Friday, February 21, 2020

Too Busy to Blog!

 American Dipper - Cinclus mexicanus

I'm too busy to blog this week! 
Check back next week for the latest 
Natural History News from my neighborhood!

Your questions and comments are greatly appreciated!
Please email me at

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Amazing Pond Life!

Belted Kingfisher - Megaceryle alcyon

I've been visiting three small ponds on a regular basis this winter.  I never know what I might see!  All of them have one Belted Kingfisher that seems to preside over "his/her" pond.  Their rattling alarm call, and accompanying flight, happens as soon as I approach a pond.  They mainly eat small fish, but will also eat crayfish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, and even birds!  The males lack the rusty-chestnut band across their chest, which is present in the females.  Soon they will mate, and the pair will begin excavating an underground burrow in an earthen bank.  The burrow will be 1-2 meters long, ending in an unlined chamber where the eggs are laid.  It may take the two kingfishers 7 days to 2 weeks to create the burrow!  

Bufflehead (4 females - 2 males) - Bucephala albeola

In the same pond where I saw the Kingfisher pictured above, I was delighted to see a group of six Buffleheads.  The males have the bright-white bodies and "wedges" on their heads.  These diving ducks feed on aquatic insects, amphipods, snails, clams, seeds, and bulrushes.  They are the smallest diving duck in North America, measuring 13.5" in length.  Buffleheads mainly breed in Canada and Alaska, but since 1996 a small percentage of them have been found in small mountain lakes in the northern Sierra Nevada.  Last summer I came across several female Buffleheads with their ducklings in the Lakes Basin.  These ducks are tree-cavity nesters, primarily in abandoned Northern Flicker nests.  The ducklings are born precocial and jump from their nest to the ground, within 24-36 hours after they are born!  The mother then leads them to water, and stays with them and defends them for the next 5-6 weeks!

Northern River Otter - Lontra canadensis

While I was watching the above Buffleheads, I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye in another part of the pond.  To my absolute amazement it was a River Otter!!!  WOW!!!  I never thought I'd see a River Otter in this pond, which is quite a distance from any river!!!   I have since read that otters will travel 10-18 miles on land in search for food!  WOW!!!  Luckily I got to watch this otter swim the perimeter of the pond and catch fish for 10 minutes!!!!  I also realized that the Buffleheads were no longer visible.  They were probably VERY aware of the River Otter and were hiding and ready to take flight!  River Otters usually eat slow moving fish, as well as turtles, crayfish, mussels, aquatic beetles, and waterfowl.  No wonder the Buffleheads disappeared!  What a surprising, amazing experience!  Such a privilege to see! 
Northern River Otter - Lontra canadensis

When I first spotted the River Otter it was in an algae and plant-choked section of the pond.  Within a minute it had moved out to the deeper clearer water.  I was amazed by its size!   Adult otters can reach a total length of 5' (including a 20" tail) and weigh up to 33 lbs!!!  This one looked big to me, and it moved through the water at an amazing speed!

Belted Kingfisher - Megaceryle alcyon

Another pond I've been watching is the Charles Marsh Pond in Nevada City.  The resident Kingfisher usual announces my arrival to the pond residents.  What a beauty she is with her rusty-chestnut band across her chest!  There are lots of fish and frogs in this pond for her to eat.  I've watched her now for two years, and am so glad she's still here!

Hooded Merganser (male & female) - Lophodytes cucullatus

 Earlier this year I saw 3 pairs of Hooded Mergansers in this pond.  Lately there has been only one pair.  They are so unusual with their large wedge-shaped heads!  They eat small fish, aquatic insects, and crustaceans.  This pair bonded sometime last fall!!  They will leave for their breeding grounds in western Canada soon.  Nesting will begin sometime between late March or early May.  How lucky we are to have them as winter visitors!

Water Strider - Pacific Tree Frog (green & brown phase)
Gerris remigis - Pseudacris regilla

We came across a small pond in the foothills that rang with frog song, until we approached.  As soon as we were about 10' away, the frog song stopped!  Although it had sounded like there were LOTS of frogs, we only saw a few brown Pacific Tree Frogs.  The rest of them must have hidden under the muddy bottom!  These frogs will change their skin color to match their environment, but it takes a few hours to a few weeks.  Only the male frogs are the ones that sing!  Right now they are singing to attract females for mating.

I was surprised to see a few active water striders in a tiny neighborhood pond this week!  It looked like they were actually mating!  The warm weather must have warmed them up enough to become active.  Wikipedia states, "Gerrids that live in environments with winters will overwinter in the adult stage. This is due to the large energy cost which would need to be spent to maintain their body temperature at functional levels. These water striders have been found in leaf litter or under stationary shelters such as logs and rocks during the winter in seasonal areas. This reproductive diapause is a result of shortening day lengths during larval development and seasonal variation in lipid levels.

Shorter day length signals the water strider of the coming temperature drops, also acting as a physical signal the body uses to store lipids throughout the body as food sources. Water striders use these lipids to metabolize during their hibernation. The length of the hibernation depends when the environment warms and the days become longer again."

White Alder - Alnus rhombifolia

What's Blooming?

Our bees have been flying due to the warm, dry weather, and are coming back to the hive with pollen on their legs!  They're probably getting the pollen from the alder catkins that are currently tasseled out.  Alders are monoecious, with both the male and female parts on the same tree.  The catkins are the male part, and the tiny cones (right above the tassels) are the female part.

Pussy willows - Salix sp.

The pussy willows are in bud, but not totally open yet.  Willows are dioecious, with separate male and female plants.  Right now you can't tell if the pussy willows will be male or female.  When they bloom in a week or so I'll take pictures to show you the difference.
Weather Update

Warmer temperatures, partly cloudy skies, and dry weather was the pattern this week. More warm and sunny weather is predicted for the coming week, which I hope is just a temporary break. We certainly don't need another drought year!  
I'm hoping it rains and snows and gets cold again!  We need winter to stick around!

Are any insects out and about?

Have any new birds arrived?

What's happening in the Lakes Basin?

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

If all of a sudden you haven't been getting email notices of my blog being published, just sign up again on my blog. I don't know why you got "unsubscribed". It's some kind of problem with and/or I apologize for this glitch!

Your questions and comments are greatly appreciated!
Please email me at

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Some of the Local Mammals

Western Gray Squirrel - Sciurus griseus

Most of the mammals in my area are nocturnal and/or crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk).  During the day I mainly see squirrels, foxes, and deer. Two of the squirrels in my neighborhood remain active all year, the Western Gray Squirrel and the Chickaree or Douglas Squirrel.  At this time of year they mainly eat mushrooms, mistletoe berries, acorns, pine nuts and seeds. They search for food daily, but also have caches of food to eat when snow blankets the ground.  They are incredible tree climbers and acrobats, and can rotate their hind feet 180° backwards when climbing down a trunk.  During winter they usually live in a hollow tree or limb, or abandoned woodpecker cavities.

Chickaree/ Douglas Squirrel - Tamiasciurus douglasi

A Gray Squirrel's tail is approximately 9"-12" long.  A Chickaree's tail is 4"-6" long.
I found this Chickaree tail in the forest this week!  Some predator caught one, and left the tail untouched.  Pine Martens, Bobcats, foxes, owls, and Goshawks are their predators.  Pine Martens hunt mainly on the ground for rodents at night, but will also pursue prey in trees. Goshawks are diurnal forest hunters, and Chickarees are their preferred prey!  Bobcats are nocturnal and mainly hunt for prey on the ground, but can also easily climb trees.  The Pygmy Owl is diurnal, and the only owl I've seen in our neighborhood.  I doubt that it could catch a Chickaree because it is quite small (7" tall).  Foxes are mainly nocturnal and crepuscular, but I have often seen them during the day.  Unlike other foxes, the Gray Fox can climb trees!  So maybe a fox or a Goshawk caught the Chickaree!

Gray Fox - Urocyon cinereoargenteus

 Gray Foxes are usually solitary, except during their breeding time from January through February.  These lovely foxes mate for life.  Pups are born sometime between April and May.  Both parents care and feed the young.  In winter, the adults eat birds (e.g.quail), mice, squirrels, and rabbits.  They live in hollow logs or trees, under large rocks, or in underground burrows.

Mule Deer - Odocoileus hemionus sp.

We have two types of Mule Deer in our area, the Columbian Black-tailed Mule Deer and California Mule Deer.  The easiest way to identify them is by the marking of their tail.  The Columbian has a black stripe down its tail ending in a black tip.  The California deer's tail is white with a black tip.  These deer bred last Fall, and the fawns will be born sometime between June and July.  The males will drop their antlers between January and March, and regrow them between April and August.  These deer do not mate for life.  Males usually stick with males, and females with females except for brief periods of breeding.

Striped Skunk - Raccoon
Mephitis mephitis - Procyon lotor

In the evening, I occasionally see a Striped Skunk feeding on bird seed down by our bird feeding station.  They are primarily nocturnal mammals.  During the winter they mainly eat mice, gophers, voles, rats, seeds and nuts.  Breeding season extends from February through April.  Kits are born around the middle of May.  They live in underground dens in the winter, and when raising their young.  

I rarely see Raccoons, as they are mainly nocturnal. In winter they eat nuts, mice, squirrels, and seeds.  They also store up fat for winter, usually an additional 1/3 of their body weight, and could survive the entire winter without eating if necessary!  They mate sometime from January to March.  Young are born between April and May.  The female raises the young on her own.  In the winter, Raccoons live in an underground den, sometimes with up to 24 other Raccoons!

Ringtail Cat - Bassariscus astutus

This beautiful dead Ringtail Cat was found on the side of a road by a friend of mine. It didn't have any obvious injuries, but it was probably bumped by a some kind of vehicle and sustain internal injuries.  We don't know.  It is so sad that it died, but it was an incredible experience to look at it closely.  Such a beautiful animal!!!

I've seen these lovely creatures only a few times in my life, always at night.  They are about the size of a large house cat, only with a longer, bushier tail.  They hunt for prey on the ground and in the trees, where they are excellent climbers.  Their diet consists mainly of rodents, rabbits, squirrels, carrion, acorns, and berries during the winter.  In the winter they sleep in underground dens, lined and padded with lichen and moss.  They are solitary except during the breeding season in April.  Young are born in late May to early June.  After the kits are weaned, the father assists in the feeding of the young!

Sierra Valley 12/30/19

Sierra Valley

Since the weather had been so lovely and not snowy, we decided to go for a drive to Sierra Valley and look for raptors last week!  It was so beautiful!  Gorgeous storm clouds hung over this huge valley, casting their shadows across the fields and mountains.  I saw two Coyotes run past, too quick to grab a photo, but great to see!

Canada Geese - Rough-legged Hawk
Branta canadensis - Buteo lagopus

Canada Geese were in large groups on the wetlands, but not much other waterfowl was present. We did see about 8 raptors; several Red-tailed Hawks, a Kestrel, a Northern Harrier, perhaps a White-tailed Kite, and a Rough-legged Hawk!   

I luckily got several photos of the dramatic-looking Rough-legged Hawk, which we had never seen before!!!  These beautiful hawks breed in the taiga and tundra across Canada and Alaska, up to the high arctic.  The feed on small mammals, including lemmings, voles, mice, shrews, rabbits and ground squirrels.  In the winter they migrate down into the U.S. and inhabit pastures, marshy areas, and wet meadows.  They are not commonly seen in our area, except for Sierra Valley.  Some years there are a lot in the valley in winter, other years there are few to none.  We were so lucky to see one of these incredible, long-distance migrants!

Canada Geese - Branta canadensis

We'll go back to Sierra Valley in another month to see what other birds have arrived!

Snow Flurry

Weather Update

Colder temperatures, overcast skies, and dry weather was the pattern this week.  We had a short snow flurry that lasted about 30 minutes, with a total snowfall of about 1/10 of an inch!  Warm and sunny weather is predicted for the coming week, which I hope is just a temporary break.  We certainly don't need another drought year!

Is anything blooming?

Are any insects out and about?

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

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Sunday, February 2, 2020

Down in the Foothills

Lewis's Woodpecker - Melanerpes lewis

Last week we went for a hike in a nature preserve around 1,000' in elevation. The terrain was rolling hills with gullies and creeks, vegetated by Blue Oaks, Gray Oaks, Coyote Brush, and many other shrubs. Within our first five minutes of arriving, this beautiful Lewis's Woodpecker landed nearby on a dead tree! 

These birds are unique in several ways. Unlike most woodpeckers, Lewis's Woodpeckers do not drill holes in tree trunks looking for insects. They mainly catch insects in the air during the summer. They will however, glean insects from tree trunks and branches year-round. Fruits and berries are also eaten in season. In the winter, when flying insects are scarce, they mainly eat acorns, nuts, and corn. They usually harvest acorns off the trees, rather than off the ground. They will hammer an acorn open and then store individual pieces (rather than the whole acorn) in the natural crevices of tree trunks. Acorns and nuts are also stored for consumption in winter. These winter caches are vigorously defended! 

Unlike any other local birds, they have beautiful rose-pink feathers on their belly! They are relatively uncommon in our foothill area, and are not predictably present in winter. In California, they usually nest in the interior coastal range, or the lower eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. Outside of California they breed across Idaho, Montana, Colorado and up into Canada. How lucky we were to watch this unusual, beautiful woodpecker!

Acorn Woodpecker - Melanerpes formicivorus

We also saw several Acorn Woodpeckers that day. They are one of the dominant species in the foothill oak woodlands. Acorns are the main food they depend upon in winter. They store acorns by drilling holes in dead tree trunks and putting an acorn in each hole! These acorn filled trunks are called "granaries". Granaries have been known to contain up to 50,000 acorns! 

Each granary is only used by one "family" of Acorn Woodpeckers. It may take generations of use to create a large granary. The families consist of males, females, and offspring, ranging from 2 to 16 members. Usually there are about 5 members in a family. The adults practice "polygynandry", and breed with multiple females/males. All the females lay all their eggs on the same day, in the same nest cavity! The whole family helps incubate the eggs and raise the chicks!! At night, all of the family members roost in the same cavity!! 

Cooper's Hawk - Accipiter cooperii

To our delight we also saw an adult Cooper's Hawk!  These hawks are one of the main hunters in our forests and dense thickets.  With their short wings and rudder-like tails, they can "turn on a dime"!  Birds, rabbits, squirrels, mice and reptiles are their common prey.  Their vision is excellent, and can see two to three times farther than we can!  Other than its red eye, this hawk was camouflaged in the leafless shrubs and very difficult to see!  These hawks are uncommonly seen in our area, although they live here year-round!

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

We saw lots of hawks flying overhead that day.  Red-tailed Hawks were the most common, and easy to identify.  These hawks hunt in the open, not in the woods.  Their prey consists of birds, small mammals, reptiles, and carrion. They live year-round across the United States, but may migrate up to Canada and Alaska to breed.

Western Bluebird - Sialia mexicana

Later in the day, we saw a pair of Western Bluebirds out in an open meadow.  The males are mostly an incredible, luminous, royal-blue in color.  The females are mostly gray with a blue rump, tail, and some wing feathers.  They are primarily insect eaters, but in the winter they switch to fruits and berries such as mistletoe, wild grape, elderberry, juniper, and poison oak.  These lovely birds are found in these foothills year-round. 

Ruby-crowned Kinglet - Bushtit
 Regulus calendulaPsaltriparus minimus

In the bushes along the trail we kept hearing a rattling call, but were unable to identify what bird was singing.  There were lots of little birds flitting around in the bushes.  They were hard to identify or photograph because they kept moving around, resting a second or less in one spot. Later on we got a clear view of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet making the rattling calll!  I also managed to get a reasonable photo of a female Bushtit!  Both of these tiny (4.5" in length) birds glean spiders, insects, and their eggs, from the branches and leaves of plants.

Bushtits live year-round in California.  Most of the year they live in flocks of 10-40 birds.  In the end of February to early March, they pair off to breed and build their nest.  It will take both the male and the female a month or more to build their amazing, 6"-12", sock-like nest of spider webs and plant material!  I've seen these nests in museums, but never in the wild.  It would be fabulous to find one!   They female lays 4-10 eggs in the nest, and may have two broods in a season.  Interestingly, adult male offspring help the mated pair raise their young!  Also, incredibly the whole family sleep together in the sock-like nest!

Ruby-crowned Kinglets are named for the bright scarlett "crown patch" the male exhibits when excited or antagonized.  Most of the time the crown isn't visible.  These tiny birds mainly inhabit the snow-free foothills during winter, but move up to the Lodgepole/Hemlock forests to breed, around 9000' in elevation.  I've seen these little birds all winter in my neighborhood this year.  Their fluffy, thick plumage keeps them warm at night.

 Flooded rice field

Sacramento Delta Re-visited!

Early last week we traveled back down to the Sacramento Delta for a brief visit.  It was unbelievable once again!  This time there was blue sky and beautiful clouds!  There were still thousands of birds including Tundra Swans, Sandhill Cranes, and Pelicans!  We also saw some birds we didn't see the week before!

American White Pelicans - Pelicanus erythrorhynchos

There were even more pelicans than the previous week!  Such beauty!

House Finch - Haemorhous mexicanus

These lovely little House Finches would forage for seeds in the roadside shrubs and grasses, and then fly up all at once to the telephone line when disturbed!  The males have bright orange-red foreheads, crests, breasts, and rumps.  They live year-round across the U.S and Mexico.

Canada Geese - Branta canadensis

Thousands of Canada Geese were congregated on the non-flooded, grassy fields!  These birds have become extremely well-adapted to human developments and tend to stay year-round across the U.S., although some still migrate to Canada to breed.  They feed on grasses and sedges in the spring and winter.  We hadn't seen these thousands of geese when we were in the delta 2 weeks ago!

 White-faced Ibis - Greater Yellowlegs
Plegadis chihi - Tringa melanoleuca

On the way down to the delta we saw lots of White-faced Ibis in the flooded rice fields near Marysville.  They search for aquatic and moist-soil insects, as well as crustaceans, midge and fly larvae and earthworms.  

In the delta I spotted one Greater Yellowlegs probing the shallow water for aquatic invertebrates, as well as small frogs and fish.  I didn't see any other shorebirds while we were in the delta.

 Sunset Clouds

Precipitation Update!

We had daytime temperatures in the 50's, and approximately another inch of rain this week, but warm, sunny weather is predicted for next week.  Let's hope the winter storms are heavy in February!

What's happening on the local ponds?

Where are all the mammals?

What's happening in Sierra Valley?

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

If all of a sudden you haven't been getting email notices of my blog being published, just sign up again on my blog. I don't know why you got "unsubscribed". It's some kind of problem with and/or I apologize for this glitch!

Your questions and comments are greatly appreciated!
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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Winter Weather

Clouds before the Storm

Last week we got about 3" of heavy wet snow and some rain. Yahoo! Winter is still here! So far, our water-year total (from 10/1/19) is 22.04" of precipitation. At this time last year the total was 24.68". The river is pretty low, and the flow rate is only 879 cfs. More rain, not snow, is predicted for this coming week. The snow level is supposed to be initially high, around 8,000', and then it will hopefully drop down to around 6,000'. Fingers crossed that the Lakes Basin will get some more snow.  We really need it!

Sierra Buttes 1/19/20

We went up to the Lakes Basin last week after the storm.  There was 2' of newly fallen snow at the 5,500' level and the lakes were frozen!  It was beautiful as always!

Northern Flicker - Colaptes auratus

Project FeederWatch!

So far, I regularly see the following birds at our feeding station;
Northern Flicker (2), Steller's Jay (22), Oregon Junco (50+), Fox Sparrow (2), 
Song Sparrow (1), Mourning Doves (8), Spotted Towhee (2), and Mountain Quail (16).  I observe them two days a week, and record the highest number (per species) that I see.  I record my observations online at the Project FeederWatch website.  This information provides statistics for the Cornell Ornithology Lab that they wouldn't have been able to gather on their own. The following quote from Project FeederWatch explains how this citizen science project works.

"It helps scientists track long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance. When thousands of FeederWatchers in communities across North America count birds and send their tallies to the FeederWatch database, the result is a treasure trove of numbers, which FeederWatch scientists analyze to draw a picture of winter bird abundance and distribution.

FeederWatch data shows which bird species visit feeders at thousands of locations across the continent every winter. The data also indicates how many individuals of each species are seen. This information can be used to measure changes in the winter ranges and abundances of bird species over time. Importantly, FeederWatch data tells us where birds are as well as where they are not. This crucial information enables scientists to piece together the most accurate population maps.

Because FeederWatchers count the number of individuals of each species they see several times throughout the winter, FeederWatch data is extremely powerful for detecting and explaining gradual changes in the wintering ranges of many species." 

So I am still feeding the birds, but clean my station regularly to prevent build up of feces and mold.  I have to admit, it has been delightful watching these birds!

Varied Thrush - Ixoreus naevius

New this week there was one Varied Thrush at our feeding station!  It was a male, easily distinguished by it's dark navy-blue chest band!  

American Robin - Mountain Quail
Turdus migratorius - Oreortyx pictus

We also have an American Robin that has recently shown up at our feeding station!  I'm not sure if it has just arrived or if it is over-wintering in our neighborhood.  Usually Robins leave in the Fall, and return sometime in late February or early March.  I'll let you know if any more show up!

The number of Mountain Quail visiting our feeding station has increased from 8 to 16 or more!  I love watching and hearing these coveys of beautifully marked birds.

Great Blue Heron - Ardea herodius 

North Yuba River Update

The river has been low and slow lately.  I haven't seen any more Minks or River Otters, even though I look for them everyday.  However, I do see our local Great Blue Heron a couple of times a week, as well as a few Common Mergansers.  

 Common Merganser - Mergus merganser

These are either all female mergansers or male mergansers in their eclipse plumage.
The males usually develop their striking breeding plumage by the end of February or early March.  These birds are primarily fish eaters, and dive underwater to catch their prey.

 Common Goldeneye - Bucephala clangula

New this week I spotted 12 Common Goldeneyes on the river!!!  There were adult and juvenile males, and adult females!  They were all in their breeding colors!  The males have the bright white dots on their black heads, and white bodies.  They breed across Alaska and Canada.  They nest in tree cavities or nest boxes, and have one brood per season.  Unlike most ducks, they winter regularly above the foothills of the western Sierra.  They mainly feed on fish, mollusks, and crustaceans in the winter, and aquatic invertebrates in the summer.  They dive to catch prey, while holding their wings close to their body and kicking with their feet.  They can fly up to 40 mph, and the wind "whistles" through their wing feathers!  They were so beautiful to watch, as they swam in a close-knit group along the river!

 Common Goldeneye - Bucephala clangula

Both males and females have golden eyes!

Ladybird Beetles - Hippodamia convergens

Winter Insect Happenings!

I haven't mentioned the local Ladybird Beetles (commonly known as Ladybugs) yet this year. They congregated on the trunks of several large trees last Fall. They will stay here all winter in a dormant state. To keep from freezing, they produce an anti-freeze in their "hemolymph" (insect body fluid). In the Spring, the females will lay their eggs on the underside of a leaf.  In 3-5 days the larvae emerge from the eggs. After 2-3 weeks of eating aphids, the larvae pupate, and turn into an adult ladybug in about a week.  The adult ladybugs continue to eat aphids, mites, and scale insects until the temperatures drop in the Fall, and their winter dormancy starts again.

Bald-faced Hornet Nest before and after Winter's arrival
Dolichovespula maculata

I mentioned this Bald-faced Hornet nest back in November.  The hive has since fallen apart, and the queen has gone dormant under leaf litter, or a tree bark, or in a rock crevice.  Only the queen survives the winter, all the other wasps die off in the cold of Fall.  I find it amazing that ANY of this nest is still hanging, since it is only made of wasp-made "paper"!

Non-biting Midges - Chironomidae Family

The Non-biting Midges are back, swarming above the tops of pine trees near the river!  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!

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 in the early evening, when the sun is getting low. Usually they form 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 again!

Questionable Stropharia - Chantrelle (?) 
Stropharia Ambigua - unknown species

Mushrooms are still popping up, due to the wet but warm weather!

Who's track is this?

What's happening in the local foothills?

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

If all of a sudden you haven't been getting email notices of my blog being published, just sign up again on my blog. I don't know why you got "unsubscribed". It's some kind of problem with and/or I apologize for this glitch!

Your questions and comments are greatly appreciated!
Please email me at

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Sacramento Delta

Great Horned Owl - Bubo Virginianus

Oh WOW an OWL!!!  This stunning Great Horned Owl was just one of the amazing birds we saw down in the Sacramento Delta last week!  These owls are mainly nocturnal and not commonly seen during the day!  We REALLY lucked out!!!  They are the top avian, nocturnal predator in North America!  They are "perch and pounce" hunters.  Ninety percent of their diet consists of mammals, such as mice, voles, ground squirrels, rats, gophers, hares, raccoons, rabbits, porcupines, skunks, carrion, and sometimes house cats!  They can carry up to three times their weight, or approximately 9 lbs!  Ten percent of their diet consists of birds including owls, raptors, waterfowl (even herons!), starlings, pigeons and nestlings.  They will also occasionally eat reptiles, amphibians, and insects.  They are found year-round across Alaska, Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and Costa Rica.
Great Horned Owl - Bubo Virginianus

Great Horned Owls are usually solitary except during breeding season, which is in winter.  Egg laying occurs as early as January!  They do not build their own nests, but rather occupy large, abandoned, raptor nests.  Their "horns" are technically called "plumicorns" and are neither horns nor ears, just elongated feather tufts.  Scientists haven't figured out the purpose of these tufts, but suggest that they may aid in camouflage, or in the identification of an owl by its mate.  When I first saw this owl it had its back turned to me, and its plumicorns made me think it was a cat!!!

Red-shouldered Hawk - Buteo lineatus

Owls are raptors along with eagles, hawks, kites, falcons, harriers, ospreys, and vultures. Wikipedia states that a raptor is "a species of bird that primarily hunts and feeds on vertebrates that are large relative to the hunter. Additionally, they have keen eyesight for detecting food at a distance or during flight, strong feet equipped with talons for grasping or killing prey, and powerful, curved beaks for tearing flesh."

In winter when trees are bare and prey is scarce, you will often see raptors perched in the open, searching for food.  On our delta trip, we saw a lot of raptors, especially  Red-shouldered Hawks. These beautifully marked hawks feed on small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, crayfish, insects and birds.  The one above left, was pretty wet from the morning rains!  I think they're gorgeous

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

We also saw several Red-tailed Hawks perching and searching for prey. These large raptors feed on small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and carrion. The open wetlands of the Sacramento Delta provide a variety of prey for these handsome birds.

View off the Staten Island road

The Sacramento Delta currently contains 550,000 acres of cultivated rice.  Historic farming practice was to burn the rice fields after harvest.  This created an air pollution problem for the surrounding areas.  In 1991 the California state Rice Straw Burning Reduction Act was created.  The plan was to gradually decrease the practice of rice straw burning, with the intent of eliminating the practice completely by 2000.  (The further history of the implementation of this bill is too lengthy to include in my blog, and is available on a variety of websites.)  Currently, approximately 90% of the rice fields are now flooded post-harvest, rather than burned.  

In 2015, the rice growers and several government agencies united to form the Waterbird Habitat Enhancement Program (WHEP). The following text, from the website, explains the purpose and effects of this program.

"This program emerged from a cooperative effort between the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), California Rice Commission, rice growers, Audubon California, Point Blue Conservation Science and The Nature Conservancy to find ways to both grow rice and improve the habitat for birds. Collaborative research that documented the benefits of on-farm management for birds led to the adoption of on-farm conservation management practices included in WHEP.

One of the greatest benefits from rice farming in the Central Valley is the environmental gains that accrue to wildlife. California ricelands provide valuable open space and habitat for 230 species of wildlife, many of which are species of special concern, threatened or endangered. This is especially important today, given that 95 percent of California's historical wetlands in the Central Valley are now gone. As many as seven million wintering waterfowl rely on the Central Valley, and rice fields provide nearly 60 percent of all of their food resources."

American White Pelican - Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

We saw so many birds during the two days we were in the delta!  One unexpected species were these American White Pelicans!  They were standing on a man-made levee, and later on they all sat down close to each other!  Such a beautiful sight!  These large birds are mainly fish eaters.  They don't dive for fish, but work together in groups and herd fish towards shallow water where they are easier to catch.  They will also eat crayfish and amphibians.  They are winter residents of the Central Valley, as well as the coast of California, Baja, Mexico, and Central/South America.
American White Pelican - Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans are almost always in groups of 10 or more.  They are colonial breeders, with up to 5,000 pairs in one site!  They leave their winter grounds in late February for the breeding grounds in the north central part of North America. I was astounded at the beauty of this group of them!  Such closeness!

Sandhill Cranes - Antigone canadensis

We saw Sandhill Cranes everywhere this year!  We spotted them initially in the fields of corn stubble along the road.  They eat any roots, leftover corn, small mammals, snails, reptiles and amphibians, and insects that they can find! 

Sandhill Cranes - Northern Shovelers - Tundra Swans
 Antigone canadensis - Ana clypeata - Cygnus columbianus

At dusk they flew in and landed in the shallow wetlands along the road.  There were so many of them!  The cumulative honks of the cranes, along with the quacking of the ducks, and the hoots of the swans created quite a symphony!

Sandhill Cranes - Antigone canadensis

We woke up to rain on our second day (yahoo!) and drove out on the delta to see what we could see!  The cranes were still in the same area and we got to watch a few of them "dance"!  We weren't sure if we were seeing a mating dance, or if they were just drying out their wing feathers!  Apparently their mating dance is quite elaborate.

Sandhill Cranes & Gulls (?) - Antigone canadensis & unknown genus/species

We drove around on levees and bird-watched for hours!  It was an amazing dream come true!  Cranes were in large groups throughout the wetlands.  More than I've ever seen before!  They will be leaving in late February for their breeding grounds as far north as British Columbia, or as close as northern-eastern California.  Pairs bond for life!

Tundra Swans - Cygnus columbianus

There were more Tundra Swans in the delta than I've ever seen before!  These gracefully elegant large birds fly down from the high Arctic to spend the winter in California's Central Valley, a round-trip distance of 5,000 miles!  They feed on the leaves, stems, seeds, and tubers of aquatic plants, including rice.  They will leave for their high Arctic breeding grounds in mid February.  Two months later they will reach the high Arctic and start breeding!!!  Once pairs are bonded, they mate for life!

Red-winged Blackbird - Agelaius phoeniceus

On one of the last stops on our delta trip we came across this field covered in Red-winged Blackbirds!!!  WOW!  They were incredible to see and hear!!!  
What a beautiful way to end an absolutely amazing day!

How much snow has fallen lately?

What's happening on the river?

How's Project Feederwatch Going?

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