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Just Ducky

Ducks take flight, Colusa NWR (11/29/19) Steve Arita

A brief break in the weather on Orange Friday allowed Steve Arita to capture shots of ducks in flight at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge.

Steve reported that “while cloudy, enough sun made it through,” and soon after he’d arrived and set up on the observation deck near the reserve entrance, the ducks took to the air, spooked by a bald eagle that had just taken flight.

Steve shot using a Lumix G9 with Lumix/Leica 100-400 mm zoom. He says that while the lens isn’t the sharpest, he likes the camera’s compact, easy-to-handle size, and Lumix’s “Dual-IS” (image stabilization) has the body work in tandem with the lens to stabilize the image, useful when taking handheld photos of birds.

When shooting wild birds with a long lens (over 300mm), it is helpful to mount the camera to a gimbal head on a sturdy tripod. That allows the photographer to track flying birds while staying steady. Also useful is to set the camera to Manual mode at f8 and with a shutter speed of 1/2000th. Then, adjust the ISO until the meter is balanced.

Of the various places to photograph migratory birds at Colusa NWR – other than perhaps one of the reserve’s photography blinds – the observation deck near the reserve entrance is a superb location. A large pond just beyond the deck is a favorite spot for ducks to roost and geese to feed.

Turkey vulture (11/29/19) Steve Arita

Various geese, duck, shorebirds, egrets, turkey vultures and heron roost there from autumn to February. In springtime, Wood ducks are best photographed from the blinds.

What mystifies many of the photographers and birders at the refuge is that the geese and ducks are able to identify predators at great distances. Waterfowl will rise in a loud, confusing mass of flapping wings when a hawk or eagle approaches, even though it may be barely identifiable to the human eye, but don’t budge when other birds or carrion fly over.

Sutter Buttes, Colusa NWR (11/29/19) Steve Arita
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SoCal: As The Crow Flies

Nanday conures, Peter Strauss Ranch, Santa Monica Mountains NRA (11/25/19) Kathy Jonokuchi

“As the crow flies,” Kathy Jonokuchi reports, “Peter Strauss Ranch is a few miles west … from Paramount Ranch” in Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Peter Strauss Ranch was another of the areas burned during last year’s Woolsey Fire and is still closed to the public. 

Named after actor Peter Strauss who lived on the ranch, then sold it to the National Park Service. The property been a site for relaxation and recreation for nearly a century.

Triunfo Creek, a seasonal stream on the ranch is home to Western sycamore and coastal live oak, both of which have recovered from the fire, Kathy reports.

Fall color there is now past peak, though Nanday conures were feeding on sycamore seed pods and a large flock of California Quail foraged the ground for scattered seeds, beneath the black-hooded parakeets.

Fremont cottonwood, Big Tujunga River, Angeles National Forest (11/30/19) Ken Lock

Elsewhere in Los Angeles County, Ken Lock found Fremont cottonwood to be peaking along the Big Tujunga River. He noted that while autumn has ended elsewhere in California, several locales in Southern California are still prime.

  • Angeles National Forest – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW! – Cottonwood.
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Mass Ascension

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge (11/22/19) John Poimiroo

Birders and photographers stood on a platform at the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge in the chill morning air yesterday.

Most were regulars. They visit the refuge almost daily with their spotting scopes, binoculars and long lenses.

“An eagle must have spooked them,” one of the photographers said, as swirling white and grey specks rose above a line of orange-black oaks in the distance.

Mass Ascension, Colusa NWR (11/22/19) John Poimiroo

Lenses turned as one as one of several mass ascensions seen that morning approached. At first, I shot with my Nikkor 200 to 500 mm lens on a D850, then shifted from the big gun to a separate body with a Nikkor 24 to 70 mm on a D700.

By the time the snow and Ross geese arrived, I’d dialed down the lens to 24 mm. Phil Reedy stood nearby, doing the same.

Mass Ascension, Colusa NWR (11/22/19) John Poimiroo

Geese circled above us in great, flapping, squawking wonder. I got off a couple of dozen frames on motor, then thought, “Enjoy the moment” and put down the camera to just be enthralled by the beauty of being immersed in the experience.

Northern shoveler hen, Colusa NWR (11/22/19) Philip Reedy
  • Colusa NWR – Peak Migration – Snow geese, Ross geese, various ducks and other migratory fowl.
Eurasian Widgeon (l), American Widgeons (r), Colusa NWR (11/22/19) John Poimiroo
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Beaver Moon Lights Lassen

Beaver Moon, Lassen Volcanic NP (11/11/19) Shanda Ochs

On the night before this year’s Beaver Moon (the November full moon), Shanda Ochs photographed it silhouetting trees at Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Jepson Willow, Cliff Lake, Lassen Volcanic NP (11/11/19) Shanda Ochs

Shanda reports this extended autumn has produced a number of surprises in the national park, including the beaver moon and an abundance of fall color at Cliff Lake (7,300′).

Normally, Manzanita Lake (5,900′) is the last area in Lassen Volcanic to carry fall color. Shanda opines that the late show may be due to that Cliff Lake sits in a basin, at the foot of Reading Peak, that is relatively protected from wind.

All the foliage there was at peak color and is likely to last due to the mild conditions (no wind, warm days and cool nights).

Jepson Willow, is likely to be the variety seen in her photographs, as it is the highest elevation willow native to Lassen Volcanic. Also common is Lemmons willow.

Presently, the national park’s grasses are displaying beautiful warm color.

  • Cliff Lake (7,300′) – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW, YOU ALMOST MISSED IT.

The November full moon has been called a Beaver Moon by native people for centuries. It indicates the time of year when beaver have retreated to their lodges, having stored food for winter.

Trappers quickly recognized the Beaver Moon as an ideal time to harvest beaver, as they would be lethargic in their lodges and wearing heavy winter pelts.

Native people identified full moons by harvest, catch, hunt, climate or cultural ceremony. Anglo-Saxons named some to mark religious periods (Paschal, Yule). A few overlap months, though the first citation is the most-used description (e.g., Wolf moon in Jan, though it’s also used in December). Source: timeanddate.com
  • January – Wolf moon (alt: Moon After Yule, Ice moon, Snow moon)
  • February – Snow moon (Hunger moon, Chaste moon)
  • March – Worm moon (Crow moon, Crust moon, Sap moon, Chaste moon, Lenten moon)
  • April – Pink moon (Sprouting grass moon, Fish moon, Hare moon, Egg moon, Paschal moon)
  • May – Flower moon (Corn planting moon, Milk moon)
  • June – Strawberry moon (Hot moon, Mead moon, Rose moon)
  • July – Buck moon (Thunder moon, Wort moon, Hay moon)
  • August – Sturgeon moon (Green corn moon, Barley moon, Fruit moon, Grain moon)
  • September/October – Harvest moon (full moon closest to autumnal equinox)
  • September – Corn moon (Full corn moon, Barley moon)
  • October – Hunter’s moon (Dying grass moon, Blood or Sanguine moon – not to be confused with the Blood moon marking a total lunar eclipse)
  • November – Beaver moon (Frosty moon, Oak moon, Mourning moon)
  • December – Cold moon (Oak moon, Moon Before Yule, Wolf moon)
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Rut Returns to the Redwoods

Roosevelt Elk bugling, Elk Meadow Cabins, Orick (10/4/19) Justin Legge

The elk rut has returned to Redwood National and State Parks. Rut is the annual mating ritual of Roosevelt Elk, North America’s largest breed of elk.

The elk rut is one of California’s most dramatic fall wildlife displays, as massive bull elk challenge one another for the right to mate with herds of female elk cows. Young suitors playfight one another while bloody battles occur between the existing bull of a herd and his rivals.

It’s elk-styled Match.com, but with bugling, violent challenges and fights to exhaustion, as the ladies watch indifferently from afar.

To stay amidst the rut, book one of the Elk Meadow Cabins, north of Orick (US 101). There are limited services in Orick, but Trinidad – a short drive south – has restaurants and stores.

Six of the cabins have three bedrooms and two baths, one has two bedrooms and bath. All come with kitchens and living space and rent from $169 to $255 during rut season ending on Oct. 31. More about the cabins is found at elkmeadowcabins.com.

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Hanging Around

Bald eagle, Richvale (1/3/19) Robert Kermen

Bald eagles and pintail ducks will be hanging around the marshes, rice fields and wetlands of the Northern Sacramento Valley for a while longer this winter.

Robert Kermen spotted about ten eagles near farmland at Richvale. Nearby, pintail ducks were watchful.

To photograph them, Bob recommends staying inside your vehicle and using it as a blind. Exiting the vehicle will cause the birds to take flight.

Shooting from inside a vehicle is always awkward, but is made easier by setting up before you get to the wetland. One pleasant way to do this is to schedule a stop to fill a Thermos with coffee. While in the coffee shop parking lot, set up your equipment before drive to nearby wetlands.

If you’re with someone else, have one in the front and the other in the back seat (if you’ve got an SUV, van or other somewhat spacious vehicle).

Long lenses can be stabilized by resting them on the upper edge of an open car door window or by using a monopod or tripod inside the car. Occasionally, I’ve opened the sunroof and shot standing in it. Surprisingly, birds aren’t as easily spooked by poking a head out a sunroof or car door window, but as soon as they see boots on the ground, off they go.

Farm roads travel along the edges of the rice fields. Check first for “No Trespassing” signs, but usually these roads are public and open to traffic. A word of advice: levee roads have soft shoulders, so stay in the middle of the road unless there’s a stable turnout.

As reported previously, numerous wildlife refuges are located in the Sacramento Valley. At these, photo platforms get you close to birds that have gotten used to seeing photographers hanging around on them.

Lenticular cloud over Mt Shasta, Lake Shastina (1/3/19) Robert Kermen
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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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Nature’s Resilience

White-Tailed Kite, Elanus leucurus, Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa (12/4/18) Kathy Jonokuchi 

Images of the devastation wrought by the Camp and Woolsey fires haunt the closing days of an otherwise beautiful autumn.

However, Southern California color spotter Kathy Jonokuchi found hope on a visit to one of her favorite birding locations in the Santa Monica Mountains NRA at Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa.

The area was spared being consumed by the Woolsey Fire, though it is still recovering from the Springs Fire of ’13 and ashen scars blight surrounding hills.

Two threads of local history intertwine at the site. Ranch structures represent its pioneer ranching past, while native plants reflect the environs where Chumash Indians lived for thousands of years. before the ranching era. Big Sycamore Canyon Trail descends from Satwiwa to the Pacific Ocean along an historic Chumash trade route.

The Satwiwa Loop Trail is designated for hikers only, and meanders through an area considered sacred by the Chumash. There, within areas of coastal sage scrub that were not burned, live deer and coyote. Sweeping views of Boney Mountain and Sycamore Canyon can be seen along the trail, as well as many raptors.

The Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center is open on weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Native people lead workshops and presentations and participate in art shows there, throughout the year.

On Kathy’s visit to Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa, a congregation of five White-Tailed Kites (Elanus leucurus) were hovering and hunting. She also saw Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius), this one female, swooping low in search of inattentive voles and slithering snakes.  

Kathy reports that at Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa, she’s seen American Kestrels, Cooper’s Hawks, Red-Tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures.

It’s such an outstanding location for bird watching that Kathy has nicknamed it “Raptorland.”

See, there is a Jurassic Park in Southern California! And, it’s one that’s proven its resilience to nature’s fires. It’s the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. 

  • Santa Monica Mountains NRA – Peak Wildlife Viewing (75-100%) GO NOW!
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On a Wing and a Prayer

Black-hooded Parakeets in Western Sycamore, King Gillette Ranch, Santa Monica Mountains NRA (11/24/18) Kathy Jonokuchi

The recent Woolsey Fire incinerated 86% of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. In some areas, only a wing and a prayer avoided the devastation.

Black-hooded Parakeets (Nanday Conures – Aratinga nenday) were able to fly away as the fire raged. Southern California color spotter, Kathy Jonokuchi found them perched on Western sycamore at King Gillette Ranch in Calabasas on Saturday.

The ranch, once owned by razor magnate King C. Gillette was spared being engulfed by the fire. Its grounds and venerable trees are now an enclave for the Nandays.

Raindrops on a Sweetgum leaf, Los Angeles (11/24/18) Bruce Wendler

Jonokuchi reported that the ranch was one of the few spared by the Woolsey Fire. “Paramount Ranch, Peter Strauss Ranch and Malibu Creek State Park” were burned. The fire even scorched Leo Carrillo State Beach, leaving only lifeguard towers unburned.

Her home, just four miles from where the Hill Fire started, was untouched. Kathy said her neighborhood was the only one in the area that wasn’t evacuated, though surrounding mountains are now covered in gray ash, brightened by a few spots by splashes of bright pink fire retardant and remaining autumn color.

Rains this weekend dampened the southland, as seen in Bruce Wendler’s image of a Sweetgum leaf on the hood of his car. 

  • King Gillette Ranch, Santa Monica Mountains NRA – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
Leo Carrillo State Beach, Malibu (11/24/18) Kathy Jonokuchi
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Tastes of Chico

Gingko biloba, Esplanade, Chico (11/19/18) Robert Kermen

“Smoke from the Camp Fire has lifted somewhat,” allowing Robert Kermen to get out of his northern Sacramento Valley home to do some errands in Chico.

 

Gingko biloba, Chico (11/19/18) Robert Kermen

He found gingko biloba in full peak along Chico’s Esplanade.

 

He was moved by an American flag, seeing it as a symbol of Butte County  rebounding from the Camp Fire, where many of Robert’s friends and relatives lost their homes and businesses.

While in town, he stopped to pick persimmons which he plans to turn into  persimmon cookies and jello for the holidays.

Robert recommends using the Hachiya persimmon for cooking, not the Asian or Japanese (Fuyu) persimmon (Diospyros kaki). The latter can be eaten like an apple and are great on a salad topped with vinegar and oil.

Hachiya persimmons must ripen completely before they can be eaten otherwise they are astringent. 

American robin, Persimmon (11/19/18) Robert Kermen

That doesn’t stop wildlife from getting to them before they’re picked, as the American robin is doing in this picture.

Persimmons are favorite fare for opossums, rodents, white-tailed deer, raccoon, fox, black bear and skunks.

The Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources reports, Ozark “Folklore tells us that if you slice a persimmon seed lengthwise, you will find the image of a spoon, knife or fork. Supposedly, the presence of a knife means we are in for a rough, unsettled winter. A mild winter is predicted by the image of spoon. If a fork is seen, our winter is supposed to be medium to bad.”

In Korea, dried persimmon (gotgam) are said to scare away tigers. 

  • Chico (197′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
Persimmon (11/19/18) Robert Kermen