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Monarch Listing Is Warranted

Monarch Butterfly, Lighthouse Field, Santa Cruz (1/16/06) John Poimiroo

Listing the Monarch butterfly as a threatened or endangered specie is warranted but precluded due to other priorities, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) announced today.

The announcement follows reports of plummeting Monarch butterfly counts in California, the specie’s western wintering grounds. Once numbering over one million butterflies, the western population of Monarch butterflies dropped in the last year from over 27,000 to just 2,000 butterflies.

Monarch butterflies are one of numerous remarkable species that migrate to and through California in autumn. The Monarchs spend winter along the California coast from San Diego north to Marin County. Prime winter roosts have included Pismo Beach, Pacific Grove and Santa Cruz. Though, scenes like this are disappearing.

Monarch Butterflies, Santa Cruz (1/16/2006) John Poimiroo

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman attributed private conservation efforts, supported by the USF&WS, state and local governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as resulting in “stunning and unprecedented” accomplishments in recent years, such as planting 500 million milkweed plants and improving 5.3 million acres of Monarch habitat.

Despite these accomplishments, at least in the west, Monarch butterflies are heading toward extinction.

Bay Nature reported Sarina Jepsen, Director of Endangered Species at the Xerces Society as saying that the decision to declare the Monarchs as warranted to be listed as threatened or endangered, “does not yet provide the protection that Monarchs, and especially the western population, so desperately need to recover.”

The butterfly population is declining because of a lack of available milkweed (the only food they eat), less overwintering habitat, insecticides (sometimes related to mosquito control efforts) and climate change, said Lori Nordstrom of the USF&WS.

In response, efforts to encourage planting milkweed and creating quality butterfly habitat, led by conservation groups and the USF&WS, are assisting private land owners, developers, farmers and ranchers and communities. Under the Conservation Reserve Program, “They do the work, we provide the seed,” explained USF&WS Regional Director Charley Wooley.

USF&WS officials admit that while other conservation efforts can be successfully led by federal and international agencies and NGOs, successes in preserving Monarchs have occurred mostly due to the efforts of private individuals and land owners who plant milkweed.

“The public has become galvanized,” Wooley said, “they’re planting milkweed in gardens and fields, pastures and along rights of way.” Organizations like the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation assist in calling the public to action and sourcing suppliers of native milkweed seed.

In concluding today, the USF&WS announced it will work until 2024 on a plan intended to propose listing the Monarch butterfly as threatened or endangered, if warranted. For now, the protection of western Monarch butterflies is in the public’s hands. Here’s a list of types of milkweed California Monarchs need to survive and where to find them. Caution: do not plant tropical (Mexican) milkweed, as it is harmful to the survival of Monarchs. Plant only varieties of milkweed native to California or they will not migrate.

HOLIDAY GIFT IDEA: Give native native milkweed seeds or seedballs as holiday gifts. Email bobby@milkweed.com or visit butterflyencounters.com to order the right type of California seeds Monarch butterflies need to survive.

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Marin Coho Run Begins

Coho salmon, Lagunitas Creek (11/24/20) Marin Municipal Water District

The winter run of critically endangered Coho salmon is running late, the Turtle Island Restoration Network reports.

The largest run of coho salmon and steelhead trout to be seen occurs in Marin County along Lagunitas Creek, San Geronimo Creek, Olema Creek and several other tributaries. It continues through February with peak viewing now through January. Steelhead trout spawn later, ususally between January and March.

Some 300 to 700 of the salmon are expected to spawn this year, which is considered to be above average.

This winter’s run begins at Tomales Bay where the salmon enter freshwater streams. This year, however, the run is late as little rain has fallen. To see the salmon, visit the Leo T Cronin Salmon Viewing Area, operated by the Marin Municipal Water District in the town of Lagunitas.

Salmon can be seen spawning in the creek directly below the parking lot and at several locations upstream along fire road. For more information on seeing the coho salmon run, CLICK HERE.

  • Coho Salmon Run, Marin County – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Monarch Magic

Female Monarch Butterfly, Long Beach (11/27/20) © Steve Shinn

Late autumn is when Monarch magic happens along the California coast. From Presidio Park in San Diego north to Bodega Dunes in Sonoma County, Monarch butterflies establish their winter residences.

Monarch caterpillar and chrysalis, Long Beach (11/27/20) © Steve Shinn

Long Beach color spotter Steve Shinn photographed this lady as she emerged from her chrysalis at his home. Monarchs are amazing creatures. Some migrate as far as 1,000 miles.

California State Parks writes, “The journey is hazardous and many never make it. By November, most are sheltering in trees stretching from the San Francisco Bay Area south to San Diego. Pismo State Beach hosts one of the largest over wintering congregations, varying in numbers from 20,000 to 200,000. The winter monarchs live about six to eight months. On sunny winter days they will fly away from the sheltering trees, searching for nourishment in flower nectar and water to drink. In late February, as the weather turns warm, the great migration north begins.”

“After a flurry of mating, the female Monarchs fly north seeking milkweed plants where they must lay their eggs. Their job done, the winter Monarchs soon die. It would seem as though the migration had come to a halt before it even got under way. This though, is where it gets interesting. The eggs hatch after a few days and the tiny larvae voraciously begin eating milkweed leaves day and night. 

Monarch Butterflies, Santa Cruz (1/15/2006) © John Poimiroo

“Milkweed is the only food the larva can eat but it eats enough to increase its weight 2,700 times in just two weeks. This is equivalent to a human baby growing to the size of a gray whale in just two weeks. Once it’s eaten its fill, the full-grown caterpillar attaches itself to a solid object, sheds its skin, and forms a hard, green and gold colored outer skin, called a chrysalis. For the next two weeks inside the chrysalis, the fat, striped caterpillar rearranges its body’s molecules and then emerges as a beautiful orange and black Monarch butterfly.

“The new summer Monarchs continue to fly farther north, mating, laying their eggs on milkweed, then dying. The summer monarchs only live about 6–8 weeks but each new generation flies farther and farther north, following the growing milkweed. This cycle repeats itself 4–5 times throughout the summer. It is unknown how the successive generations of butterflies inherit the information needed to return to the over wintering sites but with the shortening days of October, the new winter generation of Monarchs does not mate and die but instead migrates south.”

Monarch butterfly populations are declining dangerously. Individuals can help by planting butterfly and pollinator gardens and encouraging the creation of monarch habitats in their communities. CLICK HERE to learn how you can help. To purchase Monarch Butterfly Seed Balls, CLICK HERE.

And, for guidance to places where you can see Monarchs near where you live, CLICK HERE.

  • Monarch Butterfly Migration, California Coast – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Side by Side

When two similarly experienced photographers accompany one another on the same shoot, to the same locations, at the same moments and with exactly the same equipment. You might expect sameness.

There is similarity between these side-by-side images, because Philip Reedy and I convoyed north Friday morning to photograph fall color and migratory birds at the same locations at the same time. We each carried the same bodies and lenses: Nikon D850 cameras with Nikkor 200-500mm, f. 5.6 lenses. The similarity ended there.

Driving separately, out of shared pandemic precaution, we arrived soon after dawn at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area. Phil voiced what I’d been thinking, “There were several times when we were driving through Live Oak that I wanted to stop, because the light was so good.”

He was right, we should have stopped. We’d just passed huge blocks of walnut trees, heavy with golden leaves, and I’d similarly wanted to pull over. Phil noted an orchard that had been carpeted with gold.

Lesson learned: When the light is perfect, stop and take pictures right then. Great light is what’s important, not what you plan to be the subject.

Upon arriving at Gray Lodge, thousands of birds lifted off in one massive, morning-light, mass ascension as they sought rice fields elsewhere. We’d missed it by a moment.

Filled with regret not stopping first in Live Oak, we circled Gray Lodge realizing the birds that remained weren’t leaving, a good scene for birders but not for us. So we headed back beside a long line of trees fronting Rutherford Rd, then north 20 miles to our second objective, Agua Frias Rd. Robert Kermen had drawn a map indicating where he’d seen Sandhill Cranes foraging. They chose to be elsewhere that day, but where?

Just when we’d struck out, we made new luck, stopping at a backlit Walnut Orchard. Phil saw it as filled with golden light; I saw it as darkly shaded with fluorescent- banded trunks.

“We’ve gone a good ways north,” Phil observed, “Almost to Chico.” I responded, “There’s a good place near here, juse south of Chico. It’s an archway of trees overhanging Midway Rd.” And, we were off.

I told the story. Phil showed the beauty.

Encouraged, we decided to head back toward Live Oak. Maybe those walnut orchards we’d seen would still be good. The experience in the orchard on Agua Frias Rd. taught us light can be soft, not harsh, beneath the canopy.

I found a time-worn orchard shed . Phil found an orchard layered with leaves.

It was after noon, but there was still one more place to visit on the return home, the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge near I-5. We’d visited it last year at the same time, but were there soon after daybreak, not this late. I set the Nav which cut us cross-country along backroads around the Sutter Buttes toward Colusa. Then on E. Butte Rd. it happened. I saw Sandhill Crane in a rice field.

Sandhill Cranes, Sutter Buttes (11/20/20) John Poimiroo

They were wary. A car or truck passing on E. Butte Rd. didn’t bother them, but stop and they moved away. This image was taken at 500mm, a hundred yards from the cranes and standing behind my SUV. Any closer and they’d walk elsewhere.

Phil shot using his car as a blind, but was hoping for more action. We got it soon after when we stopped a few rice paddies south. There, the geese we’d seen ascending that morning from Gray Lodge were spread out across the paddy. No sooner had we stopped and set up, than …

Mass Ascension, Snow geese, Sutter Buttes (11/20/20) John Poimiroo
Mass Ascension, Snow geese, Sutter Buttes (11/20/20) Philip Reedy

We eventually got to the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, where photographers said there hadn’t been much action. So, we joined them in shooting pictures of a few ducks on logs by the birder’s platform. A brrr of motor drives would whine occasionally when a duck flew in to land. We were told the Snow Geese hadn’t shown up. They were elsewhere.

Note: Following our return, Phil was disappointed in the sharpness of his photos. He thought it was the lens, but when he discovered a UV filter on the lens (which he hadn’t noticed previously), took it off and took side-by-side comparison shots, the reason for blurriness was evident.

Lesson learned: If you use protective filters on your long lenses, remove them before taking photographs!

  • Walnut Orchards, Gridley, Live Oak (95′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
  • Sacramento Valley National Wildlife Refuges (49′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!

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.