Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Central Valley and Home

Famous for wines, California's Central Valley also contains several wildlife refuges with lots of waterfowl, and most of the world population of Ross's Geese. There are also vernal ponds with specialized wildflowers, but we were too early for those. The flora of California consists of about 25,000 species, about the same as in the entire eastern U.S.

On Saturday, February 10, we visited the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, and the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge. Sacramento was larger, and seemed to have more waterfowl, while Colusa had a very nice observation platform where the geese were flying in and seemed very tame and approachable.
Sacramento NWR, with Ring-necked Ducks

There were hundreds, if not thousands, of Northern Pintails and Northern Shovelers at both refuges.
Northern Shoveler

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintails

Of course the geese were the main event, and there were hundreds of Greater White-fronted, Snow, and Ross's Geese.
Greater White-fronted Goose

Snow Geese

Ross's Geese

Ross's Goose

Of course there were other birds too. We did not see our first White-faced Ibis of the trip until we got to the Central Valley, and most of them were in these refuges.
White-faced Ibis

In every open area in the Central Valley there were flocks of Western Meadowlarks. Dozens were around the wildlife loop drives at both Sacramento and Colusa NWR.
Western Meadowlark

These refuges were also great places for Northern Harriers, and we ended up seeing more than two dozen today.
Northern Harrier

On Sunday, February 10, we decided to forego more waterfowl refuges in favor of open country species, so headed for the Panoche Valley in the foothills on the western side of the Central Valley.
New Idria Road canyon, Panoche Valley

In addition to brushy hillsides, there were large areas of open land, where we found very distant Mountain Plovers and a Ferruginous Hawk. Closer to the road, there were flocks of sparrows. Most of them were Savannah Sparrows, but in one spot we found bunches of Lark Sparrows.
Lark Sparrow

In another spot, we found a few Vesper Sparrows, which is apparently an uncommon species in California, or at least in this part of the state.
Vesper Sparrow

From there, we continued on through oak-covered hillsides, seeing many more Yellow-billed Magpies and Western Scrub-Jays. Our next destination was Pinnacles National Park (formerly a National Monument, established in 1908, but a National Park as of February 1, 2013). It was a very scenic area, with good hiking opportunities.
Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park

One highlight here was seeing a California Condor. It was distant, and of course one of the reintroduced birds, but nice just the same. Nothing will compare to our original sighting of some of the last wild condors on a trip we did in 1985. An article I wrote about that sighting was published in Bird Watcher's Digest in 1986, and the full-length version can be read here. Other interesting birds at Pinnacles included more cooperative Golden-crowned Sparrows, and my best ever chance to photograph Nuttall's Woodpecker.
Golden-crowned Sparrow

Nuttall's Woodpecker

And we were back in salamander territory, particularly Slender Salamanders. A new field guide to California reptiles and amphibians provided excellent information on the 14 species of Batrachoseps, with some field marks as well as range maps. Between San Francisco and Los Angeles, there are a half-dozen species, all with ranges generally restricted to a single mountain range. One of the more widespread was a species we were lucky enough to find at Pinnacles, the Gabilan Mountains Slender Salamander.
Gabilan Mountains Slender-Salamander


Batrachoseps gavilanensis

On Monday, February 11, our last day of birding, we decided to head out into drier country to find some birds missing from our trip list. We drove a considerable distance along the western and southern end of Carrizo Plain National Monument, ending up at a patch of sagebrush near Maricopa. Here, we found a couple of Le Conte's Thrashers singing, and several Sage Sparrows.
Sagebrush near Maricopa

From there we headed southeast to the Antelope Valley.
Antelope Valley

In addition to vast stretches of sagebrush and tumbleweeds on this high plain, there were patches of interesting vegetation that included an odd mix of California Juniper and Joshua Tree; the latter perhaps not native here as range maps in field guides don't show it this far north and west.
California Juniper

Joshua Trees

Joshua Tree

Our target birds here, Burrowing Owl and Mountain Bluebird among others, were not cooperative. But for the tenth day in a row, we encountered the ubiquitous Black Phoebe.
Black Phoebe

Our flight home on Tuesday, February 12 was uneventful, and not only on time, but early! We were thankful to arrive in Detroit to fairly clear and snow-free streets, having missed at least one snow event, which was another objective of going on this trip!

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Foggy Coast

Of all the habitats we've been in on our travels, since 1979, I think my favorite is Cloud Forest. The vegetation is exhuberant and colorful, the mountainous topography is interesting, the often misty conditions give these places a distinct mood, and in the northern Andes, the greatest diversity of hummingbirds in the world is found in Cloud Forests. In North America, the closest thing we have is our Pacific Northwest. Although the northern portions in Washington and Oregon are classified as temperate rain forest, the coast from extreme southern Oregon to around San Francisco are often characterized by foggy and misty conditions. And lining up perfectly with these conditions are the Coastal Redwoods, one of the two largest trees on the planet (those along the coast are taller, while those in the Sierra Nevada are more massive overall).

So, on Tuesday, February 5, we entered the southernmost portion of this domain at Muir Woods National Monument, where the photo of a Coastal Redwood below was taken. This individual tree was probably "only" 150 feet tall or so.
Coastal Redwood at Muir Woods

We had hoped to see some of the special wildflowers in this habitat as well, but it was a little early in the season so the main conspicuous flower with large shamrock-like leaves was the Redwood Sorrell (Oxalis oregana), which is characteristic of this region. Much more difficult to pick out in the dim forest, even though there were hundreds in bloom, was the weird and wonderful Fetid Adder's Tongue. An alternate, though no less weird common name for the species is Slinkpod. Clearly, based on the (large!) mottled leaves, it is closely related to the trout lilies of the eastern U.S.
Fetid Adder's Tongue (Scoliopus bigelovii)

Only two trilliums (Trillium ovatum) were just starting to bloom. Another trip here in April is surely warranted.

Other denizens of this forest that attract us are the salamanders, of which there are quite a few species. While the Appalachians are the world diversity center for salamanders, with more than 50 species present, more than 20 species occcur in along the foggy coast. Preferring cooler conditions, they are more active earlier in the spring, preferring to wait out the hot summer conditions in their underground burrows. But even at their peak, most salamanders won't be evident to most people. To see one, you have to be looking on purpose, and sometimes looking really hard! We managed to find two species at Muir Woods. One was the California Slender Salamander, a worm-like creature with tiny legs.
California Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus)

The taxonomy of the slender salamanders (Batrachoseps) is very confusing. Most current guides show two or three species, all along the west coast. But more recently, up to 14 species have been recognized based on genetic studies, some with very limited ranges (i.e., only one mountain range or one county). They are very difficult to identify, and there is as much individual variation among the same population as there is between these species! So, amateurs like us identify them based on the range maps, and where we happen to find them. Another very characteristic salamander of the west coast is the Ensatina. This species is also quite variable, with easily distinguished subspecies in the coast ranges as well as in the Sierra Nevada. But unlike the slender salamanders, so far there is no effort (that I know of) to promote these several forms to full species status.
"Monterey" Ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii eschscholtzii)

As I have been entering all my bird sightings into eBird, I was contacted by one of California's top birders, Don Roberson about one of my checklists. In the email exchange, I learned of our mutual interest in salamanders, and he gave some good advice. An old salamander website of his can be found here. We ended the day at a nice wetland mitigation area near San Rafael where we saw our second butterfly species of the trip, a West Coast Lady.
West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella)

On Wednesday, February 6, we drove up the scenic coastline of Sonoma County to get to Arena Cove, where a Laysan Albatross has been spending the winter since 1994. There had been reports of "Al" (or "Alice") in late December 2012 and occasionally in January as well, so we had hopes of seeing this normally very pelagic (i.e. far offshore) species when it is not breeding. Once we got there, we walked out onto the pier and looked around, but did not see the big white bird anywhere. But we were determined to wait, at least for a while. This allowed us to get good looks at some of the other locals, like the Black Oystercatchers which can be difficult to see on the black rocks, looking to me like a disembodied carrot with disconnected pink legs! Easier to see in flight, but more difficult to photograph that way!
Black Oystercatcher

And a few Pelagic Cormorants were fishing at the base of the pier.
Pelagic Cormorants

After waiting for more than an hour, I went into a local snack shop near the pier and talked with a couple of the surfer dudes in there. They immediately knew I was looking for the albatross, with my Swarovski binoculars around my neck and a camera with a 400mm lens. We talked a bit about photographing waves and stuff, and they told me they hadn't seen the albatross in about a week. He'd been late arriving this winter, and was less regular than he had been in the past. There had also been reports of him at the Arena Point Lighthouse a couple miles away, which the surfer dudes suggested she was two-timing them! They told me that when they're out surfing, and the albatross is present in the cove, he/she will swim right up to them and nibble on their wet suits!
Arena Point Lighthouse

So off we went to spend more time at the Arena Point Lighthouse. On the way, the open grasslands hosted good numbers of Common Ravens, a species that is very closely tied to heavily forested areas in the eastern U.S.
Common Raven

On the rocks below and adjacent to the lighthouse there were Harbor Seals to entertain us, but no albatross.
Harbor Seals

And walking around in the grassy areas adjacent to the steep cliffs, we had great looks at White-crowned Sparrows. This is a species that migrates through Michigan, but the eastern subspecies is somewhat different from these in California (subspecies nuttallii), which have bright yellow bills where the eastern birds have red-orange bills. There are also subtle differences in head pattern.
"Nuttall's" White-crowned Sparrow

So after another hour or so, we threw in the towel on our albatross quest and headed farther north, stopping at the Kruse Rhododendron Reserve, where we'd last been in 1985. The trails were steeper this time (we're not older...), but we again had success with salamanders though only one species, the California Slender Salamander. We found a total of 9 individuals here, and under one log found the two together in the photo below, which shows some of the individual variation that occurs even in the same patch of woodland!
California Slender Salamanders (Batrachoseps attenuatus)

On Thursday, February 7 we headed north from Eureka, where we had spent the night, stopping first at the north jetty to look for Rock Sandpiper. It was difficult figuring out how to access this jetty even with a guidebook, but a half-mile walk down a beach and we were at the base of it. The waves were crashing high over the jetty so it would have been foolhardy to try to walk it, so we didn't see any sandpipers there, though there were some on the beach itself. By the time we got to Crescent Cithy, our next stop, it was raining steadily and pretty hard. Point St. George is a reliable spot for Rock Sandpipers but given the conditions, we didn't walk out there. All I managed for photos in this area was one lousy photo of a pale juvenile Thayer's Gull.
Juvenile Thayer's Gull

We waited a while in town, long enough for a cup of coffee at the McDonald's, then headed back out to the point. It was raining less, but still Allen donned a rain suit and headed out to the viewing area. Eventually a couple Rock Sandpipers were seen, among a number of other shorebirds, but the lousy conditions prevented a photo. We then headed south into Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and in the rain jumped out here and there along the alternate park road looking for more salamanders, as this was the prime area on the trip for several species. By the time we had gotten to The Big Tree, the rain was nearly stopped but we hadn't seen any salamanders. The Big Tree was just that, a Coastal Redwood that was 304 feet tall and 21.6 feet in diameter.
Allen and Nancy at The big Tree

In the parking area there was a small flock of Varied Thrushes.
Varied Thrush

Just south of the park, we decided to explore a picnic area, the Lost Man Creek area. On the road up, there was a flower in bloom. A big flower...Yellow Skunk Cabbage. Clearly we were just at the beginning of flowering season as this is one of the earliest to bloom.
Yellow Skunk-Cabbage (Lysichiton americanum)

And up the path a little ways, under a ridiculously small log, we found another California Slender Salamander.
California Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus)

And a little farther down, a Black Salamander...a new species for us!
Black Salamander (Aneides flavipunctatus)

The young of this species have yellow on the upper legs, and it is interesting that this apparent adult had a suggestion of yellowish color there perhaps indicating a fairly young individual.
Black Salamander (Aneides flavipunctatus)

Our last day in this region was Friday, February 8. We first stopped at a great birding spot, Arcata Marsh just north of Eureka. Here we saw flocks and flocks of shorebirds, most of which we see in Michigan in very small numbers each year. I couldn't help taking photos of the flocks, even if it is difficult to tell what they are.
Part of a flock of Marbled Godwits

Most of a flock of American Avocets

Part of one, of several flocks of Western Sandpipers

There were smaller flocks of Willets too, and individuals kept flying past fairly close, giving me an opportunity to try taking a flight shot. Here's one of the better ones.

As we were leaving the area, a small flock of Golden-crowned Sparrows foraged right on the roadside.
Golden-crowned Sparrow

From here, we turned east, climbing into the Coast Ranges. We stopped briefly at Azalea State Reserve even though none of the azaleas had any leaves on them. The objective? Salamanders of course. And we were successful again, finding a couple of Ensatinas. These appeared to be of the "Oregon" subspecies, and were larger than I was expecting. The field guide gives a maximum length of about 3 1/2 inches but these appeared to be well over 4 inches long.
"Oregon" Ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii oreganus)

The rain yesterday had hit the mountains and dropped some snow, but luckily it was confined to the hillsides and not on the roads!
Coastal Range east of Arcata

After driving through about 100 miles of winding road, with only a few stops (one stop at Gray Falls produced a couple more Oregon Ensatinas), we reached Whiskeytown Lake on the western edge of the town of Redding, which sits at the northern end of the Central Valley.
Whiskeytown Lake

The next posting, in a few days, will share some exciting photos from our adventures birding in California's Central Valley.