with feet. Birdsoftheworld.org states, "During the ensuing struggle, mammalian prey frequently bite the toes and legs of hawks (especially juveniles); many Red-tails bear scars of these encounters." 

Red-tailed Hawk (adult) - Buteo jamaicensis

Just a few days ago, an adult Red-tailed Hawk showed up in our neighborhood!  It was easily distinguished from the juvenile I have been seeing by its rust-colored tail feathers. If our area stays snow-free this winter, they might just stick around!

Red-tailed Hawks are large birds with a wingspan of 49", a length of 19", and a weight of 2.4lbs. They are one of the mostly commonly seen raptors in North America, and are found from coast to coast in the U.S. and as far south as Venezuela. 

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

On New Year's Day a Bald Eagle showed up! Wow!! It was perched in a tree on the edge of the river, looking for prey!  It's probably the one that I've seen infrequently this past month.  What a thrill it was to see this commanding, handsome eagle in our neighborhood!

Bald Eagles are LARGE birds, measuring 31" in height, with a wingspan of 80" (6.5 feet!)! Fish, waterfowl, and mammals are their main prey. Congress made the Bald Eagle our national emblem in 1782. However, within approximately 200 years, illegal shooting, habitat destruction, and poisoning from DDT brought the Bald Eagle to the brink of extinction. 

Strong endangered species and environmental protection laws, as well as active private, state and federal conservation efforts, have brought back the U.S.A.'s Bald Eagle population from the edge of extinction. The use of DDT pesticide is now outlawed in the U.S. The Bald Eagle is presently protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and the Lacey Act. It is listed as a "threatened" species in the lower 48 states."

Currently there are approximately 10,000 breeding pairs in mainland U.S. and approximately 35,000 breeding pairs in Alaska. It is my sincere hope that they remain protected by laws, and that their population continues to thrive. 

Gray Lodge and Snow Geese - 12/04/20
Anser caerulescens

My Third Trip to the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area!

About 5 days before Christmas we drove down to the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area to check out the birds again.  I absolutely LOVE going there!  It is so full of life!  The day before we went it had rained quite heavily.  When we got to Gray Lodge, we were totally surprised to see that most of the Snow Geese were gone! I don't know why they left, but we did see several large groups of Snow Geese foraging in some plowed fields in the area.  We did, however, see LOTS of raptors!  They were everywhere!

Raptors are birds of prey that have strong curved talons for catching or killing prey, strong feet for holding prey, a strong curved beak for tearing flesh, and excellent eyesight for finding food. They are carnivores and eat only meat in a variety of forms, including fish, birds, small mammals, and snakes. In contrast to most other birds, they are almost always solitary, to avoid competition for prey.

Their are many classifications (or subgroups) of raptors, such as accipiters, buteos, falcons, eagles, harriers, kites, vultures, ospreys, and owls. It's harder for raptors to find prey while the weather is stormy, as the mammals and birds they prey on tend to stay out of the elements. There is also the risk that they could get too wet while hunting in heavy rain. Most birds tend to become inactive in heavy weather, and wait out the storm. Big birds have a better surface-to-volume ratio than smaller birds, and don't have to eat as often. Survival in the wild is a finely tuned balance of elements that can be challenged by heavy, winter storms.

Gray Lodge and no Snow Geese! - 12/19/20

Since there weren't the thousands of Snow Geese to distract us, 
we focused on the raptors!

Peregrine Falcon (adult) - Cooper's Hawk (juvenile)
Falco peregrinus - Accipiter cooperii
 
We came across this stunning Peregrine Falcon towards the end of the day! What a surprise! Peregrine Falcons are uncommon, but we saw one two weeks ago in Gray Lodge!  This one was a LOT closer and SO beautiful!

Peregrines are formidable predators that have speed and extraordinary vision on their side. They are the fastest animal on earth! Their top diving speed can reach 238 mph! WOW!!! For this speed they need to start their dive at at least 3,280' off the ground, and the dive must be vertical! Most of their dives, or stoops, start at 705' to 1049' off the ground. If their dives aren't vertical, their diving speed is typically 66-86 mph. As they dive they spiral down to their prey, rather than turn their head! They prey on 429 species of birds in North America!

Due to pesticides such as DDT, Peregrine Falcon populations declined drastically in the 1960's, across North America and parts of Europe. With the ban of these pesticides, additional stringent legislation, and by raising them in captivity and releasing them back into the wild, these magnificent birds have made a stunning recovery!  The birdsoftheworld.org states, "One of the most widely distributed of warm-blooded terrestrial vertebrates, the Peregrine Falcon occurs from the tundra to the Tropics, from wetlands to deserts, from maritime islands to continental forests, and from featureless plains to mountain crags."
__________________

My friend, Nancy, spotted this juvenile Cooper's Hawks in a Cottonwood Tree along the wetland!  Wow!  Some of the brown plumage on its white breast looked like rain drops! How beautiful! I wasn't 100% sure that this was a Cooper's Hawk, but iNaturalist.org confirmed its identification!

Cooper's Hawks are uncommon and mainly live in dense forests, but can also be found in leafy suburbs and open fields. They can be found across the United States year-round. Their main food is other large birds such as doves, pigeons and robins. They will also prey on squirrels, rabbits, mice and reptiles. They can readily pursue prey through dense thickets or forests. Their short wings and rudder-like tail makes them able to make quick, sharp turns. They grab prey with their feet, and will drown or squeeze them to death! They can see 2-3 times farther than humans! 

Red-tailed Hawks (adults)
Buteo jamaicensis - possible "Harlan's" morph

Red-tailed Hawks were numerous, and in a variety of "morphs"!  The one in the above right photo, was identified as a "Harlan's" morph on iNaturalist.org.  The feather colors are SO different!

Turkey Vulture (adult) - Northern Harrier (adult male)
Cathartes aura - Buteo jamaicensis

Turkey Vultures were roosting throughout the area.  This one was sunning or drying out its huge wings! They are large birds, measuring 26" in length, with a wingspan of 67"! Using these large wings, they can soar for hours while searching for carrion. They have a keen sense of smell and can detect carrion for miles! Their red heads are featherless, which helps keep the carrion from sticking to them. They also have excellent immune systems and don't contract botulism, or salmonella from the carrion they eat. 
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We saw a Northern Harrier making its typical low-flight search above the reeds and tules.  I wasn't able to get a photo, but it was lovely to watch (the above photos is from a different wetland). Northern Harriers are uncommon but widespread in grasslands, as well as fresh and saltwater marshes. They can be found across most of the United States and Mexico in winter, and will migrate to Canada and Alaska to breed. They prey on medium to small sized birds and mammals, reptiles, and frogs. Unlike other hawks, they have an owl-like facial disc/ruff that helps them locate prey acoustically. 

Snowy Egrets (adults) - Egretta thula

We spotted these beautiful Snowy Egrets on our way home!  They were so elegantly perched on these leafless branches! 

Snowy Egrets feed on worms, aquatic and terrestrial insects, crabs, shrimp, prawns, crayfish, snails, fish, frogs, toads, snakes and lizards!  They have more foraging methods than any other egret species, including foot-stirring, walking slowly, hovering, striking, and disturb-and-chase. They can live in fresh or salt water wetlands, and probably live year-round in California's Central Valley.  

In the 1880's the Snowy Egrets population was in serious decline. Birdsoftheworld.org states, "This species was among the most sought-after of all herons and egrets for its delicate, recurved back plumes, used to adorn women's hats. In 1886, plumes were valued at an astounding $32 per ounce, twice the contemporary price of gold . Plundering for plumes began about 1880, peaked in 1903, and continued until 1910, when outraged citizens forced the passage of laws that reduced the slaughter. Hunting continued longer in Central and South America because of continued European demand. The species mounted a remarkable comeback following cessation of the feather trade, even extending its range beyond that of historical record."

White-faced Ibis (adult) - Sora (adult)
Plegadis chihi - Porzana carolina

We only saw a few White-faced Ibis. They were a dark, rainbow-iridescense in the sun! They use their long decurved bills to probe for aquatic insects, crustaceans, earthworms, and midge larvae. During their breeding season (April to mid-May) a white rim of feathers is displayed around the bare skin of their face, hence their name! They may stay and breed in California, or migrate to Idaho, Montana, N. & S. Dakota, or Iowa. We saw several lone Ibis, as well as one large flock. When they fly they look almost prehistoric to me, with their curved necks and bills.
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We lucked out and saw a Sora in the tules! These birds are secretive and more commonly heard than seen. They live in shallow, fresh water wetlands with emergent vegetation, such as cattails, and feed on seeds and aquatic invertebrates on the surface of the water. They prefer to run rather than fly, and do most of their foraging at night!  I only saw it for a few seconds, and then it disappeared into the tules. What a lucky sighting!

 Sierra Buttes - 12/28/20

Lakes Basin Update!

Last Monday I drove to the Lakes Basin and hiked up to Sardine Lake from the Sand Shed on Highway 49.  The sky was blanketed in patchy clouds, and there was about a foot of snow on the ground.  It was easy walking on the road that had been packed down by snow mobiles!  Luckily there weren't any people around at all.  I was amazed at the abundance of life written in the snow!  There were animal tracks everywhere!  

 Sierra Buttes from frozen Sand Pond - 12/28/20

The lakes were frozen, and the Sierra Buttes were capped in mist!  It was wonderful to be back in the Lakes Basin and its winter beauty!


Will the expected stormy weather bring a lot of rain?

Does lichen have the same relationship with rain/water that moss has?

What are the deer doing?

Check back next week for the answers to these questions and more!

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