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The Great Migration

Great egret, Ardea Alba, Colusa NWR, Williams (12/18/18) John Poimiroo

Waterfowl have taken up residence, late this autumn, in the rice fields and wetlands of California’s great central valley.

Televised images of a mass ascension of snow and Ross’s geese lifting off from flooded rice fields north of Sacramento, seen on last night’s news, compelled me and a fellow photographer to drive north to the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge today, where we stood with local photographers to await their arrival.

One of the regulars said, “It was magical yesterday, the best I’ve seen. Tens of thousands of geese arrived at 10 and stayed until one.”

 

Migratory waterfowl fly high over Colusa NWR (12/18/18) John Poimiroo

It looked promising. Spread across a pond at the entrance to the refuge,  hundreds of pintails, mallards, shovelers, coots, stints and wigeons bobbed, preened, courted, demonstrated, strutted and napped.

Then, great flocks of the “white birds,” as the locals called the geese, approached from the west in mile-wide Vs that undulated across a gray sky. They flew thousands of feet above us, then continued eastward, but their departure didn’t discourage the locals.

“That’s a good sign,” they encouraged, “The wind is perfect. They like to land into it (meaning they’d be facing our cameras when they touched down). Yesterday was so good. It’s sure to be as good, today.”

Mass Ascension of ducks, Colusa NWR, Williams (12/18/18) John Poimiroo

Again and again, the photographers would say hopefully, “Here they come,” only to have them fly too high over or too far north or south of the refuge. Swirling cyclones of white geese appeared to be circling areas just a mile away.

Massive formations of the white birds continued to fly east in successive, long, flapping, gliding ribbons. 

In the end, they stood us up. We didn’t see the mass ascension we’d driven north to experience, unless you call the above image of ducks spooked by a passing Winnebago, as one.

Instead, we settled for images of wigeons, egrets, coots, stilts and pintails enjoying their sanctuary, and later returned south through Yuba City along CA-99 past tundra swans that bent their long necks to forage the flooded shallows of rice fields.

Though we missed seeing a mass ascension, California’s great migration of waterfowl occurs in northern Sacramento Valley rice fields and wildlife refuges, from mid autumn into winter. So, many more opportunities exist to witness one.

On refuge auto tour routes, the best viewing is from inside your car (which acts as a blind) and when parked on levee roads beside rice fields. Precautions: stay in the center of levee roads – as their shoulders are soft- and getting out of a car will spook the birds (it’s also prohibited).

When wildlife viewing, approach only so close that the animals are not agitated. If they move away, you’re too close. Instead, bring them closer to you by watching them through binoculars (8 x 42 is a good choice – monoculars for kids, $13 on Amazon) or photographing them using a telephoto lens (300 mm and up). With long lenses, a gimbal tripod mount balances the heavy lens and helps keep the image sharp when following a bird’s flight. 

At a few locations in refuges, photo platforms allow photographers to get out of their cars, close to the action. The birds get used to people standing on the platforms, but unusual or unexpected events – like a Winnebago driving past – will spook them into the air and away for minutes on end.

Four photo blinds are available by advance reservation. CLICK HERE for more information. In springtime, nesting wood ducks are often photographed from these blinds.

The Sacramento NWR ($6 entrance fee – all others are free entry) is located beside I-5, immediately south of Willows. Its visitor center helps orient you to the refuges and guides you in identifying the birds. Sac NWR has an auto tour loop, trails and naturalist-guided programs. The refuge is open between an hour before sunrise and an hour after sunset.

Other wildlife refuges in the Sac NWR complex include Colusa, Delevan, Sacramento River, Sutter, Llano Seco (best before 10 a.m.), Butte Sink, North Central Valley and Willow Creek – Lurline. 

Mass ascensions are most dependably seen at the Colusa NWR entrance photo platform (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) in late autumn and early winter. CLICK HERE for a map of birding hotspots in the Northern Sacramento Valley.

Though, as we experienced, wildlife viewing is never dependable. 

  • Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Davis Delivers

California gray squirrel dining on Hawthorne berries, Hoagland Hall, UC Davis (11/27/18) Marc Hoshovsky

When it comes to late November beauty, Davis delivers.

Local color spotter Marc Hoshovsky explored his town, interrupting a California gray squirrel as he dined on Hawthorne berries in downtown Davis.

UC Davis students were similarly preoccupied, as they passed oblivious to the fall color while walking or riding to classes.

Davis is filled with exotic (hawthorne, Chinese pistache, Japanese maple, gingko biloba, dawn redwood, Bradford Pear) and occasional native color (Valley oak), providing a bright pallette of auburn, red, vermillion, orange, yellow, rust and green. 

  • Davis – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Home for the Holiday

Gingko biloba, Davis (11/25/18) Philip Reedy

From the far-flung places Philip Reedy photographed this autumn, you might surmise he’s never at home.

So far, this autumn, he has photographed the Hope Valley, Bishop Creek Canyon, June Lake Loop, Lassen Volcanic, Downieville, Quincy, Dunsmuir, and Yreka, including many places near those locations.

So, when his latest submission arrived, I half expected it to be of him standing in some remote stream, surrounded by fall color.

Instead, Phil stayed home for the Thanksgiving Day holiday weekend in Davis, finding these images on a Sunday walk in his hometown.Davis is a college town 11 miles west of Sacramento.

The University of California at Davis is renowned for its contributions to agriculture and winemaking, veterinary care and animal husbandry. On campus, the UC Davis Arboretum has a significant oak and native plant collection.

The City of Davis is similarly celebrated for being bicycle-friendly, though it should also be known as a City of Trees. As, it encourages placement of street trees and protects landmark trees (click links to see lists of these trees).

Conditions for a tree to be designated as one of Davis’ landmark trees include:

  • The tree is an outstanding specimen of a tree species;
  • The tree is one of the largest or oldest trees in Davis;
  • The tree is of historical interest; or
  • The tree is an unusual species, in a significant grove, or otherwise unique. 
  • Davis (52′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Wonderful Walnuts

When bags of fresh walnuts, still in their shells, begin appearing in local markets in November, it’s time to head to the walnut orchards for one of California’s most gilded displays of fall color.

This week, I placed a bowl of plump walnuts and nut cracker on our kitchen counter, while realizing I oughta get cracking north to Chico.

Robert Kermen, who lives in walnut country, beat me to it.

Bob spent #OrangeFriday near Durham, taking this photo of a walnut orchard carpeted with golden leaves. 

  • Walnut orchards, Durham – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Sacramento’s Last Leaves

Leaf Cookies, Freeport Bakery, Sacramento (11/20/18)

What would autumn be in Sacramento without a Leaf Cookie from the Freeport Bakery?

Bags of them were waiting on a stop along a fall color spotting tour of Sacramento County, today. I bought several for our Thanksgiving Day table.

The cookies were the most colorful and among the last leaves to be seen in Sacramento, as the Fabulous 40s, a residential area canopied with towering  London plane trees, was at the end of peak.

Although there are nice spots of color to be seen throughout Sacramento County, most of the color is now muted with chartreuse sycamore mostly faded to russet and sepia.

Smoky haze from the Camp Fire (Paradise) has thinned, though remains noticeable (as seen in these pics).

Backlit by the midday light, wetlands trees in Folsom glowed amber, scarlet and burgundy, as if switched on for a final show before strings of holiday lights replace them.

In Fair Oaks, the village’s ever-present roosters strutted and crowed, telling all who will listen that they are happy not to be turkeys.

In Village Park, a shower of feuille morte fluttered down from venerable elms as workers erected an immense plastic Christmas tree that will be switched on Dec. 1 to the oohs and ahs of villagers … the elms, thereafter to be ignored ’til springtime. 

  • Sacramento County – Peak to Past Peak, YOU ALMOST MISSED IT.
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Fowl Idea

Here’s a fowl idea. Between waiting for fall color to descend through the foothill canyons to lower elevations, fill the time enjoying the fall migration of water fowl and their predators to California’s Central Valley.

Robert Kermen spent yesterday among sandhill cranes, great blue heron, egrets and a watchful redtail hawk near Nelson.

He writes, “With the flooding of the harvested rice checks, rodents are forced above ground where blue herons, red tail hawks, kestrels and other predators gobble them up.”

“Also seen are magnificent sandhill cranes, that even this late in the season can be seen going through courtship displays.”

If you stay until dusk, you’ll see them flying in at sunset to roost overnight in shallow ponds or on islands protected from predators by natural moats. 

  • Central Valley Wildlife Refuges (birdwatching) (50′) – Near Peak (50-75%) GO NOW!
Flooded Rice Field, Nelson (11/3/18) Robert Kermen

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Christmas Quail

California Quail (12/23/17) Robert Kermen

California’s most beloved bird is the California quail, Callipepla californica.

Seen above, a male California Valley Quail stands watchful guard, protecting his covey (family) of several chicks and his lady.

Male quail will scout ahead of their broods, scurrying along the ground and calling to them with loud pips to encourage them to follow or warn them to take cover until the coast is clear. Ever social, quail will greet each other with their distinctive call, “Chee-ca-go.”

California toyon (12/26/17) John Poimiroo

California toyon berries are a favorite food source for California quail. In December, toyon are laden with bright red berries, giving the shrubs the nicknames: Christmas berry and California holly. Toyon is what gave Hollywood its name.

Toyon is common among coastal sage scrub plants, though it also grows in the Sierra foothills. Easy to grow, Toyon does well in partial shade and is drought-tolerant.

As urban areas have expanded, the forage area for California quail has diminished. Planting toyon is a good way to provide additional native sustenance for these beautiful birds.

While expansion of urban areas has not helped California quail, it has caused Anna’s hummingbirds to proliferate.

 

Annas humingbird (12/23/17) Robert Kermen

As late as the early 1900s, Anna’s hummingbirds were only found in Baja and Southern California. However, the planting of exotic ornamental plants in gardens expanded the Anna’s hummingbird’s range throughout California, Cornell University reports.

This week, color spotter Robert Kermen found California quail and Anna’s hummingbirds adding Christmas color to field and garden.

 

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Autumn’s End

First snow, last leaves (12/9/17) Robert Kermen

Tundra Swans, Agua Fria Rd., Richvale (12/9/17) Robert Kermen

Sandhill Cranes, Agua Fria Rd., Richvale (12/9/17) Robert Kermen

When does autumn end? When snow blankets fallen leaves, as seen in Robert Kermen’s photograph of dry leaves near the Bear River (Hwy 20), or when the last migratory bird wings further south or begins flying north?

As long as current fall color photographs are posted here, it will not end, at least for CaliforniaFallColor.com readers.

In the East Bay, Sandy Steinman looked out a window across South Berkeley to capture a “very California fall color” scene with his iPhone. Spindly-tall palms were leaning toward the bay amidst spots of bright autumn color. He reports “quite a few street trees” are still carrying color.

Sacramento Valley – Past Peak – You Missed It.

San Francisco Bay Area – Peak to Past Peak – You Almost Missed It.

Merlin falcon, Agua Fria Rd., Richvale (12/9/17) Robert Kermen

Black Phoebe, Durham (12/9/17) Robert Kermen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

South Berkeley (12/5/17) Sandy Steinman

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Dreary Day, Yet Still Colorful

 

Gingko biloba, Esplande, Chico (12/2/17) Robert Kermen

Crowned sparrow, Esplanade, Chico (11/2/17) Robert Kermen

Robert Kermen spent a “dreary day” in Chico on Saturday, though photographs he took along the Esplanade show otherwise. That’s because though overcast looms, color is intensified on dreary days.

And, with leaves off many of the branches, songbirds are easier to photograph as they search for food and sing about the weather.