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
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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

On Autumn Wings

“Far from the aspen groves in the Sierra, the smaller creatures … go about their business of preparing for winter.” color spotter Robert Kermen reports.

While relaxing over a cup of brew in his backyard, Kermen observed two very different winged species feeding on the last blooms of a Rose of Sharon bush: a carpenter bee and an Anna’s hummingbird.

The carpenter bee (Xylocopa californica californica) arrived first to grab some nectar and drop off some pollen in return. Next, the Anna’s hummingbird  (Calypte anna) flew in and quaffed some nectar.

“Soon, the carpenter bee will seek out its nest in a dead tree to overwinter, to reemerge in spring, while the hummingbird will stick around all winter, as it’s one of only four hummingbird species in California that does not migrate south,” Bob observed.

Now, why did CaliforniaFallColor.com include a report on a bug and a bird? Because fall color is not just about trees, but about all things colorful about the season.

Soon, whales will be migrating south, elk will be trumpeting their rut, Sandhill Cranes will be calling as they return to roost in the Central Valley and Monarch butterflies will be cuddling together along the coast. 

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Ducky at Silver Lake

Mallard ducks, Silver Lake, June Lake Loop (10/14/18) Jeff Simpson/Mono Lake Tourism

A mating pair of Mallard Ducks enjoyed a rest from their southbound migration Saturday at Silver Lake on the June Lake Loop where fall color is Near Peak. Now, isn’t that just ducky? 

  • Silver Lake (7,200′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Unbearably Beautiful

American black bear, Ursus americanus, Hope Valley (10/14/18) Clayton Peoples

Red Lake Creek Cabin, Hope Valley (10/14/18) Clayton Peoples

Red Lake Creek, Hope Valley (10/14/18) Clayton Peoples

The High Sierra is “unbearably beautiful right now,” color spotter Clayton Peoples reported.

He was in the Hope Valley over the weekend, photographing along CA-88 and CA-89.

“While taking in fall colors, I was lucky enough to spot what is probably the largest black bear I have ever seen. It was feasting along a creek that passes under Highway 89,” he wrote.

What Clayton did to get this shot was to be as unobtrusive as possible, not approaching the animal and letting it act naturally.

Should you encounter wildlife and wish to photograph it, stop and don’t move. If you run to get closer, the animal will run away. But, if you stop, wait and watch, the animal may not notice you or will become used to you and not perceive you as a threat.

As long as the animal is not bothered by your presence, he will go about his business, which makes for great fall photography.

A long lens (200mm or greater) and sturdy tripod are useful for close up, sharp images. My favorite working lens is a 28 – 300 mm, f3.5-5.6. It provides enough length and range to capture either closeups or environmental shots of mammals.

Animals are creatures of routine. They tend to return to the same locations (watering spots, food sources) at similar times of day, and forage during he first couple and last two hours of daylight.

Aspen, Hope Valley (10/14/18) Clayton Peoples

American black bears are not generally a threat to people, unless they are protecting young or sense that you have food. They usually can be intimidated from approaching by raising arms above one’s head, shouting or making loud sounds (banging a pot), but if they do not, walk away.

In addition to the bear, Clayton found more “bare” branches among the Hope Valley’s aspen, though said the trees surrounding Red Lake Creek Cabin are “still stunning, and the highway (and nearby hillsides) are still sporting a patchwork of gorgeous color. I’m not sure how long it will last, but it is still very pretty right now.” 

  • Hope Valley(7,300′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!




Hope Valley (10/14/18) Robert Kermen

Hope Valley (10/14/18) Robert Kermen

Hope Valley (10/14/18) Robert Kermen

Hope Valley (10/14/18) Robert Kermen

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Squirrels Strip California Black Walnuts

California Black Walnut and Fox Squirrel, Bel Air  (9/3/18) Peter Asco

California Black Walnut, Bel Air (9/3/18) Peter Asco

Early in September, along Southern California’s coast, squirrels begin stripping “the sparse but beautiful native California Black Walnut (juglans californica) of their walnuts, Peter Asco reports. They “take full advantage of this crop, stripping the trees of every single walnut in a period of two weeks.”

Exploring “one of BelAir’s undisturbed canyons within the Santa Monica Mountains,” Peter came upon this rarely-shot autumn scene and scored a first report by photographing fall color up Bel Air’s wild canyons. 

Patchy to Near Peak (10-75%) – California Black Walnut, Santa Monica Mountains, Bel Air.