Fowl Play

Black Phoebe, Nelson (10/23/20) Robert Kermen

This year, we don’t have any bird teams in the World Series. No Cardinals, Blue Jays or Orioles. Just Rays and Trolley Dodgers.

Though their play has been entertaining, Robert Kermen set out in search of fowl play, and he found pretty much the same.

No Snow Geese or Black Necked Stilts. No American White Pelicans or American Bittern. Not even a Sand Hill Crane.

That’s because the rice farmers near Nelson, where Bob lives, are just now flooding their fields and these birds are feasting elsewhere in the Sacramento Valley. They will appear eventually, however.

So, Bob shot locally finding avian interest in his own backyard, be it a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), yellow-billed magpie (Pica nutalli), a black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) and even a California grey squirrel (Sciurus griseus) to entertain him.

The lesson learned is that when the game isn’t going your way, start the next inning with a fresh perspective.

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Tahoe’s Salmon Spawn

Kokanee salmon, Pope Baldwin Bike Path, Lake Tahoe (10/19/20) Clayton Peoples

Lake Tahoe is unquestionably beautiful, though its displays of fall foliage are limited to a few areas. What Tahoe lacks in wide swaths of bright color, as seen nearby in the Hope Valley, it has made up for with fall wildlife viewing opportunities … until this autumn.

Too many people came to see bear fish for spawning Kokanee salmon in Lake Tahoe’s Taylor Creek, causing the USDA Forest Service to issue Forest Order 19-20-10 that has outlawed “going into or being within the Taylor Creek Closure Area” including being on trails and National Forest roads within 400 feet of the creek, from Fallen Leaf Dam to Lake Tahoe.

That’s the prime area to see spawning salmon at Lake Tahoe. The stated reason for the closure was that too many people were climbing over fences and walking though the forest to take selfies as bear fished for salmon in the creek, thus creating damage and threatening the wildlife. The Forest Service also referenced trail maintenance and health safety issues as contributing factors though, fundamentally, too many people were acting inappropriately.

Fortunately, Kokanee can still be seen from the Pope Baldwin Bike Path that crosses the creek and from which the above photo was taken (legally). As such, the Pope Baldwin Bike Path is CaliforniaFallColor.com’s Hike/Bike of the Week. Please stay on the bike path.

Parking is found at a turnoff 100 yards north of the creek and a side street across from the turnoff. Walk back to the creek and the bridge that crosses it. Do not walk into the closed area or you can be fined.

During the spawn, Kokanee salmon are fluorescent red. They swim upstream from the lake to lay and fertilize eggs in tributaries beyond Fallen Leaf Lake. Their distinctive vermillion color makes them particularly vulnerable to predation by American black bear and eagles.

“The Kokanee, landlocked cousins of the sea-going Sockeye Salmon, were introduced to Lake Tahoe in 1944 by biologists working on the lake’s north shore.” a USDA Forest Service website states, “These predecessors of today’s inhabitants quickly adapted to the alpine environment, joining brown trout, rainbow trout and Mackinaw among the most prominent game fish in Lake Tahoe. However, no other species in Lake Tahoe offers such a spectacular show during their mating season.

“Each autumn, nature calls mature Kokanee to return to the streams from which they were hatched, select a mate, spawn and die.  As that time approaches, adult males develop a humped back and a heavy, hooked jaw, equipping them for the inevitable battles over both mates and territory, and both sexes turn from their usual silver/blue color to a brilliant red.  Then, en masse, the fish make one mad dash to their mating grounds, fighting their way up the shallow stream, displaying their colors to attract a mate, then battling to protect the small patch of gravel stream bed where they make their ‘redds’ or nests.

“Along the stream banks, the autumn aspens, willows and grasses will be as brilliant as the display in the creek below.  Almost as dramatic as the story of life and death being played out in the water are the colorful combinations of orange, gold and red as the vegetation prepares to shed their foliage in anticipation of winter,” states the Forest Service website.

A violation of the Forest Closure is punishable by a fine of not more than $5,000 for an individual or $10,000 for an organization, or imprisonment for not more than six months, or both (16 U.S.C. § 551 and 18 U.S.C. § 3559, 3571, and 3581).

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Walnut Banquet

Eastern Fox Squirrel (exotic) (10/17/20) Peter Asco

Southern California color spotter Peter Asco noted that “September’s heatwave put a halt to the color shift already in progress and – to the delight of resident squirrels – accelerated the maturing of the California Black Walnuts.”

He adds that “With the present cool-down, these showy residents (the walnut trees) of our Southern Traverse mountain ranges, are starting to turn color again and are at 10%.

For an entertaining outing, Western Grey Squirrels are the acrobats of California tree squirrels. Eastern Fox Squirrels (orange highlights), seen above, are an exotic that is threatening the native grey squirrels.

  • Black Walnuts, Santa Monica Mountains – Patchy (10-50%)
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Colorful Critters

Cardinal Meadowhawk, Sympetrum illotum, Green Creek Rd., Mono County (9/30/20) Jennifer Miyara

Fall color is about the little things, not just the big ones. Like the Cardinal Meadowhawk that Jennifer Miyara photographed during her visit along Green Creek Rd.

Mormon Cricket, Anabrus simplex, Green Creek Rd, Mono County (9/30/20) Jennifer Miyara

Or, the Mormon Cricket she found guarding Green Creek Rd.

Though fall color is still Patchy, it’s the little things that adds color to an early Autumn walk.

  • Green Creek., Mono County (7,500′) – Patchy (10-50%)
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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